LOS ANGELES -- Serena Williams, a woman some tennis insiders considered an underdog in this year's $3 million season-ending WTA Tour Championships, was there on time Sunday, but it took a little while for her game to warm up. When it did, however, she proved that even though she wasn't slammin' in '04, she's still jammin'. The eighth-ranked Williams became the first of the tourney's semifinalists to reach tonight's final with a convincing 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory against No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo of France.
As a result of her somewhat surprising victory, Williams will play No. 6 Maria Sharapova for the Tour title (ESPN, 10 ET). Sharapova also needed three sets to dispose of No. 3 Anastasia Myskina, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the second semifinal. Williams and Sharapova's matchup will be the first time the two have faced each other since that historic encounter in July at Wimbledon.
One Williams says she can't quite recall.
"I can't reflect back," she said when asked about her memories of the match in which Sharapova beat her, 6-1, 6-4. "Actually, I don't believe I played Wimbledon."
Could it be? Was it all just a mirage?
"I don't know who it was. But I wasn't at Wimbledon this year."
Sharapova, however, remembers how things really went down. She's young but she ain't stupid.
"In reality, yeah," she blandly said when asked if Williams was indeed on the other side of the net when she won her first Grand Slam title. "There was one, yeah. She might not have been in reality. So, I don't know."
Maybe the Serena Williams who played in front of more than 9,300 fans on Sunday will show up again tonight and fix whatever went wrong during her first match against the 17-year-old Russian.
Williams had some splendid moments against Mauresmo, recording 11 aces -- including one that was clocked at 123 miles per hour. She also survived 12 break points in a hard-fought third set. What most helped Williams get past Mauresmo, however, was that for the first time in this tournament Williams consistently played the big points well. Conversely, Mauresmo also came up with winners when needed but just not as many. Williams outscored her 53-24 in that category.
"I think me coming in and moving forward because she kind of botched the returns was key for me," said Williams whose victory prevented Mauresmo from regaining the No. 1 ranking from Lindsay Davenport.
While that match provided glimpses of the old Serena, before knee surgery slowed her roll, it will be interesting to see if she can match that intensity when she faces the younger and hotter Sharapova. Williams doesn't think it will be a problem.
"I played better [Sunday], so I am actually happy," said Williams, wearing an "I Heart Me" T-shirt. "I mean, not with all my shots. But I think most importantly is that I'm doing in the match what I have done in practice. So, that is what I am most happy about.
"I am really excited about myself. I am going to be a force to be reckoned with next year. The little work I have been able to do, I think has moved mountains for me. So, I look forward to beginning next year in January. I can't wait to get to Australia. I have nothing to lose -- no points. And I feel as if I am going to really dedicate my life to tennis."
Sharapova, however, prefers to focus on the here and now. Like Williams, Sharapova dropped one match during these Championships. Her confidence level also is high -- especially as she currently owns this young series with Williams, 1-0. But when pressed for a response on what she's thinking going into tonight's match, the only Russian woman to ever win Wimbledon and the second-youngest ladies singles champion in the Open Era, indicated she wasn't too worried.
"I am just expecting to go out and play a match," Sharapova said. "Not too much I can expect at all. You know, I obviously know the way she plays. I have played her before. She is obviously going to want her revenge. And, hey, I am in the finals of Championships. So I want it badly, too."
Williams, however, might want it a little more. She might not have anything to lose, but she does have something to prove. Although she's played well enough to get through the eight-player field with only one loss, she did struggle. The only player she managed to beat in straight sets was No. 5 Elena Dementieva and that was 7-6 (3), 7-5. Conversely, Sharapova soundly beat No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-4; struggled a bit against No. 11 Vera Zvonareva, 7-5, 6-4; and then had little trouble with Myskina after dropping the first set.
Ironically, Myskina thinks that Williams will have the edge.
"The way Serena played (Sunday), I don't think (Sharapova) has any chances," Myskina said. "And I think she played unbelievable. That was great, great tennis -- the first match, and she played unbelievable. And, I mean if Maria can play at the same level as Wimbledon, she was not showing me today. That was not the greatest level. So, I think Serena has a better chance."
Williams is 2-2 in finals this year, beating Dementieva in Miami and Kuznetsova in Beijing; and losing to Sharapova at Wimbledon and Lindsay Davenport in L.A. Sharapova has reached the finals of five tournaments, winning four. Her only loss was to Alicia Molik in Zurich. Other than Williams, none of those wins were against Top 10 players.
"You know, I am just so excited to be in the final that I could care less about my chances," Sharapova said. "I mean, I am obviously playing really well to come back and to win today. You know, knowing that I was a little bit fatigued and I thought after slipping away the first set that she was going to get on me. But I kept my cool. And I just, you know, I picked up my level quite fast."
And Williams knows that.
"She is very consistent and she runs like the wind," Williams said. "But so do I. So, it is fine."
Then a fine match it will be.
Miki Turner, a regular contributor to Page 3, is covering the WTA Tour Championships for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.