Serena Williams overcame feisty teenage challenger Madison Keys to set up a dream Australian Open final with Maria Sharapova on Thursday but seemed to be the only person surprised she had made it that far.
The world number one had to battle against Keys, considered the heir apparent as the queen of American womens’ tennis, before she eventually overcame the 19-year-old 7-6(5) 6-2 to set up the final against the Russian.
Williams, a five times champion at Melbourne Park, however, felt she entered the tournament in a funk, having played badly at the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier this month and mindful she had crashed out to lower ranked players in the last three years.
“I didn’t expect to get to the finals of this tournament when I first got here because I wasn’t playing great,” she said after she made her first Melbourne Park final since 2010.
“I didn’t play well at Hopman. I was so off. I felt like I wasn’t moving well. I just wasn’t feeling great on the court.
“It’s been so long since I’ve even been in a final here. I was kind of like, ‘oh, let me just try’ (and) my theory now is to relax and play the match as best as I can.
“When I step on the court and hear the announcer, I don’t have to win anymore. I can just relax and have fun.”
Fun may be the new mantra, but Williams did suffer some tense moments against her clean-hitting compatriot on Thursday.
The difference was that when in trouble, Keys went for shots that were not quite on, while Williams simply backed her big serve to get her out of it.
The only break the teenager achieved was in the opening game, though she pushed Williams all the way through the first set by forcing her back behind the baseline.
However, Williams, bidding for a 19th grand slam singles title, got the match back on serve in the sixth game and then produced several important serves in the tiebreak.
Williams romped through the second set to 5-1 lead, though Keys refused to quit and saved eight match points.
“I was impressed by her ability to stay in the match,” Williams said.
“She had nothing to lose times a million, so she just really went for everything (and) she never let up at all till the end.
“I think that is a really great quality to have.”