Sunday, January 29, 2006

Emotional Federer Bests Baghdatis For Australian Open, Wins Seventh Career Slam

Even the best can get emotional during the biggest moments. Just ask 2006 Australian Open Roger Federer, who had more trouble making his victory speech after coming back from a set down to defeat unseeded Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2 Sunday night in Melbourne at Rod Laver Arena.

"I guess it's all coming out now," a teary eyed Federer said during the ceremony. "I've had some hard speeches, but this one is a little rough right now."

Playing in front of tennis legend Rod Laver for who the arena was named, Federer clawed his way back from a set and break down to win his seventh career grand slam title. Amazingly, the 24-year-old Swiss world number one is now a perfect seven-for-seven on such occasions. Even more remarkable, since the beginning of 2004, Federer is 167-10, having taken six of the last nine slams (Australian Open-'04, '06, Wimbledon-'04-05, U.S. Open-'04-05).

In a championship match which lasted two hours 46-minutes, it didn't come easy for Federer against surprise finalist Baghdatis. Making his slam final debut, the 54th ranked 20-year-old traded blow for blow against Federer, testing the champion's mettle. During heated rallies, each mixed up variety, tossing in topspin and slice along with doses of heat to keep the crowd riveted.

During the first set, Baghdatis was sharper in all facets. Keeping Federer off balance with a high percentage of first serves and pinpoint groundstrokes which were struck like lasers, Baghdatis took early control by forcing several uncharacteristic errors from Federer.

Both players traded breaks in the fifth and sixth games. A missed Federer forehand gave Baghdatis a 3-2 lead but it was shortlived when he double faulted to put the set back on serve.

With tension mounting as each held twice for five all, Baghdatis made his move to notch his second break. Taking the action to a tenative Federer, he took the last four points. When a Federer forehand sailed long, he went ahead 6-5. Having successfully served out sets against top 10 victims Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian already, the Cypriot showed nerves of steel again. Some hustle forced a Federer missed volley to reach two set points. When Federer netted a forehand for his 16th unforced error, Baghdatis claimed the 43-minute set. It was the first time in the tournament Federer dropped the opening set.

In it, Baghdatis made four less errors. Though Federer had four more winners (15-11), Baghdatis was more consistent, winning 17 of 19 points on his first serve compared to 18 of 28 for Federer.

Baghdatis continued to look sharp in the second set. Pressuring Federer's second serve by returning from inside the baseline, he gave Federer fits to break again in the opening game. Taking it to the top seed, Baghdatis broke when Federer dumped a forehand into the net. After holding for 2-0, a pivotal third game took place. With Federer struggling, Baghdatis was in position to go up two breaks. But the resilient champion fought both off, including a clutch forehand winner down the line. Had Baghdatis converted either, the whole complexion of the match might have changed.

Instead, it allowed Federer to gain momentum. Taking advantage of a loose game by Baghdatis, he broke back when Baghdatis missed a backhand. As Federer got back in the match, he applied more pressure. Looking for a break in the eighth game, Federer was turned away by Baghdatis to tie it four all. Serving to go up 6-5, Federer ran into some trouble. Though he never faced a break chance, Federer climbed out of a Love-30 hole and a couple of Deuces with some big aces to finally hold. He outaced Baghdatis 4-1 in the set.

It seemed destined for a tiebreaker but with Baghdatis a point from forcing it, Federer took the final five points to square the match. When a Baghdatis forehand was properly overruled long by the chair umpire, Federer took the 55-minute set by the same score. How close was the set? Federer had 13 winners to Baghdatis' 12 while committing one more unforced error (15-14). The difference was Federer converted two of four break points while Baghdatis was one of five.

That's when Federer as he often does ceased control. After an easy hold for 1-0, he was more aggressive against Baghdatis' serve. Hitting bigger returns and attaking the net more, he forced his inexperienced opponent into errors. When Baghdatis misfired a forehand wide, Federer broke for 2-0. After withstanding a Baghdatis challenge in the next game, he took a commanding double break lead. When Federer saved a break point with a stab volley in the fifth game, a frustrated Baghdatis yelled out.

In similar fashion to how he eliminated Nicolas Kiefer in the semifinals, Federer finished off the set in fine fashion to bagel Baghdatis. A crosscourt forehand winner and mishit backhand return which landed on the line gave him the brief 24-minute set.

During the dominant set, Federer converted both break points and took 27 of 37 total points. He also had eight winners to just four errors while Baghdatis had double the amount of errors to winners (10-5).

The fourth set looked like it would be a coronation. From five all in the second, Federer won 11 consecutive games to go ahead a set and 3-0. During a point in the first game, Baghdatis began to show the effects of going five sets three times to make the final. Due to a cramp in his left calf, he fell down to lose a point. Despite the pain, Baghdatis played a great point against Federer which saw them slug the ball corner to corner before he just missed a backhand winner.

After having the cramp treated during a three minute injury timeout, the determined Baghdatis fought his way onto the board with a crosscourt forehand winner to trail 1-3. He stayed alive by denying a break point which would've given Federer a 5-1 lead. After holding for 2-4, on his last legs, the Cypriot made one final effort to break back but Federer saved it with a forehand winner down the line. In the set, he struck 13 winners.

Up 5-2, Federer broke Baghdatis for the eighth time in 12 chances to seal victory. After another forehand winner gave him two championship points, when Baghdatis netted a forehand, a jubilant Federer pumped his fist and then shook hands with Baghdatis.

One of the differences in the match was Federer's success rate on Baghdatis' serve. While Federer broke eight times, his opponent managed to go three of 10. He also had 11 aces while Baghdatis hit six.

