Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oz Open Day 11: Over the Rainbow, Under Extreme Conditions

With temperatures exceeding 100-degrees Fahrenheit, Extreme Heat Conditions were in effect outside Rod Laver Arena on Day 11, as the roof was closed for the women's singles semifinals. Inside, at least figuratively, the conditions were just as extreme.

Just ask Maria Sharapova.

Everything that makes Justine Henin-Hardenne such a great champion were on display in Melbourne on Thursday. And that, plus a little "luck," has put her in position to claim her fifth grand slam title on Saturday.

As was her pattern in the quarterfinal match-up with Lindsay Davenport, Queen Justine was a little slow out of the semifinal gate against Sharapova. Still, even though she wasn't quite totally on her game, she managed to keep pace with the 18-year old Russian throughout the opening set, even getting two break point chances on Sharapova's serve at 4-4. Sharapova survived the tightrope-walking moment, then broke the Belgian to take the set 6-4.

Then Henin-Hardenne took control.

In the 2nd set, Sharapova never held serve, getting broken four times by her fitter and fresher opponent. In the 6-1 set, the Russian managed just three winners.

Sharapova is never a pushover, and she wasn't this time in Melbourne, either. And, if a few erroneous (but close) line calls had gone her way in the 3rd set, this could have been a different match altogether. The first, at 2-2, would have broken JHH's serve. The second, at 2-3, ended Sharapova's chance to stay on serve, as the constantly scrambling Henin-Hardenne broke for a 4-2 lead.

Moments later, serving for the match at 5-3, JHH blinked. Sharapova broke her, but then blinked herself. Given one final opportunity to turn around the match, the Russian couldn't gather enough from her tiring body to hold her own service game. JHH's final backhand down the line ended the match and provided another entry into the "what could have been" column of Sharapova's post-2004 Wimbledon career, while simultaneously setting the Belgian up to re-establish a dominant position in the game just as her countrywoman Kim Clijsters is set to rise to #1 next week.

Hmmm... if Le Petit Taureau can knock out Amelie Mauresmo in the Oz Open final, she'll have two slams under her belt in the last eight months. Maybe Clijsters won't be the ONLY Belgian ranked #1 in 2006.

DOROTHY OF THE DAY: Justine Henin-Hardenne
...Le Petit Taureau's fitfully crisp backhand down the line on match point to finally dispatch Sharapova gives her 13 straight wins in Melbourne, and 20 in a row on Australian soil dating back to 2004.
SHEILA: Amelie Mauresmo
...if JHH is like a little bull under pressure, Mauresmo is often in the role of a china shop. She defeated (outlasted, really) Clijsters, but didn't really put to rest any of the old questions. In the 1st set, she saved four set points, but then double-faulted on the 5th. With Clijsters' retirement-inducing ankle injury, Mauresmo never had the chance to get tight in the 3rd. Now we'll see if the YEC title will mean anything with JHH staring back across the net.
GOBSMACKER: Samantha Stosur
...Sammy's singles run might have ended in the 4th Round but, along with her place in the Doubles final, she's also still alive in the Mixed. Her #5-seeded pairing with Paul Hanley knocked out #4 Morariu/M.Bryan 7-6/4-6/7-6 to reach the SF, where she'll meet up with... uh, oh... Martina Hingis again.
AUNTIE EM: Martina Hingis
...speaking of which, in the day's final match, Hingis and Mahesh Bhupathi eliminated the #8-seeded Aussie team of Stubbs/Perry 7-5/7-6 to keep alive the Swiss Miss' shot at her first slam title of any kind since taking the '02 Aussie Open Doubles with Anna Kournikova.
MUNCHKIN: Raluca-Ioana Olaru
...the Romanians are starting the build up their ranks in the juniors, and 16-year old Olaru -- the Girls #2 seed, and part of the #1 doubles team -- is leading the way in the AO junior draw. She was the Roland Garros Girls RU last year, and on Day 11 knocked out Chelsey Gullickson (sister of Carly) 6-4/6-4 to reach the QF.
WALKABOUT: Maria Sharapova

...even with the Rod Laver Arena roof closed to keep out the heat, Sharapova quickly appeared gased after winning the 1st set against JHH. Likely, her training has been effected by her chest muscle injury. Finally healthy for the first time in months, it's obvious that she needs to now work on her conditioning. Certainly, something more will have to be done if the Supernova is going to escape the slam SF rut she finds herself in. She's impressively made the SF in four of the last five slams, but is 0-4 in those matches. (This is where I throw in the mention of my '07 Sharapova Scenario, just to keep it top of mind).

1.SF - #8 Henin-Hardenne d. #4 Sharapova
...4-6/6-1/6-4. In 2:26, JHH pushed her record in her last eighteen 3-set matches to a distinctly impressive 16-2. Heart. Guts. (And, in this match, a little luck.)
2.SF - #3 Mauresmo d. #2 Clijsters

...5-7/6-2/3-2 ret. Kim, you cavalierly play footsy with the "tennis injury gods" for nearly two weeks, complaining about various "serious" ailments that could end your AO participation "at any moment" yet show so little sign of being hampered that even the players in the lockerroom begin to question the veracity of your claims, and you're bound to fall prey to a little vengeful wrath. Hmmm... was it the sticky Rebound Ace surface that turned your ankle, or the mysterious invisible hand of one of the denizens of the "tennis underworld" that reached up to get a little payback? Next time, don't try their patience.
HM - Girls 3rd - #3 Dominika Cibulkova d. Alexandra Panova
...6-1/4-6/6-1. This Slovakian is my early pick for Girls' champion.

==DAY 11 ODDS & ENDS==

[active WTA/ATP]
1.000 ...Roger Federer (6-0)
1.000 ...Jennifer Capriati (3-0)
1.000 ...Gustavo Kuerten (3-0)
.800 ...Justine Henin-Hardenne (4-1)
.778 ...Serena Williams (7-2)

#6 Likhovtseva/Nestor vs. Dechy/Paes
#5 Stosur/Hanley vs. Hingis/Bhupathi

#1 Caroline Wozniacki(DEN) vs. #12 Tamira Paszak(AUT)
#4 Ayumi Morita(JAP) vs. #6 Amina Rakhim(KAZ)
#8 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova(RUS) vs. #3 Dominika Cibulkova(SVK)
#2 Raluca-Ioana Olaru(ROM) vs. #5 Sharon Fichman(CAN)

2001 Wimbledon - lost to V.Williams
2003 Roland Garros - def. Clijsters
2003 U.S. Open - def. Clijsters
2004 Australian - def. Clijsters
2005 Roland Garros - def. Pierce
2006 Australian - vs. Mauresmo

1999 Australian - lost to Hingis
2006 Australian - vs. Henin-Hardenne

**DAY 12 DOUBLES PICKS**, Sammy hasn't been cloned. But Day 11 does offer a double dose of Stosur. Will it be good news for Sammy, or bad? Or both?

#1 Raymond/Stosur d. #12 Yan/Zheng

Hingis/Bhupathi d. #5 Stosur/Hanley
#6 Likhovtseva/Nestor d. Dechy/Paes

All for now. More tomorrow.


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