Serena holds off Vaidisova; Sharapova tops Clijsters

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Unseeded and ranked No. 81 after an injury-plagued 2006, Serena Williams made it back to a Grand Slam final with a 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over Nicole Vaidisova at the Australian Open.

Standing in the way of an eighth Grand Slam title -- she already
has two here -- is top-seeded Maria Sharapova. Sharapova turned her
semifinal against No. 4 Kim Clijsters into an Australian farewell
match for the 23-year-old Belgian, who is retiring at the end of
the year, with a 6-4, 6-2 victory.

Williams and Sharapova have split four previous matchups.
Williams won their last encounter after saving match points in the
semifinals here two years ago before going on to win the title.

Ranked No. 81 coming into the tournament after dropping out of
the top 100 last year while dealing with a bad knee, Williams
guaranteed herself a return to the top 20.

"I can't believe it," the former world No. 1 said. "That's
awesome. I'm like a chameleon. I can kind of change and get my game
going to whatever the situation is. If I play well, which I don't
think I've even reached yet at all in this tournament ... it's
really hard for anyone on the women's tour to beat me."

Sharapova certainly isn't taking Williams lightly.

"I'm going to be playing against a player that didn't really
expect too much coming into this tournament," she said. "She's
playing some really good tennis. I think she has nothing to lose
going into the match. Those are always dangerous opponents."

Williams sprinted ahead 4-0 in the tiebreaker, then
doubled-faulted on consecutive points as Vaidisova rallied to tie
it at 5. Grunting louder with each shot, Williams whacked a
backhand cross-court winner to get a set point, then growled loudly
when Vaidisova hit a forehand into the net.

Williams ran off four straight games to pull ahead 5-1 in the
second set. A quick finish seemed certain.

Then came the comeback that fell just short.

Vaidisova broke Williams as she served for the match to pull
within 3-5, then fell behind 0-40 for triple match point in the
next game. The Czech fought back to deuce, fended off another match
point, then held to a thunderous ovation.

"I almost did a gagarooney there," said Williams, explaining:
"Basically, you know, gagging."

Serving again to finish it off, Williams had match point No. 5
at 40-30, only to see Vaidisova whip a backhand cross-court winner.
Williams thought the ball was out and started to celebrate, then
clearly wanted to question the no-call but had no challenges left
after using up her allotment earlier.

Her 10th ace of the match, on a second serve, set up match point
No. 6, and Williams finally converted this one, throwing her hands
in the air and leaning back to look at the sky.

"She's definitely a great champ," Vaidisova said. "She played
the tight points very well. I had my opportunities. I didn't use
them. That was the big difference. I was trying to go for a winner
or easy shot too early."

Sharapova, last year's U.S. Open champion, wasn't at the top of
her game either, committing eight double-faults, missing badly on a
number of easy putaways and finishing with six more unforced errors
(33) than winners (27). But she was at her best under pressure,
fending off seven break points in the second set.

"I felt like I played a much better match all around today,"
Sharapova said. "Couldn't quite get the serve and return together
in the beginning. But overall I was really focused. I did the right
things at the right time. I was patient when I had to be patient,
played a smart game."

It helped that the normally solid Clijsters was even more
inconsistent, and her worst errors came at the worst times as she
squandered opportunity after opportunity. She frequently forced
Sharapova to hit two or three good shots to win a point, but had
only two winners of her own in the last set.

Clijsters got two standing ovations as she said goodbye to Rod
Laver Arena after the loss.

"I have so many great memories from here," she said. "I'm
going to come back tomorrow and take my time to say goodbye to
everybody, just get everybody's e-mail address, number."