WIMBLEDON, England (AP) – Venus Williams traded loud shrieks and powerful shots with Maria Sharapova as flash bulbs popped in the fading light, and when it was over, Williams celebrated her Wimbledon semifinal victory as if the title were hers again.

Straight-faced and serious throughout the match, Williams let it all out. She crossed over to the other side of the net, hopped in place, then bent over and laughed.

Thursday’s match was a stirring 7-6 (2), 6-1 victory over the defending champion, yet it was so much more than that. It was the strongest statement to date that Williams is back on top of her game, back to being a player who was ranked No. 1 and won four Grand Slam titles in 2000-01.

Hampered by injuries, burdened by erratic play, surpassed by a younger sibling and others, Williams hadn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals at a major in two years.

“After the match, I was like: OK, you can stop focusing now. Have a little bit of fun,”‘ Williams said. “Today, for me, was just one point at a time, just sticking to my game and not getting off and losing focus of what I needed to do. So the end of the match, that was the arrival of getting pumped up.”

There’s still another match to go, of course, but Williams left the All England Club not knowing who she’ll face in Saturday’s final. About 10 minutes after Williams and Sharapova walked off the court, the rain that delayed the start of play for more than four hours returned. The other semifinal, moved to Court 1, was suspended with top-ranked Lindsay Davenport leading No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 5-3, and Mauresmo serving at 15-0.

They’ll resume Friday, when No. 1 Roger Federer faces No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt, and No. 2 Andy Roddick plays No. 12 Thomas Johansson for berths in the men’s final.

At least Williams knows this: She won’t have to face the woman she played in her past six Grand Slam finals, sister Serena.

Little sis e-mailed Venus before Thursday’s match to offer encouragement. After Venus beat Sharapova for the first time in three tries, Serena called and playfully asked, “Can I have your autograph?”

It was the second instance this tournament of Venus taking care of some family business. Serena lost in the third round last week to Jill Craybas, who was beaten by Venus less than 48 hours later. And it was Serena who was the two-time defending champion upset by the 13th-seeded Sharapova in last year’s Wimbledon final.

“The level of tennis was a lot higher today,” said Sharapova, who tried everything, including four shots left-handed.

One sign of how far Venus had tumbled is that she was seeded only 14th – which would make her the tournament’s lowest-seeded champion if she wins.

“It’s satisfying, but I’ve always felt that I can play at this level,” she said. “I just gave myself the opportunity at this tournament to do it.”

The pinnacle, so far at least, was against Sharapova.

The first set provided 62 minutes of spectacular tennis – hard-hit backhands, forehands, serves and returns, down the lines, to the corners, at impossible angles, kicking up white chalk. All the while, both players’ grunts rang through the arena.

Williams was confident and consistent, getting the better on eight of the set’s 11 points that featured exchanges of at least 10 strokes.

“I don’t really feel tired right now,” Sharapova said about 40 minutes after sailing a backhand wide on Williams’ second match point. “Maybe I’m mentally tired. We had a lot of long points.”

It’s tough to decide what was more impressive – the way Williams seemed to break Sharapova’s fighting spirit or the way she broke the Russian teen’s serve. Coming into the match, Sharapova hadn’t lost a set and had been broken just once in 44 service games this fortnight; Williams broke her four times.

One made it 4-1 in the second set, and when Sharapova sat down at the changeover, she looked up at the guest box. Her father and coach, Yuri, waved his arms wildly with his palms turned up, as if to say, “Chin up!”

Sharapova mounted one last challenge, earning two break points in the next game. On the first, Williams hit a good volley, and Sharapova’s forehand went long. On the second, Williams smacked a service winner at 113 mph. Sharapova petulantly banged the ball and nearly hit a ball girl, then apologized three times.

There were several moments when Williams dug down deep. She’s been sidelined by wrist and abdominal injuries, and this spring by a bad shoulder that particularly slowed her serve, but it was back up to 121 mph, and that came in handy.

The first crucial test came in the first set, when Williams let a 5-2 lead vanish. But in the tiebreaker, Sharapova barely missed two backhands to fall behind 3-0, then erred on three more backhands. Simply put, Williams was steadier.

“I made two errors that were about one-inch wide. That’s the way it goes,” Sharapova said. “If I wouldn’t have made them, who knows what would have happened?”

Just 18 – as she so frequently notes – Sharapova should have many more opportunities to go far in the majors. Williams, who is 25, fittingly announced her re-arrival on the sport’s most hallowed ground, where she claimed her first major championship in 2000 and successfully defended it in 2001.

“Many people have had this place: Navratilova, Graf, Billie Jean King, all those people,” said Williams, 5-0 in Wimbledon semifinals. “But for me, it’s just still one match at a time. Final, third round, whatever. Tournament’s not over yet.”

AP-ES-06-30-05 1827EDT

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