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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Azarenka cruises to semis against Williams

By Sandra Harwitt

Victoria Azarenka is starting to look a lot like the player who owned the WTA Tour for much of the first three months of the year.

The Belarussian won everything in sight from January through March. She achieved the No. 1 ranking after the Australian Open, where she won the first Grand Slam title of her career. And she cruised on a 26-0 winning streak until she lost to Marion Bartoli in the Miami quarterfinals. No one had started a season that well since Martina Hingis went 37-0 in 1997.

Azarenka, however, had returned to Earth in recent months. At Rome, she withdrew in the third round with a right shoulder injury. At the French Open, she went out in the fourth round.

But then she came to a soggy Wimbledon and blossomed again. On Tuesday, she made it through to the semifinals compliments of a 6-3, 7-6 (4) quarterfinal win over Austrian Tamira Paszek, the player who won the Eastbourne tuneup title.

It almost seems like the second-seeded Azarenka is back on autopilot. She has won all five matches here in straight sets.

"I don't think about that because if you try to look for that feeling that you had before, you're not going to find it," Azarenka said. "Every day has to be different. There were days I didn't feel great in the beginning of the year as well but I managed to pull through. That's why I'm really trying to be focused, take it day to day, work and build from there."

The Paszek outing was her toughest of the tournament, by far.

Azarenka served for the match twice in the second set before winning. At 5-4 with a service break, she double faulted in the 10th game. At 6-5 with a service break, she sailed a backhand long to find herself in a tiebreaker. Finally, at 6-4 on her second match point in the tiebreaker, Paszek sent a backhand long.

The semifinal task ahead will pit Azarenka against Serena Williams, who has four Wimbledon titles among her 13 Grand Slam victories. Williams beat defending champion and fourth-seeded Petra Kvitova 6-3, 7-5 earlier Tuesday.

Azarenka has struggled against Williams, who has won seven of their eight meetings. Nevertheless, no one standing across the net scares Azarenka. There's a fist pump and strut with every point won. Confidence, however, is also Williams' middle name.

While Azarenka has yet to drop a set in the tournament, semifinalists Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland and Angelique Kerber of Germany were taken the distance for the first time during the fortnight in their quarterfinal matches.

For the eighth-seeded Kerber, going three sets is usually a good thing. Kerber is 16-1 in three-set matches this year following her 6-3, 6-7 (7), 7-5 quarterfinal victory over fellow German Sabine Lisicki. Kerber had a perfect three-set record until she failed to capitalize on five match points in her three-set final loss to Paszek at Eastbourne.

Kerber came to Wimbledon having reached the third round here only once, in 2010. Now she's into a Grand Slam semifinal for the second time in her career. At the 2011 U.S. Open, she became the first German woman since Steffi Graf in 1996 to reach the semis.

Last year, Kerber lost in the Wimbledon first round. She left the tournament dismayed and took a few weeks off. She then came back with a self-assuredness that led to her semifinal run in New York.

"I really started to believe in me," Kerber said. "I also practice more and more, and I think I make a good preparation last year to be fit for 2012."

Kerber, who has won two titles this season, has improved from a post-2011 Wimbledon ranking of No. 100 to a current career-high ranking of No. 8.

Kerber will go off on Thursday against third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, who overcame pesky 17th-seeded Maria Kirilenko of Russia 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 in a match that started on Court 1 and finished under the roof on Centre Court. Rain repeatedly sent the players back to the locker room.

When they came back on court, the score was at one set apiece and 4-4, 15-0 for Kirilenko. It didn't take Radwanska that long, however, to close it out.

"I felt like today was at least 25 hours for me," Radwanska said. "It's always tough because you really have to stay focused the whole day, going on and off all the time. Finally we switched the court for the indoor court. Felt so different without rain, without wind, it's really just [a] different tournament."

Radwanska won the girls' singles title at Wimbledon in 2005, and also the 2006 French Open girls' trophy. But this will mark her first trip to a Grand Slam semifinal in her 25th consecutive Grand Slam singles main draw appearance.