WIMBLEDON, England -- Amelie Mauresmo has always had enormous physical talent -- the Frenchwoman's pure athletic ability is sometimes breathtaking to behold -- but injuries and nerves often have betrayed her when victory beckoned.
On Thursday, Mauresmo seemed on the threshold of her second Grand Slam final, sensing a vulnerability in Serena Williams she had rarely seen. But in the end, her backbone succumbed to the pressure. No. 1 seed Williams, showing enormous patience and fortitude, prevailed 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4. She will attempt to win her third consecutive title at the All England Club on Saturday.
Williams will meet 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, who staged her own improbable comeback in defeating Lindsay Davenport 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1. After six consecutive Grand Slam finals with her sister Venus as the opponent, Williams will have a fresh face to contemplate.
After two unattractive semifinal matches and a tedious final at the French Open, the women held the world's attention with two spectacular matches on Centre Court. Both winners came back from one-set, 1-3 deficits. In a sometimes colorless sport that discourages emotional outpouring, Williams and Mauresmo played with heart and with dashing variety and flair.
At one point in the third set, BBC commentator John McEnroe -- never a big supporter of women's tennis -- actually said, "It's great to be here."
After losing the seventh game of the second set to fall behind 3-4, Mauresmo left the court for treatment of an ailing back. It might have cost her the second set, but just when it looked like she was defeated, Mauresmo fought back. Her nerves didn't surface until the match's last game.
"It was a great match," Mauresmo said. "The only bad thing was I lost it. I still had a couple occasions here and there, and she finally made the difference. It's just a few points."
"I had a bad day," Williams said. "It's always good to pull it through against a good player in the semifinals of Wimbledon. I wasn't feeling my shots. I wasn't doing much.
"I kept fighting. That's all I had -- fight."
Mauresmo has consulted professional psychologists and tried different approaches at Grand Slams. When she broke through as an unseeded player and reached her first career Grand Slam final at the 1999 Australian Open, Mauresmo was marked as a future major champion. It's a future still unfulfilled.
Nowhere is the pressure greater on Mauresmo than in her native country of France. It is not a coincidence that her worst Grand Slam results have come at the one she wants the most, Roland Garros. Only Tim Henman's annual frustration at Wimbledon exceeds the pressurized plight of Mauresmo at the French Open. The last meeting between Williams and Mauresmo came at Roland Garros and, not surprisingly, it was a 6-1, 6-2 disaster for the Frenchwoman.
In their previous matches, Mauresmo had won only once, last year in Rome. Just as the crowd was settling back into its seats after Sharapova's unlikely victory, another potential upset began to brew.
Williams, almost predictably, broke Mauresmo in the very first game, but she did not unravel. Instead, with her beautiful backhand flowing freely, Mauresmo stayed in the set and, after weathering a set point at 4-5, forced a tiebreaker.
When Mauresmo's backhand slice approach shot drifted long, she was down 3-1 and it looked like she had reverted to form. But then, in a crucial point in the match, the two women traded heavy, heavy forehands. Mauresmo worked her way toward the net and her forehand volley won the point. Williams followed with a curious forehand slice that wasn't even close. A few points later, her scooping backhand volley was long and Mauresmo had captured the first set.
Mauresmo was up a break in the second but at 3-2, Williams broke back with a forehand winner. After she served for a 4-3 lead, Mauresmo grimaced and held her back. She left the court for treatment. Over the years, her back has given her trouble, but this was an inconvenient time for the problem to arise. And yet, somehow, it made the match even more interesting. Later, Mauresmo said the injury hurt her most during her serve and made it easier for Williams to break her.
Williams took a 5-3 lead with an extraordinary shot, a looping forehand that barely cleared an elevated Mauresmo and dusted the chalk on the baseline. Mauresmo got back on serve, but lost her serve at 5-6 on, pathetically, a double-fault.
That weak ending seemed to telegraph a whimper of a third set. But, as the final set progressed on serve, the trainer's repeated massages and the warming balm seemed to calm Mauresmo's back.
Mauresmo stayed in the match and was serving to level it at 5-all, when the weight of the occasion finally seemed to overcome her. A loose backhand put her in a love-30 hole. At 15-30, Williams blasted a winning backhand six inches inside the line. On match point, Mauresmo jerked a gruesome forehand well out and it was over.
"I'm getting closer and closer," Mauresmo said. "It just takes longer for me than other players. I just have to go forward and keep working.
"I'm going to get there."
Williams has now won 22 of her 25 matches this year and seems to have recovered fully from last August's knee surgery that kept her sidelined for eight months. After the match, still caught up in the moment, she said it was the "most special" moment of her career.
An hour later, Williams amended her statement.
"Not yet," she said. "This tournament, hopefully, will be the most special moment of my career -- hopefully.
"It's been tough coming back. You guys always expect me to be in the final. It's not so easy all the time."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.