Federer finished with 16 more winners (Federer-50 Baghdatis-34) while both made 48 unforced errors. One other notable difference was how well Federer fared on Baghdatis' second serve. He won 39 of 61 points. Ultimately, it added up to taking 14 of the final 16 games.

During ceremony, the legendary champion Laver- who was the last man to win all four majors in the same year (1969)- presented the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to Federer. Federer broke down after receiving the trophy. "You don't know how much this means to me," he tearfully said to Baghdatis during his speech. He cried again when he thanked Rod Laver, drawing a loud ovation from the audience.

Baghdatis thanked his Greek supporters along with his coach and family.

"It's a dream come true," he said to loud cheers from his fans. "It's just amazing. I love everybody watching in Cyprus. Kisses."

Since last summer, Federer has won the last three slams (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open). He joined exclusive company with Pete Sampras, who accomplished the feat by winning the same three majors spanning the end of '93 and beginning of '94.

Ironically, Federer is the same age as Sampras when he won his seventh of a men's slam record 14. "It's quite scary if I compare it. I'm on the same road but I've got to maintain it. It would be great to challenge it, but it's not my first priority."

"Winning slams is not easy to do. It is a dream come true for me every time I win one."

Maybe not. But he sure makes it look that way.

Bryan Tandem Win Doubles Title: America wasn't without a slam champion at Melbourne Park thanks in large part to the number one ranked dynamic brother duo of Mike and Bob Bryan. In an ultracompetitive men's doubles final, they won their first ever Australian Open crown in three tries by rallying to defeat the seventh seeded Leander Paes and Martin Damm 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The match featured some exciting rallies at the net with both teams inventing ways to finish off points. During one exchange, Paes fought off a volley at his feet and swatted it back for a winner. In another nifty finish, Mike Bryan spun a topspin forehand winner past Paes.

The difference in the one hour 59-minute match was that Bryans converted both break points while their opponents were only one of 10.

Bob Bryan concluded it with an exclamation point by putting away a smash at match point, leading to a big hug with his brother at the net before shaking hands with Paes and Damm.

"Unbelievable. I had nothing left in my body by the end of that match. It was so emotional," Bob Bryan said. "You know, there was a lot of energy there, they were doing chest pumps, we were doing chest pumps. We were hanging on."

An excited brother put it in perspective.

"You know, it feels good to get this notch because over the last two years, came up a little short. But, you know, there's nothing more special than winning a Slam with your brother. So this is going to feel good for a long time," pointed out Mike Bryan.

The Bryans have now won the last two slams. They also won the '03 French Open, meaning the only major they have yet to win is Wimbledon.

In the mixed doubles final, Martina Hingis combined with Mahesh Bhupati to capture the title 6-3, 6-5 over Daniel Nestor and Elena Likhovtseva. It was Hingis' first ever mixed doubles championship and was a fitting way to celebrate her successful comeback after three years away.

Along with five career slam titles in singles, Hingis now owns nine doubles titles.

In the women's doubles final, history was made when China's own Zi Yan and Jie Zheng became the first ever slam champions from the country by coming back to beat top seeded American Lisa Raymond and Australian Samantha Stosur 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-3.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rangers Make Pens Melt

Maybe the three days off did the Rangers some good. Either way, they were much better in scoring a season high seven goals, dominating the Penguins (12-30-10) 7-1 in a primetime NBC mismatch Saturday at The Garden. It was their fourth win in five, pulling them within three points of the Atlantic-leading Flyers, who were shutout 6-0 by Tampa Bay at home. It sets up a pivotal four-point swing game when Philadelphia visits Monday night.

Rebounding from a disappointing 2-1 loss to Buffalo Tuesday in which they were severely outplayed which didn't please Coach Tom Renney, the Blueshirts got the message by throttling the Penguins. Just how dominant were they. They outshot their overmatched opponents 51-14, making Henrik Lundqvist's life a whole lot easier. There have been many instances where the 23-year-old Swedish rookie sensation has bailed out his teammates. This time, it was reversed with them requiring Lundqvist to make only 13 saves.

Battling a chest cold the last couple of weeks, Jaromir Jagr scored twice and setup another goal while Martin Rucinsky added a goal and two assists. They were two of eight Rangers who had at least two points.

Sharp from the outset, they cycled the puck effectively. In a smart move by Renney, he started the game with Jagr's top unit against Sidney Crosby's line. Pinning the 18-year-old wiz kid's line in the corners, it took away any attack time and led to a couple of early opportunities. Setup on the doorstep, Michael Nylander was robbed by Fleury when his shot went off the glove and caromed off the crossbar. Jagr was also similarly alone for what looked like a tap-in but a sprawling Fleury dove across to deny him.

It didn't matter on the next shift. Centering a new second line, Petr Sykora won a faceoff to Rucinsky, who fired a floater which Fleury had trouble with, leading to Jason Ward putting home his eighth of the season at 8:40 on the rebound.

Though the Rangers were by far the superior team the first half of the period, Fleury's acrobatic goaltending (44 saves) kept Pittsburgh down a goal. The only downfall took place when Jason Strudwick and Marek Malik were penalized 32 seconds apart leading to a five-on-three Pittsburgh power play goal. Crosby one-timed his 25th off Lundqvist and into the net to tie it at 15:56. Michel Ouellet and Mark Recchi notched assists.

Despite outshooting the Pens 16-6, the Rangers were tied after one. Instead of letting down, they continued to execute the gameplan to perfection, firing 16 more shots on Fleury while allowing just two. It was a recipe for success. After failing to score on their third power play, the Rangers' new second line struck again to put them ahead. After Ward recovered a loose puck in the corner, Sykora fed Rucinsky for a quick wrist shot from the left wing, which trickled through Fleury's pads at 11:48. It was Rucinsky's first goal in January. He last tallied in a 4-3 OT loss to the same Pens on December 31, 2005.

