Williams keen to lay Indian Wells ghosts to rest

INDIAN WELLS (United States) • Serena Williams advanced to her first Indian Wells final since 2001 on Friday, describing it as a landmark achievement which will finally put to rest one of the most "awful" moments of her tennis career.

"After the last final I had here, I never pictured myself being back," the women's world No. 1 said. "Definitely didn't think I would be in another final here, ever. I think it's kind of cool that I can really close the door by being in the final again."

The 34-year-old American overpowered Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 7-6 (7-1) - winning 11 of the final 12 points of the match - to book her spot in today's final, where she will face 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka, who defeated the 18th seed, Czech Karolina Pliskova, 7-6 (7-1), 1-6, 6-2 in the other semi-final.

Williams has a chance to become the first three-time winner at Indian Wells, a feat she failed to achieve last year when she pulled out of her semi-final with a knee injury.

In 2001, spectators booed her during the final and jeered her sister Venus and father Richard after the pair arrived to watch the match.

Richard alleges that he heard racial comments.

That scene sparked a lengthy boycott of the tournament by the Williams sisters. Serena returned last year and Venus made her long-awaited return this year, losing to a qualifier in her opening match.

"It was an awful, awful, awful experience," said Williams, who beat Kim Clijsters in three sets in that 2001 final. "I only got through it through prayer. I just remember saying, 'Just help me get through this. I don't even want to win.' I believe I lost the first set maybe. And then somehow I was holding the trophy after that. That's all I'm going to say about that."

The American, who has heard cheers throughout this tournament, envisions a warm response from the crowd today. She said: "I can only hope that it will be really positive. That's all I can hope for."

Meanwhile, on Friday in the men's tournament, Novak Djokovic set up a much anticipated semi-final showdown with nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, whom the world No. 1 considers his biggest rival on the ATP Tour.

"It is going to be a game of cat and mouse," said the Serbian, who defeated ninth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), of his meeting with Nadal. "I enjoy the rivalry against Rafa. It is probably the most exciting rivalry I have had in my career."

The world No. 5 Spaniard, who survived an early assault to defeat Japan's Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3, said: "I beat a top 10 player and that is important for my confidence. I feel I am strong mentally and I have the right energy ( to take on Djokovic)."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Williams keen to lay Indian Wells ghosts to rest'. Print Edition | Subscribe