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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Serena Williams is on top again

The women's final had finished in less than an hour, and Serena Williams was walking down the hall in Melbourne Park lined with photos of past Australian Open champions, including herself.

Locked in her arms was the large silver Daphne Akhurst Trophy, which goes to the women's champion.

"It's mine again," Williams said in a lilting voice.

The American champion got no argument from Dinara Safina on Saturday night. After two weeks of uncertainty about the true state of Williams's form, suddenly there was none as Williams swept through the first set in 22 minutes. She then rolled most comfortably to her fourth Australian Open singles title and 10th Grand Slam singles title by the lopsided score of 6-0, 6-3.

The victory means that Williams, not Safina, will be No. 1 when the latest rankings are released on Monday.

"She played too good today," Safina said in her postmatch remarks to the not-quite-sellout crowd in Rod Laver Arena. "I was just a ball boy on the court."

If you are going to challenge Williams in a major tournament, it is best to send a strong signal early. Since 2004, she is an astonishing 45-0 at the Grand Slams when she wins the first set.

Safina, a 22-year-old Russian who is the younger sister of the 2005 Australian Open men's champion, Marat Safin, has earned a reputation as a fighter: battling back from match points in early rounds to reach the final of last year's French Open and doing the same to reach her second major final here.

But from the start Saturday, she looked edgy and confused. Though she flirted with holding her serve in the second game, she wound up double-faulting three times, with the third coming on break point. There was no more suspense after that as Safina won eight points in the opening set while Williams won 26, many of them with full-swinging returns or well-measured forehands.

"I was feeling good, but then of course when you step on the court, it's a different situation," Safina said.

Though Safina broke Williams in the opening game of the second set, Williams immediately returned the favor: rolling to a 4-1 lead. Safina bounced her racket off the court in frustration, which was a more measured approach than her older brother would have adopted in comparably dire circumstances (he would have smashed it).

In just 59 minutes, this final was over as Safina hit a backhand drop shot wide and Williams thrust both arms overhead. The celebration that followed was nowhere near as exuberant or extravagant as her "who me?" moment when she won last year's U.S. Open, but then the big challenges came earlier in this hardcourt tournament.

Williams said she had been near tears over her play after her difficult second-round victory over Gisela Dulko of Argentina. In the fourth round, Williams was down a set against a big-hitting Belarussian teenager, Victoria Azarenka, who retired in the second set because of illness.

In the quarterfinals, Williams lost the first set against the Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova and was struggling on one of the many brutally hot days in Melbourne this year. But Open organizers invoked their extreme-heat policy at the end of the first set and closed the retractable roof in Rod Laver Arena.

Kuznetsova was angry with the decision, but it stood. Williams was able to play the rest of the match (and tournament) in more comfortable climatic conditions, and her big serve - a relative liability in the early stages here - benefited from the change. The final was played outdoors in mild temperatures, the record-setting heat wave having finally broken.

Williams's four singles titles here have all come in odd-numbered years: 2003, 2005, 2007 and now 2009. And as in 2007, when she struggled early and then routed Maria Sharapova in the final, she saved her most dominant display for last.

This was the most lopsided women's final in Melbourne since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won just two games in a 6-0, 6-2 loss to Steffi Graf in 1994. Justine Henin-Hardenne won just one game against Amélie Mauresmo in the 2006 final but retired because of illness early in the second set.

Williams's older sister Venus, who was upset in the second round here by Carla Suárez Navarro, could have been excused for feeling a little wistful as she watched from the stands Saturday night. Her recent matches with Serena have provided much more entertainment than this final.

Venus was an integral part of Serena's double here, however. The sisters won their eighth Grand Slam doubles title together on Friday, but Serena, 15 months younger than Venus, now has 10 major singles titles to Venus's seven.

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