Venus targets Sharapova after snuffing out Pierce comeback

The biggest roar on a blustery Centre Court yesterday was born of relief. Mary Pierce had finally won a game against Venus Williams after 37 minutes of torture. Having gleaned only 11 points in the opening set and lost seven games in a row, the 30-year-old French competitor managed to hold serve.

To achieve that - from a seemingly comfortably position at 40-0 - Pierce had to save two break points and scrap through six deuces before converting her eighth game point, Williams hitting a forehand return long.

From this humble beginning, Pierce, the 12th seed, put her game together and treated the 14,000 spectators to a set. Not a match, but a set. One that climaxed with a thrilling tie-break, which Williams won, 12-10, to complete a 6-0, 7-6 victory.

The tie-break alone was worth waiting for. Pierce had five set points, netting the first when serving at 6-4, and missing a backhand serving at 9-8. Her three other opportunities were on Williams' serve. Pierce saved a match point at 7-6 down, but hit a backhand long on the second at 11-10 down.

So, Williams' renaissance continues apace. "It was a tough tie-break today," the elder of the American sisters said. "I was hitting a lot of good shots, but she was hitting shots from nowhere. It was a great win to pull that one out. She didn't give me an inch. She was playing unbelievable. I feel I deserve to be in the semi-final."

A measure of Williams' falling form of late is reflected in the fact that, despite being a double Wimbledon champion, she was seeded at 14 for this year's event. However, her new-found confidence incorporates a recognition that her game had deteriorated so far.

"I was OK with the seeding from the get-go," she said. "Whoever I go out on court against I feel there's a good chance that I'm going to win so long as I play well.

"I have definitely raised my game. Today was a good match for me, good preparation going into the semi-final."

After Pierce capitulated in straight sets to Justine Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, in the French Open final less than a month ago, I asked her whether she thought her display had done anything to advance the WTA Tour's campaign for equal prize-money with the men.

Her answer was that the issue of equal prize-money was not only related to the finals of major tournaments, but to the women's overall contribution. That is perhaps just as well, considering the disappointing finale to the women's singles at the Australian Open in January, won by Serena Williams against Lindsay Davenport, and the recent French farce.

Wimbledon, in common with the French Open, holds the belief that the men deserve more pay because they are generally a bigger draw and play best-of-five-sets matches, whereas the women play best-of-three.

For this year's championships, however, the All England Club has moved closer than ever to equality. The total prize pot is £10,085,510, of which the winner of the women's singles will receive £600,000, only £30,000 less than the men's champion.

Prize-money for the women's singles has increased overall by 5.9 per cent, and the men's has increased by 4.6 per cent. The differential is caused by the women receiving an additional 2.5 per cent from the quarter-finals onwards.

Pierce has a point when she says that the value of the women's contribution to tournaments should not be judged simply on events on finals day. There have been some fine contests so far, such as the fourth-round match between Davenport and Kim Clijsters, though few have been as compelling as those in the men's singles. The hope is that the concluding two rounds of singles will showcase the women's game at its best.

After defeating Pierce for the seventh time in 10 matches - yesterday was their first duel on a grass court - Williams, the women's champion in 2001 and 2002, goes into a semi-final tomorrow against the defending champion, Maria Sharapova, who, 12 months ago, ended the two-year reign of the younger Williams sister, Serena.

Earlier on Centre Court, the third-seeded Amélie Mauresmo, of France, advanced to her third Wimbledon semi-final, defeating Anastasia Myskina, of Russia, the 2004 French Open champion, 6-3, 6-4.

Mauresmo faces the difficult task of competing against the powerful, big-serving Davenport for a place in Saturday's final. But at least Serena Williams is not around to deny Mauresmo this year, as she did, comfortably, in the 2002 semi-finals, and again last year, after Mauresmo had led by a set and a break.

Myskina, whose mother is seriously ill, did remarkably well to advance to the quarter-finals, but yesterday Mauresmo coped rather better in the windy conditions.

Both players are noted for splendid ground-strokes and fragile confidence, though Mauresmo is almost able to treat Wimbledon as a stroll in the park compared to her nerve-jangling experiences at the French Open.

After winning the opening set in only 30 minutes, with breaks in the fourth and eighth games, Mauresmo was made to work harder in the second set. She broke for 3-2, but Myskina broke back to make it 4-4.

That, however, was as far as the Russian's challenge stretched. Mauresmo broke for 5-4 and then went on to serve out to love after 69 minutes.

Women's semi-finals

* L Davenport (US) v A Mauresmo (Fr)

* V Williams (US) v M Sharapova (Rus)