New heights for Serena Williams

PARIS -- Perhaps the secret to winning the French Open is embracing all things French -- except, of course, smoking cigarette after cigarette in a café and sending the fumes directly across your neighbors' table.

Serena Williams, who will play Maria Sharapova on Saturday for what would be her first French title since 2002, certainly has embraced as much of the French life as possible. She owns an apartment in Paris (it must be nice to have nearly $50 million in career prize money) and has learned to speak French well enough to hold televised conversations in front of more than 10,000 attuned fans. She took a painting class before this tournament opened. "I can paint sky really, really well," she said. "And I can paint grass really well, too."

Most important, though, Williams started working with a French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who has helped improve her focus, movement, balance and overall game.

"I think he's been a very calming influence on her," Fed Cup coach Mary Joe Fernandez said. "His demeanor is just very down to earth. She has said how she gets anxious sometimes and has to tell herself to relax at times. I think she's much more calm when she plays now.''

A little calmer, perhaps, not that her opponents have had time to notice. After getting embarrassed by a first-round departure from Roland Garros last year, Williams has been as precisely focused as a paparazzo's 400mm lens on Kate Middleton.

"I've spent a lot of time with her during the Fed Cup and the Olympics," Fernandez said. "She is so motivated now. She studies her opponents a little more now and is more into strategy and cares more about all the aspects of the game. That contributes to her motivation and how well she's doing."

Williams said Mouratoglou has helped with her focus and with "taking everything really seriously. And just working on a lot of things off court just to improve my balance, movement, everything else on court."

Fernandez said Williams' game at age 31 is like that of an ace pitcher who has begun to offset a slightly diminishing fastball by working on other aspects of the game.

"I think for a long time Serena really believed that her best was better than anybody's, so she didn't have to worry about anybody else," Fernandez said. "But as you get older, you start to look at what kind of an advantage you can get here and there. Andre Agassi did it, as well, in his 30s, and it paid off, and it's paying off for Serena. She's eager. She's determined. There is no sign of her slowing down any time soon."

She certainly showed no signs of it in her semifinal destruction of Sara Errani, crushing the world's No. 5-ranked player 6-0, 6-1 in just 46 minutes.

"If she plays like that, she'll win the title,'' Chris Evert said. "That's the question. If she brings out that Serena, she'll win the tournament. I think she's focused and ready to go.''

Evert called Thursday's match the finest performance she has seen from a woman on clay. In fact, it might have been the finest clay-based performance outside Rafael Nadal or Rodin.

Serena said she surprised even herself with her movement and with the way she went to the net Thursday.

"That's one of the areas they've worked on a lot," Fernandez said of Williams' movement and balance. "Not just her footwork but her court positioning, too. For someone who is very aggressive and powerful, Serena actually waits for the ball quite a bit. She doesn't try to move up on the player and take little steps to move forward. But I think, especially on the clay, her balance is much better now. She's not as unstable as we might have seen in the past. I think she finishes her shots better, she recovers better and she's defending better. When you pulled her out wide in the past, she would have trouble getting back. Now she's extending a lot of points because of it.

"Everything in her game is so good since losing here in the first round.''

Serena said that, after embracing so much of the Paris lifestyle, it would be "awesome" to win the title Saturday. "I don't think there's anything that can describe how happy I would be," she said. "But right now it's still a dream. I still have another match to play -- hopefully to win. Two people are still fighting for the championship."

Serena and Sharapova have met 15 times, and Williams has won 13 of those matches, including the past 12. This is not a stat that inspires confidence when trying to beat the No. 1-ranked player in the world (who hasn't lost in 30 matches). Even if you are ranked No. 2.

"If I was thinking about it, that wouldn't be a great mindset to go into that match like that," Sharapova said. "But, yeah, despite that record and despite me being unsuccessful against her, I believe that I'm happy to be setting up chances to be going out and facing her, someone that's been playing and dominating tennis for almost a year now. You know, her success has been incredible.

"But going into a French Open final, that doesn't matter. It all starts from zero. You've got to play until the last point, and, you know, believe in yourself."

Sharapova said she had few plans for Friday's day off other than to get some work done on her right shoulder, on which she underwent career-threatening surgery five years ago. That's important because she'll need her best serve to have any chance against Williams.

Although perhaps she should embrace the French lifestyle by trying to cook up a really excellent beef bourguignon, or at least a nice flaky, buttery croissant.