- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia | Second-seeded Serena Williams has advanced to the Australian Open final, beating Elena Dementieva of Russia in straight sets.

With the roof closed at Rod Laver Arena because of outside temperatures of 111 degrees, the American beat the fourth-seeded Dementieva 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday (Wednesday night EST).

Dementieva had a 3-0 lead in the second set before Williams, helped by consecutive double faults by the Russian in the fifth game, won four games in a row. After the pair exchanged service breaks, Williams held her serve to clinch the match.

Williams won the Australian Open in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

While Williams has a fourth Australian title in her sights, top-ranked Rafael Nadal continues to inch closer to his first.

After improving one round on each of his previous four trips to Melbourne Park, Nadal finished off a 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 win over No. 6 Gilles Simon on Wednesday as the temperature dipped to 93 degrees from a daytime high of 109.

Nadal will meet another Spanish left-hander for a spot in the final after Fernando Verdasco ousted 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

“I think it’s incredible for us,” Nadal said. “One will be in the finals, so we have to be happy with that.”

No Spanish man has won the Australian title. Nadal reached the semis last year without dropping a set but was upset by Tsonga.

He rebounded from that to win the French Open for the fourth straight time, then ended Roger Federer’s five-year reign at Wimbledon and his 237-week stretch at No. 1.

Verdasco had his time in the sun in November, when he guided Spain to victory in the Davis Cup final at Argentina while Nadal was absent recovering from knee tendinitis.

If he thought the atmosphere was intense in Argentina, he agreed it was stifling in Melbourne. But that hasn’t stopped Verdasco from going past his previous best run of a fourth-round exit at a major.

Wednesday marked the start of what weather forecasters were predicting would be a once-in-a-century heat wave for the city. Hardy trees accustomed to a decade of drought were wilting. Dead or dying moths flopped onto the courts.

Nadal, a Majorca native, was relieved he had been given a night match and joked about burning his feet when he went outside to practice earlier in the afternoon.

“Believe me, I never feel the same like today when I was warming up outside,” he said. “The conditions were very hot. I couldn’t walk.”

The women’s quarterfinalists didn’t see the humor.

Williams agreed the cool air conditioning revived her game after she had dropped the first set against Svetlana Kuznetsova in her quarterfinal Wednesday. With the temperature nudging 104 degrees, the extreme heat policy came into play, and the stadium roof was closed.

Williams still had to work to force a third set, breaking Kuznetsova in the 10th game of the second when the Russian was serving for the match. That was the start of a dominating run, and she won nine of the next 10 games in a 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 victory.

Williams said playing in the brutal heat felt like an “out-of-body experience.” The break to close the roof after the first set had Kuznetsova fuming.

“Why should I not be?” Kuznetsova said. “Game going my way. I was very comfortable playing outside. It’s two different games.”

No. 3 Dinara Safina played No. 7 Vera Zvonareva in the second semifinal for the right to face Williams.

Federer, seeking a record-equaling 14th Grand Slam singles title to match Pete Sampras’ record, was playing American Andy Roddick in the night semifinal.

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