Serena Williams held up by spirit of Jie Zheng
This match looked like a nasty accident in the making: tiny Chinese player ranked 133 in the world taking on big Serena Williams on Centre Court. Double bagel, said a noted tennis sage: 6-0, 6-0. Jie Zheng will be smeared all over the court like jam.
She wasn't. Granted, the first set was not the most rampantly competitive tennis you are ever going to see in these parts, but once Zheng got her sights adjusted to the younger Williams' bazooka serve and got some rallies going, she came right back into the contest.
Serena won 6-2, 7-6 (7-5) in 1hr 25min and enjoyed a thorough workout ahead of her family final with sister Venus. But Zheng added to the army of fans she has recruited during The Championships, here at Wimbledon and at home in China. She will be one of the biggest stars at the Beijing Olympics.
Nobody seriously believed that the tiny player from Chengdu would succeed in her quest to become the first wild-card female player to make the Wimbledon final, but those who had seen her in action earlier in the tournament, especially when she eliminated top seed and world No 1 Ana Ivanovic, knew that Williams S was not going to be in for an easy ride.
It seemed that Serena had skimped on her homework. Zheng's trademark shot is a double-handed backhand of tremendous power and accuracy, and the American fed it far too often on important points.
Zheng's stature - she is 5ft 4ins - works to her advantage on a grass court. She hits the ball flat and it skids through off the turf, often bouncing at no more than ankle height.
Taller players find this extremely frustrating and on several occasions Williams either overhit as a result or scooped the ball into the net. Had Zheng been playing Venus, the taller of the Williams sisters, she might have caused even more trouble.
The Centre Court crowd applauded generously whenever the Chinese girl won a significant point. This was partly the traditional British support for the underdog, partly a response to Zheng's ready smile and endearingly eccentric English, and partly a disinclination to see another sisterly final.
A problem for Zheng's many vocal supporters was the pronunciation of her name. The umpires have not been a great help here, since she has been variously described from the chair as "Chung", "Cheng", "Zeng" and - yesterday's choice - "Jang". Confused, a number of fans settled for "Come on, China", which is not a sentiment you will often find in a British sporting arena.
The diminutive 24-year-old played brilliantly in the second set, retaining her concentration after a second break for rain, breaking her opponent's formidable serve, holding a set point at 6-5 and staging a courageous fightback in the tie-break. Centre Court gave her a standing ovation as she made her way back to the locker-room with a cheery wave.
Zheng's achievements over the past 10 days will transform her world ranking, which in any case reflects a long injury lay-off in 2007 rather than her actual ability. She can expect to move up into the 40s, and the way she is playing at moment she may well return to Wimbledon next year as a seed.
Williams played very well against an opponent who could hardly offer a starker contrast to her big-hitting sister. Serena looks toned and fit, and has appeared relaxed and happy throughout the tournament.
Her powerful serve is now thoroughly grooved for Wimbledon's conditions, and she sent down 11 aces yesterday, though Zheng's limited reach may have been a factor there. Williams is hitting with conviction on both flanks, and even essayed a drop shot or two, which is likely to be much more effective against her sister than it was against the swift little Chinese player.
Williams was quick to compliment her opponent, expressing surprise at Zheng's courage. "She was a great competitor, she played unbelievably well," Williams said. "She played like she had nothing to lose."
Nothing to lose, and 100 million fans to gain.