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Serena into Wimbledon semis as confidence slowly trickling back

This was a different look. Clawing desperately through her early-round matches, Serena Williams responded to victory with titanic leaps or deafening shrieks, sometimes both, as if she'd surpassed her expectations. On Tuesday, her match point clinched against Petra Kvitova, Serena flashed a smile of deep satisfaction.

"Oh, yeah!" she shouted beneath the crowd's applause, and she looked straight at her box, where sister Venus sat alongside their father. Serena's soulful, knowing look seemed to suggest that she really is back, that her ability to dominate still exists, and that the rest of the Wimbledon field has officially been put on notice after a 6-3, 7-5 victory over the defending champion.

The entire scene -- Centre Court triumph, the family, the sense of more greatness to come -- seemed lifted from some other time. It was only two years ago that Serena won her fourth and most recent Wimbledon, but an eternity has passed in the meantime, full of mysterious injuries, a brush with death (blood clots in her lungs), down time and self-doubt. In the wake of the French Open, where she took a baffling first-round loss to Virginie Razzano, even her most ardent supporters had reason to question her fate at Wimbledon.

Not that anyone has a clue around here. The way this tournament has progressed, there are no sure things beyond the weather forecast. Local residents speak of three ridiculously wet months leading up to Wimbledon, and now we've seen indoor tennis for the sixth consecutive day. The only sensible approach is to expect persistent rain, every day in southeast England, for the rest of time. Even a flicker of sunshine will be cause for champagne toasts and confetti.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, with all of the outdoor courts shut down, Wimbledon was entirely about Serena Williams -- just how she likes it. She couldn't have been more thrilled by the indoor setting, saying, "It was amazing for me. I loved it. No elements, no excuses. I've never played under that roof, and just the sound -- like 'hooshhh!' as the ball flew through the air, hearing it land, and the pop off the racket. Really cool, almost like a video game. Except you're actually playing."

This was a vitally important stage for a woman intent on regaining the world's No. 1 ranking, but remember, too, the stakes on Kvitova's end. Since defeating Maria Sharapova in last year's final, she's had a few nice moments on tour, but nothing special, a malaise relating directly to her erratic groundstrokes.

Give Kvitova credit for reaching the semifinals in both the Australian and French Opens this year, and especially her superb Fed Cup performances for the Czech Republic. Once you've won Wimbledon, though, there's a desire for something more, a path leading back to the way she felt hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court.

"The thing about Kvitova," Lindsay Davenport said on BBC this week, "is that she has so many ups and downs out there, and there's nothing in between."

Most of her fellow players catch a glimpse of Kvitova's flat groundstrokes, so forceful and penetrating, and wish they owned such power for just one day. But now a full year has passed since the day it all came together for this shy country girl. Even on an off-day, she has enough to dispatch a run-of-the-mill player. In the majors, and especially against Serena Williams at Wimbledon, she needs something more.

Williams was at her very best in the first set -- "levels and levels above what we've seen," said Davenport -- and Kvitova seemed overwhelmed. To her credit, at a time when other players might be pondering dinner plans, Kvitova jumped a notch on her returns and groundstroke accuracy, turning a straightforward match into a potential classic. Most everyone was looking forward to a third set, especially with so little happening elsewhere on the grounds.

Serena simply didn't let it happen. Just as Kvitova arrived at the precipice, earning a set point at 4-5, 30-40 -- Serena uncorked a powerful first serve that Kvitova couldn't handle with the backhand. And there was a telling point moments later when Williams, lining up a forehand putaway with Kvitova at point-blank range, fired a bullet straight to the body.

Kvitova somehow managed to return it, with a frantic sort of scooping motion, but Serena cracked a winner to end the point.

"Legit play!" said a delighted John McEnroe on the BBC. "I don't think you see that enough." And he was so right. Why is everyone so afraid to simply crush a swinging volley into an opponent's midsection? It not only works, it can be a measure of outright intimidation from an opponent as formidable as Serena.

The match ended, in effect, when Serena broke serve for 6-5. It may be quite some time before Kvitova forgets the final point of that game: drilling a "sitter" forehand into the net with so much wide-open court in her sights. She was now left to break serve or be gone, and Serena belted three aces in that final, clinching game.

"That was the difference -- her serve and how she plays the important points so well," said Kvitova, unfailingly calm and polite in post-match interview settings. "I think it was a great match from both of us. I didn't think I played that badly, but she's a great champion."

Asked how difficult it will be for anyone to beat Serena, she said, "I can't say impossible. She's human. But, yeah, very difficult."

Will she win the tournament?

"I think so."

The most surprising comment from Serena this week, one she keeps repeating: "I have nothing to lose." Viewed in conventional light, she has plenty to lose. A consistently dismal record at the Grand Slam events would signal a career in decline and perhaps a setback in her place among the all-time greats. But it's quite common to see Serena, after a fiery on-court display, enter the press room in a mood of utter nonchalance. That was certainly the case on Tuesday.

"I don't know, it's just like... if I lose to Victoria (Azarenka), she's had a better year, she's won a Grand Slam (the Australian), and she just has an advantage," Serena said. "That makes me really relaxed. I can just go out there and kinda hit. Sometimes you just need to relax, smile, take a deep breath. I think I, and a lot of people, tend to forget that."

So how does that happen?

"I had a good talk with my dad before the match, and with Venus as well," she said. "It was great. Got me motivated to be the best player I can be. Just weed out the riff-raff and get serious."

This was the essential Serena, then, in every sense: vague and mysterious in her words, intensely forthright in her deeds. "Serious" doesn't begin to describe it.

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