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Serena Back In Wimbledon Final After Serving Up 24 Aces

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Serena Williams of the USA celebrates match point during her Ladies' Singles semi final match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on day ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Serena Williams of the USA celebrates match point during her Ladies’ Singles semi final match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on day ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Serena Williams wins with so much more than serving, of course.

Her groundstrokes are intimidating. Her superb speed and anticipation fuel unparalleled court-covering defense. Her returns are outstanding, too.

When that serve is on-target, though, it sure is something special, quite possibly the greatest in the history of women’s tennis. Lashing a tournament-record 24 aces at up to 120 mph, and doing plenty of other things well, too, four-time Wimbledon champion Williams overpowered No. 2-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 6-3, 7-6 (6) Thursday to reach her seventh final at the All England Club.

“Isn’t that something?” said Williams’ father, Richard, after watching his daughter win on Centre Court. “She was really trying, you know? Maybe she was trying to impress the neighbors back home.”

On Saturday, the 30-year-old Williams will try to become the first woman at least that age to win a major tournament since Martina Navratilova, who was 33 when she won Wimbledon in 1990.

“The older I get, the better I serve, I feel,” Williams said. “I don’t know how it got better. I really don’t know. It’s not like I go home and I work on baskets and baskets of serves. Maybe it’s a natural shot for me.”

Her next opponent will be No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, who reached her first Grand Slam final at age 23 by playing steady as can be during a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany.

“After a couple of games, I just relaxed a little bit,” said Radwanska, who made only six unforced errors, one in the second set. “I was really focusing on every point.”

Williams won 20 of her 24 service points in the first set, including 17 in a row during one stretch. She didn’t double-fault once, a real accomplishment, given how often she went for corners and lines. She finished with a 45-14 edge in total winners.

“I honestly didn’t feel great on my serve today. I really didn’t,” said Williams, who went back on court later Thursday with older sister Venus to reach the doubles semifinals. “I thought my serve was off, and apparently — clearly — it wasn’t, so maybe I should be off a little more.”

And this performance didn’t come against a slouch: Azarenka won the Australian Open in January as part of a 26-0 start to this season, was playing in her third semifinal in the past five major tournaments, and would have returned to No. 1 in the rankings if she had managed to beat Williams.

That was not about to happen.

Not on this afternoon.

Not the way Williams is playing, five weeks after a stunning exit at the French Open, her only first-round loss in 48 Grand Slam appearances.

“I’ve been working so hard,” the sixth-seeded American said, “and I really, I really wanted it.”

She’s now one win away from a fifth Wimbledon championship, adding to those in 2002-03 and 2009-10, and 14th Grand Slam singles trophy overall — but first in two years. For her, that’s a long gap. Less than a week after her 2010 title, Williams cut her feet on glass at a restaurant, leading to a series of health problems, including being hospitalized for clots in her lungs, then the removal of a pocket of blood under the skin on her stomach.

“Serena is blessed to be here,” Dad said.

The hardest part of Radwanska’s day probably came during the postmatch news conference, which was cut short after she was overcome by a coughing fit. She appeared to be OK.

Never before even a semifinalist at any Grand Slam tournament, Radwanska is the first Polish woman to make it to a major title match since Jadwiga Jedrzejowska lost three finals in the 1930s.

“I don’t really have anything to lose, so just going to try my best,” said Radwanska, the junior champion at Wimbledon in 2005, and the French Open in 2006.

Radwanska, whose younger sister Ursula is ranked 54th, will rise to No. 1 for the first time if she wins Saturday.

“If she will play like today,” Kerber said, “I think she has a good chance.”

Williams won their two previous encounters in straight sets, but they haven’t played each other since a quarterfinal four years ago at Wimbledon.

“She’s going to get every ball back,” Williams said, “so I’ve got to look forward to that.”

It’ll be a substantial contrast in styles: Williams’ out-and-out power against Radwanska’s precision.

“I have every reason to believe she’ll win,” Richard Williams said about his daughter.

There’s no doubt who is favored, especially if Williams keeps serving the way she has been.

The 24 aces that eluded the considerable wing span of the 6-foot Azarenka broke the tournament record of 23 in a match that Williams herself set last week in a three-set, third-round victory over 25th-seeded Zheng Jie. That, in turn, eclipsed the old Wimbledon mark of 20 aces held by — guess who? — Williams.

She’s also up to 81 aces through six matches, eight shy of the tournament record she set in 2010.

“When she was little, I wanted her to throw like a boy. I bought her a football. And her serve is just throwing,” Richard Williams said. “That’s why the serve is so devastating.”

Instead of ooohing and aaahing about Williams’ aces, the crowd was fascinated at the start of her semifinal by Azarenka’s high-pitched wails on pretty much every point. It was as if none of the 15,000 or so spectators had ever seen — well, heard — her play. They giggled. They imitated the “unh-uhhhhh!” sounds. Eventually, they got used to it.

“Why would it upset me?” Azarenka told reporters. “You know, you guys make such a big deal out of it, it’s a little bit … boring.”

It took until the second set for Azarenka to get the measure of Williams’ serves, and even then, she did so only briefly.

“I don’t see anybody else serving like this on the tour,” Azarenka said.

There was a half-hour stretch in the first set when Williams didn’t lose a point on her serve. She got the only break she needed in the eighth game, closing it by sprinting to her left to dig out a ball with a defensive backhand that extended the point, then pounding a backhand passing winner.

After dropping a set for the first time this fortnight, Azarenka made one late stand. Down 15-30 while serving and trailing 3-1 in the second set, she took three consecutive games and led 4-3. She suddenly was serving better, returning better and generally turning what had been a rout into a competitive, entertaining contest.

Didn’t last too long.

Azarenka did go up 5-4 in the tiebreaker, two points from forcing a third set. But Williams hit her 23rd ace, at 109 mph, to make it 5-all. At 6-all, Azarenka badly missed an easy backhand into the net, and Williams then ended things, fittingly enough, with a 107 mph ace.

After some trying times, she is back at her best.

“I’m just happy. I’m so happy to be playing. I’m so happy to be on the court,” Williams said. “I feel like this is where I belong.”

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