Maria Sharapova has been one of the more prominent voices in the campaign for women to be paid equal prize money and was in combative mood after her quarter-final victory here yesterday over Elena Dementieva. "You guys wanted some entertainment during a women's match," the 2004 Wimbledon champion told reporters after her 6-1, 6-4 victory. "You got some."
Unfortunately Sharapova was referring not to her 70-minute demolition of her fellow Russian but to a male streaker who had cartwheeled across the court when she led by a set and 3-0. The intruder, who was left to parade his wares for several seconds before being ushered away under a red blanket, raised the biggest cheer of the match.
If Dementieva failed to provide much of a test, her opponent was not complaining. Sharapova has spent more time on court here this year than any of the other semi-finalists - she now meets Amélie Mauresmo, while Kim Clijsters will play Justine Henin-Hardenne - and was the only one of that quartet who had dropped a set on the way to the last four, having taken two and a half hours to beat Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round. The semi-finals bring together the world's top four players and the tournament's top four seeds.
The advocates of equal pay frequently point to the intense competition at the top of the women's game, which was reflected in the fact that at the start of play yesterday three of those four had a chance of being world No 1 come Saturday night (although Clijsters is now the only one who can dislodge Mauresmo from the pinnacle).
Sharapova would also have been in contention but for the ankle injury that kept her off the court for more than two months before the French Open. Her ring-rustiness was then exposed when she lost to Jamea Jackson in the semi-finals at Edgbaston and her form here has fluctuated.
The first game yesterday hardly offered the prospect of a strenuous work-out. Sharapova won it with a decent forehand, but the preceding seven points had all ended on unforced errors. The 19-year-old was soon leading 3-0 and when Dementieva opened the next game with two consecutive double faults it seemed that the match might be over before some of the ticket-holders had even arrived following lunch.
Dementieva's achievements in reaching two grand slam finals and a world No4 ranking (she is currently No8) are remarkable for a player with such a fundamental flaw in her game. Sharapova says she has seen the 24-year-old serve well enough in practice, but in match play Dementieva's service can look as threatening as a bowl of strawberries. Nor did her six double faults here tell the full story, for Sharapova frequently punished her weak second serves.
Sharapova, serving consistently and hitting her ground strokes with formidable power, took the first set in only 27 minutes and raced into a 4-0 lead before Dementieva finally found some sort of rhythm and won three games in a row. Sharapova, however, remained focused on the task in hand and served out for the match. She has now won five of her six matches against her fellow Russian.
"I definitely played a lot better than I did yesterday [against Pennetta] and I knew I had to if I wanted to win," Sharapova said. "She has a very good return, so that first serve percentage [Sharapova put 68 per cent of first serves in court] is very important. I don't feel as though it has to be a big serve. It's more a question of placement than power against her."
Dementieva did not think she had played badly but admitted she had trouble returning serve. Asked what she thought of Sharapova's squealing on almost every stroke, Dementieva said she found it "a little bit too much" and suggested the umpire should "calm her down a little bit". She added: "Next time I beat her I will say something. But when you're losing something like 6-1, 4-1 it doesn't look good if you go to the umpire and talk about how loud she's screaming."
Since winning Wimbledon Sharapova has reached the semi-finals of four grand slam tournaments but failed to make further progress on each occasion. Tomorrow she will meet an opponent hoping to end a similarly disappointing sequence, Mauresmo having lost in the semi-finals on her last three appearances at the All England Club.
However, Mauresmo insists that she feels more relaxed here this year and she held her nerve after a poor second set yesterday against Anastasia Myskina. Mauresmo, who had spent an average of less than an hour on court in the previous four rounds, won 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in 83 minutes. She played a serve-and-volley game with impressive confidence, winning 79 per cent of points on her first serve.
The world No1 will celebrate her 27th birthday today by watching France's World Cup semi-final against Portugal. She was asked whether she thought Les Bleus or herself had the best chance of winning this weekend. "We both have to get to the final first so we'll talk about it on Thursday," she said with a smile.
A Mauresmo (Fr) (1) v M Sharapova (Rus) (4)
J Henin-Hardenne (Bel) (3) v K Clijsters (Bel) (2)
(number in bracket denotes seed) To be played tomorrow.
Yesterday at Wimbledon
* Maria Sharapova survived the intervention of a cartwheeling streaker on Centre Court in a 6-1, 6-4 quarter-final win over Elena Dementieva.
* The top-seeded Frenchwoman Amélie Mauresmo played her way through a mid-match wobble to beat Anastasia Myskina, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
* China's first Grand Slam singles quarter-finalist Li Na went no further, losing to the Belgian No 2 seed Kim Clijsters, 6-4, 7-5.
* The French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne reached the semis with a 6-4, 6-4 win against the French qualifier Severine Bremond.