It's time for the women's tournament at Roland Garros to get serious today. They are down to the last 16 and, in theory, the easy times are over. Unlike yesterday, when three of the leading contenders marched through having lost a derisory three games each, and then talked about things like visiting the Louvre, watching old finals on TV and lamenting the passing of the Wimbledon curtsy.
Venus Williams, sister of the more successful Serena and a runner-up to that sister in the last four Grand Slams, has arrived in Paris short of court time and nursing a stomach strain. She is, she said, "icing a lot to prevent huge flare-ups". You would hardly have noticed as she dispatched the stocky Italian Silvia Farina Elia, 6-1 6-2, hardly breaking sweat in sultry conditions to win in 49 minutes, the fastest of the day.
Having dropped a set in the previous round, the girl the French call Ven-oos (a pronunciation she says she loves) tightened her technique, though she still looks a mite vulnerable on the serve. "I definitely had better rhythm," was her assessment of an occasion which turned into little more than an opportunity to flash the latest collection of jewellery: large rectangular earrings, a gold necklace and glittery hairslide. "I am always on the lookout for different earrings, long and dangly or big hoops," she revealed. "I search hard."
Ven-oos should not be required to search too hard for that elusive form in today's fourth round against Vera Zvonareva, the 18-year-old Russian who has risen virtually unnoticed to 21st in the rankings. In fact, though polite about her next opponent, she was keener to discuss the passing of the curtsy: "The best part about Wimbledon is the history and tradition. That was nice, the curtsy. I am disappointed."
The quarter-final opponent for Venus should be Jennifer Capriati, a different prospect altogether. You get the impression it is a match Capriati is relishing after she swept aside a 19-year-old qualifier from the Ukraine, Julia Vakulenko, 6-1 6-2. The only time the 2001 winner of this event faltered was at match point with a 5-1 lead, when a banner was unfurled reading "Go Jen, you are a true champion". Arguably overwhelmed by such overt affection, Capriati missed two match points and dropped serve before wrapping it up in the next game.
Having conceded just nine games in three rounds, Capriati has been able to cast around for leisure-time options, and is considering a visit to the Louvre. She has failed to get there on her nine previous visits to Paris, the first of which was as a 14-year-old in 1990, when she became an immediate sensation by getting into the semi-finals at her first Grand Slam.
"It just seems like another lifetime ago when I played that first one," she smiled. As for the present, Capriati warned: "I'm playing well and moving well, pretty much doing what I want with the ball. From now on it's a different level, but I think I can play up to that level." At 27, the seventh-seeded Capriati is approaching elder stateswoman status on the women's tour, but she insists: "I feel I can still definitely hang with the young guns out there. I still feel that I'm a youngster inside."
Kim Clijsters, at 19 a youngster inside and out, has also dropped a mere nine games in three rounds. The latest victim was Paola Suarez, the last of the Argentine women, clinically put away 6-2 6-1 in 64 minutes. Suarez, more of a big gun in the doubles arena, opted to slug it out with the second-seeded Belgian, with dire consequences.
Suarez thinks Clijsters, who was the runner-up two years ago, can win this time. "I think she play in the same level of Williams," Suarez said. Which Williams, Paola failed to specify. The main concern of Clijsters is that the opposition is so undemanding that she is finding it hard to concentrate.
So for inspiration, she watched a TV rerun of the 1996 Roland Garros final, Steffi Graf beating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. "It would be great to have that sort of competitiveness again," she said.
The sixth seed, Lindsay Davenport, was made to work much harder in reaching the last 16. Her 6-3 7-5 victory over France's Nathalie Dechy included a long break for treatment to a foot problem. Davenport has been short of matches this year because of a hamstring injury and then her honeymoon. "You can't take your rackets on honeymoon," Lindsay explained, having sacked her coach, Rick Leach, and then married his brother, Jon.Reuse content