Serena Enjoys Great Escape

Times Staff Writer

Conventional wisdom insisted that only another member of her household, a certain older sister with four Grand Slam titles of her own, could possibly stop Serena Williams from winning four consecutive Slams.

That myth was shaken, but not shattered, on a sunny day today by a hard-hitting 19-year-old from Belgium with an impeccable athletic pedigree. The top-seeded Williams survived two match points and a 5-1 third-set deficit, defeating fourth-seeded Kim Clijsters, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, in 2 hours 13 minutes.

"I honestly don't know how I was able to win," Williams said. "I just said, 'OK, Serena, I really have nothing to lose.' I really didn't expect to win at that point. I just wanted to keep fighting, one point at a time, and the next thing I know, the match is over."

And so, the bid for a Serena Slam -- four straight Grand Slam singles titles, though not in the same calendar year -- has one match to go. It nearly unraveled in a sea of unforced errors, as Williams lacked conviction and eventually lost confidence on her forehand side before the incredible rally.

Heading into the Clijsters match, Williams carried a 26-match Grand Slam winning streak, which started at the French Open last year. This included three consecutive victories against her older sister Venus in Slam finals.

Her comeback means another Williams-Williams final in a Grand Slam. It is the first Australian Open final for either sister.

Earlier, second-seeded Venus did her part, defeating fifth-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, 6-3, 6-3, serving seven aces. Henin-Hardenne, who reached the semifinals here for the first time, put in a somewhat erratic performance, double faulting eight times.

The first semifinal was not as close as the score indicated. This will be the fourth consecutive Slam final for Venus, who had never gone past the semifinals here before.

"She just came on the court to win the match," Henin-Hardenne said. "And she played a good match, especially on the return because she didn't give me a lot of points. I didn't put enough pressure on her."

Said Venus: "Four in a row is real nice. So at least I'm always in the position to be the victor. Hopefully this time it will be different than the last three."

It had been expected Clijsters could push Serena because she beat her in the WTA Championships in November.

The decisive set today had its moments of high drama. Down a service break and trailing, 2-1, Williams took an extended injury timeout, needing treatment for blisters on her foot and toe. Clijsters, unfazed by the break, promptly ran off three straight games for a 5-1 lead.

Clijsters served for the match at 5-2 and had two match points, dropping the first with a backhand in the net and losing the second when Williams hit an excellent forehand volley. The tension only increased when Williams held serve to pull to 5-4.

Then the nerves hit Clijsters in a big way when she again served for the match. Clijsters double-faulted back-to-back, falling behind, 30-, and the pro-Clijsters crowd grew silent as she seemed beset by anxiety.

Williams pulled even at 5-5, breaking serve at 30 when Clijsters hit a backhand long, and moved into the lead, 6-5, holding her serve at 30. A shattered Clijsters went down meekly in the final game, dropping her serve at love.

Williams was asked if this was her greatest comeback.

"I know this might sound crazy, but no," said Williams, who had 65 unforced errors. "I was down worse one time. I lost the first set 6-1 to Lindsay Davenport and I was down 2-5, 15-40. I was able to come back and win that match.

"I've had some tough fights and comebacks.... I kept fighting [today]."

Clijsters claimed that nerves did not get the best of her in the third. But she does have a history of blowing big leads against Williams. At the 1999 U.S. Open, Clijsters had a 5-3 lead against Serena in the third set in the third round and lost and at the Indian Wells final in 2001, she had a point for a 6-4, 5-3 lead and lost in three.

"I don't know," Clijsters said when asked about the 5-4 game. "I was feeling pretty good, even that game. That's the only thing I regret is those two double faults. I think she just started playing so much more aggressively and hardly made any more unforced errors.

"If she plays her best tennis, it's very hard to beat her."



Sister Slam

Serena Williams will try to win her fourth consecutive Grand Slam event when she faces sister Venus in the final Saturday. She has beaten Venus in the last three Grand Slam finals. A look:

*--* 2002 FRENCH OPEN


Serena defeats Venus, 7-5, 6-3. The showing gives the sisters the No. 1 (Venus) and No. 2 (Serena) rankings in the world, a first for siblings.

*--* 2002 WIMBLEDON


Serena defeats Venus, 7-6 (4), 6-3, to win her third Grand Slam title and first Wimbledon.

*--* 2002 U.S. OPEN


Serena defeats Venus for the fourth time in a row and evens their series at 5-5 with a 6-4, 6-3 win.

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