Melbourne: Conventional wisdom insisted that only another member of her household, a certain older sister with four Grand Slam titles of her own, could possibly stop Serena Williams from winning four consecutive Slams.
That myth was shaken, but not shattered, on a sunny day on Thursday by a hard-hitting 19-year-old from Belgium with an impeccable athletic pedigree.
The top-seeded Serena survived two match points and a 1-5 third-set deficit, defeating fourth-seeded Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, in two hours, 13 minutes.
“I honestly don’t know how I was able to win,” Serena said. “I just said, ‘Ok, Serena, I really have nothing to lose.” I really didn’t expect to win at that point. I just wanted to keep fighting, one point at a time, and the next thing I know, the match is over.”
And so, the bid for a Serena Slam — four consecutive Grand Slam singles titles, though not in the same calendar year — has one match to go. It nearly unravelled in a sea of unforced errors, as Serena lacked conviction and eventually lost confidence on her forehand side before the incredible rally.
Heading into the Clijsters match, Serena carried a 26-match Grand Slam winning streak, which started at the French Open last year. This included three consecutive victories against Venus in Slam finals.
Her comeback means another Williams-Williams final in a Grand Slam. It is the first Australian Open final for either sister.
Earlier, second-seeded Venus did her part, defeating fifth-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, 6-3, 6-3, serving seven aces. Henin-Hardenne, who reached the semi-finals here for the first time, put in a somewhat erratic performance, double faulting eight times.
The first semi-final was not as close as the score indicated. This will be the fourth consecutive Slam final for Venus, who had never gone past the semi-finals here before. Said Venus: “Four in a row is real nice. So at least I’m always in the position to be the victor. Hopefully this time it will be different than the last three.”
It had been expected that Clijsters could push Serena because she beat her in the WTA Championships in November.
Before the semis, Serena dropped one set in three matches of the 26, losing one to Vera Zvonereva in the fourth round of the French Open last year, one to Jennifer Capriati in the semi-finals at the French and one to Emilie Loit here at the Australian Open.
Loit kept Serena off balance with her clever array of spin and slice, but since the first round struggle, Serena was hardly tested until meeting Clijsters. Early on, she seemed tentative, perhaps respecting the consistency of Clijsters. The decisive set had its moments of high drama. Down a service break and trailing, 1-2, Serena took an extended injury time-out, needing treatment for blisters on her foot and toe.
Clijsters, unfazed by the break, promptly ran off three straight games to take a 5-1 lead.
Clijsters served for the match at 5-2 and had two match points, dropping the first with a backhand in the net and losing the second when Serena hit an excellent forehand volley.
The tension only increased when Serena held serve to pull to 5-4. Then the nerves hit Clijsters in a big way when she again served for the match.
She double-faulted back-to-back, falling behind, 0-30, and the pro-Clijsters crowd grew silent as she seemed beset by anxiety. Serena pulled even at 5-5, breaking serve at 30 when Clijsters hit a backhand long, and moved into the lead, 6-5, holding her serve at 30.
A shattered Clijsters went down meekly in the final game, dropping her serve at love, and some of the fans registered their disapproval by booing.