It didn't take long for the Rangers to increase the margin. With the Pens guilty of several defensive breakdowns leaving the point wide open, former Pen Michal Rozsival finally capitalized to score his third of the season, making it 3-1 2:10 later. Sneaking in on an effective cycle by Martin Straka and Nylander, Rozsival one-timed a Nylander pass over Fleury's outstretched glove. A big part of his team's success, Rozsival also setup a goal later and was a plus-four for the game to increase his team best plus/minus rating to plus-25.

In the third, they would blow it open. Jagr, who took a game high 11 shots, finally tallied his 31st when Marek Malik set him up for a tap-in to make it 4-1 at 6:47. Petr Prucha matched his jersey number with his 25th to tie Crosby for the third most goals by a rookie this season (Ovechkin-34, Svatos-31) 2:05 later when he stuffed home a Jason Strudwick rebound.

After a strong shift by the fourth line of Dominic Moore, Jed Ortmeyer and Marcel Hossa- returning to replace Ryan Hollweg after missing two games due to a hit at Boston in which he lost some teeth- drawing a power play, they struck again less than two minutes later. With it becoming a two-man advantage, Jagr added insult to injury by one-timing a Fedor Tyutin pass for his 32nd past Fleury to put his team up by five with 9:28 remaining.

Having already matched their season best of six goals achieved against these Pens and the Islanders, they showed no mercy when a Strudwick shot went through Fleury with 2:33 remaining for the final margin.

Notes: Pittsburgh has lost 12 of its last 13. ... With his three points, Jagr now leads the league with 75 points (32-43-75). ... The 51 shots and 14 allowed were season bests for the Blueshirts. The 37-shot differential was the largest disparity in '05-06. ... With a goal and assist, Strudwick notched his first career multipoint game in his 400th NHL game. ... Rangers improved to 4-1-1 against Pittsburgh in season series with two meetings left. The Pens return to MSG Wednesday. ... Rangers (29-15-7, 65 points) host Flyers (30-13-8, 68 points) Monday.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mauresmo Wins Australian Open For First Career Slam, Henin-Hardenne Forced To Retire

It might not have come the way she expected but the monkey is finally off the back of Amelie Mauresmo. The third seeded Frenchwoman won her first ever career grand slam title in Melbourne when her opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne was forced to retire two games into the second set, resulting in a 6-1, 2-0 victory for Mauresmo before a stunned Rod Laver Arena crowd Saturday.

Playing in her second career final and first since losing to Martina Hingis in '99 at the same venue, the 26-year-old Mauresmo played brilliantly to get the better of her opponent.

Striking a cleaner ball in the first set, it didn't take long for Mauresmo to distinguish herself against the '04 Australian Open champion. After holding in the opening game, Mauresmo took advantage of a couple of Henin-Hardenne unforced errors to setup two break points on the Belgian's serve. During a rally in which Henin-Hardenne came to the net, a perfect topspin forehand lob produced an errant volley to break for 2-0.

With Henin-Hardenne continuing to struggle to find the range from the baseline, the steadier Mauresmo was able to keep the four-time slam winner off balance with deep groundstrokes and looping shots. Keeping the ball in during rallies, she let Henin-Hardenne self destruct. Henin-Hardenne committed 12 unforced errors while hitting just three winners in the set. Though Mauresmo had only three less miscues and the same amount of winners, she was much more consistent.

When a lethal Mauresmo backhand down the line forced another Henin-Hardenne forehand error, the Frenchwoman was in complete control with a double break 4-0 lead.

Henin-Hardenne tried to claw her way back in the match with a more inspired fifth game to try to get one of the breaks back. A backhand winner gave her a break point but Mauresmo denied the chance and then held for 5-0.

After Henin-Hardenne finally held for 1-5 to get on the board, with Mauresmo trying to serve the set out, she won the first two points. But on a day where Mauresmo was much sharper to win her first ever career major, the resilient Frenchwoman cameback to take the next four points to claim the first set 6-1.

In the 33-minute set, Mauresmo dominated by winning more than half the total points, taking 29 of 46. Another big difference was that Mauresmo converted both her break chances while she fought off Henin-Hardenne's only opportunity.

Mauresmo continued to take command in Henin-Hardenne's first service game of the second set. After three more Henin-Hardenne errors led to triple break point for Mauresmo, the 23-year-old eighth seeded Belgian saved the first two by coming to the net. But when she netted a forehand on the final one, she couldn't climb out of the hole, giving Mauresmo her third break of the match for a 1-0 lead. Mauresmo was three-of-five on break chances in the final.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the end would come on Mauresmo's serve in the next game. With Mauresmo a point from going up two games, the longest point of the match proved too much for her struggling opponent. During a 33-stroke rally in which both players scrambled from side to side creating angles with solid groundstrokes, an aggressive Henin-Hardenne forehand down the line finally forced Mauresmo to miss a forehand wide to get to Deuce. But once the point was over, Henin-Hardenne quickly notified the chair umpire that she needed the trainer for a problem.

After Mauresmo took the next two points to hold for 2-0, a brief injury timeout was granted for Henin-Hardenne. Complaining of chronic stomach pain, a trainer gave her some medicine to try to ease the discomfort.

However, when Henin-Hardenne returned and missed two more shots badly on her serve, she had had enough after 52 minutes. Mysteriously walking up to the net, a dejected Henin-Hardenne told Mauresmo she couldn't continue anymore. Ironically for Mauresmo, the same thing happened in her three set semifinal win over Kim Clijsters. But Clijsters retired down 3-2 after sustaining a torn ligament in her right ankle. Mauresmo also prevailed over Michaella Krajicek in the third round after taking the first set when Krajicek retired due to heat exhaustion.

