Jul 4, 2008

Sports - The Nirmal Shekar Column

London: They’ve been doing this for a while — for almost two full decades, that is. And they are not finished yet.
From the time they first played each other on a pock-marked disused parking lot in the seedy, dangerous, drug-infested Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Venus Williams and Serena Williams have enjoyed their sister acts.
If tennis fans are not particularly fond of these family affairs, then so be it. Remember, there are 126 others in a Grand Slam draw. It is just that nobody else was good enough to get as far as the Williamses in the 122nd Wimbledon championships.
Come Saturday, then, the latest episode in the long running Williams versus Williams soap will be enacted at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
While Venus Williams, the defending champion, stamped out the Russian Elena Dementieva’s second set resistance to post a 6-1, 7-6(3) victory, Serena did much the same thing against the gutsy little Jie Zheng from China, winning 6-2, 7-6(5).
Venus and Serena have played each other three times in the past at Wimbledon, Venus winning a semifinal encounter in 2000 before losing to her younger sister in the finals of 2002 and 2003.
Zheng played wonderfully aggressive tennis in the second set, opening up a 4-2 lead. But the sheer power of Serena’s groundstrokes, apart from her experience and serving might, saw the former champion wriggle out of trouble.
After breaking back to 3-4, Serena saved a setpoint in the 12th game before taking control of the tie-break. It ended in anti-climax as Zheng, facing her first matchpoint, sent down a double fault.Seventh final
Venus got off the blocks like Michael Schumacher from pole position and raced to a 4-0 lead, fighting off four breakpoints in the second game. Not much later, she pocketed the first set with a high crosscourt volley executed with the sort of grace and athleticism that would have made the late Alicia Markova proud.
There is, indeed, a gasp-inducing balletic grace to Venus’s movements on the court. The arms and legs that seem to go on forever and ever produce an image of surreal beauty in the heat of battle as if she were an impressionist’s vision brought to life on the lawns.
Whether Dementieva herself was lost in the appreciation of her opponent’s art is hard to say. But the willowy Russian did enter the scene as a competitor in the third game of the second set after losing eight of the first nine in the match.
A lucky winner off the tape saw Dementieva hold to 1-2 and this boosted her confidence as she matched the champion shot for shot from the baseline and served with power and intelligence. A tie-break was inevitable.
“She was really, really tight in the end of the match. I had some opportunity. It [the second set] was a completely different game,” said Dementieva.
What she forgot to mention was that she was just as nervous in the tie-break, making a flurry of forehand errors after Venus, surprisingly, lost two successive points on serve from 2-1.
A Dementieva backhand that sailed over the baseline gave Venus three matchpoints and the Russian put a forehand in the net to make sure that the champion wasn’t stretched.
“She [Dementieva is a similar player who plays with a lot of power. I had to play well,” said Venus after making her seventh final here. “I am looking forward to that final.”
In a men’s quarterfinal match which was suspended on Wednesday night because of poor light with the contestants tied a set apiece, Rainer Schuettler of Germany outlasted Arnaud Clement of France 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-7(7), 8-6 on Thursday to earn himself a shot at Rafael Nadal.Masterly Nadal
On Wednesday night, Rafael Nadal had his first brush with perfection on grass. As awe-inspiring as it was, it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight to British eyes. For, the soaring Spaniard turned the most eagerly awaited contest of the first 10 days into a distressingly lopsided match as he out-thought, out-muscled and outclassed Andy Murray 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to sprint into the semifinals.
In tennis, perfection comes in many styles. But, since we saw the last of Pete Sampras here, only one man — Roger Federer — could lay claim to it, until Wednesday, that is.
As good as he was last year when he almost took the match away from the serial-champion in the fifth set of the final, Nadal, in the sort of form he was against Murray, was almost unrecognisable as the player who had lost two finals to Federer.
As a make-over, this seems more like magic; for, the newly minted version of Nadal on grass seems so much a better player.
His serve is a much bigger weapon now and there is a greater variety to it. And the whipping, high-bounding forehands are now mixed with the hard, flatter variety that makes the ball stay low.
What is more, his extraordinary anticipation and court coverage are now backed by a wonderful tactical maturity that turns him into a near-invincible competitor.Laser-like precision
If Murray found the Spaniard’s serves too hot to handle — Nadal lost just 10 points on serve in the match — then the four-time French champion’s groundstrokes had the precision of lasers.
As winners flashed past him like so many yellow missiles, Murray was shell-shocked and often shook his head in disbelief — as did 15,000-plus fans in the centre court stands.
“I think this is the best I’ve played at Wimbledon, especially in the second set,” said Nadal.
Despite the pounding, Murray was gracious in defeat. “Nadal has a great chance of beating Federer. If he plays that well, I think he is close to being the favourite to win the tournament. He was very close last year and he is playing better than last year.”

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