Ever since she emerged with her sister, Venus, from a troubled suburb of Los Angeles to become a major figure on the world's tennis stage, Serena Williams has spent her professional lifetime defying the odds.
Yesterday the 25-year-old American pulled off one of her greatest feats yet when she moved to within one match of winning the Australian Open. Having dropped to No 81 in the world after her career had gone into what seemed a terminal decline, she will become the lowest ranked woman to win a Grand Slam tournament for 29 years if she beats Maria Sharapova here in tomorrow's final.
Winning major championships is nothing new to Williams, who became the world No 1 five years ago and won seven Grand Slam crowns between 1999 and 2005. However, she has not won a title of any description since her second triumph at Melbourne Park two years ago and arrived here last week having played only five tournaments in the previous 16 months. Injuries and an apparent lack of commitment had seemed to indicate that her days were numbered.
Over the last 10 days, however, she has been a player reborn. Her 7-6, 6-4 victory over Nicole Vaidisova, the world No 12, in yesterday's semi-finals followed wins over four other higher-ranked players, Nadia Petrova (world No 6), Jelena Jankovic (11), Shahar Peer (17) and Mara Santangelo (32).
Williams' game has improved with every match and her serve, in particular, has become an awesome weapon. Although she clearly remains short of peak condition, her competitive spirit and self-belief have made up for any physical shortcomings.
"I love doubters," she said. "I have a lot of people even close to me who doubt. I love proving people wrong. Ever since I was young, even when I came on tour, it was 'Venus, Venus, Venus, Venus... oh and the little sister.' My whole goal in life was just to prove people wrong."
She added: "I've always been mentally strong, probably mentally stronger than a lot of players on the tour. I think for me tennis has always been 80 per cent mental. I've believed in myself more than anyone."
Williams' complaints about the "negativity" of the media towards her will probably redouble after she was asked about television pictures that appeared to show a man among her entourage attempting to dazzle Vaidisova with the reflection of the sun from his watch. Williams described it as "the most outrageous thing I've ever heard".
Vaidisova said she had not noticed anything and Tennis Australia said it had received no complaints and would not be investigating.
A 17-year-old Czech who is one of the game's brightest prospects, Vaidisova never got back into contention after losing the first set tie-break, although she showed some spirit towards the end, fighting back from 5-1 down and saving five match points.
While she has a ferocious forehand and a decent backhand, Vaidisova is a one-dimensional player who likes to stay on the baseline. With Williams happy to fight fire with fire from the back of the court, it was not a pretty match.
The meeting with Sharapova will be their second in Grand Slam events. Three years ago, at the age of 17, Sharapova became the lowest ranked player in the Open era to win Wimbledon when, as the No 13 seed, she beat Williams in the final. Two years ago the American turned the tables in the semi-finals here after Sharapova had twice served for the match and had three match points.
Sharapova, who will become the world No 1 again when the new ranking list is announced next week, earned her place in her second successive Grand Slam final when she beat a below-par Kim Clijsters 6-4, 6-2.
The Belgian, playing in her last tournament here after deciding to retire at the end of this year, led 3-1 in the first set but made too many errors to trouble the US Open champion, whose play has been scratchy over the last fortnight but who regarded this as her best tennis of the tournament.Reuse content