Surprised by how she won her first slam, Mauresmo approached Henin-Hardenne and asked what the problem was. Told that Henin-Hardenne was suffering from extreme stomach pain, she wished for her opponent to get better and recover soon.

"Walking back to my chair, I realized the tournament was mine," Mauresmo said. "I guess the way I reacted would have been different if the match went to the end. But the joy is here. I've been waiting for this a long time."

It was only the second time in Australian Open history a champion won due to a retirement. This was the first time it happened since 1965 when Margaret Court Smith won the title in 1965 when Maria Bueno retired in the third set with an ankle injury. It also marked just the fourth retirement during a slam championship in women's history.

With both players emotional for very different reasons, Henin-Hardenne cried into a towel on her chair while the new champion Mauresmo had tears of joy and bowed to the crowd. She had been waiting her entire career for this moment.

Presented with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, Mauresmo smiled and lifted it to the fans, receiving a nice ovation.

Emotional during the courtside presentation, Mauresmo fittingly remarked, "It's been a very long time coming but I still don't know what to say," drawing laughter from the audience.

"All the people that still believed in me, after seven years, it's a long time. Not only myself, but people who're working with me, believed me and pushed me, even when I was down.

"Maybe we found the way, maybe we'll try to keep going," a happy champion said to more laughter.

"I was feeling so sick and I couldn't stay longer on the court," Henin-Hardenne said. "I'm feeling very disappointed to end the tournament this way. I'm sorry I couldn't find a little bit more."

During the postmatch conference, she also revealed that she had been taking an anti-inflammatory to battle shoulder pain the past two weeks.

Asked if she noticed anything wrong with Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo said, "No. I wasn't paying attention. ... I was ready to die out there."

On this day, she wouldn't have to.

Federer Advances Over Kiefer, Faces Baghdatis In Final

Nicolas Kiefer tried his best to challenge Roger Federer. But when push came to shove, the world number one had all the answers in a two hour 40-minute four set semifinal triumph over Kiefer 6-3, 5-7, 6-0, 6-2 at Rod Laver Arena Friday night.

"We have had many close and tough matches over the last few years," noted Federer after the match.

Federer will meet Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian Open final Sunday night. It is his third consecutive slam final. He won the last two majors of 2005 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The 24-year-old Swiss became the first male player to appear in three straight finals since Andre Agassi did it in '99 (French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open).

In the last three years, Federer is a perfect six-for-six in grand slam finals, winning the Australian Open two years ago, Wimbledon '03-05 and U.S. Open the last two years. He'll put that unblemished record on the line against Baghdatis Sunday.

In the first set, after Federer held for 2-1, he broke Kiefer in the fourth game to jump in front 3-1. With Federer up 5-2, he applied heavy pressure on Kiefer's serve to put away the set in the eighth game but was fought off by the valiant German. After Federer hit a running backhand winner crosscourt to setup two points, the debut slam semifinalist saved both to stay in the set 3-5.

But Federer closed out the 44-minute set with three winners including a net cord which bounced on the line to claim it.

Federer had 14 winners to only eight unforced errors while Kiefer had 11 winners and 18 unforced errors.

But as Kiefer did in a four set loss to Federer at Wimbledon last year, he rebounded with a much better second set. More accurate from the baseline while Federer's level dropped, the German went toe-to-toe with the world number one. He also hit some timely aces to hold serve, including two in the seventh game to go up 4-3. Kiefer outaced Federer 14-7 for the match. Despite Federer making more errors, each player held serve without facing a break point the first eight games.

In the ninth game, Federer went for the kill but Kiefer denied him with some clutch shotmaking, including a lunging volley winner at 30-All. After a couple of Kiefer errors gave Federer his only break chance, the 21st seeded German saved it with another nifty volley putaway. Federer took him off the hook with two loose forehands to give Kiefer a 5-4 lead.

After both players held to make the score 6-5, Kiefer took advantage of a shaky game from Federer to claim the set. With Federer serving to force it to a tiebreaker, two errors put Kiefer two points from the set. An aggressive Kiefer reached two set points when a big forehand forced a Federer miss. Unable to convert the first one, Kiefer leveled the match when a Federer slice backhand sailed wide.

In the 56-minute set, Kiefer had 11 winners to Federer's eight while Federer made the same amount of unforced errors (18) Kiefer had the opening set. Astonishingly, the 18 were more than half of the 33 the top seed made for the entire match. Kiefer had five less errors (13) in the set.

That's when the best player in the world raised his level a couple of notches to put any thoughts of an upset to a screeching halt. Playing a splending set of tennis, Federer ran off six consecutive games to bagel Kiefer.

Just how dominate was Federer. He took 25 of the 33 total points in the brief 25-minute set, cracking eight winners to just two unforced errors. Meanwhile, Kiefer had only three winners and eight unforced errors. A sharp contrast from the previous set.

Much sharper right away, two winners gave him three break points in the first game. After Kiefer fought off the first two, Federer had the break when Kiefer floated a backhand long. After holding easily, Federer quickly pounced to break again for 3-0. With the help of a running forehand down the line and a Kiefer double fault, he had a two break lead. Before anyone could blink an eye, another Kiefer double gave Federer his third straight break for a 5-0 cushion.

Though a Kiefer forehand winner gave him his only break point of the set, Federer got out of trouble with a backhand winner. When Kiefer netted a forehand, Federer had a two sets to one lead.

