She is the world No 1, top seed in the tournament, and the form player in women's tennis. Yet for much of her quarter-final here yesterday Dinara Safina played as though palsied with dread. And who could blame her? Because if she serves like this against Venus Williams tomorrow, she can forget all about making her third consecutive Grand Slam final.
In fact, if she serves like this, the fact that the top four seeds contest the semi-finals will only renew charges of stagnation on the women's tour. Her opponent yesterday, Sabine Lisicki, had at least offered a hint of emerging talent on the fringes. The 19-year-old German won her first title in South Carolina in April, beating Venus Williams in the process, and was now making the last eight for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament. For a while, moreover, she seemed amply qualified to profit from Safina's fitful performance.
Safina began with a double fault, the first of 15; Lisicki with an ace. In her second service game, the Russian produced three more double faults, the last of them at break point. In contrast, Lisicki's serving in the tournament had been equalled only by Venus Williams, for velocity, and Serena, for aces per match. And she held her advantage comfortably until, serving for the set at 5-4, herself quailing before the abyss.
In fairness, her problem was probably inexperience rather than timidity. Certainly she reserved her most fluent tennis to date for the opening points of the tie-break, only to miss an open court at set point. Safina herself came to the rescue, dear girl, with another wild second serve.
Lisicki was disclosing delicacy and disguise on her forehand, and proving defensively resourceful as Safina sought to turn up the power and aggression. But while Lisicki had this time opened the set with three consecutive aces, she came up with the lamest of double faults when forced to a break point in its seventh game.
And thereafter Safina, with tangible advantages in experience and fitness, was always in control. At 1-4 in the deciding set, Lisicki summoned the trainer to have a calf massaged, but no such comfort was available for her mental fatigue. Safina wrapped things up 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, but showed winning candour afterwards.
"Sometimes even I don't know what I'm doing with my serve," she said. "I toss the ball and I'm already by the fence running. I am just escaping the serve."
But while this is the first time she has made it past the weekend here, she claims no longer to view grass as an alien surface. "Now I don't fight against the grass any more, I'm enjoying it," she said. And though she acknowledged that her semi-final opponent has always been at home here, she took due pride in her status.
"I mean, all four Grand Slams I've been in the semis," she said. "I think it's something impressive. If I play my best and she plays her best, it's 50-50 who is going to win this match. I don't think if I play my best tennis, and she hers, that she's the favourite."
Her compatriot, Elena Dementieva, had no such problems in ensuring that at least two Russians would make the semi-finals in four consecutive Grand Slams. She thrashed Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-2, 6-2, and has now dropped only 20 games in five matches. Next up is Serena, of course, and she admitted: "I wish I had a little bit more of a fight before this round. But we'll see if I'm going to be ready for this one. It's going to be a fight for every point."
The odds remain that one family is again more likely to produce both finalists than even a tennis nation as vast and thriving as Russia.Reuse content