Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Serena creates a racket at Wimbledon

AP Sports Writer

        WIMBLEDON, England — Eyes closed, listening to the match for a few moments on Centre Court, it sounded as if one player was pounding the ball against the wall. And the wall was losing.

        On every shot — serves, groundstrokes, volleys, even a lob — Serena Williams grunted like a weightlifter doing the clean and jerk. They should have brought back the grunt-o-meter that famously measured the decibels of Monica Seles' two-tone braying in her heyday. Williams was louder, if less harmonic.

        Williams made a lot of noise with her racket, too. No soft slices for her. No cute drop shots. She crouched down low, uncoiled with all the power of her muscular legs and arms, and threw her full weight into every shot. She didn't just hit balls, she crushed them.

        On the other side of the net, Chanda Rubin was either holding her breath or letting it out silently. Her racket was often just as quiet. Untouchable balls whizzed past her left and right. Numbers can be deceiving in tennis, but in Monday's 6-3, 6-3, fourth-round rout, the ones that stand out are Williams' 35 winners — 16 from the baseline, 13 at the net, plus five aces and one service winner.

        There would be nothing particularly notable about that if Rubin were still recovering from injury and surgery, as she was most of the past year and a half, or if she were merely a mediocre player standing in Williams' path.

        But Rubin had just won the Eastbourne title on grass and had not dropped a set in eight straight matches there and here. She may be ranked No. 27 and may not have a distinguished record at Wimbledon, but she's been playing lately as if she were back in the top 10. She made only seven unforced errors against Williams and kept games close with canny attacks at the net, yet still got pummeled.

        All of which serves to show how far above the field Serena Williams is right now. No one, not even her big sister Venus, the two-time defending Wimbledon champion, is playing with Serena's combination of confidence, power and aggression — not to mention noise.

        Venus Williams hardly struggled in joining her in the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-2 pasting of Lisa Raymond, a player who knows how to rush the net on grass but either couldn't or wouldn't for fear of getting passed. The senior Williams played as well as she had to, going through the motions as if it were a practice session. She was efficient, even if she lacked spark.

        Watching the two sisters, one after the other on the same day, reinforced the impression that they are headed toward a second straight Grand Slam final against each other and that, once again, Serena will win.

        Serena beat Venus at the French Open a few weeks ago and can swipe the No. 1 ranking from her sister if they both reach the final here. Even if Venus wins, Serena could wind up being No. 1, depending on whom they beat and how many points they accumulate on the way.

        That doesn't mean that circumstances and free-swinging opponents can't conspire to upset them. Venus next meets Elena Likhovtseva while Serena plays Daniela Hantuchova. In the semis, Venus could face Monica Seles, and Serena could take on Jennifer Capriati, who beat her in the quarterfinals last year.

        The Williams sisters, at least, are taking nothing for granted.

        “I had overconfidence maybe once in my career and I proceeded to lose that match,” Serena said. “I was reading one time where Billie Jean King said whenever she went out to play anyone, especially if they were ranked lower, she played them as if they were the No. 1 player in the world.

        “It's very important not to get overconfident because, for us, everyone wants to beat a Williams right now.”

        The biggest threat Serena faced in the Rubin match was nearly getting swallowed by the tarp when the crew came racing across the court after showers interrupted play for almost two hours late in the second set. They had played much of the match in sunshine after morning sprinkles, then the sky quickly darkened, the wind kicked up and the rain soaked everyone.

        “I almost got ran over, but I survived,” Williams said. “I'm a survivor. I made it to another day.”


        Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org


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