LAST FRIDAY afternoon the top seed in the women's Wimbledon draw, Ana Ivanovic, walked onto Court One to play Zheng Jie, a Chinese doubles specialist ranked No. 133. As one would expect from such an encounter, the match was fairly lopsided, one player overwhelming her nervous opponent with nifty shotmaking and poised serving. As one would not expect, Zheng was the one doing the dominating. She won the match 6--1, 6--4, nearly identical to the score by which third-seeded Maria Sharapova had lost her match on Centre Court the previous day. The conqueror of Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champ and this year's pretournament favorite to win again? Alla Kudryavtseva, an outspoken 20-year-old Russian ranked No. 154.
Not long ago the women's field was so threadbare that Martina Navratilova memorably characterized the Graf era as "Steffi and the seven dwarves." Even a few years ago the top players predictably cruised into the second week of Slams, treating early-round matches as glorified practice sessions. Now nearly every match is a struggle. Those obscure grinders in the 128-player draw who so often felt like extras in the cast? As Serena Williams puts it, "Those girls can really play!" Indeed, of the 32 women who reached the third round last week, six were ranked outside the top 100. "All the players are capable now of beating the top [seeds]," says French veteran and former No. 1 player Amelie Mauresmo. "It's gonna [happen] even more and more in the future."
Globalization is one of several factors at work. As tennis grows internationally, and crossing borders becomes easier, more players are seeking out the best training conditions. Sharapova (from Russia) and Ivanovic and No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic (both from Serbia) are but three of the dozens of top players who train outside their home countries. Even Kudryavtseva has bases in both Moscow and Boca Raton, Fla. What's more—as the legion of female players jogging around Wimbledon Village attests—there's now a greater emphasis on conditioning. Specific to Wimbledon, the slower grass this year has made for a more democratic surface, one that no longer accords a huge advantage to players with power.
But an infusion of attitude is also in play. Among the tour's rank and file, the top players are no longer stars who inspire awe and reverence. They're simply colleagues who happen to have higher rankings. After her upset last week, Kudryavtseva remarked that she was motivated to beat Sharapova because "I don't like her outfit." (Sharapova's tuxedo-inspired getup was the talk of the London tabloids.) She also dismissed her compatriot as "not a very talkative girl and not very outgoing." Try to imagine for a moment the 154th-ranked player at the time speaking so boldly about, say, Chris Evert or even Venus Williams at the height of her reign.
July 6, 2008
When it was suggested that Sharapova might take umbrage at these comments, Kudryavtseva—who subsequently beat Shuai Peng before falling to Nadia Petrova in the fourth round on Monday—laughed. "If I'm not afraid to go play her [when] she's the world Number 3," she said, "I'm not afraid she's going to catch me in the dressing room and say, 'You said you don't like my outfit. You were wrong!'"
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Bank on This Swiss
A versatile Swiss player with an affable disposition and a stop-traffic-gorgeous backhand breezed into Wimbledon's fourth round without dropping a set. And so did Roger Federer. Stanislas Wawrinka, a 23-year-old from Lausanne, might be doomed to spend his career obscured by the shadow cast by his otherworldly countryman. But credit Wawrinka for taking steps toward emerging from that shadow. Having already quietly ascended to No. 9 in the rankings, Wawrinka (above) advanced to the second week of Wimbledon by playing solidly efficient tennis that sometimes resembled that of ... well, you-know-who. Wawrinka lost to Marat Safin on Monday, but his profile could be raised even further at the Beijing Olympics, where he'll partner with Federer in doubles.