Despite her two Wimbledon championships, Venus Williams arrived at the All England club amid scant fanfare and modest expectations this year.
Her world ranking had dropped to 16th following her third-round loss at the French Open. Wimbledon officials seeded her 14th.
And few of the sport's insiders included her on their list of pre-tournament favorites, mindful that the elder Williams sister, who won Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001, hadn't made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam since appearing in her fourth Wimbledon final in 2003.
But with every victory this fortnight, Williams has achieved her goal of improving with each round. And the result has taken her to a semifinal meeting Thursday with defending Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova.
The two have met just twice before, with Sharapova winning both encounters in straight sets. But Williams enters the match on a well-deserved high, having utterly overpowered Mary Pierce in their quarterfinal Tuesday. Neither Williams nor Sharapova has lost a set this tournament.
Wimbledon is the perfect place for Williams to re-stake her claim as one of the game's top players, said former touring pro Mary Joe Fernandez, now a TV analyst.
"Grass courts suit her game beautifully," Fernandez said. "It's faster, and it forces her to play a more aggressive style, which is when she's at her best."
Wimbledon also is where Williams won the first of her four Grand Slam titles. And returning to the grounds ought to fill her with confidence, Fernandez suggests, irrespective of her seeding.
Top-seeded Lindsay Davenport, who takes on Amelie Mauresmo of France in Thursday's other semifinal, questioned Williams's low seeding earlier in the week, wondering aloud why tournament officials didn't move Williams higher given her two Wimbledon titles and impressive record on grass.
"Lindsay's always been very nice," Williams said when informed of Davenport's comments. "We'll have even more unity, I guess."
After watching Williams throughout the fortnight, Fernandez predicts that she'll give Sharapova her best match yet. "She doesn't have a win over her yet," she said, "but I think on grass she'll have a much better chance."
The key for Williams will be making Sharapova run. Both women have tremendous reach. Williams is 6 feet 1; Sharapova is 6-0. Williams, 25, is the faster player and can cover more ground than the 18-year-old Russian.
But Sharapova oozes confidence, boasting the world's No. 2 ranking and a 22-match winning streak on grass.
"It's a big match for Venus if she can pull this one out," Fernandez said. "Then hopefully she'll be back where she belongs. Every time I see her ranked outside the top 10, it baffles me."