PARIS (Reuters) - Serena Williams did not smile, celebrate or even acknowledge the standing ovation she was receiving from the roaring crowd as she watched Timea Bacsinszky’s backhand float out on match point at the French Open on Thursday.
Instead, the pained expression on the ailing American’s face spoke volumes about what she must have been thinking -- ‘Thank Jehovah it’s over’.
Using her racket like a walking stick Williams, who now stands one match away from winning a 20th grand slam title, gingerly shuffled her ailing body back to her seat after completing a 4-6 6-3 6-0 semi-final win over the Swiss outsider.
It was a victory that an hour earlier, when she was a set and a break down, seemed nigh on impossible as her body seemed to be letting her down with the mercury tipping at 27 degrees Celsius on the hottest day of the championships.
But a woman who has built a career on overcoming every obstacle life can throw at her -- be it a piece of glass that sliced her foot open or a childhood spent dodging bullets during practice sessions in Compton, California -- was determined not to give up on her dreams of a third French Open title.
To do that, the American will need to recover quickly to overcome Czech firecracker Lucie Safarova in Saturday’s final.
On Thursday, however, Williams -- who always thanks Jehovah for her grand slam victories -- was not thinking that far ahead.
“I tried everything. I thought if I lose I must fight. I have tried and tried, I don’t know where I found the energy,” the world number one spluttered during the obligatory on court interview.
“Sorry I am sick,” she added before a coughing fit abruptly ended the conversation.
Safarova, who had staged her own fightback from 5-2 down in the first set to beat Serbia’s 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic 7-5 7-5 in the other semi, has been left wondering which Williams will show up on Saturday.
The one who has clung on for dear life to survive four three-set battles at this year’s championships or the one capable of crushing opponents without so much as a second glance.
On Thursday, it was clear that all was not well in the Williams camp when she was seen coughing violently during her practice session earlier in the day.
But while some feared she may be a no-show for the day’s second semi-final against Bacsinszky, Williams was keen to prove she was no quitter.
As she fell a set and a break down at 2-3 in the second set, the American appeared to close to tears and on the verge of passing out during the changeover.
The towelled ice-collar around her neck provided little comfort and she took more than 30 seconds after the umpire called ‘time’ to get up and walk back to the baseline to receive Bacsinszky’s serve.
But just when it seemed that the daughter of a Transylvanian tennis coach would sink her teeth further into Williams to increase her suffering, the 33-year-old found a way to break back.
In fact despite often being rooted to a spot on the baseline, Williams waved her racket left and right to produce the most improbable shots.
She was in agony, pain and distress but still the winners kept flying off Williams’s racket -- and sometimes, but not very often, they were greeted by her roars of approval.
The match that occasionally featured entertaining exchanges, with the American at one point sliding to the net before suddenly applying the brakes to her foot in order to hit some rapid reflex volleys, petered out with the physically struggling Williams winning the last 10 games on the trot.
The result earned Williams a much needed hug from her coach Patrick Mouratoglu while Bacsinszky wiped away the tears streaking down her face as she walked off Philippe Chatrier Court thinking what might have been.
There were scenes of joy later in the day, however, when American duo Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Mike Bryan beat Lucie Hradecka and Marcin Matkowski 7-6(3) 6-1 to win the first final at this year’s tournament, the mixed doubles.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, Editing by Ken Ferris