With heavyweights in bottom of draw, women's final certain to lack punch


WIMBLEDON, England - The biggest tennis tournament of the year is just getting started, and it is almost guaranteed a disappointing women's final.

The three best players in the field, the only ones who really have a real shot at winning this grass-court showcase, are all on the same side of the draw. Serena Williams probably will face Justine Henin-Hardenne in a quarterfinal round. The winner likely will meet Maria Sharapova, the defending champion and reigning glamour queen, in a semifinal.

This bottom half of the women's draw is packed with personalities, with talent. Serena may have to face her sister, Venus, in the fourth round - perhaps on the same day that Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champ, would meet Mary Pierce in a replay of their recent French Open final.

Then there is the top half of the women's draw, which will put everybody to sleep on most days. Here is where all the underachievers reside, all of the WTA's unworthy, computer-generated No. 1s. Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters, two women who lose the grip on their racket handle whenever it is time to grab a big moment, are embedded safely here. They will no doubt beat the usual tomato cans, until things get sticky.

Lindsay Davenport is in this group, too. She is ranked No. 1 in the world and seeded No. 1 at Wimbledon, even though she hasn't captured a major in more than five years. Back in 2000, Davenport was a real force. Now she is somebody who gets to the semifinal or final of the big tournaments but wins only the small ones.

So a real women's champion will emerge from the bottom half of the draw, and then there will be a ceremonial final against the winner of the also-rans. We will all know the result beforehand and pretend that anything can happen.

And Wimbledon is doing this to itself, because it never cares enough about the women to ignore the stupid computer rankings, the way that tournament officials correctly reshuffle the men's rankings each year for the men's draw.

When Wimbledon reseeds the men, there are always a few harrumphs from the ATP and the clay-court specialists, but then everybody admits this is Wimbledon and gets down to business. This year, Andy Roddick is bumped up a couple places to No. 2, because he was a finalist here in 2004 and he has a 150-mph serve that is a nightmare on grass. This way, we may get to see a final between Roddick and Roger Federer, if Roddick can find some volleys and Federer survives Marat Safin.

But the women are always second-class citizens here, even as they are showered with riches. Their money pool is nearly $6 million, and the winner receives about $1.1 million. The men's singles pool is closing in on $7 million, with about $1.2 million for the winner.

The women gripe about this disparity sometimes, without really threatening a boycott. They never grump about the seedings, because the WTA wants all tournaments to respect its dumb computer.

There should be a rule in tennis, for both the men and the women: No player should be ranked No. 1 in the world without winning one of the four major tournaments in the previous year. That would put an end to this nonsense and relieve the All England Club of its uncomfortable juggling task.

Despite its unbalanced women's draw, Wimbledon 2005 poses its share of delicious questions: Will Federer reassert himself as the greatest player in the sport, after a disappointing loss to Safin in Australia and a more predictable downfall in Paris? Will Rafael Nadal, the next great thing, effectively transfer his game from the slowest to the fastest surface?

Is Venus finished? Does Serena care enough? Has Sharapova, who graces all the tabloid covers here, lost the killer edge that brought her this title so unexpectedly, so quickly?

When you think of Wimbledon, you think of finals pitting the very best, of Martina vs. Chrissie, of Andre vs. Pete, of Serena vs. Venus. This time, we'll get Sharapova or Serena or Henin-Hardenne on one side of the court, against an undeserving finalist.

When Serena was asked recently to name her toughest rival, she said, "Whoever is across the net from me in the final."

If tournament officials cared as much about the women as they do about the men, there would be some substance to Williams' cliche.

Filip Bondy is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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