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Serena Wills Her Way To Wimbledon Final

Photo By Ron Angle By Richard Pagliaro
07/02/2004

Amelie Mauresmo's deep drive forced Serena Williams into a desperate dash. Deadlocked at four-all, deuce in the decisive set, Williams was careening from corner-to-corner with all the determination of an EMS worker intent on saving the bouncing ball before it expired on court.
Grinding her teeth, pumping her arms purposely and bursting forward Williams caught up to the ball and pushed a forehand winner down the line then pumped both fists furiously after earning a hard-fought game point.

In a draining duel that saw both women compete with guts and grit, it often took sensational shots to win pivotal points. The successful sprint propelled Williams' winning run: she won seven of the last nine points to close out a classic semifinal clash.

In the end, the two-time defending champion withstood the toughest test she's faced this fortnight as Williams fought back from a one-set, 1-3 deficit to will her way to a third consecutive Wimbledon final with a 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-4 triumph over Mauresmo in a memorable match that was both high quality and high drama.

Bidding to become the first woman to capture three consecutive crowns since Steffi Graf, who reigned from 1991-93, Williams will meet 13th-seeded Maria Sharapova in Saturday's final.

The 17-year-old Sharapova roared back from a one-set deficit to defeat Lindsay Davenport, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-1 and become the first Russian woman to reach the Wimbledon final since Olga Morozova in 1974. She is the second-youngest woman to advance to the Wimbledon final in the Open Era. Martina Hingis, who like Sharapova, relocated from her homeland in pursuit of a tennis career, was 16 when she beat Jana Novotna to claim the Wimbledon crown in 1997.

It took a tremendous effort from Williams to survive Mauresmo's all-court attack.

Though Williams had beaten Mauresmo six times in seven prior matches, including a 6-2, 6-1 dismissal in their last meeting on grass in the 2002 Wimbledon semifinals, the fourth-seeded Frenchwoman produced the bold tennis of a player who believed in her ability to craft an upset.

Attacking astutely and alternating the spins and speeds of her shots intelligently, the talented Mauresmo used her full arsenal of shots to unsettle Williams.

The top-seeded Williams, who blistered a backhand pass crosscourt to break serve in the opening game of the match, served for the first set at 5-4 and held two set points, but could not close. A backhand winner crosscourt gave Williams her first set point, but her tame forehand approach sat up for Mauresmo to hit a backhand pass. Two points later, Williams squandered her second set point with a double fault.

Sensing Williams was tight, Mauresmo moved forward into the court and slapped an overhead winner into the corner to break and forge a 5-5 tie. Both women held serve at 5 in the ensuing games. Williams took a 3-1 lead in the tiebreak, but a Mauresmo volley winner and shaky slice forehand that snaked wildly wide from Williams — suspect shot selection on a critical point — evened the tiebreak at 3-3. Williams curled a crosscourt forehand pass into the corner to take a 4-3 lead, but it was the last point she would win in the tiebreak.

An errant forehand that flew long from Williams was followed by a wide serve to open the court and inside-out forehand winner from Mauresmo to give her a 5-4 lead. Williams netted another forehand to hand Mauresmo a set point. Unleashing a slow slice backhand that slithered slowly through the grass, Mauresmo forced Williams to hit up on the short ball and her backhand landed long as Mauresmo had the first set in hand.

Sitting on her court-side seat after the set reading her hand-written notes from a piece of paper, Williams didn't need to read between the lines to see the severity of her predicament. Williams, who had won 38 of her previous 40 sets in constructing a 19-match Wimbledon win streak, faced her first first deficit of the fortnight and was outplayed on crucial points by a woman whose grass-court gifts were glaringly obvious.

Mauresmo's slice backhand stayed so low it consistently tickled the toes of Williams, who was often quick to the ball, but didn't always get low enough to handle the slice. Mauresmo enjoyed success in changing the direction of the forehand rallies. Catching Williams leaning to her forehand side, Mauresmo often lined forehands down the line and followed them to the net, forcing Williams to hit running backhands off balance.

A biting backhand from Mauresmo that landed cleanly in the corner produced her second service break of the match and when she held for a 3-1 lead she was suddenly three games from victory.

In the fifth game of the second set, Williams' reign as champion reached the breaking point.

Netting a meek backhand to trail 0-30 on her own serve, Serena slammed her racquet to the court in frustration. While her racquet was rattled by the sudden smash, Williams' concentration would not crack. Digging down deep, she won four straight points to hold serve then went to work on breaking back. Mauresmo saved a pair of break points in the next game, but netted a forehand trying to navigate the higher part of the net to hand Williams a third break point. Mauresmo approached and correctly anticipated Williams' crosscourt pass, but couldn't handle the pace and netted a volley to drop serve and lose the lead.

Grunting louder with each stroke, Williams held at love for 4-3. It was then that Mauresmo took an injury timeout for treatment for a strained back. She returned to the court and dropped served when Williams floated a mis-hit forehand over her head and onto the baseline. Serving for the set at 5-3, Williams as again unable to close and Mauresmo broke back before evening the set at 5-5.

The pivotal point of the set arrived in the 12th game. Serving to force a tiebreak at 5-6, 30-all, Mauresmo hit a shot that appeared to hit the baseline and Williams' reply was well wide. Mauresmo's shot was called out by the lines person, but the chair umpire immediately over-ruled and the point was replayed. Williams drilled a forehand pass down the line, screaming "yes!" to punctuate the set point. A tight Mauresmo double-faulted well wide of the sideline as Williams seize the second set.

The service break was crucial: not only did it give Williams the second set, it enabled her to serve first in the final set placing immense pressure on Mauresmo to hold in every game just to stay even.

In the ninth game, Williams' riveting run that culminated with her forehand winner gave her a game point. Two points later, she hit a 100 mph serve winner out wide and followed with her ninth ace to hold for 5-4.

Her ailing back seemed to sap the bite from Mauresmo's second serve. Stalking the grass inside the baseline, Williams pounced on a 77 mph second serve and blasted a backhand return winner down the line that landed in the corner before Mauresmo could take two steps to pursue it. The shot gave Williams a match point and when Mauresmo's forehand floated long, the two-time champion had secured her 20th consecutive Wimbledon win to reach the final.

Tournament officials vetoed Williams' wish to wear a "really sexy" new Nike outfit for this match, but the designing diva wasn't willing to give up her most precious accessory: her Wimbledon crown. In the aftermath of her Roland Garros quarterfinal loss to Jennifer Capriati, Williams' commitment to the sport she once dominated was called into question.

How can a part-time player coming off knee surgery less than a year ago expect to extend her reign as a Grand Slam champion and what does it say about the depth of the game if she can succeed? But for all the emphasis on Williams' extra-curricular endeavors — her acting, designing and dating pursuits — she's smart enough to know all of her outside opportunities emanate from her ability to excel on the court.

Today's enthralling encounter showed the strong substance that complements her stubborn style: this is a champion who competes with as much character, heart, guts and desire as any player in tennis. Fueled by a ferocity to succeed, Williams still rises to the challenges on court with a personal passion. Pushed to the edge of elimination, Williams simply refused to lose and that's the biggest reason why she won.
 

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