Serena becomes the 'Rocky' of the women's game

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Serena Williams said it was like a scene from a movie. The day after losing to Sybille Bammer, the world No 56, in Hobart three weeks ago she was in tears and had locked herself in her hotel room. Her mother, Oracene, was in another room trying to phone her and send her e-mails.

"She was saying things like: 'Where are you?' 'I need to talk to you.' 'You need to go work out.' 'It's OK, don't be upset.' She literally sent 10 or more e-mails," Serena said. "Then I ran to a local park. I didn't know where I was running. I was just running to get in shape and stay fit. I was running and running. I was so mad because I was thinking: 'I'm never going to win another title again. I can't even win a tier IV event.' It was just awful.

"It was just like a scene from Rocky. I saw some steps and I ran up them to do some exercises. I was doing sprints and shuttle drills that my physio had me doing in Florida. I was doing it all by myself. I was sweating and running. I was just so mad that I had lost."

In the best Hollywood traditions, the hard work paid off as Williams completed one of the great comebacks in tennis history here on Saturday. Two years after her last victory in any tournament, the 25-year-old American won her third Australian Open crown and her eighth Grand Slam title when she beat Maria Sharapova, the No 1 seed, 6-1, 6-2 in the final in Rod Laver Arena.

At No 81 in the world, having played only five tournaments in the preceding 16 months, Williams became the lowest ranked woman to win a Grand Slam singles trophy for 29 years. When the updated rankings are announced today she will have climbed to No 14.

Although Williams was troubled by a knee injury last year, the question marks over her future were mental as well as physical. Was she still committed to her sport? The hard road back began when her father, Richard, arranged for her to return to Nick Bollettieri's training camp in Florida, where she used to prepare for Grand Slams.

Speaking here on Saturday night after her victory, Williams recalled struggling to breathe during one training session at Bradenton, having been ill the day before. "I said: 'Nick, I've been running stadiums, I've been doing stairs, I've been working out, I've been running miles.' I was so frustrated and I was in tears. Nick said: 'Serena, don't worry about it. It's going to come.' That was awesome.

"I remember another time when I did a five-kilometre run. Afterwards Nick said in his rasping voice: 'Serena, it's going to happen.' It's little things like that I remember. OK, I didn't go on to win the US Open last year, but I stayed focused, kept working, kept running those stairs and those miles."

Until her victory here the cynics still doubted her desire. Williams said that what had hurt most were the suggestions that she was unfit and overweight, particularly as she says she is the same size and weight as five years ago.

"I felt I was really fit," she said. "Because I'm larger in some areas than other girls and don't have a flat chest and a flat ass, people said I wasn't fit. But I was looking in the mirror today and I said to myself: 'Am I fit or what?' My waist is 28 inches.

"I went three sets with Shahar Peer and Nadia Petrova here and the next day I practised at seven in the morning. I wasn't tired at all. I was ready for the whole tournament. I was never not ready, even though I feel I could be better."

That final thought is an alarming one for the other leading women. Sharapova, who will be the new world No 1 in today's updated rankings, was blasted off court by a brutal barrage of attacking strokes from Williams. Unable to win the punch-for-punch battle, the 19-year-old Russian had no Plan B to call upon.

Williams said she would not play as many tournaments this year as most of the other players but would be "serious about each and every one" that she does enter. She plays in Bangalore and Dubai next month and said she was keen for the clay court season to start.

"What makes this awesome is the fact that you could go that low, lose faith, lose hope, lose everything and then come back," she said. "It's definitely been tough. I think I've been at the bottom of the barrel." Asked how she would have written her own report of her victory here, Williams replied: "Serena Williams - yeah, she's back. And this time to stay."