NEW YORK -- At the end, and only at the very end, did Serena Williams face anything resembling a challenge in her U.S. Open semifinal.

Six times, Williams was a single point from winning. Six times, she failed to come through.

All that did, of course, was delay the inevitable Friday. On match point No. 7, Williams delivered a 107 mph service winner, then let out two shouts, a mixture of relief and rejoicing after a 6-0, 6-3 victory over fifth-seeded Li Na of China that put the defending champion back in the final at Flushing Meadows.

"I got tight, which happens sometimes. I just needed to relax, and then when I did relax, she played some good points," said the No. 1-ranked Williams, who will face No. 2 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Sunday in a rematch of last year's final.

"But it was a good experience going into the next round," Williams added. "If I even get a match point, I'll be ready to stay calm and just to stay focused and relaxed."

Pursuing a fifth U.S. Open championship, and 17th Grand Slam title overall, Williams has been so dominant, so untouchable, during these two weeks that the only question each time out was how long it would take her to win, not whether she would.

Through 12 sets across six matches in this tournament, Williams has lost only 16 games (for context, Azarenka lost 13 in one match alone). According to the WTA, that's the second-lowest total of dropped games through six matches at any Grand Slam tournament in the last 25 years.


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The 31-year-old American can become the first woman to win the U.S. Open without dropping a set since -- yes, you guessed it -- Williams herself in 2008. She also did it in 2002.

So what's the secret to making things competitive against Williams?

"You've got to fight. You've got to run. You've got to grind. And you've got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have," Azarenka said. "She's obviously an amazing player. She's the greatest of all time."

Azarenka has lost 12 of their 15 career meetings, but she did manage to push Williams to three sets a year ago in New York. This will be the first time the same women play each other in the U.S. Open final two years in a row since Williams lost to older sister Venus in 2001, then beat her in 2002.

Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, improved to a tour-leading 31-1 on hard courts this season by overcoming all sorts of sloppiness to beat 83rd-ranked Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-4, 6-2 in Friday's first semifinal.

"I scared her a little," said Pennetta, who kept a blue tissue box on one of her sideline chairs and occasionally went over to blow her nose between points.

Azarenka hit six double-faults, had far more unforced errors (25) than winners (15) and was broken in five of her nine service games.