Serena Williams and Justine Henin will meet here on Saturday in a final of which the Australian Open organisers could only have dreamed. Williams, the defending champion, will attempt to claim the title for a fifth time, while Henin will be aiming to round off her remarkable comeback by winning only her second tournament since coming out of retirement earlier this month.
Today’s semi-finals held out the prospect of an all-Chinese final, but in neither match did an upset ever look likely. Williams, who will join Billie Jean King on a total of 12 Grand Slam singles titles if she wins here, beat Li Na 7-6, 7-6, while Henin raced to an even more comprehensive victory, beating Zheng Jie 6-1, 6-0 in just 51 minutes.
Williams’ right thigh and left knee are so heavily strapped that you wonder how she can even run, but she was still too good for Li, who was playing in her first Grand Slam semi-final. If the scoreline gave the impression that the match was a close contest, there was never any indication that Williams felt in any sort of trouble.
Although Li, the No 16 seed, is an attacking player with a big forehand, she made too many errors to put Williams under pressure for any length of time. No woman hits the ball harder than the American, though on this occasion she was happy to bide her time, waiting for Li to make her mistakes. That was probably on the advice of her sister, Venus, who had lost to Li in the quarter-finals.
Li never got to grips with Williams’ serve. The American hit 12 aces and won 86 per cent of the points on her first serve. There was only one break of serve on either side, but Williams forced nine break points and Li only four.
Until the 10th game of the first set Li won only four points against the Williams serve. The world No 1 had broken in the opening game and appeared to be coasting, though when she served for the set at 5-4 Li suddenly found some form on her returns. Williams saved two break points but Li converted the third.
Li started the first tie-break confidently enough with a forehand winner down the line, but Williams quickly took charge by winning the next four points. At 6-4 a swinging serve wide to Li’s forehand completed the job.
At 4-5 in the second set Li saved three match points and at 5-6 she saved a fourth. However, Williams again took command of the tie-break and completed her victory in two hours and two minutes with an ace.
"I really should have won sooner, but she played well,” Williams said after the match. “Every time I had match points she came up with a big serve or amazing shot. But I really wanted to finish it on my serve and put an exclamation point on it."
Henin’s victory came in the shortest match of the tournament so far. It was also the most one-sided semi-final here since Chris Evert beat Andrea Jaeger by the same score 28 years ago.
Zheng, who reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon two years ago, got to 1-1 before Henin ran away with the match. From the moment the Chinese put a hurried forehand into the net to give Henin her first break the Belgian took complete control. Zheng had little idea how to cope with the former world No 1’s bold ground strokes and aggressive tactics.
At 1-5 Zheng saved one set point but could do little about the second as Henin hit a fierce forehand winner down the line. The second set went by in a flash, Zheng winning just eight points. The world No 35’s agony ended when Henin hit another forehand winner to take the set in just 24 minutes.
Henin, who won here in 2004 and lost to Amelie Mauresmo in the 2006 final, will trump the performance of Kim Clijsters, her fellow Belgian, if she wins on Saturday. Clijsters won the US Open four months ago in her third tournament following her comeback after a two-year break from the game. This is only Henin’s second event since she came out of retirement – she lost to Clijsters in the final in the first – and she needs to play in another tournament before she is even given a world ranking.
Williams and Henin have never met in a Grand Slam final. The American leads 7-6 in their head-to-head record and won their last meeting, at Miami in 2008 shortly before Henin retired.
"I can't wait for the final,” Henin said. “It's such an amazing chance that I have to play another final in Melbourne. It's a very special occasion, but the dream continues. I'm going to play the No 1 player in the world in a Grand Slam final. She's a real fighter."