Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 9: Shalom, Serena

Yep, she's back.

Outlasting Nadia Petrova made it seem possible. Shutting down Jelena Jankovic made it seem probable. But there was still an inkling of doubt heading into Serena Williams' QF matchup in Melbourne with 19-year old Israeli Shahar Peer that the seven-time grand slam champion truly had regained enough of her former soul to be a legit contender for the Australian Open title. Her 3-6/6-2/8-6 win in the nearly three-hour match leaves little remaining doubt.

Look out, Nicole. You just might be next.

The best thing about this memorable match, though, was that it truly WAS a great one. The proven pro versus the young upstart with a never-say-die attitude combined to produce a seesaw contest that displayed both players' hotspots.

Peer wasn't intimidated by the moment, and raced off to a 3-0 lead in the 1st set. Serena pushed back late, but Peer narrowly averted a near-break while serving for the set to take the 1st stanza 6-3. In the 2nd, things were even at 2-2 until Peer blinked just once during a serve game. Williams pounced on the opportunity, breaking and taking control of the match. She won the 2nd set 6-2, and took a 4-1 lead in the 3rd.

But Shahar, who's been on the opposite end of a similar final set score in a slam before and came back to win (and survived match points just a few rounds ago), wasn't going to exit the stage without someone pulling her off in a headlock.

Peer, as has proven to be her wont, battled Serena nose-to-nose and leveled the score at 4-4, raising the question about William's fitness in a long match on a hot day, and causing the notion that experience -- thought to be in Serena's advantage -- might actually favor the teenager, who'd been in tight matches far more often than the former Oz champ had been during the two years since she last won in Melbourne.

For a little while, it looked like the "new" was going to outduel the "old." But Serena wasn't finished proving herself.

Peer had break points for 5-4, but Williams pulled out three aces to win the game. The 19-year old finally broke Williams on her thirteenth break point in the match for 6-5, and served for the semifinals. Surely, Jerusalem sat on the edge of its collective seat in the early morning hours on Tuesday... eyes glued to TV sets, wondering whether this new, hard-nosed star was going to become the first Israeli slam semfinalist ever. All the "Shalom, Shahar" headlines were being written (including here)... but then Serena showed why she's, well, "Serena."

Williams has become an all-time great because competition brings out the best in her. When she's fit and focused, she doesn't give away matches... someone has to TAKE them from her. And THAT, Sharapova at Wimbledon notwithstanding, very rarely happens. Petrova didn't do it when she had the chance a few rounds ago, but Peer tried.

It still didn't matter.

Serena broke Peer's serve, then applied that headlock. She added the next two games to win the 3rd set 8-6 and set herself up to write another glowing chapter in a storied career. One final set number highlights the key to the slight difference between Williams and Peer in this match: Serena was 3-for-3 in break chances, while Peer was 2-for-10. Throw in Williams' eight 3rd set aces, and it's pretty clear that Williams is back, playing her best on the big points and bringing back memories of her "good ol' days."

Who knows what'll happen AFTER Melbourne, but by the end of this weekend Serena might just have pulled off that "Soul Survivor" sequel, after all.

Peer, too, should be proud. Obviously, she'd rather have won. And she nearly did. But no player with this much fight in her is going to go away after one shot on the big stage. Her trial-by-fire performance against Williams leads you to believe that she'll will herself back to this stage. Soon. And as a player who learns a little from every match she plays, next time she'll figure out how to eliminate the match-turning moments that cost her her first grand slam semifinal appearance.

Unless, maybe, she's again facing a version of Serena Williams on a mission. Again.

THAT is a force very difficult to overcome... and it could be NO ONE will find a way to do it this week in Melbourne.


in Day 9's other women's Quarterfinal, Nicole Vaidisova made sure Lucie Safarova remained in 2nd place in the Czech Maiden hierarchy by the tune of a 6-1/6-4 victory. But rather than play the teenager she faced off against for the Oz Girls title two years ago, she'll get to experiece Serena for the very first time. But this time it won't be her first grand slam SF as it was against Svetlana Kuznetsova at last year's Roland Garros, where she learned the hard way precisely how NOT to close out a match to get to the first slam final of your career. Leave it to the Dynamova to have a shot at a do-over to claim her expected place in the spotlight before her 18th birhday. Maybe this time, if she gets a shot down the line at a crucial instant she'll actually take it.

Of course, Serena might just have something to say about it, too. Williams said she wasn't even tired after her long, tense match with Peer. Maybe it was true, or maybe that she said that was the proof that she already has her game face on. Either way, it's a good sign for Serena's prospects... and a bad one for everyone else's.

#1 Raymond/Stosur def. #7 Groenefeld/Shaughnessy
#3 Black/Huber def. #6 Hantuchova/Sugiyama
Y-J.Chan/C-J.Chuang vs. Harkleroad/Voskoboeva
S.Sun/T.Sun vs. #2 Yan/Zheng

30-Love... meanwhile, half the Men's Doubles spots have been filled, as #1-seeded Bob & Mike Bryan, along with #3-seeded Mark Knowles & Daniel Nestor, won their QF matches.
40-Love... in Girls action, #2-seed Yung-Jan Chan (who's a doubles quarterfinalist in the main draw) was upset by 17-year old Ling Zhang of Hong Kong. And American Chelsey Gullickson had a very nice day indeed, knocking off Alexandra Panova in come-from-behind fashion 4-6,7-6(0),6-0. Also, she and junior doubles partner Valeria Pulsido Velasco double-bagled Kristina Antoniychuk & (again) Panova, 6-0/6-0. Needless to say, Panova's day was just a little bit ruined... three bagel set losses and a tie-break shutout will tend to do that.
MATCH, "Nearly there, and one more battle"... unless Anna Chakvetadze upsets Maria Sharapova on Day 10, Shahar Peer's rise to fame -- QF loss or no loss -- is enough to qualify her as Oz's 2007 "It Girl." Meanwhile, Serena and Nicole will battle it out for "Miss Opportunity" in the SF for the right to be named the survivor of the it-looked-wide-open-and-it-was 2nd half of the draw.

All for Day 9.


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