She’s Baaaaaack!!!!: This Serena Slam’s A Stunner

By Douglas Robson
Updated: January 27, 2007

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Two years after they clashed in a dramatic Australian Open semifinal — eons in tennis years — Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams finally booked another Grand Slam date.

This time it was the Australian final, and though the result ultimately was the same, the way it happened today was decidedly different.

Unlike the classic win by Williams in 2005, when she saved three match points, the rematch between the sport’s two biggest stars turned into a nightmare for Sharapova and an implausible dream-come-true for the 81st-ranked Williams.

Resurrecting the form that had earned her seven major titles, including five of the six Grand Slams she entered in 2002-03, Williams earned her third title in Melbourne and her eighth major in overwhelming Sharapova 6-1, 6-2, in 63 minutes.

“I don’t know where to start,” said Williams, who tossed her racket in the air and fell on her back after hitting a winner on match point.

During the on-court trophy presentation, she tearfully dedicated her win to her half sister Yetunde Price, who was shot to death in 2003 in Compton, near where Serena and her sister Venus grew up.

In stunning fashion, Williams shook off two years of injuries and wavering focus to stamp herself as perhaps her generation’s greatest champion.

Six months ago, the 25-year-old American had fallen to No. 139 in the rankings, and before this tournament she hadn’t reached a final in two years. She arrived in Australia having played only 15 events in the previous 24 months.

On the eve of the year’s first major, she was dismissed as no more than a dangerous floater with little chance to add to her collection of titles.

But, dissing the naysayers — “haters,” she called them earlier in the tournament — and proving that no one has more competitive resolve, Williams cast off the rust match by match.

“I have never seen anybody play themselves into shape and confidence at a Grand Slam like Serena,” said two-time Grand Slam champion Tracy Austin, who called the match for Australia’s Channel 7. “We’ve got to hand it to her because there is nobody like her competitive-wise.”

Oracene Price, Williams’ mother and coach, said her daughter had been “quiet and focused” the morning of the final.

“She wanted this so bad because she’s been gone so long,” said Price, who estimated her youngest daughter was at only 65% of her capabilities. “I saw some glimpses of [the old Serena], but I still think she has a lot of work to do.”

If she does step up her commitment, look out. Heading into the final, reigning U.S. Open champion Sharapova had reason to like her chances of becoming the first Australian Open champ from Russia. Undefeated in two Grand Slam finals, including a 6-4, 6-1 drubbing of Williams at Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova was 25-1 since winning in New York. Her only loss since mid-August came in November to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships.

But Williams was superior in nearly every category, hitting more aces (7-3) and winners (27-12) than top-seeded Sharapova and breaking the 19-year-old Russian in four of her seven service games.

“She got a little shell-shocked,” said Sharapova’s hitting partner, Michael Joyce, suggesting the faster conditions under the closed roof at Rod Laver Arena might have helped Williams’ first-strike tactics.

Glaring and fist pumping like the Serena of old, Williams raced to a 4-0 lead in 14 minutes and never looked back.

Williams closed out the match with a backhand winner to become only the second unseeded champion at the Australian Open.

Australia’s Chris O’Neil won the event in 1978 when the tournament was less prestigious.

“You can never underestimate her as an opponent,” Sharapova conceded in generous post-match comments. “I think that many of you here didn’t expect her to be in the final. I definitely did. I know what she’s capable of and she definitely showed that today.

“She’s an amazing champion.”

The lopsided win — the biggest here since Steffi Graf beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-0, 6-2, in 1994 — made a mockery of the computer rankings, where on Monday Sharapova will return to No. 1 and Williams will have leaped 67 places to No. 14.

“It was a little déjà vu from the days when she used to rip through players,” said Mark Hlawaty, Williams’ hitting partner during the two-week tournament. “Maybe that’s a sign of what might happen in the next few months or the rest of the year.”