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Williams, Safina to meet in final

1/29/2009 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams earned a shot at her
10th Grand Slam title and Dinara Safina moved one win away from her
first with semifinal victories at the Australian Open.

Williams, who won the Australian title in 2003, 2005 and 2007,
played her best match of the tournament in a 6-3, 6-4 victory over
Olympic champion Elena Dementieva on Thursday.

"I haven't moved like that for a while, so I was a little
shocked," said Williams, still leaving room for improvement. "A
perfect match for me? Oh, no, no, no. But it was definitely
better."

She'll get her chance to extend the alternate-year sequence of
titles when she meets third-seeded Safina, who beat fellow Russian
Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 7-6 (4) in the other semifinal.

The winner of Saturday night's final will also replace Serbia's
Jelena Jankovic at the top of the rankings.

"I think we will shake hands after the match and say 'You
deserve to be No. 1,'" Safina said.

Safina's older brother, Marat Safin, won the title here in 2005,
the day after Williams had won the women's final.

Safin also held the No. 1 ranking in November 2000, meaning
Safina has a chance to write the Russian siblings into history.

"Since I was growing up it was my dream to be No. 1," she
said. "I watched my brother winning this tournament. It's great
that I can follow his steps."

Safina recovered a break early in the second set but again was
in trouble with Zvonareva serving for the second set after breaking
to pull ahead 6-5. Safina broke back at love to force a tiebreaker
and, from 4-4, ran off the last three points.

Safina has yet to win a major, losing the 2008 French Open final
to Ana Ivanovic in her best previous run. She lost to Williams in last year's U.S. Open semifinals.

The roof was closed at Rod Laver Arena for both women's
semifinals, protecting the players and fans from outside
temperatures topping 111 degrees.

Williams commended tournament organizers for deciding early to
close the roof rather than wait, as they had Wednesday, until after
the first set of her quarterfinal against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

"It was really, really hot today," she said, "and, uhm, it
was really hot."

News updates during the semifinals reported it was the hottest
January day since 1939 in Melbourne. The temperature hit 112 at
4:43 p.m.

It was almost as hot Wednesday when Williams was only a game
from a quarterfinal exit, having to break Kuznetsova when the
Russian was serving for the match.

Twice before, Williams has had to save match points in her
semifinals en route to the Australian title.

But the reigning U.S. Open champion found her rhythm quickly
against Dementieva, who has not gone past the semifinals at a Grand
Slam since 2004.

"I just really wasn't playing well at all. I just wasn't
bringing it," she said of her first five matches here. "I thought
that I was just going to have to do whatever it takes to win.

"This is definitely not over. I have to play a really tough
opponent who wants to win ... it [could] be their first Grand Slam.
That's super exciting."

Williams ended Dementieva's best bid in four years for a major.

The Russian was on a 15-match winning streak, including two
titles and wins over Williams and Safina at the Sydney
International.

"I had a good run ... [but] I feel like today I was not quick
enough," Dementieva said. "I was not maybe aggressive enough
against her. She dictated points.

"But I have no regrets. I had just a great time here."

Williams got the only break of the first set in the eighth game
and was in control of the match.

But Dementieva held to open the second set in a game that went
to deuce five times and lasted 14 minutes, then broke Williams en
route to a 3-0 lead.

That sparked a four-game run for Williams until Dementieva broke
to even the second set at 4-4.

Then nerves seemed to get the best of Dementieva. Having
problems with her service toss, she double-faulted twice, the
second setting up break point. Williams ripped a backhand winner
down the line and pumped her fist.

She was helped by eight double faults from Dementieva.

Williams has had problems with her first serve throughout the tournament, but it came through when she needed it most. Serving
for the match at 5-4, she started with an ace and hit another serve
that Dementieva sent long.

At 30-15, Williams followed with another ace. Dementieva
squealed and bent over in frustration. Another powerful serve on
match point set up an easy overhead and it was over in 98 minutes.