Tennis: Serena Williams, a brutal champion seeking a road to perfection

Perhaps only in sport can a lack of mercy be a beautiful thing. An utterly dominant performance might make a rival look silly and could turn a contest one-sided. But it is a reflection of an athlete giving her very best for an entire match, irrespective of score, and for that they can hardly be faulted.

It is this sort of brutal beauty that Serena Williams produced in the first set of her Australian Open semi-final against Agnieska Radwanska this afternoon. The American won the match 6-0, 6-4, but it was in the first set that she reminded us that once in a while an athlete can come close to touching perfection.

The first set was 20-minute destruction that statistics only partially explain. Williams hit 18 winners (Radwanska one), won 24 of 31 points, 10 of 11 net points, 80 per cent of first and second serves, put 13 of 15 returns in play and her average first serve speed was 22kmh faster than the Polish player. Carnage is an eminently suitable word.

The Pole, world No.4, who won the WTA Finals in Singapore last year in the absence of Williams, looked on in a kind of bewildered awe. Both players are only four ranking spots apart yet evidently separated by too many shots.

"She started unbelievable," said Radwanska later, "with such power and speed and I was just standing there, kind of watching her play." Artistic tennis, Polish style, initially could not work here for there was no time to create. The ball simply came too fast or sometimes was just too far.

In the second set, the slight Radwanska fought with her particular weapons -- changes of pace, depth, drop shots, lobs. When she held serve and won a game the crowd applauded; when she broke a now slightly errant Williams they roared. Yet the end was inevitable. In truth, the American is battling ghosts and record books rather than competing with her peers.

As Radwanska said: "If she's playing her best tennis like she was playing today in the first set, it's a big difference really. I don't think anyone can really play on that level."

Williams is already the oldest Australian Open champion -- last year she won it at 33 years and 127 days. She has already won more Australian Open titles (six) than anyone in the Open era and has never lost a final here. And she is now one match away from equalling Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam singles titles. One might say she is a one-woman history book.

Yet the world No.1 says, "I worry for every match. I get stressed out just as much as the next person". It is understandable for invincibility is only a myth. Last year Roberta Vinci reminded her of it in the US Open semi-finals, but after four months off to rest her knees Williams has regained both composure and authority.

There is much to marvel at about Williams, but perhaps most impressive is her appetite for victory. This is an athlete constantly in search of her best tennis self. At one point in that almost immaculate first set, she mishit a backhand into the net. It was hardly costly, an aberration at best, and yet she groaned in displeasure. It was a telling moment for it is because she consistently asks for greatness from herself that Serena Williams finds it.