|Serena Williams returns a shot to Victoria Azarenka during their semi-final match at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Ont., Aug. 13, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
TORONTO - You almost felt sorry for Victoria Azarenka.
And considering the 22-year-old Belarusian is ranked as the fourth best player in the world, that's saying something.
But Serena Williams, one of tennis's all-time greats and and as intimidating a presence as there is in sports when she's on her game, was simply far too powerful for Azarenka in the Rogers Cup semi-final Saturday at the Rexall Centre.
The result was a 6-3, 6-3 win by Williams that, mercifully, was over in just 77 minutes.
"I mentally knew I was playing a really, really good player and I basically had to step up my game or go to Cincinnati," Williams said.
Instead, Williams will spend another day in Toronto as she tries to play the role of underdog in the final. Stosur is, in fact, ranked nearly 70 spots higher than Williams. That being said, not many players ranked 80th in the world have won 13 Grand Slam titles as Williams has.
That number is more a result of inactivity than declining ability.
So let's be realistic: Williams is the heavy favourite to win her second Rogers Cup title and first since 2001.
And guess what? Williams knows it, despite saying earlier that "a humble 80 is where I am," not in the top 10.
"Maybe I'm like a changeling and maybe I really am top 10 and I am disguised," she said mockingly when asked about her ranking. "I don't know. That's a good theory. I'm gonna look into that."
The display of shock and awe against Azarenka, who had lost just six games in her three-match run to the semis, must leave fellow finalist Sam Stosur with a sickly feeling.
Even worse? Williams, who missed nearly a year after having surgery (twice) and has only recently returned to the court, still doesn't feel like her game is clicking perfectly.
"I'm almost where I was before but I want to exceed that level," Williams said. "It's coming along. I feel it's better than it has been my past couple of rounds."
Williams broke Azarenka twice in the second set, the first on a double fault, the second with a booming winner into the corner on match point.
"(Stosur) being ranked 10 in the world, she definitely has an opportunity to take it all," Williams said. "I think this court really kind of suits her game. I have nothing to lose and I'm happy to have gotten this far. If I take another title, that would be great. If not, hey, there's next week."
Tenth-seeded Stosur turned in a workmanlike, and at times impressive, performance in a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win over 13th seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in the other semi, but it was nothing like the battering Williams gave to Azarenka.
And Stosur did it against an opponent who is nursing a bad shoulder and sore back, a result of playing too much tennis in recent weeks.
"To come here and play this well and make it this far, no matter what happens (Sunday), I'm definitely feeling good," Stosur said. "When you've got a field like we've had here this week, with the top 25 playing and the size of the tournament and everything, I think to do well here is fantastic.
"It's only the second time I've played this tournament. To have a quarter last time and now to at least make it to the final is really exciting. We definitely want to come back."