Serena back in a familiar place

NEW YORK -- Serena Williams has always enjoyed the role of contrarian.

She was the clear-cut favorite to win the season's first three Grand Slam singles titles -- but came up woefully short. Serena lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open (to Ana Ivanovic), the second round of the French Open (Garbine Muguruza) and the third round at Wimbledon (Alize Cornet).

It is not a coincidence that these players were ranked, respectively, Nos. 14, 35 and 24 at the time. But throw, say, Maria Sharapova in front of her, and Serena becomes the leopardess she might have envisioned when designing that fashionable print on a neon-pink dress, contemplating raw meat.

Consider this wide-open US Open one of those darling little gazelles grazing in the Serengeti. And, with one match left, Serena's razor-sharp teeth have already broken its fuzzy skin and ... well, you've seen how nature takes its course on Animal Planet.

The last time we saw her on a Grand Slam court, she was woozy and sending four double faults into the British air. Two months later, Serena again looks unbeatable after thrashing Ekaterina Makarova 6-1, 6-3 in a brutal semifinal match.

And make no mistake, she loves proving people wrong.

Many wondered if she'd show up at the season's final major, but she laid down her best Grand Slam performance of the year Friday. It took all of 60 minutes. In some ways it was more grisly than the awkward semifinal that preceded it when Caroline Wozniacki walked into the Sunday afternoon final after Peng Shuai was forced to retire with the score 7-6 (1), 4-3.

When it was over, Serena's feet got happy, she clenched both fists and screamed as the near capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium stood and cheered.

"Oh, my God, it feels so good," she said in her on-court interview, voice cracking. "You never know. I never thought I'd be here.

"She's such an aggressive player. I was just, 'Serena, just stay focused. Just try to win.'"

In retrospect, Peng Shuai actually gave Wozniacki a better match than Makarova -- playing in her first major semifinal -- gave Serena.

How well is Serena playing, how good is this groove she's in?

Consider that she:

• Has won all 12 of the sets she's played here -- and lost a total of 26 games.

• Won 58 of 91 points against Makarova.

• Hit a serve 121 mph, an offering worthy of Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Her average first-serve speed was 104, the same as Makarova's fastest.

• Allowed Makarova, before she got tight in her final service game, only a single point on her serve in the second set.

Maybe Serena would have taken it easier if Makarova hadn't knocked her out of the doubles tournament. The last time someone beat Serena twice in the same tournament? Martina Hingis, playing doubles with Monica Seles, 14 years ago in Sydney.

Makarova, who was playing her first Grand Slam semifinal, was extremely gracious in defeat.

"Serena, she's a great, unbelievable player," she said. "It's always so tough to play against her. Today she was so aggressive. I don't know. Maybe I didn't think she would be that aggressive. Like she's just coming so early, so sometimes I was too late because she was too fast. I don't know.

"I lost against No.1. She's an unbelievable player and she was just too good today."

And there was more.

"I think she's just born for tennis," Makarova added. "Kind of like Federer, I think."

After that bizarre exit at Wimbledon, Serena went back to work.

She played three tournaments, at Stanford, Montreal and Cincinnati, and won two of them. Serena arrived at this event looking extremely fit, and she's now taken 18 of her 19 summer hard-court matches. And the one loss has an asterisk hanging over to it, since it was to sister Venus in the quarterfinals at Montreal.

"It's definitely given me lot of confidence, to be playing all summer," Serena said.

There is much on the line for Serena. One more major and she'll be even with legends Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert at 18 Grand Slam singles championships. How will Serena handle the final against her good friend, whom she supported so publicly when golfer Rory McIlroy broke up with her earlier this year?

How do you think?

"I think regardless, she wants to win her first major," Serena said. "And I'm going to try to win to make some history. We looked forward to this since the draw came out."

Ah, be careful what you wish for, Caroline. There will be a leopardess on the other side of the court.