Mauresmo and Capriati stand in way of the sister act

Belgium may not be over-endowed with famous people, but Wimbledon will certainly miss its two best-known practitioners of female tennis. The absence of Justine Henin-Hardenne because of stamina problems following a nasty viral infection and Kim Clijsters with a wrist injury which needed an operation has left the women's singles light on top talent and top-heavy with Williamses.

Belgium may not be over-endowed with famous people, but Wimbledon will certainly miss its two best-known practitioners of female tennis. The absence of Justine Henin-Hardenne because of stamina problems following a nasty viral infection and Kim Clijsters with a wrist injury which needed an operation has left the women's singles light on top talent and top-heavy with Williamses.

No disrespect to Serena and Venus, who have won Wimbledon for the past four years between them, but a change of challenge would have been welcome, just as it was at the 2003 French and 2004 Australian Opens, both won by Henin with Clijsters in the runner-up circle. Either of the Belgians at full throttle would have fully tested the match fitness of the Williams sisters on Wimbledon's turf; it is hard to see the Russians, dominant though they were at Roland Garros earlier this month, doing the same.

There has been a spot of muttering among their peers about the elevation of the Williamses in Wimbledon's seedings. Serena, ranked 10th in the world after missing eight months of circuit play following a knee operation last July, was awarded top spot, while Venus, eighth in the rankings, was upped to third seed. However, it has to be proved that Serena, short of match play and sharpness though she is, does not remain the best on grass, since she is the two-time champion. Likewise Venus, who has appeared in the last four Centre Court finals.

The two certainly seem up for the challenge. Last Thursday, after launching an instruction manual and conducting a clinic for children at the All England Club, they skipped, jogged and laughed their way past the media centre and towards the dressing rooms. No lack of confidence there, then.

Nor would that confidence have been dented by the draw, which kindly kept them apart and in position to stage a Williams final Mk III. Serena's first challenge will come from China, in the shape of Jie Zheng, while Venus takes on a Swiss, Marie-Gayane Mikaelian. On the surface, not a lot to detain the Williamses then, or indeed in the first week.

Subsequently, matters could become more interesting. Serena's half of the draw contains a couple of big guns in Jennifer Capriati and Amélie Mauresmo. The seventh-seeded Capriati is not in awe of the champion, having won Grand Slams in France and Australia and possessing a wallop comparable to the younger Williams. She eliminated Serena in the Roland Garros quarters three weeks back and will be reasonably confident of doing so again, something which would provoke high-decibel reaction from Jennifer's ever-present father, Stefano.

Should Capriati fail this time, Mauresmo ought to lie in wait at the semi-final stage, probably miffed that, as world No 3, she is considered no better than fourth seed here. The French No 1, who missed Wimbledon last year, was a semi-finalist in 2002, when she collected just three games in an afternoon of humiliation by Serena, a bad memory which needs to be wiped away.

If Serena can overcome those two obstacles, a Wimbledon hat-trick ought to be hers for the taking, since she is clearly superior to Venus these days. Providing rumours of an aching wrist prove unfounded, Venus should not run into trouble until her quarter-final against Lindsay Davenport, the fifth seed and 1999 champion. That should prove more of a test than a projected semi-final with the French Open winner, Anastasia Myskina, seeded second.

The rise and rise of Russians notwithstanding, the United States has lodged four ladies in the first seven seeding spots and has marginally more players among the direct acceptances in the draw - 17 Americans to 13 Russians. Among the Americans, if only by adoption, is Martina Navratilova, 47 years old, the recipient of a wild card and clearly a durable dreamer. Navratilova, nine times winner of the Wimbledon singles, is realistic enough not to be aiming for a 10th, and will certainly pack the place out on a sentimental basis, especially if she navigates past her first round with the Colombian Catalina Castano. But don't bank on it.

At least Navratilova helps to boost the number of former champions in the field to five - the Williams girls, Davenport and Conchita Martinez being the others. It was Martinez who in the 1994 final wrecked Martina's farewell moment, something which will not have been forgotten.

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