LONDON – “Where are those Williams sisters?” a Wimbledon ticket-holder asked me yesterday.
They lost in the fourth round, I replied.
“So what?” the guy, an American, persisted. “They’re as much a part of this place as strawberries, ivy and the Pimm’s Cups. It should be like our baseball with designated hitters. Just insert them automatically in the lineup, into the semifinals.”
Well, not quite. But a semifinals day without either Serena or Venus – or both of them – is like a Pimm’s No. 1 without the gin. Since 2000, when Venus won the first of her five titles, the “Sisters Sledgehammer” were principals in 10 finals out of 12 years, missing out on this year and 2006.
But of the quartet of semifinalists Friday, three of them were hardly recognizable, and the fourth was considered the elderly lady at age 24. That would be the champ of 2007, Maria Sharapova, a skinny teen-ager who struck down Serena in the final that year.
At 6-feet-2 Maria could look down on the three virtually unknown 21-year-olds – Sabine Lisicki, Victoria Azarenka, (both playing in their first semifinals of a major) Petra Kvitova — and show them the groundies and fashions that have made her very known. Sharapova, who has not lost a set in the tournament,` a 6-4, 6-3, winner over German wild card Lisicki, exhibited some heavy hitting, but also errant serving that made the 14,979 witnesses in Centre Court wonder how someone could serve so badly and come out of it so well. Holder of the women’s double fault record, 21, set at the US Open two years ago. She lost that day to prodigy Melanie Oudin, but forced very promising Lisicki to go for too much on her shots.
Maria served 48 per cent, also 13 double faults that kept her in difficulty for one set. Lisicki came in at No.62. She needed a wild card to crash the party, having missing 6 months with injuries and faded to No. 218. She’ll jump to No. 27.
Sharapova’s serving games were adventurous give-aways. The toss was too high for a breezy, gloomy day. “The toss went everywhere,” she laughed, “but I refocused after losing the first 3 games. Now I feel so great to be in the final again after 7 years, an open era record between final appearances at Wimbledon. The [right] shoulder is coming along well after the latest surgery.” She was her stolid self, rigid, determined, shouting “Come on!” only a couple of times, screeching throughout the match.
Do left-handers from a small town in the Czech Republic ever win this championship? What about Martina Navratilova – 9 times. “And Jaroslav Drobny, in 1954,” said Martina.
Petra Kvitova, a rugged 6-footer, semi finalist last year, likes the fit and has enjoyed meeting Martina here. She’s a slugger, but strangely fell off course in the middle set of her 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, decision over No. 5 Azarenka from Belarus.
“It was unbelievable to see the last point, her serve going long. I was in the final!” exhulted No. 8 Kvitova. Power on the forehand side was an important asset, but Petra has variety, flat and slice, and a better backhand than most lefties. She had 9 aces, 3 in a row to close the first set, most of them in the 110 MPH neighborhood. Then she began missing, the second set was gone, but she came back, banging winners. “It was a mental struggle, but I was strong then. I’ve played Sharapova once, losing to her on a hard court in Memphis. But I think a left hander on grass has an advantage.”
What with Sharapova, Azarenka, and Kvitova sounding off regularly, Centre Court became an aviary. A noted English birder, S. P. Barnes, has classified some of the players with their soundmates coursing through the neighborhood.
“There are categories of shrieking,” he says, feeling that Sharapova matches up with the back-headed gull. Azarenka (most offensive of the screechers, an average of 6.59 minutes per game according to British measuring devices) with the local jay. Possibly the carrion crow. Kvitova’s squawk is straight from the henhouse.”
Poor Lysicki had nothing vocal to offer. Maybe she can find some birds for rehearsals, and return next year with the Williams Sorority’s styles of screams.