After Kiefer held in the opening game of the fourth set to break a run of six consecutive games, Federer ended any doubt when he broke Kiefer in the third and fifth games. After Kiefer denied one break point during the third game with a stab volley winner, two straight errors gave Federer the break for 2-1. After he had no trouble holding for 3-1, he broke Kiefer for the fifth time in six games with a textbook forehand winner crosscourt to take a commanding two break lead.

A second serve ace gave Federer his fourth game in a row and 11th in 12 for a 5-1 lead. Though the resilient Kiefer saved two match points to hold for 2-5, it only denied the inevitable. A service winner gave Federer the victory.

The final two sets, Federer dominated by taking 12 of 14 games. He took 55 of the final 83 total points and hit 17 winners to only seven unforced errors. He finished the match with 39 total winners.

It was by far the best he's played this tournament. He'll need a similar performance against Baghdatis to win his second Australian Open in three years and make it seven-for-seven in slam finals.

Last year, Federer eliminated Baghdatis 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 in the Round of 16. He has never lost to his opponent in three meetings. Baghdatis will be making his debut grand slam final.

"I think we are all surprised he got so far," Federer said. "He proved us all wrong. He beat quality players and he deserves to be in the final."

"I'm looking forward to it. What a great effort by Marcos."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Baghdatis' Magical Comeback Puts Him In Final

The magical run for 20-year-old Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis continued Thursday night in Melbourne on Australia Day. In just his sixth career grand slam, the 54th ranked player in the world surprised another top 10 player to reach his first slam final. After taking out second seeded Andy Roddick in the Round of 16 and seventh seeded Ivan Ljubicic in the quarters, the flambuoyant Baghdatis made it a hat trick by coming back to defeat fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian in five sets 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena. The semifinal lasted three hours 27-minutes.

"It's like a dream, I have to wake up I think because it's unbelievable," Baghdatis told Australian Open commentator Jim Courier in a postmatch interview. "I don't know what to say; it's just amazing."

Early in the match, it didn't look like Baghdatis would even see a fifth set. The more experienced player, the 24-year-old Nalbandian took it to the Cypriot from the baseline. Moving Baghdatis from one side of the court to the other, Nalbandian was able to get the better of the rallies the first two sets.

Making it look easy by ripping some of his 48 winners from both sides of the racket, it appeared Nalbandian wouldn't have much trouble reaching his second career slam final. After the two players traded early breaks, Nalbandian broke Baghdatis in the eighth game and then served out the first set.

The second set saw a red hot Nalbandian continue to take control of points. With Baghdatis struggling on his serve, the solid returner picked the first-time semifinalist apart to jump out to a two break 5-1 lead. With Baghdatis running low on energy, Nalbandian gave his opponent a reason to believe. After Baghdatis finally held for 2-5, a loose service game by Nalbandian suddenly made it 3-5.

Energized by his cheering section, Baghdatis started taking it to Nalbandian. When Baghdatis held and then broke Nalbandian again to tie it at five, he pumped his fist and smiled at his corner. But the momentum was shortlived as Nalbandian broke back and finally served it out to go up two sets.

Despite the disheartening conclusion, a refocused Baghdatis continued to adjust against his tough opponent. Ratcheting up his serve and shortening the rallies by flattening out his groundstrokes, he started to turn the tables on Nalbandian. Able to hold serve easier, Baghdatis pressured Nalbandian's serve. After holding for a 3-2 lead, he finally got the break he needed to get back in the match. Ripping a couple of his match high 52 winners from the forehand side, the former 2003 Australian Open junior champion went ahead 4-2. Serving at a high clip, Baghdatis held twice, closing it out with an ace to loud cheers from the crowd.

With momentum clearly on his side, Baghdatis continued the turnaround by converting the only break point he had and then served out the fourth set to push it to a deciding final set.

In his career, Baghdatis was a perfect 6-0 in five setters, including two five set victories in Melbourne against Radek Stepanek and Ljubicic. Nalbandian was 10-6 but once blew a two set lead to Roddick in the same round at the '03 U.S. Open.

After a short break by Nalbandian, the final set got underway. Showing his mettle, Nalbandian held and then earned an early break for 2-0. However, Baghdatis wouldn't go away, bouncing back with a break of his own and hold of serve to level the match two all. After Nalbandian went up 3-2, he recorded his seventh break of Baghdatis to pull within two games of the final.

But as unpredictable as this semifinal was, it was far from over. In the very next game, Nalbandian couldn't hold it together and let Baghdatis break for 3-4. After the Cypriot evened the score at four all, he would finally go ahead when he broke Nalbandian for the eighth time at love. A game away from his lifelong dream, Baghdatis was cheered on by Greek supporters.

After a Nalbandian forehand winner made the score 15-All, the match took another twist. With the roof open the entire night, suddenly it poured to delay the conclusion, leading to Baghdatis raising his arms to high above as if to say, 'Why now?'

After a half hour delay, the two players returned to centre court. Predictably, the ending wasn't without drama. At 30-All, Baghdatis setup his first match point with a service winner. During it, he appeared to have hit a backhand winner which nicked the back of the baseline. Unfortunately, it was overruled by the chair umpire. Resilient all night, Baghdatis forced a Nalbandian forehand error to arrive at his second match point. Fittingly, he won it with his 15th ace of the match down the tee, sending his supporters into a frenzy.

In utter shock at what he accomplished, the excited Baghdatis smiled, raised his arms to the crowd and dropped to his knees.

Asked by Courier how he pulled off the comeback, Baghdatis laughed and said, "To tell you the truth I don't really know."

"I'm playing amazing tennis, I just stopped thinking and just played my tennis, tried to be very aggressive and everything was going in. I'm just in my own world right now I think."

