Streetfighter?s spirit cannot save Serena but Venus ascends

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The Independent Online

Time was when a Wimbledon court filled up for the arrival of a Williams. Yesterday it was a sign of the new order that as Maria Sharapova left No 1 Court, half the crowd left with her, rather than delay their lunch for Venus. The times, they are a changin' in women's tennis, considerably faster than could possibly have been predicted when two feisty sisters from Palm Beach Gardens became the talk of the sport in the late Nineties. Venus and Serena Williams were supposed to dominate for a decade, yet their year-end rankings since 2002 tell a tale of unexpected decline: Serena first, third, then seventh; her older sister second, 11th and ninth. By last Monday, Venus had even slipped to 16th, though yesterday she eventually overcame Daniela Hantuchova 7-5 6-3 to keep open the possibility of meeting Serena in the fourth round, ensuring that one of them will make the last eight.

It would be Venus's first appearance in a Grand Slam quarter-final for more than a year - a statistic that would have seemed inconceivable once she and Serena began carving up the major tournaments between them. From Wimbledon 2000 until Roland Garros three years later, the sisters won eight of them. But Venus has not secured one since the US Open of 2001, the new generation of Russians and Justine Henin-Hardenne regularly being crowned queen.

Venus continues to insist that tennis is the most important thing in her life, though there are many who doubt it.

Venus's press conference yesterday was a little prickly as she was unwilling to look ahead to playing Serena before her sister had come through her third-round match. "I don't measure my success or achievement against anyone else's," Venus said. "It was a good day, I played good, though I feel I can pick it up a bit."

Venus had taken 47 minutes to win a first set of high quality, in which there was not a sniff of a break point for 10 games. In the 11th, Williams recovered from 0-40 to deuce with a superb return, and broke through with a forehand winner after Hantuchova clipped the net. The Slovakian's star has faded from fifth brightest in the women's constellation to a current 28th, and her serve suddenly collapsed at the start of the second set. But from 0-3, broken twice, Hantuchova fought back to draw level, only to drop her serve again, so that there were five breaks in the first seven games. Finally, Williams held hers, and broke again before treating No 1 Court and her father Richard to a skipping, twirling celebratory jig as her disappointed opponent hurried away.

Remarkably, Lindsay Davenport has re-established herself as world No 1 at 29 years of age, without winning Grand Slams, and will be fancied to take a first since Australia 2000 if she beats Kim Clijsters in the quarter-final. Unfailingly popular, she qualified for that meeting yesterday by defeating Dinara Safina, Marat Safin's 19-year-old sister, 6-2 6-1 on Court Two with minimum fuss.

Davenport, though, did criticise Wimbledon officials over the women's seedings for this year's event - and in particular the potential meeting of the Williams sisters - after organisers decided not to amend the rankings to reflect past grass-court performances, despite doing so in the men's singles.

"I was really disappointed that they did stuff for the men and not for the women," Davenport said. "I don't understand the disparity. Round of 16 is much too early for those two [the Williams sisters] to play against each other."

However, Davenport is happy with her own game and is looking forward to facing Clijsters.

"It's probably going to be just a little bit tougher from here on in," Davenport said. "I feel a lot better than I did at the French, when I was barely winning matches and sets - that's a positive. I have been able to take control of matches and dominate. But obviously Monday [against Clijsters] is going to be a different story."

Davenport's victory gave the edge to the older generation, just, in three battles with teenagers yesterday. In the bottom half of the draw, a smiling Mary Pierce, 30, and seeded 12th, overpowered the Serbian youngster Ana Ivanovic 6-1 6-4. She achieved an early break in each set and was impressively deft too in a match much enjoyed by the Court Three crowd.

Sadly, the 1994 champion, Conchita Martinez, 33, was a shadow of her old self in losing to the 19-year-old Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic 6-4 6-1. Guilty of hitting too many wild forehands, she appropriately lost the match on another of them, having earlier bounced a racket on the ground in frustration. Peschke, not afraid to serve and volley, will now meet the eighth seed, Nadia Petrova, a 6-4 6-3 winner against Cara Black.