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Sport - Tennis Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Serena Williams ready for the home stretch

By Nirmal Shekar

LONDON, JUNE 29. They turned up like a pair of young women invited to model at a sartorial symposium on dressing for a Saturday night at the disco.

An old member of the most exclusive tennis club in the world, returning to the centre court at Wimbledon on Tuesday, might have almost fallen out of his reserved seat and choked on his cucumber sandwich in an arena where the young women's predecessors once turned out covered from head to toe — a championship where a certain Ms. Ruth Tapscott of South Africa triggered a major controversy when she became the first woman to play without wearing stockings in 1927!

Serena Williams, 22, going for a third straight title, walked in in a familiar tight fitting sleeveless top and a frilly mini-skirt two sizes too small, making you wonder if she picked up the wrong delivery bag at her tailor's.

Serena's opponent, the precious Russia-born French teenager, Tatiana Golovin, aged 16, wore a tight body-hugging top that revealed enough of the midriff to have IMG's modelling scouts ignore their champagne and caviar in the hospitality marquees and rush to the centre court. And Golovin's rolled-down-at-the-hip hotpants, the width of a broad belt, might have been designer-made out of a handkerchief!

Anybody for tennis? Well, to be sure, there was indeed some of it, as much as Ms. Williams would permit. The champion, playing her best match of the fortnight in patches, was very much the confident disc jockey as she made Golovin dance to her tunes for a 6-2, 6-1 victory that advanced her to the quarterfinals of the 118th Wimbledon championships.

Given how much teenagers love the disco floor, it was indeed a surprise that Golovin collapsed in a heap in 55 minutes. But the pounding music and her own relative inexperience vis a vis the big night out, proved a disastrous combination for Golovin.

Making her way out, the leggy blonde from France would have surely muttered a quiet `thank you' to Prince William for not turning up in the Royal Box. It might have been such an embarrassment to the young woman who, yesterday, had said it was her dream to meet the young man who is second in line to the British throne.

Then again, forget the scoreline. It is the hem-line that makes a difference in a sport where the game within the game — modelling, endorsement, whatever — is much more lucrative than the rewards for anything you may accomplish on the courts.

``The girls are coming out with better outfits. It is better than it was five years ago,'' said Serena. Your perspective certainly depends on your point of view.

But the question is, for all the fuss being made about the emergence of sensational young talents like Golovin and Maria Sharapova — and believe me, they are hugely talented — to name only two, is women's tennis today as richly endowed as it was in the heyday of a Martina Navratilova or a Steffi Graf?

That might be a point to ponder in a sport where couture — controversial or not — has consumed as many column inches as winning forehands and backhands.

Comfort zone

Serena, for her part, seems suitably focussed here this fortnight and may have already moved into her comfort zone as a performer. If, in the last 12 months out of which she spent eight away from the game following a knee surgery, she has devoted as much time to high fashion — her one big passion — as she did practising, then she is not about to fluff her lines in the one major tournament where she is still the Queen.

The quick demolition of the French prodigy pleased Serena today for its brevity but she wasn't over the moon, really.

``I wanted to do a few things — come in more, move her around more — which I didn't. But I guess I can't complain too much,'' said the two-time champion.Golovin, the youngest player in the main draw and a finalist at Edgbaston a week before Wimbledon, has an impressive game. She has the best teenaged serve this side of Sharapova and combined with her sunny attitude and shotmaking skills, it is a potent combination.

Serena, who recorded the fastest ever serve in the women's game at Wimbledon today (126 mph), opened up a 3-0 first set lead before Golovin staved off a breakpoint to make the scoreboard. What is more, she hit the shot of the match — a forehand pass on the run — in the next game and Serena herself made sucessive backhand unforced errors to lose serve. Time for the over-drive.

"That gear is still there,'' said Serena as she won the next 17 points, closing out the first set in the process. As a contest, it lasted two more games, the first two of the second set. In the first, Serena fought off three breakpoints in a row to hold and then Golovin held to 1-1 in the longest game of the match. Ten of Serena's 12 aces came in the second set.

``It was amazing to be on the centre court. It's a good experience,'' said Golovin with a smile that is made for the centre-stage. In time, her game would be just perfect for the centre-stage too if — and it is a big IF — she can stay on the straight and narrow. Serena will meet the woman who beat her twice in the last two months — Jennifer Capriati — in the quarterfinals. Capriati raced past Nadia Petrova of Russia 6-4, 6-4.

Another quarterfinal pits the fourth seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France against the ninth seeded Paola Suarez of Argentina. Mauresmo got past Silvia Farina Elia of Italy 7-5, 6-3 while Paola Suarez also saw off an Italian, Rita Grande, 4-6, 6-0, 6-2. Sharapova to meet DavenportIn the bottom half of the draw, where the fourth round matches were played yesterday, Maria Sharapova simply refused to lose. Pushed to the very brink time and again by the talented, experienced Japanese player Ai Sugiyama, the 17-year old Russian clawed her way back to knot up the match before running away with the third set.

The 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 quarterfinal victory earned Sharapova a shot at the former champion Lindsay Davenport who raced past Karolina Sprem of Croatia 6-2, 6-2.Sharapova lost three setpoints in the 10th game on Sugiyama's serve before breaking the Japanese woman in the 12th. From there, she was unstoppable.

``After all the hard work and sacrifices, this is amazing,'' said a breathless Sharapova. ''I don't know how I won today.''

We do. Those of us who saw her today know how she won and why she won — she has the heart of a champion.

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