By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Jan 8 (Reuters) - A belated discovery that tranquility makes a useful ally in the pursuit of glory has Serena Williams in the box seat to win a third consecutive grand slam title at the Australian Open next week.
The Williams of explosive on-court tantrums and off-court drama has largely been banished, and a calmer, more mature prototype arrives at Melbourne Park with her game rivalling the peak of her brilliant career.
Pundits are already talking up the chances of a sequel to the "Serena Slam" - the non-calendar grand slam that the 31-year-old American completed during the 2002-03 seasons - and Williams herself believes the best is yet to come.
"I was looking at a lot of old matches on YouTube, and I feel like right now I'm playing some of my best tennis," she said after winning the Brisbane International at the weekend.
"I feel like I want to do better and play better still, and I've always felt like I could play better."
Williams's smooth preparations for the year's first grand slam lie in stark contrast to her troubled lead-in to the 2012 tournament, when she arrived in Melbourne with a foot injury after a season blighted by illness and injury.
Having played two matches in five months, Williams strained ligaments in her ankle at the warm-up tournament in Brisbane, and lasted four rounds at Melbourne Park before being dumped by Russia's Ekaterina Makarova.
A sensational first-round loss at the French Open sparked another round of career obituaries by sports writers.
But Williams, who had survived a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs the previous year, began rebuilding her game with the help of French coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
In a four-month blitz, Williams clinched her fifth Wimbledon trophy, singles and doubles gold at the London Olympics and her 15th grand slam title at the U.S. Open, underlining her status as one of the greatest players to grace the game.
She then capped the year by winning the season-ending WTA finals in Istanbul without dropping a set.
Williams, who lost the U.S. Open final in 2011 to Australia's Sam Stosur and the 2009 semi-final to Kim Clijsters following explosive outbursts at match officials, credited her stunning second half of the season to a more relaxed approach to her game.
"I really think starting in 2011, the summer, I really started being more calm on the court and just relaxing more, if it's possible for me to relax," Williams said at the Brisbane International.
"I feel better when I'm more calm."
A serene Serena is bad news for her rivals, who have already conceded her world ranking of three is scandalously inaccurate, and likely to be corrected in short time.
World number one Victoria Azarenka, the defending Australian Open champion, came close to upsetting Williams in the tense U.S. Open final, but the Belarusian finished the year 0-5 against the American.
Curiously, Azarenka dodged a re-match in the Brisbane semi-final against Williams last week, blaming a toe infection caused by a bad pedicure.
World number two Maria Sharapova completed a career grand slam with victory at the French Open, but lost all three of her encounters to Williams last year, including a stinging 6-0 6-1 loss for the Olympic singles gold at London.
"It's surprising to win two grand slams, the Olympics, Madrid and the Championships and to be number three," Mouratoglou said after Williams won in Istanbul.
"If there is a bug somewhere (in the rankings system), someone has to find it."
Williams can fix it with her own racquet by winning a sixth Australian Open title, a feat achieved only by Australia's Margaret Court in the modern era.
That would see her succeed compatriot Chris Evert as the oldest world number one in women's tennis - a nice, albeit sobering idea for Williams.
"I'm really boring now," Williams said in Brisbane. "I used to be fun.
"I could be the oldest number one. I don't know how that goes with the funnest." (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)