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Serena Williams Time Slam, Glam, Serena
By Sean Gregory, Time
Click For Full Serena Image(Brian Smith for TIME)

Bammer. It's a name jackhammered into the brain of Serena Williams--the two syllables most responsible for why the U.S. tennis diva matters once again. In a chump-change Tasmanian tune-up for the Australian Open earlier this year, Williams, then ranked a paltry 94th in the world, fell to an Austrian named Sybille Bammer in a quarterfinal match. After some serious sobbing, Williams had what she calls her "Rocky moment." The next day, she stuffed a credit card into her sports bra--"in case I got thirsty"--and ran the steps of a Tasmanian park for hours. "I was just so mad," she says. "Whenever I got tired, I just thought to myself ... Bammer."

In one of the most stunning returns in tennis history, Williams--dismissed as too injury prone and disinterested since she and her sister Venus dominated the game earlier in the decade and written off as plain washed up after losing to ... Bammer-- can now ponder the preposterous. A Grand Slam. Williams took the Australian title, crushing the sport's hottest star, Russian-born, American-bred Maria Sharapova, in the final, 6-1, 6-2. She followed that up with another impressive hard-court title at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, again dismantling Sharapova, 1 and 1, en route to beating the world's current top-ranked player, Justine Henin, for the championship. "The fact is, I love tennis," says Williams, 25. "And I have an insatiable need to prove to myself that if I put my mind to it, I can do whatever I want."

While the tennis world has long anticipated Roger Federer's quest for his first title in the French Open (starting May 27) and likely Slam if he finally conquers the slow clay of Roland Garros, it's suddenly Serena, now ranked No. 11, who may steal center court. "It's just amazing what she has done," says the world's No. 5, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. "When she's on her game, Serena is the best player in the world. It wouldn't surprise me if she won a Grand Slam."

That game is a steamroller with a couple of forward gears. When the Williams sisters first appeared on the tour in the late '90s, they brought with them a new level of strength and athleticism. Serena could crush most balls hit at her. Powder-puff tennis was over. Eventually, the other pros began to match her power, and injuries began to nag. Williams can still bring it, but this year she's more likely to play a little finesse for the first six shots or so, saving the blast for stroke seven or eight.

Before we declare 2007 the Summer of Serena, let's just remember that we've seen faux sister-act revivals. In 2005, for example, both Serena and Venus won unexpected majors (Serena in Australia, Venus at Wimbledon), only to fade fast. But tease or not, the game's most compelling personality--hip, brash, beautiful--is once again part of the conversation, which tends to be lively when Serena is talking. "She's a complicated person," notes Zina Garrison, Serena's coach on the U.S. Fed Cup team. "And the world is intrigued with people that they can't quite figure out."

She'll vex, then suddenly flex. How can a player who entered the Aussie appearing, to put it gently, a tad robust still romp to a title? "I have a big ass, I have big boobs," says Williams, who is 5 ft. 9 in. and listed at 135 lbs. "It's not common for athletes to have those assets. I'm never going to be a size 0." Williams admits she wasn't in top shape--and still isn't--but don't call her overweight. She prefers "bootylicious." Which makes the Aussie win even more delicious. "I've never seen anyone play her way into tennis form during a major tournament," says former No. 1 Tracy Austin, now a television analyst. "She breaks all the rules."

The other mystery: Why did Serena slide into near oblivion? In the 16 months leading up to the Australian, she played in five tournaments. Her mother Oracene Price admits that tennis started to bore her daughter, so Serena felt free to pursue some outside interests, like acting (she appeared in an ER episode). Plus, a nagging knee injury stripped some motivation. "Serena is definitely the baby in our family," says Williams' sister Isha of her youngest sib. "She has a little of that 'Woe is me' going on. Like, 'Oh, my God, why am I always injured? Why is the press picking on me? Why? Why? Why?'"

Most critics didn't realize Williams was also fighting depression. In 2003 an alleged gang member gunned down her eldest sister Yetunde in Compton, Calif. Tennis kept her from grieving, but the layoff gave her room to cope. "Being around [Yetunde's] kids every day, it's really kind of"-- long pause--"hard," she says. "No amount of time can let you truly get over that."

So the salvos hurt even more. Most notably, in an open letter to Tennis magazine last year, Chris Evert knocked Serena for dabbling in acting and fashion. "These distractions are tarnishing your legacy," Evert wrote. Serena scoffs, "Obviously she's extremely happy in her life and everything that she's going through, so she's in a position to criticize someone else." The sarcasm was as heavy as the Wimbledon dew.

On the court, Serena's fledgling rivalry with Sharapova could offer the most fireworks, if Sharapova would only show up. Williams needed about an hour to flatten her in each of their two matches this year. Still, Williams had Serena-like praise for her opponent. "She wins a lot of matches with her power. And she's really tall. Imagine what I could do at 6 ft. 2." That Serena swagger is back. And she insists she is healthy and dedicated to a summer of intense tennis. "You're looking at the best player in the world," she says. Bam right.

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