Williams Glides Past Safina for Fourth Singles Title at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — 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 her.

In her arms, held tightly to her chest, was the large Daphne Akhurst Trophy, which goes to the women’s champion.

“It’s mine again,” Williams said in a lilting voice.

Williams 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 nothing but brutal clarity.

Williams said she was inspired by watching Rafael Nadal’s epic victory over Fernando Verdasco on Friday night, but a 5-hour-14-minute final was not part of her plan. She swept through the first set in 22 minutes against Safina, then rumbled to her fourth Australian Open singles title and 10th Grand Slam singles championship by 6-0, 6-3.

“I’ve always said when I’m playing my best, it’s very difficult to beat me, and I think today I played close to my best,” Williams said. “Because I didn’t make that many errors.”

Her seven unforced errors might well have been a career low for Williams, who likes to take big swings and risks. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a match with so few,” she said. “I saw that stat in the end and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I think the key is doing what my dad tells me to do in practice: just technical things.”

The victory means that Williams, not Safina, will replace Jelena Jankovic at No. 1 when the rankings are released 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 Williams is going to be challenged in a major tournament, it is best to send a strong signal early. Since the 2004 United States Open, she is an astonishing 45-0 at Grand Slam events 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 battler. She fought back from match points in early rounds of last year’s French Open to reach the final and did the same to reach the final here.

But from the start on Saturday, she seemed edgy and confused. Though she flirted with holding her serve at 0-1, she double-faulted three times in the game, with the third coming on break point. There would be precious little suspense after that. Safina won eight points in the first set while Williams won 26, many with huge returns or well-measured forehands.

Although Safina broke Williams in the first game of the second set, Williams immediately returned the favor and rolled to a 4-1 lead. Safina bounced her racket off the court in frustration, which was a more measured approach than her combustible older brother would have adopted in comparably dire circumstances. (Safin is prone to smashing rackets.)

“I was feeling good, you know, but then, of course, once you step in the court, it’s a different situation,” said the third-seeded Safina, who added that she felt the pressure of playing for No. 1. “But I was not nervous, not even close like before the French Open final. I couldn’t even sleep the night. But today I slept good and everything was fine. But just pity.”

There was certainly some of that for her in the stands. In just 59 minutes, the first women’s night final in Melbourne was history. Williams finished it off by holding serve at love after Safina hit a backhand drop shot wide. Williams thrust her arms overhead, but the celebration that followed was nowhere near as exuberant as when she beat Jankovic to win last year’s United States Open. But then the big challenges came earlier in this hardcourt tournament.

Williams said she felt she played her “B and C level” for much of it. She was near tears 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 then 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 suffocatingly hot days in Melbourne this year. But Open organizers invoked their extreme-heat policy and closed the retractable roof in Laver Arena before the second set. Kuznetsova was angry, and Williams went on to play the rest of the match (and tournament) in more comfortable conditions. Saturday’s final was played outdoors in mild temperatures, the record-setting heat wave having finally broken.

Williams’s four singles titles here have come in odd-numbered years: 2003, 2005, 2007 and now 2009.

“I really wasn’t feeling like it was destiny this year,” she said. “I thought, ‘O.K., I don’t want this in my brain.’ I just want to win; just want to win seven matches. I wasn’t thinking about, ‘This is it, because it’s the odd year.’ But it happened again, which is really kind of weird.”

Williams is not the only American with a habit of winning in Melbourne. The Bryan twins, Mike and Bob, won their third Australian Open and seventh Grand Slam doubles title on Saturday night, defeating the veterans Mahesh Bhupathi of India and Mark Knowles of the Bahamas, 2-6, 7-5, 6-0.

The Bryans, 30, recommitted themselves in the off-season after finishing second in the world rankings last year, when Bob injured his left shoulder. Like Williams, they will regain the No. 1 spot Monday, and the three planned to celebrate together at a Melbourne nightclub, as they did in 2007 after the Bryans won in doubles and Williams in singles.

“All I know is Serena usually picks up the bill,” Mike Bryan said.

As in 2007, when she struggled early, then routed Maria Sharapova in the final, Williams saved her most dominant display for last. This was the most lopsided full-length women’s final in Melbourne since Arantxa Sánchez Vicario lost, 6-0, 6-2 , to Steffi Graf in 1994.

Only six women in tennis history have won more Grand Slam singles titles than Serena: a list led by Margaret Smith Court with 24 and Graf with 22. But Williams, who also won the doubles here with older sister Venus, is clearly on the short list of the sport’s greatest at age 27.

“She looks deep inside and is just determined not to lose,” said her mother and coach, Oracene Price. “She really hates to lose; it’s just in her, and I think she’s really taking advantage of the situation right now, because you just have so much time in a sports career, so you want to get the best out of it.”

Adrift, injured and ranked in the 100s three seasons ago, Williams has regained her former place in the game, and has now won consecutive Grand Slam singles titles for the first time since she won the 2002 United States Open and 2003 Australian Open.

“I don’t sense distractions,” Price said. “Not anymore.”

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