Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport set up an Australian Open showdown yesterday after fighting back from the brink of defeat in two epic semifinal duels.
Former world No. 1 Williams pulled off an extraordinary escape to defeat fourth-seeded Russian teenager Maria Sharapova, saving three match points to win 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 in 2hr 39 min.
Top seed Davenport, meanwhile, was made to work just as hard before she finally overcame French 19th seed Nathalie Dechy 2-6, 7-6 (7/5) 6-4 in a nerve-jangling encounter on Rod Laver Arena.
In the end, the experience of Williams and Davenport, who have nine grand-slam titles between them, was to prove crucial.
For Williams, it was a case of history revisited. Her pulsating contest bore a striking resemblance to her 2003 Australian Open semifinal with Kim Clijsters, when she saved two match points before going on to win.
Williams said she had been comforted by the memory of that Houdini act as she fought off three match points on Sharapova's serve when trailing 5-4 in the final set.
She said the victory ranked among her most satisfying.
Williams said she had kept her composure despite a high unforced error count -- 53 throughout -- which allowed Sharapova a free ride throughout the early part of the match.
Sharapova said Williams' experience of retrieving lost causes had been the key. "She's one of the best competitors out there," she said.
Williams will now meet Davenport in tomorrow's final, who she leads 9-4 in head-to-head encounters.
Davenport has the better recent record though, having beaten Williams on the two occasions they met last season.
But the experienced 28-year-old will want to make a quantum improvement after toiling desperately against Dechy before finally staggering over the line.
She amassed 52 unforced errors, 10 double-faults and it might have been a different story had Dechy kept her composure when leading 4-1 in the second set tie-break.
Instead, she buckled and Davenport fought back to square the match, going on to clinch victory in the decider.
Like Sharapova, Dechy believed that her opponent's experience had been the key. "Maybe she handled the tight moments a bit better than me," the 25-year-old said, who had been playing in her first grand slam semifinal.
Davenport, who delayed retirement at the end of last season after convincing herself that she could still challenge for honors at the highest level, is now contemplating her first grand-slam final for five years.
The women's semifinals took center stage at Melbourne Park, with the night session seeing a replay of last year's final between world No. 1 Roger Federer and Russia's Marat Safin in the first of the men's semifinals.
Hewitt presses on
Lleyton Hewitt gave Australia's national day celebrations a giant lift on Wednesday when he beat David Nalbandian in a four-hour quarterfinal battle at the Australian Open.
Hewitt drew on all his reserves of stamina and courage to beat the Argentine 6-3 6-2 1-6 3-6 10-8 and advance to a semifinal showdown with Andy Roddick today.
"I just had to dig deep in the fifth set, and yet again the never-say-die attitude came out," Hewitt said.
"I'm definitely giving the crowds their money's worth. I'm doing all the right things for the tournament," he said.
Hewitt's victory kept alive Australian hopes of a local winner in the centenary of their national championship after Alicia Molik lost to Lindsay Davenport.