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Steve Flink - Serena and Venus

7/1/2008 8:57:00 AM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON --- To say the least, this has been a bizarre tournament for the women. For the first time in the history of the world's most illustrious event, not one of the top four seeds made it to the quarterfinals. Ana Ivanovic was entirely too apprehensive from the outset, saving two match points and escaping with a win over Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy. Seemingly, Ivanovic, confident after winning her first major at Roland Garros last month, was ready to take command. But she never found her range in a 6-1, 6-4 defeat at the hands of China's Jie Zheng, bowing out in the third round.

Maria Sharapova wanted to make amends for a disappointing loss to Dinara Safina at Roland Garros, and had her heart set on a second crown on the Wimbledon lawns. But the No. 3 seed Sharapova was strangely out of sorts in a 6-2, 6-4 second round loss to Alla Kudryavtseva, a countrywoman ranked No. 154 in the world. No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic - hindered by an ailing knee, was taken apart by Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn in a straight set, round of 16 contest. And, in the same round, No. 4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova could not hold back No. 14 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, losing that fourth round match 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.

But as the women finished off their quarterfinals on a scorching afternoon with the sun shining brightly and the temperature soaring, the two women who have been the dominant Wimbledon women's figures across the last eight years stepped forward. And, for the time being at least, they seemed to restore order to an event sorely in need of it. Venus Williams - the defending champion in search of a fifth crown this year at the All England Club cast aside an obstinate yet overmatched Tanasugarn 6-4, 6-3. And then Serena Williams, a two time former champion, gave a thoroughly convincing performance in accounting for Radwanska, prevailing 6-4, 6-0.

And so the Williams sisters - who have claimed six of the last eight crowns on the Centre Court - moved one step closer to their first final round collision at a major since Wimbledon of 2003, when Serena came from behind to beat Venus in three sets. That was at a time when the sisters were dominating the major events almost ceaselessly. Starting with the 2001 U.S. Open and ending with that Wimbledon showdown, Serena and Venus confronted each other in six of the eight Grand Slam tournament finals in that span. Venus had won the first of those meetings and Serena took all the rest.

Now, of course, circumstances have changed. Since that golden stretch for the sisters in the 2001-2003 period, they have seldom been at the top of their games simultaneously. Serena came through to win the Australian Open in 2005 with gritty wins over Sharapova (saving three match points in that one), and Lindsay Davenport. Two years later, she triumphed "Down Under" again, this time coming into the event at No. 81 in the world and ousting six seeded player, culminating with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Sharapova in the final.

As for Venus, she has won two majors across the last three years as well. At the 2005 Wimbledon, she saved a match point in an epic final round clash with Davenport, winning that exhilarating battle 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7. Last year, she was magnificent here again when she garnered her fourth crown. Seeded 23rd, she included among her victims No. 2 seed Sharapova, No. 5 Kuznetsova and No. 6 Ivanovic. She was stupendous on that run, and deserved that title without any question.

In any event, it was fortunate for all of us that Venus and Serena ended up on opposite halves of the draw this year. Both have worked hard this season. Both sisters have played seven tournaments this year and their commitment has made a difference. The fact that both sisters are entrenched in the world's top ten is evidence of a high standard of play for most of the year. They have been similarly motivated. They have both seemed to realize that they need to work hard now and make the most of themselves; Venus is, after all, 28, and Serena will be 27 in September.

When they are in the right frame of mind, and they are as highly charged as they need to be, and they are in the best of condition, no one else in the women's game can surpass them on grass. I fully expect Serena to defeat Jie Zheng, and I would be very surprised if Venus did not topple Dementieva. The view here is that they are primed for this occasion, and ready to earn the right to meet each other in the championship match on Sunday.

The view here is that Serena Williams is going to win this tennis tournament; I have felt that way all along, and nothing that has happened here has changed my mind. Her attitude at the moment is excellent. She was asked in her press conference after her quarterfinal if she sees Venus as the favorite to win the tournament. Replied Serena, "I would never sit here and say she's the favorite when I'm still in the draw... I'm not going to sit here and say she’s the favorite when I’m still in the tournament. That's not me. I always believe I am the favorite. Even if I'm not the favorite, I'm always going to believe I am."
Venus carries herself with the same kind of conviction, even if she does not express it identically. So I hope they make it to the final on Saturday. If they can do that, the stage would be set for a blockbuster final, and a better match than they have ever produced before on a big occasion. In their most recent head-to-head showdown, Serena and Venus met in the semifinals of Bangalore. Both players had match points before Serena prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4).

After all of the upsets in this tournament, I can't think of a better way to conclude this fortnight than to have Serena and Venus stage a contest very much like the one they had in Bangalore.

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