- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
- 0 Shares
When Serena Williams stepped onto the court for her first-round match at the Australian Open, she was visibly overweight and seemingly unprepared.
Expectations had hit a low point, and rightfully so, for a player who dominated the women's circuit not so long ago. The effects of a chronic knee injury limited Williams to only 16 matches in 2006. Her world ranking plummeted to No. 140, her lowest since 1997. And for the first time in six years, she failed to reach a Grand Slam final.
That's all a moot point now.
Fast forward two weeks and six matches later, and the seven-time Grand Slam champion finds herself in a familiar position: center court on the last day of competition.
Tonight, as the 81st-ranked player in the world, she will step into Rod Laver Arena, where top-seeded Maria Sharapova is the lone player looming in her path toward another major title. And once again, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the odds are stacked against her.
Williams is the third-lowest-ranked Grand Slam finalist in the Open era. Additionally, only one player -- Chris O'Neill in 1978 -- has ever won a major final unseeded.
"Well, I don't have anything to lose. That's always fun. I've had a lot of comebacks in this tournament. I went from rock bottom to, 'Hey, there she is again,'" Williams told reporters after her semifinal win over Nicole Vaidisova on Thursday.
Sharapova and Williams will meet for the first time since their epic semifinal encounter in 2005, also at the Australian Open. Sharapova served twice for the match, but couldn't get the job done. Williams staved off three match points and advanced to the final.
She won the championship that year over top-seeded Lindsay Davenport, and as it currently stands, it's the last title she won.
Considering Williams' two-year drought and her current ranking, her run in Melbourne has been astonishing, if not perplexing. Consequently, Williams had far more obstacles to overcome in this year's draw than what she's accustomed to. She has defeated seeded players in five of her six matches en route to the final. In the third round, Williams came back from being a set down to knock off fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova. She followed that up with a routine win over No. 11 Jelena Jankovic. In the quarterfinals, she was able to squeak by 16th-seeded Shahar Peer with an 8-6 decision in the third set, and finally in the semifinals she fended off the up-and-coming Vaidisova, the No. 10 seed.
Said Williams after her semifinal win, "this rates really high in my list of achievements, especially with my ranking. I think this is the lowest I've been ranked getting into a Grand Slam final. I think more than anything, that's really exciting. I just love the competition and love the game."
So, now, incumbent world No. 1 Sharapova hopes to snap Williams' run. The Russian is riding a career-best 13-match Grand Slam win streak, which includes the U.S. Open title in September.
Regardless of the outcome, Sharapova will again take over as the top-ranked player after the tournament, a feat she achieved for the first and only time in August 2005.
Despite this accomplishment, Sharapova is fully aware of what's at stake. Taking Williams lightly because of perceptions she is unfit is a recipe for disaster.
"It's about taking the chances when you have them, especially against an experienced player like her. If you let too many get away, the more you're going to let the match slip away," Sharapova said.
Also disconcerting for Sharapova is the realization that her opponent hasn't yet hit her stride. Throughout the two weeks, Williams has moved more fluidly and as a result has performed with increased confidence. In her semifinal match, Williams played perhaps her cleanest tennis of the tournament, committing just 15 unforced errors. She was enthusiastic afterward.
"I definitely haven't peaked. Like I always say, I got to wait till I get to the finals to peak, hopefully," she said. "Hopefully that's what I'm doing."
The road back for Williams looked long and arduous heading into this year's first major, but that only fueled her determination. She has proven, if anything, her mental toughness and sheer desire go a long way.
"I love doubters," she said. "You know, I have a lot of people even close to me who doubt. I love doubters. More than anything, what I love, besides obviously winning, is proving people wrong."
Matt Wilansky is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to the tennis page.
Seemingly unfit to play entering the Australian Open, Serena Williams has proven she still has game.