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Serena Proves She’s a Gamer

Times Staff Writer

Certainly, there have been bigger games in Serena Williams’ career. Many, in fact, along the way to six Grand Slam singles titles.

But post-knee surgery is different, and a new entry appeared Sunday. It was the eighth game of the third set, with Williams serving to Amelie Mauresmo of France.

It was a miniseries folded into a tennis match. You could have left, stood in line for refreshments for 15 minutes and still not missed the end of the game. Williams navigated through 13 deuces, fighting off five break points. The crowd of 9,022 at Staples Center gave the players a prolonged ovation with several twists and turns of dramatic shot-making to come.

Finally, Williams won the marathon game after Mauresmo netted a forehand volley. That gave Williams a 5-3 lead in the third set and she went on to defeat Mauresmo, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, in the semifinals of the WTA Championships in 2 hours 33 minutes.

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The loss cost Mauresmo a shot at the year-end No. 1 ranking, meaning Lindsay Davenport secured that distinction for the third time in her career. Davenport said Sunday that it was “quite an accomplishment” to do it at age 28.

Tonight’s season-ending finale will feature a rematch of the Wimbledon final between Williams and 17-year-old Maria Sharapova. In the second semifinal Sunday, Sharapova defeated fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.

For Williams, $1 million is on the line, as well as the chance to recover face after losing, 6-1, 6-4, to Sharapova at Wimbledon. As far as Williams was concerned, there was an impostor portraying her at the All England Club in July. She often says as much after unacceptable losses.

“Actually I don’t believe I played the Wimbledon final. I don’t know who it was,” said Williams, tongue planted in cheek. “But I wasn’t at Wimbledon this year.”

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Said Sharapova, smiling: “She might not have been in reality. So I don’t know.”

This has been another breakthrough tournament for Sharapova, who defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova and Myskina for the first time. Myskina had been 3-0 against Sharapova, including a straight-set victory this summer at San Diego after Wimbledon. That loss left Sharapova teary-eyed.

There had been some controversy between them in San Diego, sparked when Myskina and some of the other Russians asserted that Sharapova seemed more American than Russian. Sunday was not controversy-free, either. In the third set, Sharapova was assessed a code violation for receiving coaching.

“He always coaches her,” Myskina said of Sharapova’s father, Yuri.

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Said Sharapova: “It doesn’t matter what the coach says. You still have to go out and you have to win.

“I’ve said this before. I always play by instinct. And I always do the opposite of what people tell me to do.”

Myskina said she believed Williams would have a better chance of winning tonight, especially if she maintained the level she displayed in the semifinals.

“That was great, great tennis, the first match,” Myskina said. “She played unbelievable.”

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This may be one of those crucial moments in Williams’ career. She saved all 12 break points she faced in the third set, and displayed the mental toughness and grit that marked her dominant run before last year’s knee surgery. She also adapted well when Mauresmo started coming to the net in the third set. Williams has lost once to Mauresmo in nine matches.

“I give all the credit to her today because I was playing some good tennis and I think she really raised her level a lot today,” said Mauresmo, who won only three of 17 break-point opportunities overall. “So all the credit to her.”

Said Williams, who had 11 aces and 53 winners: “I am really excited about myself. I’m going to be a force to be reckoned with next year. The little work I’ve been able to do has moved mountains for me.

“Next year, in January, I can’t wait to get to Australia. I have nothing to lose. And I feel as if I’m going to really dedicate my life to tennis.”

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