Serena, Henin advance to Sony Ericsson final

3/30/2007 - Tennis

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Serena Williams beat the best the Israeli Army had to offer.

Shahar Peer, a 19-year-old corporal, kept things close for an hour before Williams pulled away, winning 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday night for a berth in the final at the Sony Ericsson Open.

"I started out really slow," Williams said. "I think I was a little nervous. And then I just finished well."

One test remains this week for the rejuvenated Williams: a revival Saturday of her long-dormant rivalry with Justine Henin. The Belgian reached the Key Biscayne final for the first time by beating Anna Chakvetadze 6-2, 6-3.

"Justine has been playing some of the best tennis on the tour," Williams said. "She's doing awesome. This will be a real test of my game."

Henin vs. Williams was once a fierce rivalry, but they haven't met since the 2003 Wimbledon semifinals. Williams has won five of their eight meetings, including two of three in Grand Slam

"We had a couple of good fights in the past," Henin said. "When she's healthy and really focused, she's a great champion. She has nothing to prove to anyone. She did it in the past. It's great the level she's back to."

Williams struggled early against the 14th-seeded Peer, who came within two points of an upset when they met at the Australian Open in January. In the first set Williams returned poorly, struggled with her backhand and failed to break serve. She said she was bothered by a sore left knee.

"It's a little tired," she said. "I forgot to take my anti-inflammatory medicine."

Big serves kept Williams in the set. She won 12 consecutive service points to stay even, took a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak and closed out the set with a service winner and a shout of "C'mon!"

"I was very close," said Peer, who played in her first Tier I semifinal. "The first set could go either way. Unfortunately, the second set she was running away."

Williams earned her first break early in the second set, took a 3-0 lead and punctuated the victory with her seventh ace. Playing her first tournament since winning the Australian title, she's seeking her fourth Key Biscayne title.

With a 14-1 record this year, Williams will climb to at least 12th in next week's rankings. She was ranked as low as 140th in 2006, when she played in only four tournaments.

The top-ranked Henin is a five-time Grand Slam champion, but until this year she had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at Key Biscayne. She says she dislikes the island's windy weather and tends to play poorly in March because it's the anniversary of her mother's death.

"It is a challenge for me," Henin said. "I just live for now. I'm not in the past anymore. I just try to enjoy every moment, not try to project myself too far in the future and forget a little bit of what happened in the past."

Henin said she has been hindered during the tournament by a breathing problem, possibly allergies, and is taking medication. She barely survived the third round, overcoming a 5-1 deficit in the third set to beat Virginie Razzano.

But against the ninth-seeded Chakvetadze, Henin took charge from the start.

The latest Russian to crack the women's top 10, Chakvetadze played tentatively early and lost the first set in 33 minutes. In the second set, serving at 40-0, she lost five consecutive points to fall behind 2-0.

Henin hit consecutive aces to close out the next game and saved some of her most aggressive groundstrokes for the final few games. Chakvetadze lost 20 of 35 points on her first serve and was broken five times.

"She did a lot of mistakes," Henin said. "I played the kind of game she doesn't like that much. I had a solution to every ball she was hitting today, and I used my slice a lot."

"Justine can mix her game," Chakvetadze said. "That's why she's No. 1."

Henin reached every major final last year. She's 15-1 this year but skipped the Australian Open in January because she was going through a divorce.

"Emotionally, I still have to find a good balance," she said. "I had a pretty tough time early in the year."

The Belgian is seeded second but reclaimed the top ranking last week from Maria Sharapova and will remain No. 1 next week.