Williams, Sharapova reach final

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England Serena Williams' racket was cracked. Not her will.

After all she's been through the past 12 months, the heartache and knee surgery and uneven play, Williams wasn't about to let a big deficit, determined foe or broken equipment sidetrack her bid for a third straight Wimbledon title.

Down a set and a break to No. 4 Amelie Mauresmo in a rollicking semifinal Thursday, Williams reacted to a miscue by spiking her racket to the turf. Playing with damaged goods for three points, Williams won them all, sparking her comeback for a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4 victory.

''I thought, 'I could be on my way home if I don't change fast.' But I kept fighting. That's all I really had, was fight,'' Williams said. ''I don't give up. I mean, things can't always go your way, in general, not just on the court, but in life.''

It was wonderful theater, filled with brilliant shotmaking, momentum shifts, some nerves, fist pumps and yells, laughs and frowns.

So, too, was the first semifinal. Maria Sharapova beat 1999 champion Lindsay Davenport 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1 to become, at 17, the third-youngest Wimbledon women's finalist in history. Davenport, 28, said this is probably her last Wimbledon.

''I never expected it to happen so early in my life,'' No. 13 Sharapova said.

She began the day by working on a sociology essay toward her high school degree. Now she has until Saturday to study Williams, who won their only encounter in straight sets at Key Biscayne, Fla., in March.

Fans witnessed two terrific women's semifinals Thursday, a welcome change from the lackluster and lopsided French Open semis and final. It would be a treat if there's similar drama Friday, when No. 1 Roger Federer meets No. 10 Sebastien Grosjean, and No. 2 Andy Roddick faces 63rd-ranked Mario Ancic in the men's final four.

Federer has won 12 straight matches at Wimbledon; Williams is up to 20, barely.

''We both were down to the nitty gritty. I mean, 2 1/2 hours later, we were still fighting,'' said Williams, who wasn't fazed when Mauresmo took a medical timeout to have her back massaged. ''I don't think she broke mentally. I don't think I broke mentally.''

Nor did Sharapova, who was born in Siberia, began playing tennis at 4, and entered Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida at 9.

Coincidentally, Sharapova (who righted her game after a 52-minute rain delay) and Williams each rallied after trailing by a set and 3-1 in the second. And while Sharapova reached her first Grand Slam final in her seventh such tournament, Williams is in her eighth major title match but only second against someone other than older sister Venus, a second-round loser.

''It's going to be different,'' said Williams, who was 17 when she won the first of her six majors by defeating Martina Hingis at the U.S. Open.

The last came with a victory over Venus at Wimbledon a year ago. That was also the last time the entire family gathered together: The Williams' half-sister Yetunde was shot to death 2 1/2 months later.

Serena had knee surgery Aug. 1, missing eight months. At her first major back, the French Open, she and Venus lost in the quarterfinals, sending Serena's ranking out of the top 10 for the time in five years.

''It hasn't been an easy road back,'' she said. ''I really was struggling a lot.''

She could have been talking about Thursday's match. They headed to a tiebreaker after 45 minutes, the total length of Williams' quarterfinal victory over Jennifer Capriati. Indeed, Williams lost 17 games through five matches, then dropped 16 against Mauresmo. And Mauresmo took only the second set off Williams over the last three years at Wimbledon.

Twice, Williams served for a set, only to be broken.

''A lot of ups and downs, backs and forths,'' said Mauresmo, the 1999 Australian Open runner-up, now 1-7 against Williams. ''It was a great match. The only bad thing for me is that I lost it.''

The turning point came with Williams serving, behind 3-1 in the second set. She slapped two backhands into the net to trail love-30, then smashed her racket, which nearly hit her as it rebounded off the grass. But Williams won three straight points to make it 40-30, her racket buckling on the final shot. After changing rackets, she hit a deep backhand approach to the corner that forced Mauresmo's wide forehand.

That opened a four-game string for Williams.

After Williams held at love to lead 4-3 in the second set, Mauresmo called for a trainer, who escorted her off court. At first, Williams sat in her changeover chair, biting her nails. Then she did jumping jacks and stretched, trying to stay loose.

At 5-3, Williams got broken. But with Mauresmo serving to send it to another tiebreaker, Williams reached set point with a running forehand winner that she accompanied with an ''Uuuuhhh!'' and celebrated with a ''Yes!'' Mauresmo ceded the break with the seventh of eight double-faults.

Into the third set they went, trading holds of serve and stellar strokes, including when Williams took eight long strides from behind the baseline to get to a drop shot and smack a forehand winner. She let out a yell and swung an uppercut.

Williams also had the energy and resolve to pound three aces at 115, 117 and 118 mph to hold for 5-4.

In the next game, Williams drove Mauresmo's 77 mph second serve for a winner to earn match point. Mauresmo shanked a forehand long to end it, and Williams leaped in the air with arms aloft, the sort of exuberance she normally saves for winning championships.

''I didn't have a game today,'' Williams said. ''I just really had heart, and that's all I had.''

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