Baghdatis will meet the winner of Friday night's other semifinal between top ranked Roger Federer and 21st seeded Nicolas Kiefer.

Courier also asked Baghdatis if he expected to make this kind of run to which he replied, "It's a dream (of mine) to play here and win this tournament- I believe it, my coach believes it, the guys I work with believe it, my parents believe it- I work for that and I believe in it."

One more victory and he'll make everyone believers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Henin-Hardenne Edges Sharapova To Reach Final

In a toe-to-toe battle from the baseline, eighth seeded Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne battled back to outlast fourth seeded Russian Maria Sharapova in three sets 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 to advanced to her second career Australian Open final at Rod Laver Arena Thursday. Not lacking drama, the first semifinal took two hours twenty-six minutes to complete.

With the two players exchanging breaks in the seventh and eighth games, Sharapova held for 5-4 to force Henin-Hardenne to serve to stay in the opening set. With Henin-Hardenne three points away from tying it, Sharapova won a key point hitting a running left handed forehand crosscourt winner to make it 15-all. From there, Sharapova took the next three points to claim the set.

But in the second set, Sharapova's game fell off dramatically. Looking a little tired, she began missing some shots including a few easy ones. After the players exchanged breaks in the opening two games of the second set, Henin-Hardenne broke again for a 2-1 lead. From there, the more consistent Henin-Hardenne took control of the set, breaking Sharapova twice more to take the last five games, forcing a deciding set. It was the first set the 18-year-old Russian had dropped in the tournament.

In the second set, Sharapova made 11 unforced errors and had only three winners while Henin-Hardenne countered with nine winners and 10 unforced errors.

Henin-Hardenne continued her momentum into the third set by holding and then breaking Sharapova for the fifth consecutive time for a 2-0 lead. However, Sharapova bounced back to take the next two games leading to two pivotal games in which a couple of tough breaks went against her.

Pushing for another break of serve in the fifth game, after Sharapova was denied one break chance, she looked to have converted the second. On a point which Henin-Hardenne looked to have struck a crosscourt forehand a couple of feet wide, there was no call. As play continued, Henin-Hardenne wound up winning the point at the net with a backhand down the line. When the point was over, ESPN2's Shot Spot confirmed that Henin-Hardenne's forehand was indeed out. Henin-Hardenne wound up taking the next two points to hold for 3-2.

In the very next game which Henin-Hardenne broke in to go up 4-2, Sharapova had a game point and hit a forehand that was ruled out. The replay showed that it just nicked the line. While this was tougher to see, if this along with the other crucial point had been ruled correctly, Sharapova very well could've been up 4-2 instead. Ironically late in the first set serving to stay in it, Henin-Hardenne also had a call against her when a serve which was clearly in which Sharapova hardly got her racket on was called out. She wound up losing the point.

Even with a couple of calls not going Sharapova's way, she continued to battle hard. After Henin-Hardenne held easily for 5-2 to pull within one game of the final, Sharapova held for 3-5 and then turned up the heat against Henin-Hardenne's serve. Serving to reach the finals, Henin-Hardenne was broken by a determined Sharapova, who went for her shots. With the score 30-all with Henin-Hardenne two points from the match, Sharapova forced two straight errors from Henin-Hardenne to get within 4-5.

However, with Sharapova serving to level the match, Henin-Hardenne bounced right back to break her for the win, clinching it with a textbook backhand winner down the line to reach her second career Australian Open final. She won the championship two years ago but wasn't able to defend it last year due to a right knee injury.

"I think we played a great match," Henin-Hardenne said at the postmatch conference. "It was very intense physically, especially in the first set. I'm very happy to be in the final again."

"I think it was a good match," Sharapova said. "I didn't come in the best prepared ... without many matches, to be able to play the quality of tennis I was able to play today is a big plus."

Henin-Hardenne converted seven of 13 break points while Sharapova was four of eight. Just how close was this match. Henin-Hardenne finished with five more winners than Sharapova- 22-17. She also had one less unforced error- Henin-Hardenne-33 Sharapova 34.

Mauresmo Advances To Final: Henin-Hardenne's opponent will be third seeded Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, who moved onto her first slam final in seven years when second seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters was forced to retire due to a right ankle injury in the third set.

After the two players split the first two sets and traded breaks in the first four games of the final set, Mauresmo rebroke Clijsters when a backhand was unreturned due to Clijsters tripping on the hard court surface and falling badly on her ankle. Already having played through hip pain during this tournament, the new women's number one overall player received a three minute medical timeout to have the ankle taped up.

Unfortunately for Clijsters, after losing one point on it, she realized she couldn't continue and retired much to the disappoinment of the crowd. It gave Mauresmo a 5-7, 6-2, 3-2 victory.

Possibly surprised and disappointed by how she won, Mauresmo was very concerned and gave Clijsters a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement when they shook hands. Seven years after losing to Martina Hingis in her only slam final at the same venue in the '99 Australian Open, Mauresmo will have to stop Henin-Hardenne to win her first ever career major.

"We had such a great battle ... it's a little bit of an unfinished match, but that's the way it is sometimes," Mauresmo said. "I just hope she's going to get better."

"I can (hardly) remember I made the final here," kidded Mauresmo. "I'm very happy to do it again. ... I've been waiting so long and I hope it's going to go my way."

Before Clijsters' injury, the two players were involved in an ultracompetitive match which lasted an hour forty-five minutes.

The first set saw each player take turns dictating long rallies from the baseline. Mauresmo blew an early chance to break Clijsters when she missed an overhead wide. The players exchanged consecutive service breaks in the fourth and fifth games.

