To the delight of 13,808 Wimbledon ticket-holders, a pair of semifinals replete with wild shifts of momentum and operatic swings of emotion roundly debunked the notion that women's tennis lacks stars and storylines.
It all unfolded on Centre Court Thursday, and when the standing ovations finally died down, it was hard to say which three-set battle had been more riveting: the one that saw Russian teenager Maria Sharapova emerge as the game's latest sensation, storming back from a seemingly hopeless deficit to oust 1999 champion Lindsay Davenport? Or the one in which defending champion Serena Williams, who had looked invincible just 24 hours earlier, was nearly toppled by the angst-ridden Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo?
In defeating Davenport, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, Sharapova became the second youngest female Wimbledon finalist of the modern era (Martina Hingis was 16 years 9 months when she won the title in 1997). She'll face the hard-hitting Williams, a 6-7 (7-4), 7-5, 6-4 victor over Mauresmo, in Saturday's championship match.
Williams is seeking her third consecutive Wimbledon title. And while spectators may be surprised to find the 17-year-old Sharapova, who spent much of the week studying for her high school exams, facing Williams in the final, so too is Williams, who has grown accustomed to squaring off against her older sister Venus in Grand Slam championships.
But Thursday's semifinals signaled a changing of the guard on several levels. It saw the 28-year-old Davenport bid farewell to Wimbledon with the quiet dignity that has marked her career. It saw the statuesque Sharapova blossom as the best of the hard-slugging youngsters vying for a place in the game. It saw the supremely gifted Mauresmo, for so long stymied by nerves, finally vanquish her demons in a major match. And it saw Williams, accused of treating the game too blithely of late, grit her teeth, pump her fists and howl in anguish over the prospect of being denied her third consecutive Wimbledon final.
"I didn't have a game today," Williams said. "I just really had heart, and that's all I had."
With Mauresmo playing inspired tennis, Williams's considerable heart was just barely enough. No opponent had tested Williams yet this Wimbledon, so it was stunning to see Mauresmo force a tiebreaker in the first set. After taking a 4-3 lead, Williams lost three consecutive points to drop her first set of the fortnight.
Trailing 1-3 in the second set, Williams netted a backhand and slammed her racket on the grass. She wasn't reprimanded, and the outburst actually worked to her advantage, firing her up to win the game with a twisted frame.
Williams ramped up her emotions with each point she won, clenching her fist and shouting "Yes!" Almost as soon as she pulled even at 3-3, Mauresmo felt a familiar pain in her lower back. She left the court for treatment, and returned without the same punch in her serve, ultimately double-faulting the second set away.
History suggested Mauresmo would fold in the critical third set, but she persevered, holding serve despite obvious discomfort until the scoreboard read 5-6. Williams kept the pressure on with blistering service returns. Facing match point, Mauresmo sprayed a forehand wide to concede the battle.
"I don't think she broke mentally; I don't think I broke mentally," Williams said. "I don't know if I got lucky, but I was really focused and determined more than anything."
So, too, was Sharapova against the favored Davenport in the day's first match. Halted twice by rain, the contest had two radically different halves.
The 6-foot-2 Davenport held sway for the the first set and a half, with pinpoint serves (87 percent first-serve percentage) and deep, punishing groundstrokes. She won the first set in 25 minutes and held a 2-1 lead in the second set when play was suspended for nearly an hour by rain.
Sharapova claimed she spent the break reading a boring magazine. If so, she managed to steel her resolve during the tedium because she returned a more aggressive, assertive player, firing an ace on a second serve to hold for 2-3, then breaking Davenport to pull even at 3-all.
As Sharapova got sharper, Davenport lost precision. Her first serve started missing by inches, and groundstrokes that had previously landed in the corners started straying long and wide.
Sharapova forced a tiebreaker and won it, 7-5. Then she came alive in the third set, converting 75 percent of her first serves and driving her groundstrokes to pin Davenport back on her heels. And when Davenport smacked the ball beyond the baseline on match point, Sharapova sunk to her knees and gazed up at the players' box in disbelief.
"I look at my dad and I looked at my coach, and I tell them, 'Am I in the final?' " she recalled afterward. "I mean, I'm playing the finals on Saturday! It's amazing! I don't have any other words."