Serena Williams survived a testing examination from fellow American Sloane Stephens at the Brisbane International yesterday to book a semi-final against world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
Williams was pushed all the way by her Fed Cup teammate in the last of the four quarter-finals, before winning 6-4, 6-3 in 71 minutes in the Pat Rafter Arena.
Earlier Azarenka, of Belarus, swept aside the challenge of Kazakhstan qualifier Ksenia Pervak 6-1, 6-0 in her most impressive display of the tournament.
Williams and Azarenka have met 12 times previously, with Williams winning all but one of those encounters.
Today’s clash promises to be a tantalizing warm-up for this month’s Australian Open, where there is a strong possibility that the two women will meet in either the semi-finals or the final.
“I’m going up against the best player in the world,” Williams said. “She’s had a fabulous year, she won the Australian Open and has been the most consistent all year.”
“I’ve got nothing to lose. I can go out there and see where my game is at,” she added.
Williams, 31, has hardly been pushed this week and was expected to waltz through her clash with 19-year-old Stephens in their first-ever meeting.
However, Stephens matched the world No. 3 shot for shot, often leaving Williams stranded on the baseline with the power and accuracy of her groundstrokes.
Stephens attacked Williams’ serve and had the first opportunity to break, but could not convert. Williams then took her only break point to win the set.
The second set was almost a carbon copy of the first, this time with Williams breaking at 4-3, before holding to love to claim a highly entertaining match.
“I think she can be the best player in the world one day,” Williams said later.
Azarenka was in superb form as she crushed Pervak, who had upset former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round.
“It was pretty good. Even though we had some tough games, I felt I was playing really well at the important moments and taking my chances to close out the games,” Azarenka said.
She said she was excited about the prospect of playing Williams.
“It’s a tough match, there is no question about it,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it. There is one more chance for us to meet [before Melbourne] and it’s going to be a great test for the Australian Open.”
“I’m not looking for easy matches. The tougher it is, the more exciting for me it’s going to be, so I’m quite happy with that,” Azarenka said.
The second semi-final is scheduled between two unseeded players after Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine beat last year’s runner-up Daniela Hantuchova 6-3, 6-4, and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova downed fourth seeded German Angelique Kerber 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/3).
The win over Kerber was the powerful Pavlyuchenkova’s second defeat of a top-10 player in two days, following her second-round win over Petra Kvitova.
In the men’s second round, defending champion Andy Murray, the Olympic and US Open champion, beat Australian qualifier John Millman 6-1, 5-7, 6-3.
Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria upset No. 2-seeded Milos Raonic of Canada 6-3, 6-4 and Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan had a 7-5, 7-5 win over former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt.