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Semis Set In Silence

Wimbledon, England — With the standard-bearers of what’s known as “Big Babe tennis” nowhere in sight, old-school qualities returned to Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday.

The all-European women’s semifinals were chock-full of artful slices, crafty drop shots and serve-and-volley tactics. And they were contested by average-sized women amid virtual silence, with neither a 6-footer nor a shrieker among the unlikely quartet.

First to secure a spot in tomorrow’s final was 15th-seed Marion Bartoli of France, who capped her preparations by taking a 20-minute catnap in the locker room beforehand only to find that no stockpile of energy was required. Bartoli breezed past Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens, 6-1, 6-2, in just 62 minutes.

The semifinal that followed redeemed the day, rippling with wild momentum swings, clever shotmaking and gutsy forays to the net. Germany’s Sabine Lisicki overcame a mid-match mental walkabout to prevail, 6-4, 2-6, 9-7, over Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, the highest seed remaining following the ousters of five-time champion Serena Williams and the twin towers deemed her most credible threat, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

Neither Bartoli nor Lisicki is a household name. From an American perspective, Bartoli is the player who halted the Wimbledon campaign of South Florida’s Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals, while Lisicki upset the top-seeded Williams the round prior.

For Bartoli, tomorrow’s championship represents a hard-earned second shot at a first Grand Slam title. The 28-year-old Frenchwomen reached Wimbledon’s 2007 final but fell to Venus Williams in straight sets.

“I’m able to hit the ball harder, I’m moving faster — I do just everything a bit better than what I was doing six years ago,” Bartoli said afterward.

For Lisicki, 23, who reached Wimbledon’s 2011 semifinals as a wild card, it’s the realization of a dream. And the reality of being one victory away from Wimbledon’s title made her erupt in tears, laughter and an enormous smile once she picked herself up from the frayed Centre Court grass.

Lisicki’s perpetual smile, unabashed love of Wimbledon and delight in signing autographs has made her the darling of British fans these last two weeks.

“It’s so nice to have the support of the crowd,” Lisicki said, wearing a pink T-shirt decorated with a glitter Union Jack, during her post-match press conference. “There is no better feeling in the world than to have so much support on that beautiful Centre Court.”

As the tournament’s No. 15 and No. 23 seeds, neither was expected to get this far. But it has been a confounding Wimbledon from the start, with two-time champion Rafael Nadal falling in the first round and seven-time champion Roger Federer the next.

The women’s side wasn’t immune to carnage, either. But to cast Bartoli or Lisicki as mere beneficiaries of the top players’ misfortune would be a disservice.

Bartoli reached tomorrow’s final without dropping a set. And her performance against Flipkens, in what the BBC dubbed “The ‘Who’d Have Thought It?’ Semifinal,” was her most impressive display of tennis yet.

It was a matchup of imps by present-day standards. Bartoli is just over 5-6; Flipkens, 5-5. But despite an unconventional service motion crafted under the tutelage of her physician father, Bartoli uncorks a maddeningly difficult serve. And it flummoxed Flipkens, who managed just two break points the entire match.

Wimbledon’s 2003 junior champion, the 27-year-old Flipkens was the least likely of the women’s semifinalists, having been sidelined last year by blood clots that threatened to end her career. Urged on by compatriot and four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters, Flipkens parlayed her serve-and-volley game to five successive victories here, kissing the grass in gratitude at each stage. But she seemed dazed by the Centre Court stage at the outset of Thursday’s match, landing less than half of her first serves and managing just three winners in the opening set.

Bartoli took easy advantage.

Lisicki faced the tougher opponent in fourth-seeded Radwanska, the 2012 Wimbledon finalist.

Longtime junior rivals, they knew one another’s strengths well. Lisicki boasts the more powerful serve and groundstrokes, while Radwanska’s game relies on smarts, variety and finesse.

Not surprisingly, Lisicki was the aggressor. Buoyed by a good-luck text message from seven-time Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, the last German to reach the tournament’s final, Lisicki blasted 120-mile-per-hour serves and pounced on Radwanska’s weak second serves. The Pole hung in the opening set by varying the pace and placement of the ball, but was broken in the seventh game.

After claiming the first set, Lisicki lost control of her serve in the second. And the softer Radwanska hit the ball, the more unforced errors it coaxed from the German. Radwanska took the second set and raced out to a 3-0 lead in the third set.

Though nothing was going the German’s way, Lisicki’s confidence never flagged. She’d come back from a 0-3, third-set deficit to defeat Williams, the world’s best player. Surely she could do the same against Radwanksa, she told herself, and proceeded to reel off three consecutive games and win the battle against fatigue that followed.

Note: Americans Bob and Mike Bryan advance to tomorrow’s men’s doubles final with a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory over Rohan Bopanna and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.