TORONTO - Forced to the sidelines for nearly a year, Serena Williams has learned that nothing is a given.
The 29-year-old American tennis star is living the sports cliche of taking it one tournament at a time in her comeback bid from injury and illness, and is thrilled to find herself in the final of the Rogers Cup.
Williams, who's playing just her fourth tournament since her career was derailed after Wimbledon last summer, showed no signs of rust in breezing past No. 4 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 6-3, 6-3. She'll battle No. 10 seed Samantha Stosur of Australia, who booked her berth with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win over No. 13 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.
"My goals have been just to give it my all at every match and every tournament," Williams said, in describing her new philosophy to the game. "Not that it wasn't like that before, but I had a tremendous amount of focus in the Grand Slams, and I think I still will. But every now and then. . . you never know, tomorrow is not promised and I want to give it my all at every opportunity I have."
The 13-time Grand Slam champion, who isn't seeded as she continues her comeback, put in her most dominant performance this week in the one hour and 17-minute match.
The match was her's for the taking when she broke Azarenka's serve on a double-fault by the Belarussian to go up 4-3 in the second set. Williams carried all the momentum from that point on, eventually winning on a blistering shot to the back corner that Azarenka had little hope of getting to.
"I feel it's better today than it has been the past couple of rounds, but I feel it's coming along, I feel I can still do a little better but overall I'm almost where I was. Almost," Williams said. "But I want to exceed that level."
Williams was injured shortly after claiming her fourth Wimbledon title at All England Club. A few days after that victory, she cut her foot on glass at a restaurant in Germany, and underwent two operations. She spent 10 weeks in a cast and 10 weeks in a walking boot. Then she was diagnosed in February with blood clots in her lung, and didn't return to practice court in April.
While her philosophical approach to the game might have changed, her biting sarcasm hasn't. The former world No. 1-ranked player is well down in 80th as she continues her comeback, and was asked if she feels like a top-10 player simply disguised in a No. 80 label.
"You think?" Williams fired back, prompting chuckles from reporters. "Maybe I'm like a changeling and maybe I am really top-10 and I am disguised. That's a good theory. I'm going to look into that."
Williams, dressed in an emerald green long-sleeved shirt and black skirt, her hair pulled back in a black headband, was the clear crowd favourite in a nearly-full Rexall Centre stadium.
And the match was easily one of the loudest this week — but that had nothing to do with the crowd. Williams and Azarenka are known as two of the loudest grunters in the game, Williams with her guttural oomph and Azarenka with her high-pitched and drawn-out cry.
The 27-year-old Stosur, meanwhile, is listed 11th in the WTA rankings, but will be bumped up a spot next week by virtue of this victory.
"I think it's always for any person playing a professional sport like tennis, that benchmark is the top 10, and then you make your top five, and from there, you never know what's possible," Stosur said. "But I was definitely very excited when I broke the top 10 the first time."
Stosur, playing in her trademark wrap-around sunglasses, appeared poised for a quick victory breaking Radwanska three times in the first set. But the 22-year-old from Poland stormed back to break Stosur twice and take the second set in the one hour 54-minute match.
Stosur broke Radwanska to go up 5-2 in the third, winning five straight games and punctuating the set and match with an ace, one of seven the Aussie fired on the afternoon.
Stosur, whose 2007 season was derailed by lyme disease, was ranked as high as fourth in February, but tumbled down the list after suffering first-round defeats at Wimbledon and Stanford.
"Now I'm really feeling like I'm playing confidently, playing very well and starting to have things flow again," Stosur said. "To come here and play this well and make it this far, no matter what happens (Saturday), I'm definitely feeling good and it's all positive signs."
Radwanska's loss snapped a nine-match winning streak for the Pole, who claimed her fifth WTA title — and first in three years — at Carlsbad, Calif., last week.
"It's very hard, playing so many matches in a row, especially good matches on a very high level," said Radwanska. "I was fighting until the end. This has been a very busy three weeks. So I'm just very happy that I could be here in the semifinal."
Radwanska is struggling with a shoulder injury that decreases the speed of her serve, playing with a large square bandage taped over the shoulder.
In doubles, meanwhile, Americans Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond advanced to the final with a 3-6, 6-1, 10-6 victory over Gisela Dulko of Argentina and Flavia Pennetta of Italy.