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A Rocky Road, but She Made It

Times Staff Writer

The spoils of victory -- in this case, ice cream -- were being consumed, and Serena Williams was barely into it when she took on the question with her customary directness.

“I think it means so much because I feel kind of relieved because now I have all of you guys off my back about winning another Slam,” she said in an interview with a handful of reporters in the media dining room at Melbourne Park.

But did this buy her only a temporary injunction from media scrutiny and criticism? Will the grace period last just a few months, until the next two Slams in Paris and London?

Post-Slam evaluation is a tricky thing. Two years ago, Williams completed the Serena Slam in Melbourne -- having won four consecutive majors -- and there was growing talk of a calendar-year Slam in her immediate future.

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Instead, she would falter at the French Open in 2003 and win Wimbledon a few weeks later. She would not take another Slam for 18 months, finally breaking through Saturday at the Australian Open against a collapsing Lindsay Davenport. The seventh-seeded Williams beat the top-seeded Davenport, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, winning the final nine games.

Instead of dynasty resumed, could this be another Monica Seles-type story? Seles, off the tour for more than two years following her stabbing, returned in 1995 and won the Australian Open in 1996. She has not won another Grand Slam since and reached only one final, the 1998 French Open.

The likes of Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis and Venus and Serena Williams prevented Seles from reaching her previous dominance.

Now, Williams will have to deal with this tennis gener- ation: fast-improving Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova and the other Russians, as well as three-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium and countrywoman Kim Clijsters. Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, who played in the final here last year, were not in Melbourne but could return to the tour later this winter.

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Sharapova appears to be the biggest threat. Williams saved three match points against her in their compelling semifinal, winning, 8-6, in the third set. That was the standout match of what had been a terrific Slam for the women -- both semifinals went three sets, as did three of the four quarterfinals.

Williams hit winners on two of Sharapova’s three match points, but the 17-year-old Russian barely missed hitting a first-serve ace on one of them. In saving the match points, Williams became the second woman to come back from match points down to win two Slams, having done so two years ago in the semifinals here.

“I’m thinking, ‘How did I go through this? Why was I so calm?’ ” Williams said of living on the edge in the Sharapova match. “Hopefully I won’t be doing that anymore.”

The other woman to do so was Margaret Osborne duPont, who did it at the 1946 French Open and two years later at the U.S. Open.

“When I’m on the court it’s kind of like my life depends on it -- I really don’t want to go down. I really don’t want to lose this match and I just click into this different zone,” Williams said. “I think again it kind of goes back to my having to be a perfectionist. I have to be able to achieve.”

With her seventh Grand Slam singles title, Williams tied Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, who won four of hers at the Australian Open. Williams has lost twice in nine Slam finals, to older sister Venus at the U.S. Open in 2001 and to Sharapova at Wimbledon last year.

“This means a lot because I’m at seven now,” Williams said. “I feel OK. I just won a Grand Slam. Winning a Grand Slam gives one an unexplainable amount of confidence.”

For her, the Slams are like dessert. The hard hours of practice, of course, are not. Williams joked about the sameness of it all, saying: “I feel like Bill Murray.” That’s fine. Just as long the Australian Open continues to be Groundhog Day for her.

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It’s All About U.S.

All-American Australian Open women’s finals:

*--* * 2005 Serena Williams def. Lindsay Davenport 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 * 2003 Serena Williams def. Venus Williams 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 * 1985 Martina Navratilova def. Chris Evert 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 * 1983 Martina Navratilova def. Kathy Jordan 6-2, 7-6 (5) * 1982 Chris Evert def. Martina Navratilova 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 * 1981 Martina Navratilova def. Chris Evert 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 * 1979 Barbara Jordan def. Sharon Walsh 6-3, 6-3 * 1957 Shirley Fry def. Althea Gibson 6-3, 6-4 * 1953 Maureen Connolly def. Julia Sampson 6-3, 6-2 * 1950 Louise Brough def. Doris Hart 6-4, 3-6, 6-4

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Associated Press


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