Serena Williams looks to make her first final of 2020 in the very first week of the season as she takes on big-serving 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova in the semifinals of the ASB Classic Auckland
Serena Williams vs Amanda Anisimova is live from Auckland on Saturday 11 January at 4.30pm local/3.30am GMT
Williams is 20 years older than her opponent in Saturday’s semifinals as she continues to redefine career longevity, ranked world no. 10 at age 38.
The ASB Classic is only the ninth WTA Tour event Williams has played since returning from maternity leave in March 2018, and she has only made one WTA Tour final in that time span – in Toronto last August when she finished runner-up to Bianca Andreescu after retiring in the title match – although she has made four Grand Slam finals in that same period.
Williams has played an increasingly limited schedule in recent years for obvious reasons, but was particularly curtailed in what she could play in 2019 by injury, with a knee injury troubling her throughout the season; retirements or walkovers ended her run at every one of the four WTA Tour events she appeared at, including Toronto.
Having not played since losing the US Open final to Andreescu, Williams appears to be in great shape in Auckland. Playing doubles as well as singles hasn’t always worked out well for her in recent years, but the decision to team up with the soon-to-retire Caroline Wozniacki has been a good one, with the two into the doubles final already as well as both reaching the singles semifinals.
Williams has dropped just the one set on her way to the final four, but that doesn’t mean her matches haven’t been competitive (and entertaining). After a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Camila Giorgi, who replaced Svetlana Kuznetsova in the draw when Kuznetsova was forced to pull out due to illness, Williams had to come back from a set down against Christina McHale to win 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, and against Laura Siegemund in the quarterfinals, the American had to come back from a break down in the second set for a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
‘It was good for me to just fight, you know. She has a really good game, and she stepped up and hit a lot of good winners, so it wasn’t really easy. I just had to step up and play a little better, and hopefully get through it.’
In the notoriously windy conditions in Auckland, Siegemund’s drop-shot-heavy game came into its own in the second set in particular, which was a good test for both Williams’s foot-speed and her attitude. She passed with flying colours.
Williams was very positive about the impact that the tournament is having on her game as she prepares for the Australian Open and the latest iteration of her quest to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 major titles, but one suspects that what she would really like is to win the title, something she hasn’t done since returning from maternity leave and which would surely give her more confidence after some disappointing performances in finals over the past couple of years.
She would be foolish to underestimate Amanda Anisimova, though. The 18-year-old is one of the fastest-rising stars in women’s tennis, which is currently blessed with an abundance of them.
Anisimova started 2019 by making a run to the ASB Classic quarterfinals as a wildcard ranked world no. 96, and ended it as the world no. 25, having hit a career-high ranking of world no. 21 in October. The American made the last 16 at the Australian Open in January, claimed her maiden WTA Tour title in Bogota in April and reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open in June and might have climbed even higher in the back half of the year if not for the sudden death of her father in August which caused her to pull out of the US Open.
Ultimately Anisimova only played three events in 2019 after Wimbledon and had an understandably quiet ending to the year. But the big-serving teenager is clearly starting 2020 with ambition and, like Williams, has dropped just one set in Auckland so far, beating Kateryna Kozlova 6-3, 6-4, Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-4 and battling past former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to reach the semifinals.
Anisimova has just a 2-6 record against top-10 players, but both those wins were impressive as she beat Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-4 at Indian Wells in 2018 and Simona Halep 6-2, 6-4 at the French Open last May; she also beat Aryna Sabalenka twice in straight sets in 2019.
Williams and Anisimova have never played, but Williams does need to be cautious of the teenager, who is – it bears repeating – a tremendous young talent with a big serve, plenty of power off the ground, but also plenty of skill in point construction who is very good at transitioning forward into the court. She also doesn’t get overawed easily and will be relishing the chance to face Williams. On the other hand, Anisimova doesn’t generally bring a lot of variety to the court or force opponents to hit a lot of balls, preferring first-strike tennis, the game which Williams excels at. If Williams puts in a solid serving performance, this should be her victory – and her first final of 2020.