James Lawton: Dulko charms – but can she lift the crown?

Victory over a deposed Sharapova not enough to elevate 'Queen of Wimbledon' into the imperious Williams' class
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The Independent Online

She was the instant darling of the Centre Court, anyone could see that, and when the 24-year-old Argentine Gisela Dulko was told by a member of Her Majesty's press that she was now officially the Queen of Wimbledon her response deserved to be noted by every B-list celebrity who ever knew a moment of passing fame.

She flashed a smile that you will be seeing quite a bit of, for the next few days at least – and why not? Because she can also play tennis well enough to condemn a former queen, Maria Sharapova, to a shocking defeat – and said: "Thank you, that's very nice. I'm very happy."

The trouble is that beating yesterday's Sharapova – a grunting, screaming parody of the brilliant vision which carried off the title here as a 17-year-old five years ago – doesn't really make you the monarch of SW19.

It makes you a beguiling opportunist and a more than competent player with a ranking of 43 in the world – and this, more than ever, is the problem of women's tennis. If you take away the Williams girls, what do you really have? On Centre Court yesterday it was two young women attractive enough to grace any catwalk from New York to Milan. No doubt the organisers and sponsors were thrilled by the show put on by Dulko and Sharapova, especially the former, who had the crowd in her Prada handbag long before she produced the nerve to fight off the effect of a string of seven winning games by Sharapova and fight her way into the third round by 6-2, 3-6 6-4.

It was a charming match by any standards. Sharapova, playing her fourth tournament since shoulder surgery, and with a quarter-final place in the French Open along the way, was startled by the Argentine's resistance and it was only in the middle set and in the first part of the third that she reminded us of the power and the beauty of her play of a few years ago. Yet as the Russian princess battled to find herself, and Dulko played some genuinely brilliant shots, you were bound to note that something was missing.

It was the authentic presence of a queen of the game. Starlets yes, we had those, but the solid weight of achievement, the sense of players who, as the Navratilovas and Grafs and Everts did, always come to play at the highest level, and without giving the impression that the game is just part of some wider selling ploy. Sharapova, as Roger Federer now does as a matter of routine, displayed some elegant fashion wear before getting down to more serious business.

However, Sharapova curtly dismissed suggestions that she had lost the battle for the heart of the Centre Court crowd. "That was the least of my worries today," she said. "I was just trying to win a tennis match – and continue to recover from the injury. It's a pity I couldn't play more matches at Wimbledon, but just getting here is a wonderful achievement. You know I'm not lying about it. I had the pleasure of playing on the Centre Court again. You know the losses are tough. More here than at any other tournament, but you know it puts some perspective into your life. You know I have many years ahead of me."

Yes, but what kind of years? Years at the heart of the battle for new standards, new achievements, or the kind of years that can be so easily spent in women's tennis, profitable, glamorous years which give you the chance to stare out from a thousand magazine covers but don't really shape you into someone to challenge for a title of the ages?

Except, perhaps, if you grew up in a gangland enclave of Los Angeles and came under the influence of a father who swears most days that if you put in the effort you get the rewards. Yes, of course, we are talking about the Williams clan and, certainly, it was instructive to walk the few hundred yards between Centre and No 1 courts. In that latter place you could see, after the new queen of Wimbledon, one of the two modern empresses of a women's game which pays itself a lot and demands rather less in the way of compelling performance. On Court One, Serena, who is challenging for her third Wimbledon title while sister Venus goes for the sixth, was taking less than an hour to dispose of a hard-serving, Australia-based Slovak named Jarmila Groth, who is ranked 64th in the world.

Williams won 6-2, 6-1. It was all there, the power and that relentless determination to grind down the opposition. It wasn't the kind of show which thrilled the Centre Court, but a reminder of where the women's game is, and what it has to do to pass from mere celebrity and pin-up appeal to becoming again an authentic home of widespread, top-level competition.

Serena, who is currently spending all her time away from the court working on a TV script "treatment", was asked if it sometimes felt odd so regularly to monopolise with her sister the most serious reckoning about who was going to win the greatest of tennis tournaments.

She said: "I don't really think about that. I am just here to do what I think I do best, and that's play tennis. I enjoy every moment of being on the court. I actually enjoy the competition more than anything. I mean if I'm not feeling well when I step out there, and I'm in the heat of the moment, especially in a Grand Slam, the competition is really what keeps me motivated."

Meanwhile back in the throne room, Gisela Dulko was saying to one of her courtiers: "Yes, this is the win of my career because it was my first time on the Centre Court. It was so great to play on the Centre Court, and to beat Maria, a great player, and past champion as well."

God save the Queen was one thing you could have said. But then also, with great respect to a player who did splendidly on her day in the sun, there might have been a temptation to say the same of women's tennis.

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