Tennis: Williams has right answer to early call

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IT WAS the perfect match-up. Anna Kournikova, the tabloid goddess of hearts, took on the other striking female figure of the championships. It was Venus against Venus. And the earthling Williams won it.

There will, therefore, be no more unfettered ogling in the women's singles tournament this year. Anna is out, but she leaves behind confirmation that she can be more than candyfloss in the women's game. For a set yesterday the Russian was sublime, and she can comfort herself in the knowledge that we now accept her sporting make-up is almost as significant as the variety on her dressing-table.

Williams may have dropped her first set of the fortnight in a 3-6, 6- 3, 6-2 victory, but there is a growing thunder to her momentum. It will take a special player to give her a game, which makes the quarter-final contest today with Steffi Graf all the more interesting.

Yesterday's Cold War match had originally been scheduled for Centre Court and then moved to Court One. Further disruption saw it finally positioned on Court No 18. If the bad weather had continued the suspicion was that it would have been taken off the premises altogether and on to the Common, with the Wombles as ballboys.

Kournikova arrived to the usual tiresome volley of building-site wolf whistles, while Williams covered her modesty with a tracksuit top. All we could see at that time was an octopus of beads on the top of her head.

Then came the unveiling. Her dress was crafted from as much cloth as it takes to manufacture a tea towel. A great shark bite of material had been taken out of the back. This apparel was all the more striking as it was spread across a 6ft 1in physique which looks to have been made by computer. "My outfit was predominantly white, so I think it was okay," she said. Actually, it was predominantly fresh air.

Williams, as ever, appeared slightly doleful when she came to court, as if tears could be induced rather easily. There is a reason for this apparent sadness. The Californian almost always gets off to a bad start.

Early on yesterday she was coughing on her shots. "My start was too slow and that's probably not a good idea," she said. "I was giving a lot away. She was making some nice shots but I was making mistakes. I thought: `I'm going to have to make some shots or else I'll be on a flight home tomorrow'."

While Williams was still in the stretch and yawn phase her opponent was blasting away. Kournikova is never more dangerous than when freed from inhibition and allowed to swing on either side. Allied with yesterday's punchy volleying and deft drop shots, this was the sort of package which has helped the Russian defeat all the top players. The first set was hers in 31 minutes.

This passage of play was an answer to those who consider there is little behind Kournikova's agreeable canvas. Her stated choice of second career is acting, and there are some who consider that profession is already overlapping her tennis. "She had a plan," Williams said. "To get into the quarter-finals."

It was this realisation which woke the American. Kournikova has been saying "no comment" to all queries about her private life in SW19, and yesterday it was no answer as soon as she relinquished the initiative at the beginning of the second set. Williams conceded no further break points.

The American, who holds the record for the fastest women's serve at 127.4mph, now resisted the temptation to better that mark and, as a consequence, landed more first deliveries. Kournikova started to miss more often.

Kournikova, who had been urging herself on in English, began muttering darkly in Russian. Her resolve was gradually worn down. "In the first set I played very well and then in the second she started to get her rhythm," she said. "She was just mentally tougher at the end.

"This is a ladies' sport and women tend to get more nervous than the men, who just play. Women's tennis is a lot about mental toughness."

Williams began to appear an even more imposing figure at the net. She became harder to manoeuvre out of position at the back of the court. She began to look quite good.

She will have to look even better in her quarter-final, though she goes in with the knowledge she has beaten Graf in their last two meetings. "There has to be more to come," she said. "I have to play a little better. I've got to go out there and be ready to play. Ready to attack and take the opportunities, believe in what I'm doing and concentrate."

There have reportedly been racist comments in SW19 directed towards Williams' fellow American and friend from junior days, Alex Stevenson. They could yet test their friendship in the final. "I've had no racism, well not to my face," Williams said. "I've been pretty fortunate [in my career] though.

"Everyone has wanted to give me an opportunity with wild cards and a lot of media attention. I don't know what the others go through. It's not a perfect world." It cannot have seemed far off though for Venus Williams last night.