Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A U.S. Open To Remember Part III

Clijsters Finally Wins A Slam

While the men put on a good show, Kim Clijsters showed the huge heart so many thought she lacked coming back to beat Wimbledon champ Venus Williams in three sets to advance to the semifinals. It was the way she did it though that showed that this major would have a different result.

Clijsters came in as the hottest player on the WTA Tour, winning six titles after returning from wrist surgery, which sidelined her a good portion of last year and the Australian Open. She won three titles this summer to claim the U.S. Open Series and win first prize: $1.1 million. Entering the Open, the 22-year-old Belgian had never won a slam, losing in four previous finals at one Open, one Australian and two French. Hinting that she would retire in two years due to her injury history and the grind of the schedule, Clijsters was the overwhelming pick to win here. But she had to overcome Venus to do it and face top seed Maria Sharapova in the semis.

With Venus up a set and a break, Clijsters stormed back and put herself in position to level the match. But Venus broke and looked like she'd regained the momentum. However, a determined Clijsters had other ideas breaking back. With a chance to square the match, she fought off break points that would have forced a tiebreaker. In the same game, Venus saved a few set points but in the end, Clijsters finally forced an error to take the set. It seemed to break Venus' will. Clijsters easily won the final set 6-1 to move on to a showdown against Sharapova.

In another ultracompetitive match, Clijsters took the first set and had five match points late in the second. But the resilient '04 Wimbledon champ wouldn't go down, saving one with a gutsy drop shot winner and another on a ridiculous backhand winner. Sharapova stormed back to win the tiebreak 7-4. Despite the momentum swing, Clijsters cameback to win the third set 6-3 and make her fifth career final against Mary Pierce.

Pierce cameback to defeat Dementieva in three sets, using two straight injury timeouts at the end of the first set for a 12-minute break, which swung the match. She played flawless tennis the final two sets, slugging winners from both sides and drawing a rash of doublefaults and errors from a confused Dementieva. Afterwards, she questioned the timing of Pierce's moves. It didn't matter. The 30-year-old Pierce was in her second slam final of the year.

She had been a great comeback story getting into better shape and boosting her ranking back into the top 15. At Roland Garros, she easily lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne. Now, the former two slam winner ('96 Australian, '00 French) was in another final. But against Clijsters, none of Pierce's tactics worked. Overmatched from the very beginning, she took a four and a half minute timeout to get her thigh rewrapped after dropping the first set. But with an eye of the tiger look, Clijsters overwhelmed Pierce early in the second set winning 12 of the first 13 points to erase any doubts. When Pierce netted a return, Clijsters finally got the monkey off her back and won a major. She did it in relative ease 6-3, 6-1.

Unbelievably, the hardest thing for her was climbing into the stands to celebrate with her Mom, coach and boyfriend. She balanced herself along the railing with help from fans. It completed a great finish to the summer. Clijsters doubled her U.S. Open prize money, coming away with $2.2 million and a brand new Lexus. Not bad for one of the nicest players out there, who donated $20,000 to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund.

Agassi And Federer Advance To Dream Final

Earlier that Super Saturday, Agassi and Ginepri battled for five grueling sets. They split the first four sets. But in a match just as unpredictable, when you thought one player had seized control, you were thrown for a loop. After Ginepri took his first set off Agassi in four career meetings to even it, Agassi immediately broke and rode the momentum to take the third set, putting him one set away from becoming the oldest Open men's finalist since Ken Rosewall 31 years ago when he lost easily to Jimmy Connors.

With Ginepri clearly fatigued, Agassi gave him an opening in one service game late in the fourth. Ginepri took advantage and earned the break. Having regained form on his serve, he easily served out the set, finishing it off with a backhand winner down the line to force another five set match. It was Ginepri's Open record fourth consecutive five set match. That had never been done before in the Open era. For Agassi, it was his third straight.

At the end of the last set, Agassi looked tired. But after saving break points in the opening game, Agassi summoned up the energy to play one of his best sets, producing 17 winners and just three errors. He finally broke Ginepri to lead 4-2 when he hit his favorite shot of the tournament; a go to backhand drop shot winner which the hustling Ginepri played on two bounces. Agassi then backed up the break with a love service game that included an ace and a couple of service winners. After Ginepri held to stay in the match, Agassi closed it out in fine fashion with his 17th ace to advance to his sixth career Open final.

His body had held up. He took his traditional four bows to the crowd and basked in the glow thanking everyone. He even admitted to CBS on-court reporter Mary Joe Fernandez that he contemplated during the fifth set if it was his last one there, which the knowledgable crowd gasped at.

With Agassi set, it left just one opening. World number one and defending champion Roger Federer took on Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in the second semifinal. A rematch of last year's uncompetitive final which even saw Federer bagel Hewitt twice, this time Hewitt wasn't going down that easily.

Though Federer claimed the first set easily, Hewitt twice in the second set cameback from breaks down and even had five set points on two of Federer's service games late. But like all great champions, Federer came up with unbelievable shots to deny Hewitt. One in particular saw Hewitt do everything right including come into net and be in winning position only to see the slick Swedish maestro glide to the corner and rip a forehand winner just inside the baseline. It setup a tiebreak. In it, an almost angry Federer took out his frustration, producing several ridiculous shots to bagel Hewitt 7-0 and lead by two sets.

Surely, the match was over. Not so fast. The gritty former '01 champion had other ideas breaking Federer late in the set and held twice to force a fourth set. However, Federer pounced early breaking Hewitt. Taking advantage of two doublefaults, he earned the break he needed. But Hewitt wouldn't go down without a fight, even earning some break points in one game but Federer came up with the goods. When Hewitt sailed a backhand long, Federer had won for the ninth straight time over him and ensured a dream-like final against Agassi on Sunday.


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