FLUSHING, N.Y. — Serena Williams warms up better than she plays. At least that’s what she says.“My practices have been much better than my matches,” said the top-seeded Williams not long after she pummeled fifth-seeded Li Na of China 6-0, 6-3 to reach the final of the U.S. Open for the seventh time since winning the first of her four titles in 1999. “I have really been trying to be focused on the practice court.”Pity the poor practice partners if Williams has been beating up on them with even greater ferocity than she exhibited against her first six opponents. The 31-year-old American has lost only 16 games in 12 sets, fewest lost by a woman en route to a U.S. Open final since Steffi Graf lost only 13 in 1988 — and Graf never played her semifinal because Chris Evert withdrew with a stomach virus.Included in Williams’ run are a 6-0, 6-1 knockout of former French Open champ Francesca Schiavone in the first round and a 6-0, 6-0 drubbing of 20th-ranked Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain in the quarterfinals. Only 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens managed to take four games in one set, and she went down 6-1 in the second. The final will be a rematch of last year’s championship against second-seeded Victoria Azarenka, who ousted Italian Flavia Pennetta in straight sets in the semifinals to reach her second major final of the year. In January, the 24-year-old Belarussian won her second consecutive Australian Open, beating Li Na in the final. Williams beat Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 to win the title here last year and also won the French Open over Maria Sharapova in June.The final will also be the first between the two top seeds since 2003 when Justine Henin beat fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters. It is the fifth meeting of the year between Williams and Azarenka. They split those meetings, with Williams winning in Brisbane in January when Azarenka withdrew with a toe injury and again on clay in Rome in May and Azarenka prevailing in Doha in February and in Cincinnati three weeks ago.“When you play Serena you have to play your best because she makes me play my best,” Azarenka said. “I think I kind of do the same to her. We raise each other’s level all the time and take each other to the limit.”“I definitely feel like when she plays me she plays her best, by far,” countered Williams, declining to say that Azarenka also brings out the best in her. “I have seen her play other players and when I’m playing her I’m playing a totally different player.”Should Williams capture her 17th major singles championship, she would move one shy of the 18 majors held by both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Australian Margaret Court holds the record of 24 majors in singles.A victory, coupled with her U.S. Open Series bonus, would net Williams a $3.6 million paycheck, more than enough to compensate the practice partners she keeps abusing.
• Men’s doubles final: Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek vs. Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, 11:30 a.m. ESPN2
• Women’s Championship: Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka, 3:30 p.m., KTVT/11