David J. Neal: Semifinalists put on a show worth watching at Wimbledon

Thursday’s semifinals presented both the bad and the good products of this wacky women’s Wimbledon: an argument for star-loving and a lesson in watching an event for the game, not the name.

In case you’ve been following real news out of Egypt or Samford, quick update … the men’s side threw the chalk out the window early, when Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer got purged like bad strawberries and cream before the first rain delay. Injuries took out others. No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Andy Murray remain, however, so this still looks like a 2013 Grand Slam.

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, 2004 Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova went slip slide and away the same day as Federer. Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka fell to injury. Defending champion Serena Williams, playing the past five months not like No. 1 right now but No. 1 all-time, turned a 4-1 third set lead on Sabine Lisicki into a shocking Round-of-16 loss.

What that left were these semifinals: No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who opened the tournament at 40-1 to win, according to the British sportsbook Ladbroke’s, vs. Lisicki, an 80-1 shot; and Marion Bartoli, 150-1, vs. Kirsten Flipkins, 300-1. Not only were the semifinalists, save Radwanska, unknown to casual fans, but they were unknown to each other. Radwanska and Lisicki played only four times before, Bartoli and Flipkins never.

Now, I don’t mind that. I like one more edition of a major rivalry, especially those rivalries with layers. If you’ve paid attention to Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova and think their palpable dislike is just about tennis, please leave right now. You have to go back to Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert to find a tennis rivalry with more depth than Serena vs. Sharapova.

Yet if I’m not watching the final round of the Masters, it’s because I don’t feel like watching golf, not because Tiger Woods is crashing. It’s more important to me just when the sport is played well. If it’s being played well by somebody new, great. Who are they? What’s their story? Am I getting to see the next big thing on the ground floor? Tell me more about that and less about how lousy the ratings will be.

A media too conscious of TV ratings and webpage click counts sometimes forgets that whole “inform the reader/viewer” role. Peers have said to me they’re not writing about an athlete who could be a good story subject because “nobody’s knows about him.” Instead, they add another 600 to 800 words or 60 seconds to the career coverage of Star Athlete, whether or not there’s new news or perspective, knowing it will draw eyeballs.

We’ve all done it and it’s lazy. It’s helped create two-tiered tours in track and golf, the non-major event’s echelon determined largely on whether Usain Bolt or Tiger Woods, respectively, choose to do their thing there. In baseball, the NBA and the NHL, certain teams’ doings never get national coverage, even if they’re atop the standings while other teams get breathlessly followed.

So tell me about Flipkins’ rise from No. 262 in the world last year. You know how far down No.  262 in the world is? That’s closer to a 10-year-old Anais I know than Serena Williams. Tell me about Lisicki, so physically the big, strapping German stereotype, emotionally so not the icy, calculating German stereotype.

Now, the bad in letting new folks into the party comes when the newbies don’t know how to act. Flipkins quickly got the squeaky sphincter Thursday. She hooked forehands halfway to the stands, blew routine overheads and, generally, reverted to her No. 262 days. Bartoli got rid of her 6-1, 6-2 in 62 minutes, old school Navratilova speed. Except Martina overpowered opponents with her serve-and-volley game while Bartoli only needed to keep giving Flipkins shots to blow.

Compared to Lisicki-Radwanska, that came off as the undercard. Not at first. Lisicki took the first set 6-4, then blew a forehand volley on break point early in the second. Radwanska held serve and Lisicki seemed spinning toward Flipkinsville. At one point, she committed consecutive double faults, then missed with a first serve, prompting color commentator Evert to say, “She was missing by six inches, now she’s missing by six feet.”

Down 3-0, Lisicki powered back behind her smoking serve and forehand to 5-4 and serving for the match. Radwanska, getting ice packs on each bandaged thigh during breaks, answered by breaking Lisicki, then holding to go up 6-5.

On the match’s most breathtaking point, Lisicki came to the net and volleyed perfectly just over the net to Radwanska’s left. Radwanska chased it down and lobbed deep. Lisicki zoomed toward the baseline while swatting a forehand back down the middle. In a humorous salute of the shot from the net pole, Radwanska tossed her racquet toward where the shot bounced.

As both players fought past nerves and exhaustion, who cared where they stood coming into the tournament? It mattered nothing next to what they were doing now. Lisicki finally broke Radwanska to go up 8-7 and served out the match for a 6-4, 2-6, 9-7 win.

This wasn’t tennis’ best, but it was the best of tennis and the best of sport. The game, not the name, is the thing.