Serena Williams will contest her sixth Wimbledon singles final tomorrow, her third in as many years, after she juddered rather than thundered through her semi-final against the unseeded Czech Petra Kvitova, winning 7-6, 6-2. The defending champion will meet Vera Zvonareva of Russia, who will have to be on her mettle. Williams has so far unleashed 80 aces, the highest number ever recorded by a woman at Wimbledon, obliterating her own previous record of 72, set here last year.
Williams only occasionally reached her towering best in front of a capacity Centre Court crowd, however. The left-handed Kvitova – at 20 the youngest of the four semi-finalists, and at 6ft also the tallest – played wonderfully at first, using her improbably long legs to maximum effect. She covered the distance from baseline to net in just a few giant strides, and volleyed brilliantly. If she was nervous in her first Grand Slam semi-final, she showed no sign. Nor was she obviously intimidated by her formidable opponent, breaking the powerful Williams serve, and eliciting some loud squeals of Williams frustration, to lead 3-2.
But the top seed did not get where she is today – or more aptly, where she will be tomorrow – by surrendering the momentum. She duly broke back to level the proceedings at 4-4, and the faint whiff of an upset was soon carried away on the ever-quickening Wimbledon breeze. She won the first-set tie-break 7-5, and thereafter was rarely troubled.
Tomorrow, Williams will not lack for motivation as she attempts to win her fourth singles title here, and her 13th overall in Grand Slams. However, there might have been a marginally greater incentive were her opponent the 22-year-old Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, audacious quarter-final conqueror of her big sister Venus. For half an hour against Zvonareva, in the first of the afternoon's two semi-finals on Centre Court, the world No 82 looked as though she might give Serena the chance to avenge the stain on the family escutcheon, and indeed herself the chance to stain it further, by knocking out both sisters. Again showing no respect for the rankings, the graceful Pironkova, who had never before advanced beyond the second round of a Grand Slam event, quickly began to stretch Zvonareva, ranked 21st in the world, with some unerring baseline play and a nice line in disguised drop shots. She won the first set 6-3.
She won the support of the Centre Court crowd, too, largely because of her underdog status, but also, one felt, because she hits the ball without any accompanying grunt, shriek or moan. The Wimbledon crowds have got used to the vocal sound effects this past decade or so, but it is still pleasing to find a woman who does not use her larynx to strike the ball. Zvonareva does, but apart from that their match almost evoked the era of Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert and our own Sue Barker, before a new breed of female tennis players came along, seemingly descended from a family of redwoods on their father's side, and a family of juggernauts on their mother's. Reed-slim and wearing matching visors, the two women might almost have been contesting the final of a genteel club championship somewhere in the Home Counties, but of course for their nationalities, and the all-round excellence of their play.
That excellence began to diminish on Pironkova's side of the net, as Zvonareva started to find her range. The 25-year-old Russian might be the second lowest-ranked woman in a Wimbledon final since computer rankings were introduced 35 years ago (Venus Williams was No 31 in the world when she won here in 2007), but 10 titles and more than $7m in career prize money testify to a fiercely competitive spirit. She won the second set with comparative ease, broke her opponent's opening service game in the final set, and from then on the result was never in much doubt.
Zvonareva enters the final knowing that she has won only one of her six encounters, stretching back to 2002, with Williams. She once took the first set in the French Open, but in the rest of the match secured only a single game. For that reason, and many others, the prevailing wind is very much behind the champion. But off court if not on yesterday, the Russian was making all the right noises. "I will have to stay aggressive no matter what, and not let her dominate," she said. "Because when Serena dominates, she's very difficult to play." And what about that serve, with which Williams has won 95 per cent of her service games? "I think if you can find the timing you can return it. But there will be moments where she doesn't make a first serve. I haven't seen anyone make 100 per cent of first serves. So then you will just have to take your chances."
As for Williams, she was asked afterwards what she considered to be the biggest obstacle to her winning a fourth Wimbledon title. "Just putting too much pressure on myself, I think. On paper it looks like I should win. But Vera, I've played her several times, she's beaten some good people. Her last two matches she's been down a set, so she's obviously a fighter."
According to the bookmakers, the final represents a fight too far. Williams is 7-1 on; Zvonareva 11-2.
* Justine Henin will miss the US Open after revealing yesterday that she had suffered a partial ligament fracture in her right elbow when she fell in her fourth-round defeat to Kim Clijsters.
Draw details, weather & TV
Men's semi-final draw
(12) T Berdych (Czech Republic) v (3) N Djokovic (Serbia)
(4) A Murray (GB) v (2) R Nadal (Spain)
Final Sunday, 2pm, BBC1
Women's semi-final results
(1) S Williams (US) bt P Kvitova (Czech Republic) 7-6 6-2
(21) V Zvonareva (Russia) bt T Pironkova (Bulgaria) 3-6 6-3 6-2
Final S Williams v Zvonareva, tomorrow, 2pm, BBC1
Warm but overcast, with increasing chance of light rain showers later in the afternoon. Maximum temperature: 27C
BBC2 12.30-3.25pm, 5.50-8pm
Further coverage on BBCi
Highlights BBC2 8-9pm