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Love-Struck Serena Has Heart in Tennis Again

Serena Williams is in a good place right now, and we’re not talking about the final of the WTA Championships.

She’s in love, and unafraid to profess it to the world. It’s right there on her T-shirt.

“I Love Me,” it read, the letters and red heart symbol clearly visible behind her zipped-down pink sweatsuit jacket.

“I love everything about me,” she said when asked to elaborate on the T-shirt’s message. “I love my legs, I love my eyes, I love my lips, I love my arms.... I think it’s important for everyone to love themselves.”

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And if happiness can indeed lead to better results, then this could be one instance when love can buy you money. She’s one match away from the championships’ $1-million prize, a payout that would almost double her tour earnings this season. (Life must be good for Williams if an off-year already has netted her $1.3 million.)

Who wouldn’t have loved to be the victor Sunday in her gripping semifinal match against Amelie Mauresmo? Williams dropped the first set and fell behind, 3-1, in the second before surging back to defeat Mauresmo, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

Almost as significant as what she accomplished was what she didn’t do.

Noticeably missing was the woe-is-me look she often displays whenever her game falls apart. You know, the racket-drops, the slumped shoulders, the pained expressions.

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She had ample opportunity for that Sunday, when she made 43 unforced errors and misfired on almost half of her first serves. But she never got too down on herself.

“What was key is I was really relaxed,” Williams said. “I felt as if, whatever happened, I was just really calm. I think in a different situation I am usually really tense, and I am really like fighting and screaming. I was really relaxed today. I didn’t really feel as if I was going to lose.”

So she fought through all the ups and downs of the dramatic, 13-deuce eighth game of the third set, didn’t yield on the five break points she faced. When she prevailed, she had a 5-3 lead and two games later was serving for the match.

“Use your hotness,” a fan implored.

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He must have seen those photos of Williams wearing a see-through dress to a premiere in London. Thing is, if Williams is going to dominate the tennis tour again she can’t worry about being a sex symbol or actress or fashion trend-setter.

She said she was “going to totally dedicate my life to tennis” and that she can’t wait to get to Australia in January for the start of the next season.

Williams certainly was in business mode Sunday.

“A bit unprofessional,” she scolded when some loud squawking over a walkie-talkie interrupted her news conference. “Even I have my phone on silent.”

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For Williams to give up even five minutes without her cellphone constitutes a big sacrifice, so she’s showing some commitment.

Can she keep it up? She’s 23, which is approaching middle age in tennis years. Her body has shown signs of breaking down, starting with the knee injury that required surgery last year. She’s won only two events on the WTA Tour this year. She was reaching for her leg at times Sunday, and said that after all of those serves in the marathon eighth game her arm was “shot.”

But women’s tennis is the only place that gives athletes a chance to write their grand comeback story before they’re 30.

Take Lindsay Davenport. At the ripe old age of 28 she’s having her renaissance, bouncing back from retirement talk a year ago to end this season as the tour’s top-ranked player, thanks in part to Williams’ knocking off Mauresmo.

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“It kind of motivates me,” Williams said of Davenport’s resurgence. “Because I know she had a big knee injury as well.”

It’s not the No. 1 ranking she covets.

“More than anything, I’m looking at Slams,” Williams said.

Five Grand Slam events have passed on the circuit since Williams held the Venus Rosewater dish above her head at Wimbledon in 2003. Since then Williams missed two Grand Slam events while recovering from knee surgery, lost in the quarterfinals at the French and U.S. Opens this year and lost in the Wimbledon final to Maria Sharapova, her opponent in tonight’s final.

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Tennis needs Williams and her sister Venus to do well just the same. This year’s U.S. Open final between Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva drew less than half of the 5.2 television rating for the final between the Williams sisters in 2002.

This tournament sure needs Williams. Sharapova might have been the model for the promotions, but Williams had the most support from the crowd Sunday.

The first 5,000 fans got oversized tennis balls. The key word being first 5,000, instead of all 5,000. They actually pulled 9,000 into Staples Center for the event Sunday, and they couldn’t have asked for a better matchup to sell tickets for the final.

Serena versus Sharapova. We know at least one person loves it.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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