Clijsters and Williams prove a class apart

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The Independent Online

The lack of depth in the women's game was further under underlined yesterday when the two top seeds who were in action, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters, breezed into the last 16 with almost embarrassing ease against Nadia Petrova and Samantha Reeves respectively.

The men's singles conjured an upset at the first time of asking, when Clijsters' boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, saw his tenure as champion ended by an opponent not even ranked among the world's top 200 players. Five days into the female equivalent, and with half of the last 16 already decided, Daniela Hantuchova remained the only one of the leading 10 seeds to have lost a set by the time rain forced the covers to be brought on late in the afternoon.

Petrova's performance against Venus Williams epitomised the dearth of credible competition for the Williams sisters, Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne and a smattering of others. The No 29 seed, having reached the semi-finals of the French Open, might have been expected to run the 2001 champion and fourth seed far closer than 6-1, 6-2. The result meant that the 21-year-old Russian won only one game more than when the pair met here two years ago.

Perhaps it was Centre Court nerves. Maybe she was daunted by the sheer presence and physicality of the elder Williams on the other side of the net. Either way, Petrova served wretchedly and seemed unwilling or unable to move around the court. In a mere 62 minutes, she was, like the title of her favourite book, gone with the wind.

Williams, whose form has taken a timely upturn, anticipates a sterner test from another Muscovite, Vera Zvonareva, who beat her at Roland Garros this month. "I made about unforced 70 errors [in Paris]," she said. "I don't think I'll do that in the fourth round. That was definitely the death of me there, though I wasn't upset. I really wasn't prepared - it was just a real fight against myself."

Clijsters, the No 2 seed and half of the dual Belgian challenge to the Williams sisters, continued her rampage through the early rounds at the expense of Reeves overcoming the American 6-1, 6-2. The 20-year-old, who also beat Reeves here last year, has conceded seven games in three straight-sets victories.

Reeves, who hails from a cheese-making town in Wisconsin, is remembered for having donned a "cheese-head" - a triangular, cheese-coloured hat traditionally favoured by supporters of the Green Bay Packers gridiron team - in the Australian Open. This time the world No 109 bit off more than she could chew: Clijsters does, after all, come from a little place called Bree.

Clijsters broke her opponent's first service game and sealed the opening set inside 20 minutes. To the surprise of the Court One crowd, Reeves rallied to take the first two games of the second set, but her resistance did not last. Opening up the court with ease, Clijsters reeled off six games in a row to wrap up the second set in half an hour.

"I played a really good match," Clijsters said. "I think I played even better than in my earlier matches, served better, returned well and moved well. Even when we had some tough rallies, I still felt I was dominating and that she couldn't really hurt me."

Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion and No 5 seed, has been struggling with an injury to her left foot, on which she will have surgery in November. She has also complained of lacking motivation, but she still carried too much class and clout for Cara Black, of Zimbabwe. Black, the world No 59, grew up playing on grass courts in the grounds of the family home in Harare. However, it counted for nothing as the American, wearing specially made "orthotic" shoes, brushed her aside 6-2, 6-2.

Ai Sugiyama, the No 14 seed from Japan, equalled her best Wimbledon performance, which she posted on her fourth visit seven years ago, by qualifying for the last 16. There she will have the dubious privilege of a match with Clijsters, with whom she won the doubles championship in the French Open. Sugiyama, who will be 28 on the day of the women's final, overcame Natalie Dechy, the French No 23 seed, 6-4, 6-4.

Having lost to Dechy at Eastbourne during the build-up to Wimbledon, Sugiyama attributed the reversal to greater aggression and confidence about playing on grass. As for the next obstacle, she said: "Kim is playing unbelievably well. But I have nothing to lose." Indeed, she has already beaten Clijsters this year, prompting the Belgian to say last night: "Ai hardly ever makes any mistakes and will always make you work for each point."

Sugiyama's fellow Japanese and conqueror of Hantuchova, Shinobu Asagoe, is through to face Davenport after beating another unseeded player, Francesca Schiavone, of Italy, 7-5, 6-2. Davenport watched the final set of her next opponent's last match, leading her to an optimistic forecast last night. "It's going to be a match that I will be able to dominate. I think I can attack her serve, but I know she hits the ball pretty hard, flat and low. I've just got to be moving into the court."

Zvonereva, one of several Russian women overshadowed this week by the explosive Wimbledon debut of the 16-year-old Maria Sharapova, was too good for the unseeded Iroda Tulyaganova, of Uzbekistan, winning 6-3, 7-5.

The 18-year-old No 16 seed lists her most memorable experience as "losing 6-0, 6-0 to Nadia Petrova aged eight". Petrova's exit has denied Zvonereva the chance of revenge for that childhood defeat and another in the French quarter-final. Yet it also offers Zvonereva the chance, in the shape of a rematch with Venus Williams, of a new best memory - and an upset to dispel the perception of women's tennis as the preserve of an exclusive élite.