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spiceboy
Apr 3rd, 2004, 12:10 PM
Serena Williams, back from an injury layoff, is quickly back on top of her game entering today's final against Elena Dementieva.
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BY SANDRA HARWITT

If a penchant for reality television can be considered an indicator, realism is an essential ingredient for Serena Williams. And the reality is that after an eight-month sabbatical from tennis, the two-time NASDAQ-100 Open champion is still the real deal.

Sidelined after knee surgery following a successful defense of her Wimbledon crown last July, the top-seeded Williams is playing as if she never stepped away from the game. Imposing as ever, she has lost only one set in five matches to reach the NASDAQ final, where she will face No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva of Russia.

So comfortable with her tennis, Williams actually was concerned her semifinal match -- she defeated Eleni Daniilidou of Greece 6-4, 6-4 -- would get in the way of her favorite TV program Thursday night. But, thankfully, she was scheduled for an afternoon encounter.

''The Apprentice, that's my show,'' she said, of the popular Donald Trump offering. ``I'm a reality freak.''

Apparently not worried about catching the hottest show on TV, Dementieva was not concerned she was scheduled for the featured semifinal match Thursday night, where she secured her final berth with a concise 6-4, 6-2 semifinal victory over Russian Nadia Petrova.

Despite the lack of match play, Williams admits she had high expectations coming into the Key Biscayne tournament.

''I always expect the best of myself,'' said Williams, surprised anyone would have imagined her game to be rusty. ``I can't say that I didn't expect to reach the final.''

If history can be used as a yardstick, it would not be wrong to expect Williams to fall short of the title. After all, in recent times, only one top 10 player coming back from at least a six-month layoff hoisted the trophy at their first tournament.

Monica Seles, who was out of action for more than two years after being stabbed by a fan in May 1993, won her return event at the 1995 Canadian Open by losing only 14 games in five matches.

Dementieva has had a more difficult road to the final than Williams, having to save a match point to upset No. 2 seed Venus Williams in a tough three-set quarterfinal. Not only is Dementieva admitting she feels tired after five matches, she's also not sounding confident about the prospects of beating Williams.

''It's going to be a tough match for me,'' Dementieva said. ``It looks like she's in good shape.

``I think it's a great chance for me to play against both [Williams sisters] in the same week, feel the difference between them.''

The question that won't be answered until this afternoon is whether Dementieva can create the upset, virtually uttering the two words Williams loves to hear on her favorite TV show, but would hate to hear personally: ``You're fired.''