With both Clijsters and Mauresmo continuing to trade heavy groundstrokes from the baseline, most games saw the server in trouble but holding on by fighting off break points.

The final two games would prove to be the difference in a well played 61-minute first set. In the 11th game, Clijsters fought off three break points in the longest game of the match which included six Deuces before she slugged two straight forehand winners to go in front 6-5.

In the 12th game with Mauresmo serving to try to force a tiebreaker, Clijsters applied heavy pressure to finally claim the set. But before she did, a classic battle took place. Mauresmo saved one set point with a big forehand producing a Clijsters error. A Clijsters big forehand winner down line setup another set point but Mauresmo again fought it off with another forehand which drew an error.

Continuing to be persistent, Clijsters ripped another forehand down line to give herself a third set point but she misfired a backhand return to put it back to Deuce. After Mauresmo netted a forehand leading to set point number four, a Clijsters forehand sailed long. But finally, the game and set came to an end with help from Mauresmo. She made two unforced errors including a short backhand and a double fault to donate Clijsters the first set 7-5.

In it, Clijsters had 15 winners to just six for Mauresmo.

But much like her three set quarterfinal win over Martina Hingis, Clijsters couldn't handle prosperity. Starting to misfire shots from the baseline, she was broken at love by Mauresmo in the third game to trail 1-2 in the second set. When Mauresmo gave her an opening with two break points the next game, Clijsters couldn't convert either. Mauresmo eventually held for 3-1.

With Clijsters frustrated and spraying more shots while Mauresmo cleaned up her game, another error from Clijsters gave Mauresmo a two break lead 4-1. In the set, Clijsters had 16 unforced errors to just 5 for Mauresmo.

After Clijsters finally snapped a streak of four straight games by Mauresmo to trail 2-5, Mauresmo took the set 6-2 with a service winner to force a deciding set.

In the opening game of the third set, Mauresmo continued to roll with a forehand winner to break Clijsters again. On one big point at Deuce during the second game, a lengthy exchange ensued before Mauresmo finished it with a lunging stab volley winner, which she pumped her fist on.

Trailing Mauresmo 0-2, Clijsters held for 1-2 and then broke back with a forehand winner inside the baseline to level the match two all.

Unfortunately for Clijsters, the devastating injury would come in the next game, leading to a disappointing conclusion to such a sound match.

Clijsters finished with 26 winners to just 14 for Mauresmo. But Mauresmo had 14 less unforced errors- Mauresmo-33 Clijsters-47.

Federer Survives Davydenko In Four

For the second straight match, top seeded Swiss Roger Federer was forced to raise his level against a quality opponent. After requiring five sets to overcome Tommy Haas in the Round of 16, Federer needed more than three hours to defeat fifth seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko in four hard fought sets 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) at Rod Laver Arena Wednesday night.

"We've always had tough matches," Federer said afterwards. "I knew it would be a tough one, he's had some good results here and I think he likes this surface."

After each player traded breaks in the opening set, Federer took advantage of a rare loose game from Davydenko to get the break he needed to claim the set.

But if Federer thought it would be easy against Davydenko, the talented Russian had something very different in store. With both players trading powerful shots during lengthy rallies, Federer found that he couldn't break his opponent's will.

Davydenko began applying heavy pressure on Federer's serve while having no problems holding. When Federer finally sent a forehand long, Davydenko broke for a 3-2 lead in the set. Continuing to ride the momentum, he began to take control of points by getting the better of Federer during rallies. Deadly accurate from the baseline with knifing groundstrokes, he began to force Federer into unforced errors. Federer finished with 52 for the match while Davydenko had 48.

While the world's number one player struggled on serve, Davydenko continued to roll on his, converting 88 percent on his first serve. Remarkably, he didn't face one break point in the set. After holding for a 5-3 lead, Davydenko recorded his second break to draw even. When he struck a huge backhand down the line which Federer couldn't retrieve, the match was up for grabs.

The third set was tightly contested. With Davydenko serving first, he continued to hold to put pressure on Federer. Each player held the first seven games to give Davydenko a 4-3 lead. At that point, things got interesting. With Federer serving to try to even it, Davydenko made his move. Taking advantage of two Federer forehand misses, a backhand pass forced Federer to miss a volley for 15-40. Though Federer saved one, he couldn't fight off the second to give Davydenko the break for a 5-3 lead. But with Davydenko serving for the set, Federer broke back during a similar game. With Davydenko leading 6-5, Federer nearly dropped the set on his serve but valiantly fought off two set points to force a pivotal tiebreaker.

In it, Davydenko took early control to jump out to a 6-3 lead setting up three more set points. But after Federer saved two with service winners, he outlasted Davydenko during a tenative rally, which saw the Russian misfire on a backhand to tie the score at six. After Davydenko won the next point to setup a sixth set point, Federer once again came up with his best to stay alive. After winning another free point on his serve to give him his first set point, Federer watched as Davydenko nervously served a double fault to donate the set. It was Davydenko's first double of the match.

With both players tired, the fourth set saw each misfire on routine shots more often. When Davydenko recorded his fifth break of the match in the opening game, he couldn't maintain it because Federer came right back with his fourth break to square the set. From there, both tightened up on their serves to hold the rest of the set but not without some late drama. Trailing 5-6 while serving to force a second consecutive tiebreak, Davydenko was forced to save a match point. In another epic baseline battle, he came up with a gutsy crosscourt forehand winner which landed a quarter on the line to stay alive. From there, he held to setup another tiebreak.

