Serena Williams advanced to her first Indian Wells WTA final since 2001, describing it as a landmark achievement which will finally put to rest one of the most "awful" moments of her career.
“After the last final I had here, I never pictured myself being back,” Williams said Friday. “Definitely didn’t think I would be in another final here, ever.
“I think it’s kind of cool that I can really close the door by being in the final again.”
The American veteran overpowered Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 7-6 (7/1) in the semi-finals Friday.
She turned on the heat against Radwanska late in the second set, winning 11 of the final 12 points of the match to book her spot in Sunday’s final.
Williams advances to face 2012 Indian Wells champion Victoria Azarenka who defeated 18th seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (7/1), 1-6, 6-2 in the other semi-final.
Williams has a chance to become the first three-time winner in women’s singles at Indian Wells, a feat she failed to achieve last year when she pulled out of her semi-final match with a knee injury.
Last year’s semi-final withdrawal cut short the 21-time grand slam winner’s first Indian Wells campaign since 2001, when spectators booed her during the final and jeered her sister, Venus, and father Richard Williams after the pair arrived to watch the match. Richard Williams alleges he heard racial comments.
That scene sparked a lengthy boycott by both Williams sisters as Serena returned in 2015 and Venus made her long-awaited return this year, losing to a qualifier in her opening match.
“It was an awful, awful, awful experience,” said Williams, who beat Kim Clijsters in three sets in that 2001 final. “I only got through it through prayer. I just remember saying, ‘Just help me get through this. I don’t even want to win.’
“I believe I lost the first set maybe. And then somehow I was holding the trophy after that. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Williams, who has heard cheers throughout this week’s matches, envisions a warm response from the crowd on Sunday.
“I can only hope that it will be really positive. That’s all I can hope for,” she said.
Williams likes to refer to her ability to muster the strength to hit winning shots on key points in the match as her “inner tiger”.
“She was there. She didn’t come out,” Williams said of her erratic play on Friday.
“She was just quiet, but she was quiet winning points. She won 11 points in a row (at the beginning of the second set). She was there.”
At 34 years, six months Williams is the oldest women’s finalist in Indian Wells history, beating the record of Martina Navratilova who was one month younger when she won the crown in 1991.
“I guess, that’s awesome to be the grandma in the tournament,” Williams quipped.
Williams, who also won in 1999, had to dig deep in the final two games of the match after world No 3 Radwanska broke her in the 11th game of the second set to take a 6-5 lead.
Radwanska was playing so well in the middle of the second set that it appeared for a while they were going to need a third.
Williams pulled it off despite making 29 unforced errors and six double faults. She also blasted 41 winners compared to just 18 for Radwanska.
Regardless of who she faces in the final, Williams expects her opponent to be at her best against the world number one.
“They come out with a game that I have never seen before,” she said.
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