MELBOURNE, Australia — It wasn’t until Serena Williams forced herself to relax, and not focus too intently on a milestone Grand Slam title, that she rediscovered the art of winning the biggest events in tennis.
Now she’s on the verge of a 19th major championship after beating 19-year-old Madison Keys 7-6 (5), 6-2 on Thursday and setting up an Australian Open final against long-time rival Maria Sharapova.
Williams has won all five Australian Open finals she has contested and won her last 15 matches against No. 2-ranked Sharapova, a five-time major winner who will be playing her fourth final at Melbourne Park.
While the 33-year-old Williams is peerless among active players, there was a period last year when she wanted so desperately to win her 18th major that it proved too distracting. After winning the U.S. Open in 2013, she lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open, the second round at the French and the third round at Wimbledon.
“I was so hyped on getting to 18 and I lost every Grand Slam early. I didn’t make it to any quarterfinals,” Williams said. “Then after Wimbledon I decided to just — not necessarily not care — but just relax. It all kind of came back for me after that ... and I think it’s been working.”
That approach helped her win the U.S. Open and, if it works again on Saturday against 2008 champion Sharapova, it will help Williams move above Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the list of major winners. She would be behind only Steffi Graf, with 22 titles, among champions in the Open era.
The statistics point to another win for Williams, but she’s not getting ahead of herself.
“Again. I have to win. Everyone’s expecting me to win. But we’ll see,” Williams said. “She’s playing unbelievable. She was almost out of the tournament and has been playing better every single match. It’s impressive.”
Williams, who has struggled with a cold for a week, said she’d benefit from a tough workout in the all-American semifinal against Keys, who pounded her with heavy groundstrokes and a big serve for the first set.
Keys, playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, saved seven match points on serve in a penultimate game that lasted more than 11 minutes. Williams closed with an ace in the next game to reach her 23rd major final.
“She pushed me really hard the first set ... and I had to really dig deep mentally to get through that,” Williams said. “It was a little frustrating. I had like nine or 10 match points and couldn’t close it out. That doesn’t happen so much. She played like she didn’t have anything to lose.”
Sharapova, who beat No. 10-seeded Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 6-2 in an all-Russian semifinal, has won only two of her 18 career meetings with Williams — both in 2004. She started 2015 with a title at the Brisbane International and, ever since saving two match points in her second-round match against Russian qualifier Alexandra Panova, has been growing in confidence.
“I think my confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a Grand Slam no matter who I’m facing and whether I’ve had a terrible record, to say the least, against someone,” Sharapova said. “It doesn’t matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot. I will do everything I can to get the title.”
In men’s play, Andy Murray reached the Australian Open final for the fourth time, and is desperate to end a title drought Down Under.
The sixth-seeded Murray beat No. 7 Tomas Berdych 6-7 (6), 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 in a semifinal laced with heavy hitting, flashes of anger and profanities.
Murray lost finals here to Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic in ‘11 and ‘13. Since then, he has won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon to end long title droughts for British men. He’ll get another chance to claim the Australian title on Sunday, against the winner of Friday’s semifinal between Djokovic and defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Tension was high before the match because Murray’s former coach, Dani Vallverdu, is now working for Berdych.
“You wanted there to be tension,” Murray said. “A lot was made of Dani, my ex-coach, working with him. I felt it was a little unfair and unnecessary. This is sport, there’s more to life than sport. It was a little unfair and created extra tension.”
An aggravated Murray bristled when Berdych spoke a few words to him after the first-set tiebreaker, and yelled profanities throughout the match. TV cameras appeared to show his fiancee, Kim Sears, uttering expletives in support.
Murray said the emotional reactions were understandable given the hype leading into the match.