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Azarenka has lost 12 of their 15 career meetings, but she did manage to push Williams to three sets a year ago in New York. This will be the first time the same women play each other in the U.S. Open final two years in a row since Williams lost to older sister Venus in 2001, then beat her in 2002.

Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, improved to a tour-leading 31-1 on hard courts this season by overcoming all sorts of sloppiness to beat 83rd-ranked Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-4, 6-2 in Friday’s first semifinal.

“I scared her a little,” said Pennetta, who kept a blue tissue box on one of her sideline chairs and occasionally went over to blow her nose between points.

Azarenka hit six double-faults, had far more unforced errors (25) than winners (15) and was broken in five of her nine service games. She’s one of the game’s top returners, however, and wound up with eight breaks of Pennetta, who was in her first Grand Slam semifinal at age 31.

Now comes a far tougher test against Williams, who had to go right back on court Friday night to team with Venus in the women’s doubles semifinals, where they lost 6-4, 6-2 to the Czech pairing of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka .

Earlier in the evening, with shadows stretching across the blue court and the Arthur Ashe Stadium lights on, it took Li 38 minutes of play to earn a game against Williams. And then — gasp! — she won another, breaking for a 2-1 lead in the second set with a big cross-court forehand to a corner that forced an error by Williams.

It was a jarring shift. It also was fleeting.

Good as Li is, with power off both wings and superb court coverage that helped her reach two Australian Open finals, she simply couldn’t stay with Williams. After Li went up 40-love to get within one point of a 3-1 advantage in the second set, she ceded six points with missed backhands to let Williams break right back. And Williams broke again to go up 4-2.

Li entered the day with a tournament-best 29 aces, but Williams did not allow one serve to get past her. Williams also tracked down ball after ball, using the nimble footwork that coach Patrick Mouratoglou says was the first thing he wanted to improve when they began working together 15 months ago.

Repeatedly, Li would appear to hit a point-ending shot. And repeatedly, Williams would somehow get it back over the net. That’s why Li finished with a paltry eight winners, 11 fewer than Williams.

“I need more practice,” Li said.

Williams leaves plenty of opponents feeling that way.

Still, there was the matter of winning Friday’s last point, and that took a while. With Li serving while down 5-2, they played an epic, 22-point game. Li erased match point No. 1 with a 101 mph service winner. On No. 2, Williams pushed a backhand wide. On No. 3, Li’s backhand down the line drew a forehand into the net. On No. 4, a 103 mph serve produced a netted forehand return. On No. 5, Williams ended a 10-stroke exchange by sailing a swinging forehand volley wide, then dropped to her knees. No. 6 ended with Li’s overhead winner.

When Williams sent a backhand long to lose the game after the nearly 1½-hour match’s most compelling 13 minutes, 49 seconds, some spectators responded with a standing ovation. If they were figuring there might only be one more game, they were right.

Serving at 5-3, 30-all, Williams watched Li’s backhand drop long, then bent forward and screamed, pumping her left fist. Once again, she was a point from the final, and this time she was able to seal the deal, thanks to a strong serve that Li could only put in the net.

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