It is never an accident, the outfit that Serena Williams wears on court. For this Wimbledon, she has chosen a classic white shift trimmed in gold and accessorized with gold earrings and a gold necklace dripping with diamonds.
The visual effect underscores both Williams's inner conviction and the outward statement she intends to make in her sixth appearance at the All England club, where she has won the last two championships: Williams is the queen.
For this reason, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova has every reason to be awestruck Saturday when she strides onto Centre Court for her first Grand Slam final. A qualifier in this tournament a year ago, Sharapova has not yet finished high school. Moreover, her last name isn't Williams, as has been the case for both Wimbledon finalists (Serena and her elder sister, Venus) the past two years.
But if Serena Williams is counting on the teenager dissolving into heaps of nerves on Centre Court on Saturday, Sharapova has given every indication while slicing through the draw that she would be making a grave mistake.
Sharapova may not be a Williams, but she shares much in common with the two-time champion -- particularly a fierce fighting spirit, which she called on after getting steamrolled in the first 10 games of her semifinal against 1999 Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport. Rather than panic, Sharapova regrouped during an hour-long rain delay and returned with a faster serve, deeper groundstrokes and more aggressive returns.
Then she slept like a baby, a full 10 hours, her confident stride not rattled in the least by her surprising advance to the Wimbledon final.
"I haven't been nervous throughout this whole tournament," a composed Sharapova said Friday. "I'm just going to go out and do what I've been doing the last six matches -- just play my game and enjoy."
Williams is among the few players with insight into what Sharapova is going through, having advanced to her first Grand Slam final, the 1999 U.S. Open, at 17. If she was nervous at the time, she denies it now.
"I knew I was going to win," Williams recalled matter-of-factly. "I just told myself months before that I was going to win because I really wanted to more than anything."
She fulfilled her prophecy, defeating Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).
The years since have rewarded Williams with more than $12.5 million in prize money, five more Grand Slam titles, as well as a second career in fashion design and a budding career in acting. As her interests have grown, so have questions about her commitment to the sport.
Williams answered the skeptics with her gutsy comeback in Thursday's semifinal against Amelie Mauresmo, who used an artful array of shots to claim a first-set tiebreaker, becoming the first woman to take a set from Williams this tournament. Trailing 3-1 in the second set, Williams exploded in self-directed rage on court, slamming her racket so hard it cracked. The outburst accomplished just what she intended, triggering a furious rally that turned the momentum and told the world just how much she hates to lose and how focused she can be when faced with defeat.
It was a side of Williams that had not been seen in some time. Since her last Grand Slam victory, here at Wimbledon last year, Williams has either been out of action while recovering from surgery on her left knee or breezing past unworthy opponents in the handful of tournaments she has played in 2004.
Among them was Sharapova, whom she beat, 6-4, 6-3, in a tournament earlier this year in Miami, where she made her return to the tour. Williams was quick to note that Sharapova is a better player now, just as she is a better player, too.
Her struggle against Mauresmo was a plus in that regard, she added, toughening her up for Saturday's final. "It's definitely been a while since I played a match that close," Williams said of her 6-7 (7-4), 7-5, 6-4 victory. "I still have those competitive juices and the desire."
So does Sharapova, who has separated herself from Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and the other gifted young Russians with her performance at Wimbledon this year.
"Every week you have to play an 'Ova,' " Williams cracked, when asked about the onslaught of Russian talent. "I've played so many 'Ovas.' They ask, 'Who are you playing?' I say, 'I'm playing an Ova today.' "
But judging by British newspapers Friday morning, there was only one. The Times of London, for example, had just two stories on its front page: The top two-thirds was devoted to Saddam Hussein; the bottom third to Sharapova's stirring semifinal victory.
Inside the paper were five color photographs of Sharapova and two more stories rhapsodizing about the elegance of her white tennis frock and the grit of the girl underneath. Atop the front page, with better billing than Saddam, was the promotional banner: "Ave Maria: The Wimbledon queen-in-waiting."