The class of 2008 is a strong one

Although formidable, the leading ladies of 2008 are not in the same class as their illustrious predecessors.
China's Jie Zheng has been one of the characters of this year's Wimbledon tournament.
China's Jie Zheng has been one of the characters of this year's Wimbledon tournament.

LONDON // When the dust eventually settles on one of the most dramatic women's singles tournaments in Wimbledon history, the stark conclusion has to be that the leading ladies of 2008 are not in the same class as their illustrious predecessors.

The spectacular departure of the top four seeds before the event had even reached the quarter-finals indicated, encouragingly, that there is more strength in-depth now than when Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were head and shoulders above the rest or when Steffi Graf reigned supreme. The retirements in quick succession of the Belgian pair of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin meant the world No1 ranking was up for grabs for a cluster of the Eastern Europeans, four of whom could have all walked away from these Championships on top of the rankings.

The honour remains with Ana Ivanovic simply because Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova were not up to the challenge of taking it from her grasp. Not that the Serbian sits comfortably at the head of the rankings. The burden of transporting it from the clay of Paris where she became French Open champion to the grass of London proved too much for her and she should really have gone out a round earlier than she actually did.

Lucky to survive against Nathalie Dechy in the second round when she stood match point down, she was eventually sent packing by the delightful Chinese Jie Zheng, who has been one of the characters of the fortnight. Ranked 133 in the world, not because of her moderate ability, but because she missed much of last year after undergoing ankle surgery, the diminutive, Zheng has gone on to deal effectively with two more seeds in Agnes Szavay and Nicole Vaidisova.

Her success has seen her become her country's first ever grand slam singles semi-finalist and only the third Asian woman to get to the last four of one of the four majors. Her adventure is likely to come to an end this afternoon as she runs into the juggernaut of Serena Williams, who is on a mission to meet her big sister Venus in Saturday's final which would be the third time they have played off for the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Only Zheng and Elena Dementieva, the fifth seeded Russian who takes on the defending champion Venus, stand in the way of the two powerful Californian siblings and few who have witnessed events so far here are expecting the list of shock results to be extended. Zheng, who was a sacrificial lamb to Serena when she opened the 2004 tournament as the holder is hoping to take more than the four games she won on that Centre Court occasion when she returns to the sport's biggest stage.

But she admits that it would be asking a lot for her to do to Serena what she did to Ivanovic. Speaking partly through an interpreter, she said : "I hope I can have better achievements when I am playing with her. And, of course, I also wish to win. But for now I just want to simply keep my hope as simple as possible." Zheng who celebrates her 25th birthday on the day of the final, has amassed career earnings just short of £1m (Dh7.3m) She is guaranteed her biggest pay cheque of £187,500 (Dh1.3m) for her work over the last fortnight.

She intends to donate a large percentage of it to the victims of the recent Chinese earthquake. "I will do as much as I can to help the Sichuan region people because I'm from Sichuan province as well," her translator said. If Zheng faces a massive task to upset the form book and get to the final, Dementieva, winner of the Dubai Championships in March, looks to have an even more daunting job against the defending champion Venus.

The Russian's fragile temperament, which almost cost her dearly in the quarter-finals against Nadia Petrova, will have to be more solid if she is to given herself even a small chance of reaching her first grand slam final. "It is okay to be nervous during a match - it is okay to be tight," were her feeble attempts to explain away her glaring weakness. She tried to divert the pressure to Venus, who does not need to present any more proof that she can deal with it having won the title here four times before.

"It is all the pressure on her," Dementieva insisted. "I really have nothing to lose here. All I need is just to play my game, just to enjoy the moment." It will be easier said than done, one suspects.

Published: July 2, 2008 04:00 AM


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