Serena to play Davenport in final

Updated: January 27, 2005, 3:17 AM ET news services

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams finally beat Maria Sharapova in a big match, saving three match points and defeating the Wimbledon champion 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 Thursday in the Australian Open semifinals.

The seventh-seeded Williams, seeking her seventh Grand Slam title, will face top-ranked Lindsay Davenport in an all-American final Saturday. Davenport rallied to beat 19th-seeded Nathalie Dechy of France 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the second semifinal.

"I have to stay focused," said Williams, the 2003 Australian Open winner who skipped the tournament last year because of a knee injury. "I'm back in a final. It's been such a tough 12 months for me."

Sharapova, an upset winner over Williams last year in the Wimbledon final and season-ending WTA championship, served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and again at 5-4 in the third.

"I played from my heart. I didn't take my chances. That's what this game is all about," Sharapova said. "The match could have gone either way. She took her chances when she had to and that's the difference. That's why she won."

The third set lasted 66 minutes, and the crowd in the packed Rod Laver Arena cheered and groaned on every point, seemingly not wanting the drama to end.

"I think it definitely lived up to expectations," Williams said. "It was a lot of fun ... I can't believe it's over, I feel like I should still be playing."

After twice trading breaks earlier in the set and saving match points with a string of blistering forehands, Williams saved three break points before holding in the 13th game, setting up game point with a serve-and-volley approach.

She dropped to her knees and punched the air repeatedly when she set up two match points of her own with a winner in the next game.

After finishing off the 2-hour, 39-minute match with a backhand, Williams leaped all the way to the net.

In 2003, Williams saved two match points in a semifinal against Kim Clijsters before reaching the final and beating older sister Venus.

"Two times in a row back from match point down ... this is such a special court for me," Williams said after winning her 13th consecutive match at Melbourne Park.

Williams blamed her Wimbledon loss on nerves because she was coming back from a long time off the circuit because of injuries. But she was tight from the beginning Thursday, spraying shots into the net, long and wide. She had 13 unforced errors in the first five games alone against the young Russian.

Williams couldn't seem to believe her inaccuracy, testing her swing after mistakes, shaking her head and even laughing.

Sharapova needed only four winners in the first set, earning two service breaks as she blunted most of Williams' power and then only needed to keep the ball in play.

In the first game of the second set, a ballboy bounced a ball at Williams and she smacked it into the stands in pure frustration after losing a point to let Sharapova back to 30-all.

Williams started to match Sharapova's squeals with her own grunts on the big shots.

After putting away a leaping overhead winner to close the third game of the second set, Williams pumped her arm and yelled "Yes! Come On!" from between clenched teeth.

She hit a 124-mph serve -- the fastest by a woman in the tournament -- to hold after saving a break point with another powerful overhead in the seventh game. And again she grunted "Yes!"

Williams broke Sharapova's serve in the 11th game of the second set and held to even the match at one set apiece.

Williams looked fitter in the deciding set as Sharapova, who had a tough, three-set victory against compatriot and U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, struggled again in the heat.

"There's nothing negative -- I'm 17 years old and I've made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open," Sharapova said. "This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Of course I'm sad, it's a tough one to lose. But I've got a long way ahead of me."

Top-ranked Roger Federer faced No. 4 Marat Safin on Thursday night for a place in Sunday's men's final. Federer beat Safin in the 2004 final.

Andy Roddick was leading 6-3, 7-5, 4-1 when Nikolay Davydenko retired from their quarterfinal after just 1:35 Wednesday because he was having trouble breathing.

That was less time than Roddick's semifinal opponent, Lleyton Hewitt, needed for the fifth set alone before getting past Argentina's David Nalbandian 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 3-6, 10-8 in 4:05.

Hewitt's marathon win ensured the top four seeded men made the semifinals in the Australian Open for the first time since 1988, and at any Grand Slam tournament for the first time since Wimbledon in 1995.

The Roddick-Hewitt semifinal is Friday night (ESPN2, 3:30 a.m. ET).