WIMBLEDON, England - When the last shriek had assaulted the ears of the 10,000 customers on Court No. 1 and the last thud off Venus Williams' resurgent racket had bounced off the overhang on Centre Court, Wimbledon couldn't have been left yesterday with a more intriguing women's final four:
Defending champion Maria Sharapova, whose serve has been broken only once in 44 games and whose streak of unbroken service games now stands at 27.
World No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who at 29 might just have one more championship tribute to her vastly undervalued career.
Williams, whose once fabulous career has plunged and careened through 13 straight Grand Slams without a title but who is within two wins of resurrection.
And Amelie Mauresmo, the emotionally fragile Frenchwoman who desperately would like not to go down in tennis history as the best woman player never to have won a major.
They all won yesterday in straight sets, beating four tough opponents and the rain, which finally broke over London at 7 p.m. to deliver the city's worst drenching in three weeks.
They'll take today off to plot their homestretch and return tomorrow for the semifinals, with No. 2 Sharapova playing 14th-seeded Williams and Davenport facing No. 3 Mauresmo.
"Last year, I was just thrilled to be in the semifinals. This year, I'm sort of expecting myself to be in the second week," said Sharapova after beating fellow Russian Nadia Petrova, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
Davenport was more realistic than philosophical. "Yesterday, I played really well. Today, maybe not as well. But I did well enough," she said of her 7-6 (1), 6-3 triumph over Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat her in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last September.
Williams jumped out quickly to beat French Open runner-up Mary Pierce, 6-0, 7-6 (10), and Mauresmo, playing her usual tactical tennis, defeated worn-out Anastasia Myskina, 6-3, 6-4.
The major focus on Sharapova since she won Wimbledon has been her primal screams and devastating ground strokes. But the understated key to her success at this Wimbledon has been a fabulously improved serve.
Only one player, Katarina Srebotnik in the third round, has broken her and she was not only 11-for-11 on service games against Petrova but won six of her seven service points in the tiebreaker.
Petrova got only one break-point opportunity, in the final game at 30-40. Sharapova defended it with a powerful, flat backhand that slapped the net cord and dribbled over, leaving Petrova no chance to challenge the ball.
"I told the ball to hit the net and roll over. That's what comes with experience," joked the 18-year-old.
There were no breaks in a tight opening set, and Petrova fought off two set points in the tiebreak before Sharapova struck ruthlessly. At 6-6, she blazed a strong service return to the corner that opened up the other side of the court, then put her next stroke right there for the winner.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.