Serena storms back at the Sony Open

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- More than two hours before her semifinal match, Serena Williams had already navigated the very brief commute from the nearby Ritz Carlton, and the white Rolls-Royce Ghost was safely parked in the VIP lot (albeit alarmingly close to a palm tree).

Walking to the practice court, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, chatted amiably with Serena's father, Richard. She did not seem terribly concerned about the impending collision with Maria Sharapova. Her fierce powers of concentration, however, were evident as she scraped the last remnants of frozen yogurt from a paper cup.

Meanwhile, Sharapova, wearing black shorts and a T-shirt, was trying to gauge the wind on her service tosses in the massive Sony Open Tennis Center. With fewer than a dozen spectators in the seats, at one point she drilled a dozen straight successful serves into the deuce court. Occasionally her coach, Sven Groeneveld, would fuss with the positioning of her feet.

How do you change your fundamental history, shake off the Sisyphean experience of losing 14 straight matches to the same opponent? What can you possibly do to change the lousy karma that has descended on you for nearly a decade?

Think positive thoughts. There is no choice, really.

And you know what? For a while, it worked. Sharapova actually carved out leads of 4-2 and 2-0, but ultimately she couldn't resist the gravity of the past.

Serena prevailed 6-4, 6-3 and heads into Saturday's final against the winner of Friday evening's semifinal between No. 2 seed Li Na and No. 10 Dominika Cibulkova.

"It was a tough match," said Williams, perhaps bending the truth a bit in her on-court interview. "Maria played really, really well. I just decided I had to do better and hang in there."

It usually comes down to the serve, and this day was no different. Williams had nine aces and only two double faults. Sharapova produced five doubles -- and zero aces.

"I started off really well," Sharapova said later, "and I was up in a lot of the games and didn't win them today. She served her way out of trouble on those in the first set.

"Yeah, I was in it and then I was not."

At the outset, this looked like another Serena steamroll job. She scored four break points in Sharapova's first two service games but oddly, did not convert once. Sharapova converted her third break opportunity with a sweet forehand that Serena couldn't keep in the court. Soon it was 4-1 and Sharapova and her crackling forehand looked, well, unlike anything we've seen in recent years.

But, attacking Sharapova's backhand, Serena broke back and, serving at 3-4, began to look something like herself. By a wide consensus, hers is the greatest women's serve ever, and in this eight-point game, she proved it again. There were back-to-back aces at 117 mph after a love-30 start, then an improbable second-serve ace at 101 mph to erase a break point. Williams finished with a flourish, stroking a 108 mph ace. Technically, the match was level, but very suddenly, it didn't feel that way.

Sharapova, reverting to form, double-faulted to open her 4-all service game. Soon, a tentative backhand into the net had Williams serving for the set. A 122 mph offering to the body -- her fastest of the frame -- was unreturnable.

Naturally, Sharapova broke Williams' first service game of the second set -- and then immediately returned the favor. With Sharapova serving at 3-all, Serena struck again. Sharapova was already down love-30 when she revealed her tentative state of mind by challenging a first serve that was called out. The replay confirmed the call and Serena teed off on a second serve, inducing Sharapova to hit a weak backhand into the net.

At the end, facing yet another break point, Sharapova hit another feeble forehand into the net and Serena had her fifth break of serve -- and the match.

Williams has now beaten Sharapova an astounding 16 times overall, more than any other professional opponent.

"That's why she's No. 1 in the world," Sharapova said. "That's why she's won so many Grand Slams as she has because she's able to ... it can be an hour, can be three hours, and there is no proof that you're going to hold your concentration or your focus for a long period of time. There are always going to be drops.

"But she's the player that is most capable of coming back from that or regaining focus and regaining that concentration as someone that's ultimately going to do better."

You couldn't help but wonder what Sharapova, who offered a quick wave to the crowd, was thinking as she strode quickly from the court.

"Despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces," Sharapova said, seeming to mean it. "You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on, because someone like her who is so powerful and explosive and is in there every point, that teaches you to make sure that you're in there every point."

The funny thing? They are in so many ways the same woman, but their origins could not be more different.

Sharapova, born in Siberia, Russia, was exported to Bradenton, Fla., at the age of 9 and attended the prestigious tennis academy of Nick Bollettieri. Williams learned the game on the public courts of Compton, Calif.

They both bought into their fathers' feverish dreams for them and worked toward greatness with uncommon diligence. Today, they are among the very best of their profession and two of the most successful female athletes of their generation. For all of the distance between their upbringings, in geography and culture, they now live about a three-hour drive apart in this state.

Sharapova won two of their first three matches, including the 2004 Wimbledon tournament, at the precocious age of 17. And then, for the next decade, Serena won each of their 14 meetings. And then it changed.

Possibly forever.