Under the headline "The Beautiful Game", the colour magazine of a national newspaper asserted eight days ago that "women's tennis is the biggest firestorm blowing through sports; it's the girls who make the front pages". A year ago, perhaps. But the women's game is ailing and in need of stretcher-bearers as the players head into the Wimbledon starting stalls, suffering from the demands imposed on too few performers of real quality. Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Anna Kournikova, all have fallen by the wayside en route to the All England Club and sent their apologies.
Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion, only recovered from a three-month injury lay-off in time to play Eastbourne; Jennifer Capriati and Amélie Mauresmo took the precaution of citing exhaustion and missing last week's pre-Wimbledon events. And as for the Williams sisters, who knows? Venus and Serena could astound, as they did 12 months back, or could be sent packing, as happened at the French Open, betrayed by lack of match practice.
Which leaves Martina Hingis, who rarely gets hurt but also rarely looks a Grand Slam winner any more, despite her continued reign at No 1 which will extend tomorrow to 196 weeks, the fourth best of all time on the women's tour. Hingis, still short of her 21st birthday, has been struck amidships of late by the power game. All her nearest rivals can outhit her, a fact which appears to concern Hingis less and less. It is two-and-a-half years since she last held aloft a Grand Slam trophy, at the Australian Open of 1999, nine majors ago, and her placement and movement skills, once such a determining factor, are no longer enough to counter the Big Bertha brigade. Semi-finals have suddenly become her stock-in-trade.
It is pointless attempting to forecast which way the Williams girls will be facing at Wimbledon; towards the presentation ceremony or the exit. Perhaps even they don't know – or care. At Roland Garros, Serena was overweight to an alarming degree, while Venus seemed troubled by her knees. But these are women who have sashayed into tournaments before without much evidence of preparation and still walked off with the gewgaws.
Those in search of a fairytale will be gazing adoringly in the direction of Capriati, winner of the year's first two Grand Slams, in Melbourne and Paris, and, therefore, still on course to become the first Grand Slammer in a calendar year since Steffi Graf in that golden season of 1988, when she also became an Olympic champion. As she proved so thrillingly in the French final, Capriati has triumphantly resolved any concerns about her fitness and dedication.
The glint in Jennifer's eye announces she is the one to beat these days. This has clearly been the case on the hard courts of Australia and the clay of Roland Garros. But Capriati's best results at Wimbledon were in her "first life" – that early career as a 15-and 16-year-old when she got to the semi-finals once and the last eight twice. Since her comeback from burn-out, three appearances on Wimbledon's grass have yielded nothing more rewarding than last year's place in the fourth round.
However, nobody's confidence is higher, and rightly so. When persuaded to speculate about the possibility of a third straight Grand Slam, Capriati admitted: "I can taste it". To taste victory she will need, as in Paris earlier this month, to get past Serena at the quarter-final stage, then Hingis in the semis. It can be done if Jennifer assembles the weapons and uses them by taking the battle to Hingis.
A serious worry for Davenport as she struggles against time to rehabilitate her game as well as her knee is that she is in the same quarter of the draw as Kim Clijsters, the Belgian who celebrated her 18th birthday by reaching the Roland Garros final and so nearly winning it, as well as Jelena Dokic, who burst through the pack last month by defeating Mauresmo comprehensively to capture the Italian Open, her first title. Wimbledon is a place of the sweetest memories for this 18-year-old, who is assured in everything except which country she is supposed to be representing – her birthland of Yugoslavia or the country of most recent domicile, Australia, which she departed in high dudgeon last January. Two years ago, Dokic crushed Hingis 6-2 6-0 in Wimbledon's opening round, and last year she marched through to the semi-finals.
As 14th seed and in a tough section, Dokic will do well to emulate her 2000 achievement, but she revels in the pressure. Just as well, considering the millstone of her father and coach, Damir.
Mauresmo could stretch Venus if they take up their allotted places in the last eight, but Ms Williams needs only to perform as irresistibly as she did last time on the lawns to dent those Capriati dreams.