Commentary

Odds squarely with the Williams sisters

Updated: July 2, 2009, 6:46 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Did you know that Elena Dementieva is multilingual and owns a Yorkshire terrier named Patrick? Nope, didn't know that.

Did you know that Dementieva reached two Grand Slam finals five years ago, falling each time to a fellow Russian? Maybe.

Did you know that it was Dementieva who suggested the fix is in when the Williams sisters face off?

Well, probably more than the other two.

Dementieva, a backcourt grafter with a wonderful smile, reopened Pandora's box last year at Wimbledon after Venus Williams and Serena Williams cruised to the final at the world's most famous tennis tournament.

Forecasting the outcome of the final, Dementieva, a straight-sets loser to grass queen Venus, famously uttered, "For sure, it's going to be a family decision." Venus understandably took offense.

The women's tour shuddered, went into panic mode, and before you knew it, Dementieva clarified her remarks in one of those carefully crafted press releases.

"I do not think for one second that matches between Serena and Venus are family decisions," she declared. "What I meant was it is a unique situation for a family to be in to be playing for a Grand Slam title."

Now, if another pro had said it, and one with a lesser command of English, chalking it up to a misunderstanding might have worked.

Dementieva, however, also suffered from loose lips in 2001. Casting an eye toward an all-Williams semifinal clash in the California desert of Indian Wells, Dementieva suggested that dad Richard Williams would pick the winner. No such controversy this fortnight, although all eyes and ears will be on the world's No. 4-ranked player if the Williamses, as expected, win their semifinals Thursday.

Dementieva will try to do her part to end the dominance of the Williams sisters at SW19 (although one British tabloid suggested Wimbledon's abbreviated postcode should be altered to WS19). Dementieva will line up against Serena, while Venus, gunning for a fifth title and third in a row at the All England Club, will tackle world No. 1 Dinara Safina in another U.S.-Russia tussle. Safina and Dementieva are tour workhorses, first and second, respectively, in 2009 matches played.

Not since Wimbledon three years ago have the top four seeds at a major sauntered to the last four.

Serena won't need Dementieva's past comments to pump her up, according to ESPN analyst and three-time Wimbledon semifinalist Pam Shriver.

"Obviously Serena and Venus probably remember what people say," said Shriver. "But they don't need any further motivation. Both have reasons to have the usual championship hunger. To me it's always interesting to see if people can maintain a certain phenomenal level, and both Williams sisters have that level right now."

Dementieva, considered one of the best active women's players never to have won a major, behind Safina, possesses a respectable 3-5 record against Serena. It was only last summer at the Beijing Olympics that Dementieva upped her game to eliminate the 27-year-old in the quarterfinals.

Dementieva has barely been tested this fortnight, not dropping a set, like Serena and Venus, and conceding five games or fewer through five rounds. The double-faults are easing, with Safina taking up the slack.

Yet in their two Grand Slam encounters, the semifinals of January's Australian Open included, Williams cruised in straight sets.

Williams encountered a tougher draw to the quarterfinals, crushing dangerous Belarusian upstart Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 6-3 on Tuesday.

The numbers were staggering: Williams, twice a Wimbledon champ, produced 26 winners, gifted seven unforced errors and threw in nine aces, countering a low first-serve percentage.

"If Serena plays the way she did against Azarenka, Dementieva is just going to try to figure out how many games she can win," Shriver said.

[+] EnlargeDInara Safina
Hamish Blair/Getty ImagesDinara Safina is the only semifinalist who has dropped sets thus far.

Safina, suddenly enjoying the grass, lacks in controversy. A curious remark did pop up in the wake of her three-set win over German prospect Sabine Lisicki. Asked to assess her chances against Venus Williams, Safina called it a "50-50" match.

A few eyebrows were understandably raised, and Safina, 0-for-3 in Grand Slam finals without winning a set, expanded. Unsung Japanese Akiko Morigami was the last foe to snatch a set from Venus in southwest London, in the third round in '07.

"If I play my best and she plays her best, it's 50-50 who's going to win the match," continued Safina, who is making a maiden appearance in the second week at Wimbledon. "I don't think if I play my best tennis and she plays the best tennis that she's the favorite."

Playing her best won't include tossing in 15 double-faults, an ugly accompaniment to an otherwise gutsy performance against Lisicki on Tuesday. Safina has lost the first set in her two previous matches, not a wise strategy against a Williams sister on the sport's quickest surface.

Safina surely can draw strength from their last head-to-head at May's Italian Open, a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 slugfest victory that lasted 3 hours, 10 minutes (even if slow red clay was the surface). Knee tendinitis was a worry in Wimbledon's first week, but the joint is now "great."

Despite competing with strapping on her own knee, Venus sizzled against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round and didn't let up in the quarterfinals. Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska was the unlucky victim, exiting 6-1, 6-2 in 68 minutes.

Venturing forward more than at any other major, Venus' success rate at the net in her three latest matches stood at an impressive 78 percent.

"She has the top ranking, but I have more experience in this tournament and more success," said Venus, who is about 15 months older than Serena. "I've been playing a little longer. So if she keeps playing longer, too, then maybe she has the opportunity to have lots of success here, too."

Odds are success won't equate to a title for Safina or Dementieva at Wimbledon in 2009.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.