MADRID, Spain - A far cry from the player who was down 4-2 third set in her quarterfinal match, Serena Williams came out blazing in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open on Sunday afternoon, beating Maria Sharapova in straight sets to not only win her 50th WTA title, but retain her No.1 ranking.
Though it was a dream match-up between the Top 2 players in the world, and though Sharapova would have taken No.1 away from her with a victory, Williams was never really in trouble in the match, taking particular advantage of the angles in the rallies - time and time again she put Sharapova on the run with some precisely acute crosscourt blasts, then went on to win the majority of those points.
Williams fell behind 3-1 early in the second set but apart from that was in control the whole time, and after the No.2-seeded Sharapova sent one last forehand long, the No.1 seed clinched it, 61 64.
"I started the match really slow today, and against an opponent like her you just can't give her that because she plays extremely well when she's confident," Sharapova said afterwards. "I wasn't reacting well, I wasn't moving well - obviously not only the double faults that I made, but I also didn't have a lot of great first serves in. There were a lot of things I could have changed out there on the court.
"I had that break in the second set, but I wasn't able to go with it and hold it. But starting the match like that isn't going to get me anywhere, so that's something I wish I could have changed today."
"I've played her several times; I just tried to focus on what I was doing," Williams said. "I don't know if her start was shaky, but I felt I played well in the first few games - playing such a great athlete and great tennis player like Maria, you have to come out and play well. I really had no other choice.
"She definitely started playing better in that second set - I think she came out with a different game plan. I missed a very crucial point in that first game, but after that I just had to refocus."
Williams is now the 10th player all-time to win 50 or more WTA titles. The first nine were Martina Navratilova (167), Chris Evert (154), Steffi Graf (107), Margaret Court (92), Evonne Goolagong (68), Billie Jean King (67), Lindsay Davenport (55), Virginia Wade (55) and finally Monica Seles (53).
"It feels good," Williams said. "I don't know how many more I can win. Like I say every day, 'Who knows if I'll ever win another title?' I just want to live in the moment and the dream every chance I get. I feel like every moment I play - I don't know if it's because of what I went through - I feel like I'm so fortunate to be out there and healthy and to have an opportunity to play a sport and be really good at it.
"Hopefully I can just keep it going."
And with seven, Williams is now in third place among active players for most WTA clay court titles, tied with Sharapova and Flavia Pennetta; Venus Williams is second place with nine, and Anabel Medina Garrigues - the player who was on the verge of victory against her in the quarterfinals - is first with 10.
Williams is the only player ever to win clay court titles on three different colors of clay, though.
"This court is definitely different from last year," she said. "It definitely plays more like Roland Garros, so I think that's a plus. It's a little slower than it was last year and plays more like a true clay court. So I think it's great preparation. It's definitely a good start in the right direction. I feel good about it."
Is that right direction winning the French Open? "It is the ultimate challenge," she said. "Whether I reach it, I don't know. I'm not going to put that pressure on myself. I wanted to do it last year and I didn't get it. So this year I'm just looking forward to Rome, and then after that Roland Garros. We'll see."
Sharapova seems to be going in the right direction, too - while Williams is 28-1 on clay since the start of last year's clay court season, Sharapova is still a very solid 27-2, the losses coming to Williams.
"Obviously it's tough losing in the final today, but I think my preparation so far has been decent, winning a title in Stuttgart and getting to the final in this tournament for the first time," Sharapova said.
"One more tune up to go before Roland Garros, and everything seems to be going well."