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Women's semis: A Victorian novel in four chapters

6/28/2005

WIMBLEDON, England – The four women's singles quarterfinal matches at Wimbledon Tuesday simmered with the mounting tension so characteristic of this point in a major tournament. None came to a boil and produced a third set, but all had their moments that revealed something about the victors. Now the stage is set for high drama.

All four semifinalists – Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova – come with interesting storylines. Like a Victorian novel, the plot and characters have developed, and it will be fascinating to see how the story ends.

Davenport, the top-ranked player in the world and No. 1 seed at age 29, said last year she probably would not be back at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club this summer. She felt her days as a serious contender for Grand Slam titles was probably over. Her triumphs are in the past: the 1998 U.S. Open, 1999 Wimbledon, 2000 Australian Open. She is too proud a competitor to hang around hoping to make the quarterfinals or odd semifinal. She and her husband, Jon Leach, were thinking it might be time to start a family. But then she went on a fabulous run through the U.S. hard court season that ended in a disappointing loss in the U.S. Open to eventual champion Svetlana Kuznetsova – her quarterfinal victim here Tuesday. It is clear Davenport is capable of encores on the show courts of world tennis.

Her opponent in Thursday's semifinal will be Mauresmo, 25, who reached the final of the Australian Open in 1999 and was widely forecast to be a future champion on the cushioned asphalt of the Australian and U.S. opens, the red clay of her native France, and the green, green grass of Wimbledon. At its best, Mauresmo's all-court game is thrilling artistry, athletic and flowing. But she has not reached the final of a major since that Australian run in '99. Frequently injured, she has also gained a reputation for cramps of the brain and fatal fraying of the nerves in tight matches. She feels the pressure of unfulfilled promise, and it is written all over her gallic features how much a major would mean to her. But just when it looked as if she might lose her firm grasp of Tuesday's match against Anastasia Myskina, another player of immense talent and uncertain fortitude, Mauresmo regrouped to win 6-3, 6-4. Now that she is no longer expected to win, perhaps she can.

Williams once threatened to dominate women's tennis, winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000-01. Then her younger sister Serena overtook her, winning four majors in a row: the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2002 and the 2003 Australian (plus Wimbledon again in '03). Often injured, Venus lost form and, it sometimes seemed, interest. She was seeded No. 14 here, apparently destined to meet No. 4 Serena in the fourth round. But it was Serena who fizzled out in a flood of errors and tears in the third round. Venus, now 25, appears fit at last, and buoyed by self-belief that was misplaced for so long. She avenged Serena's loss to Jill Craybas, and Tuesday rose to the occasion in the most scintillating set of the quarters, winning a 12-10 tiebreaker to close out spirited Mary Pierce after racing through the first set 6-0. Now she has an opportunity to redress Serena's loss to Sharapova in last year's final and reassert the Williams coat of arms.

Sharapova, the 18-year-old golden goddess, is a defending champion so glamorous that the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum already has requested her dress and gilt-edged shoes for an exhibit. She is certainly the favorite of the awestruck lads who hold up banners offering proposals of marriage. She was far from her best Tuesday, but bore down admirably when danger lurked, grunting and slugging her way out of trouble, proving a point that experience is a fine teacher and she a remarkably quick study. She also got a little luck – a net cord winner on a key break point – in putting away Russian countrywoman Nadia Petrova 7-6 (6), 6-3.

As in those thick Victorian novels that start slowly and become more riveting, we gain more insight into the main characters of Wimbledon with every chapter.

Davenport – a genuinely nice person, sort of the champion next door – says her thoughts of quitting and "starting a different life" a year ago were sincere.

"Now it's so far from my mind, I can't even really think right now of stopping," she said. "I feel really excited to still be where I'm at. I have a lot of opportunities ahead of me."

Fully recovered from knee surgery in 2002 and foot surgery in 2003, she has spent quality time in the gym and now dictates the pattern of matches with booming serves and groundstrokes.

"I feel like I'm an overall better player," she said. "The game is so much better now than it was in the mid- to late '90s that I think I've done a good job of staying with all the improvements. There's no question that physically, I'm a better athlete and I believe a smarter player – and so is everyone else."

She didn't take any mementos from Wimbledon when she thought last year's tournament would be her last. "I'm not quite that nostalgic yet," she smiled. But she is sentimental. Perhaps when she is a matron with kids, and inevitably does become nostalgic, her favorite Wimbledon moments will be ones that haven't happened yet.

It was fascinating, revealing, and totally in character when Davenport was asked to look ahead to Thursday's match with Mauresmo.

"I do believe in her, and I do believe that she is good enough and strong enough to one day come through in these situations," Davenport said. "I hope it's not Thursday, but … I will say she does seem a little bit more relaxed this year than I have seen her."

Empathy is an endearing trait, but make no mistake, Davenport is a competitor and will be well prepared for the challenges Mauresmo presents.

"It's going to be a totally different matchup than any of the girls I've played here so far," Davenport said. "I'm going to see somebody at the net trying to come in all the time. I'm going to see a lot of slice backhands. I'm going to see some serve-and-volley … I'm going to probably have to aim my returns a little bit differently because she will be coming in. … I'll try to be the one keeping her on the baseline with hard, deep shots and not letting her move her way forward."

After Venus Williams' back-to-back triumphs at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to begin the new millennium, she was runner-up to her sister in five of six Grand Slam tournaments. She hadn't reached even the semis of a major since the 2003 Wimbledon final, and her jubilation was apparent when she closed out Pierce in Tuesday's second set, which blazed with bold and brilliant shot making. Her forehand got a little shaky at gut-check time, but there was no doubt about her hunger, and she imposed her power game more resolutely than she has in some time.

"It's good to see Venus back in a big way," said Tracy Austin, a champion in the days when tennis was more hustle and less muscle. "Venus has played better in every match. You can see her regaining her confidence. But it's tough to bet against Sharapova. For starters, her serve is just a monster."

No longer a teenager living out a fairy tale, as she was last year, Sharapova now talks about her experience.

"Last year I was just thrilled to be in the semifinals," she said. "This year, I'm sort of expecting myself to be in the second week."

She hasn't lost her engaging youthful puckishness, either. Asked how experience helped her against Petrova, Sharapova said: "Especially when I was down a break point, I told the ball to hit the net and roll over. That's what comes with experience."

We all enjoyed a laugh. Then she gave a serious answer to the same question: "When I'm down or maybe when it's close in the match, I feel like I'm still in it. I don't feel like I'm letting down. Mentally, I'm still really, really tough."

She has a becoming sense of history, too, which is important at Wimbledon. With respect to the request for her outfit to go on display, which is really a testament to her popularity, she said: "To be in that museum, obviously it's a big achievement."

She enjoys talking about fashion as well as tennis, and her description of the dress she has worn throughout The Championships is sure to please adoring Brits.

"I feel like it's old style. I see pictures on the walls of other players here around the tournament, and I see them wearing those pleated skirts and some details on the front. It makes me think back of the old days," said Sharapova, whose face and figure have launched a thousand photo ops. "Whenever I think of designing a dress or having inspirations for Wimbledon, it's always about tradition and elegance."

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.