Davenport on the verge as Mauresmo stalls

Davenport, champion here six years ago, will be the favourite to advance to an all-American final with Venus Williams when the match resumes this afternoon, but on the basis of yesterday's play, which was a bizarre mixture of brilliant tennis, elementary mistakes and jangled nerves, only the most steely of gamblers would risk their bottom dollar on it.

Defeat would be a crushing blow for Mauresmo, who is developing a reputation as one of the game's great chokers. This is her third Wimbledon semi-final in the last four years, but since finishing runner-up in the 1999 Australian Open the Frenchwoman has failed to reach another Grand Slam final. She was a set and 3-1 up here before Davenport clawed her way back into the match.

The delayed start meant that Court One spectators who had waited patiently to see a men's doubles suddenly found themselves watching a women's semi-final, the match having been switched from Centre Court in the hope of completing both singles contests on schedule.

They were treated to a remarkable first set which included some thunderous tennis from two of the hardest hitters in the women's game. Both walloped the ball with formidable power from the back of the court and volleyed confidently, with Mauresmo in particular always ready to venture forward as her serve-and-volley tactics reaped a rich dividend. Davenport, meanwhile, mercilessly punished any weak second serves and treated Mauresmo's sliced backhands with similar contempt.

Yet the mistakes also flowed. While Mauresmo hit some magnificent backhand cross-court winners, she regularly tightened up on the forehand and often hit the ball short. Davenport, never the most mobile of players, often looked uncomfortable in the longer rallies and all too often provided an easy target at the net.

It was Davenport who showed the first signs of nerves, dropping her serve in the sixth game after opening it with two double-faults. Mauresmo won her next service game to love to open up a 5-2 lead, but after the Frenchwoman had conceded a double-fault on her first set point Davenport broke back thanks to two magnificent returns.

On her next service game Mauresmo again gave away a double-fault on game point as Davenport broke once more, only to drop her own serve to love – the American's nerves were evident when she hit a simple smash several feet wide on the first point – as Mauresmo levelled at 6-6.

The first set tie-break swung one way and then the other, both women winning four points in a row before Mauresmo held her game together in the final two points. A forehand crosscourt winner created the set point, which she converted when Davenport, under extreme pressure, netted a forehand.

The second set followed the same pattern. Serves were dropped on a regular basis and thrilling points were interspersed with simple errors. Davenport, serving first, set the tone, hitting an easy forehand into the net on the very first point. Mauresmo led 2-0 and 3-1, but Davenport levelled for 3-3 and the set again went to a tie-break.

This time it was the American's turn to hold her nerve, making the crucial break to go 4-2 up with a sweet volley into the corner. Mauresmo saved the first set point but then made a bad error of judgement, choosing not to volley Davenport's booming forehand cross-court return, only to see the ball drop inside the corner.

Serves were held in the final set until a magnificent seventh game, when Mauresmo was broken as Davenport hit a series of excellent returns. At deuce the American was wrong-footed but somehow dug the ball out to land a winning lob on the baseline. She took the game when Mauresmo netted her volley after another superb return to her feet.

Despite a heavy fall after reaching in vain for a Mauresmo volley, Davenport held her serve to go 5-3 up. With the American just one game from victory, however, the rain started to fall again and the players came off. If today's dessert matches yesterday's starter and main course, the feast is not yet over.

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