Thursday July 1st, 2010

WIMBLEDON, England -- Three thoughts after the women's semifinals at the All England Club on Thursday:

• Before the tournament began, Serena Williams was the overwhelming favorite to defend her Wimbledon title. And her odds seemed to go up by the day, as the few potential threats -- not least her sister Venus -- didn't survive various knockout rounds. Given the other three players in the semifinals (No. 21 Vera Zvonareva and the unseeded Petra Kvitova and Tsvetana Pironkova) it hardly seemed hyperbolic to declare this "Serena's tournament to lose."

While she didn't dominate Thursday, she did what was necessary to advance -- champions, they call this breed -- fending off a very game and poised Kvitova 7-6 (5), 6-2. The match was more competitive than fans had any right to expect, but Serena served well when she had to and cleverly picked on Kvitova's wayward forehand. Serena now stands within a match of winning still another major (she has 12), and thereby taking another step toward the Margaret Court/Steffi Graf/Chris Evert/Martina Navratilova corridor.

• This has been a week for updating the scouting reports on players. Roger Federer as indomitable Wimbledon champ? Venus as queen of the grass? Tomas Berdych as talent waster? And now we know this: No longer is Vera Zvonareva a self-destructing head case.

Now 25, the Russian was the anti-choker Thursday. A solid favorite, Zvonareva lost the first set of the first semifinal to Bulgaria's Pironkova. If such a dismal performance on a big stage would once have inspired tears and self-loathing, Zvonareva simply placed a towel over her head on the changeover and recovered with poised, consistent tennis to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. She broke early in the second set and then rolled, controlling points (and her emotions) to reach the first Grand Slam final of her career. (As a bonus, Zvonareva plays clever, well-rounded tennis, an antidote to the homogenous "big babes.") She'll still be a huge underdog against Serena, but nice to see her fulfilling expectations and showing some self-belief.

"Experience helps me a lot," Zvonareva said after the match. "I've been in a lot of different situations in the past, and I think I know how to turn the matches around much better now. Even if something is not working, I know that I just have to take it one point at a time and just keep trying."

• Bring on Andy Murray. It was a subdued day at the All England Club, yes, because of the absence of star power in the women's draw besides Serena, but also because it's all prelude for Friday. There wasn't the usual Andy Murray hopes-of-a-nation hysteria before the tournament, mostly because the U.K. was too obsessed with England's World Cup hopes. But as England lost to Germany and Murray cruised through the draw ... well, we now know that he eats $25 chicken sandwiches as well as how he reconciled with his girlfriend.

Murray has a stiff task, facing Rafael Nadal in the second semifinal (after Berdych meets Novak Djokovic). If Murray serves well and can pick on Nadal's second serve, he has a real chance. His protestations to the contrary, Nadal still has to be considered the favorite to win the tournament. But if Murray manages to advance Friday -- creating an insane atmosphere for the final -- it would be a fitting capstone to this whack job of a tournament.

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