After both players couldn't find the range, they saved their best for last. When Federer hit a crosscourt forehand pass for a 5-2 two minibreak lead, he let out a scream. But with Federer serving to close him out, Davydenko courageously won both points by hitting big. First, he ripped a down the line forehand winner to get within 3-5. Then some more top heavy groundstrokes resulted in an unreturned shot to make it 4-5. But with Davydenko looking to tie the score, Federer came up with another huge forehand winner down the line to give him two more match points.

After Davydenko saved the second on his serve, Federer rose to the occasion once again by fittingly serving an ace down the middle to win the match. It was just his sixth but it came when he needed it most.

Federer finished with 46 winners while Davydenko had 30. To show how close this match was, Federer won only five more total points- 144-139. The final two sets lasted one hour fifty-eight minutes.

"I still came through," Federer pointed out. "Usually when I scramble it's because of my opponent. It was a fantastic match."

With the win, he advanced to a semifinal against 21st seeded German Nicolas Kiefer. Kiefer outlasted 25th seeded Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean 6-3, 0-6, 6-4, 6-7 (1), 8-6 in a grueling four hours forty-eight minutes. The match wasn't without controversy. With Grosjean trailing Kiefer 6-5 in the final set to stay alive, during a competitive point, a scrambling Kiefer tossed his racket in Grosjean's direction. Unnerved by it, the Frenchman missed his next shot at the net and lost the point. Booed by the crowd, Kiefer apologized. Two points from losing, Grosjean held serve to level the match 6-6.

After Kiefer held for 7-6, he applied heavy pressure on Grosjean's serve to take the match. Combining solid groundstrokes with three savvy drop volleys to win points, the German converted his second match point when Grosjean misfired a shot. The final set took 96 minutes.

Kiefer advanced despite making almost twice as many errors as winners (67 to 34). Grosjean finished with 59 winners to 55 unforced errors. Also, Grosjean won nine more total points despite falling- 169-160.

In the other quarterfinal Tuesday night, 54th ranked 20-year-old Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis continued his run to his first ever grand slam semifinal by outlasting seventh seeded Croat Ivan Ljubicic in five sets 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3. Baghdatis will play fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian next for a chance to make the final.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Clijsters Survives Hingis In Three

Don't tell rating U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters that Martina Hingis' comeback isn't serious. In a competitive Australian Open quarterfinal, the second seeded Belgian edged Hingis in three sets 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena Wednesday.

The former three time Australian champ had yet to face a top 10 player during her run to the quarters. Not used to the kind of power Clijsters generated, Hingis quickly was broken twice in the first set to trail 4-0. Hingis finally got on the board with a break of her own. After holding for 2-4, she applied some pressure to Clijsters' serve in the seventh game but Clijsters held for 5-2 and eventually served out the set.

Early in the second set, Clijsters continued to dictate points from the baseline with some top heavy groundstrokes from both sides of the racket which produced 35 winners. to just 19 for her opponent. In the opening game, she broke Hingis for the third time and then held for 2-0. Seemingly in control, Clijsters earned two more break points in Hingis' next service game. But the resilient Hingis bravely fought them off and held to get back in the match.

Remarkably, the set swung in Hingis' favor when Clijsters started making a cluster of unforced errors, mostly from the backhand side. She finished with 18 more unforced errors than her opponent- Clijsters- 49 Hingis - 31.

Suddenly used to Clijsters' pace, Hingis was able to get more balls back and throw in some topspin to throw Clijsters' rhythm off. Getting her to overhit shots long, Hingis broke Clijsters three times, winning the last six games of the set to force a deciding third.

After Clijsters reestablished some momentum breaking Hingis for a 1-0 lead in the final set, a determined Hingis broke back in the sixth game to level the match three all. But Clijsters again surged ahead 4-3 with her fifth break. After she held for a 5-3 lead, she earned two match points in the ninth game but Hingis fought both off and held to force Clijsters to serve it out.

Clijsters won the last four points without trouble. When Hingis returned a forehand long, Clijsters finally had her victory to advance to a semifinal against third seeded Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo defeated seventh seeded Swiss Patty Schnyder 6-3, 6-0.

For Clijsters, the win allowed her to become the number one player in the world- overtaking American Lindsay Davenport, who fell Tuesday night to Justine Henin-Hardenne in three sets 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. Henin-Hardenne will take on fourth seeded Russian Maria Sharapova in the other semifinal.

"After the year I had last year, this is the cherry on the cake," Clijsters said during a postmatch interview. "It was never a goal. Keep working hard and good things happen."

For Hingis, though she fell short, she walked off the court to a standing ovation.

"I can be proud. You just can't think you're going to go out there and win everything," she said. "I lost only 6-4 in the third against the No. 1 player, so I don't think it's that bad. You think I'm going to give up right now?"

Clijsters complimented the former number one player.

"It was fun to see how motivated she is- she's very professional and puts in a lot of work. As long as you keep doing that, it pays off. She definitely has a lot of talent in the game."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Nalbandian Solves Magician

Things started off slowly for David Nalbandian against unorthodox Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. Referred to as The Magician for his spinning shots, lobs and solid volleying, the two-handed 33-year-old making his first ever slam quarterfinal appearance had Nalbandian off balance at the outset.

Mixing up an assortment of tricky shots during rallies, Santoro drew an early break to jump ahead. On one point, he hit two lob volleys and then finished the point with a lunging volley to the delight of Rod Laver Arena.

But as the set wore on, the 24-year-old Argentine started dictating points from the baseline, producing winners from all sorts of angles. He finished the match with 47 winners to only 18 for his opponent. After breaking back to level the set, Nalbandian held serve twice to go ahead 6-5. That's when one of the game's best returners applied heavy pressure to earn his second break to claim the set. After earning two break points, Nalbandian polished off the set with a forehand winner down the line and then pumped his fist and screamed, "Si."

With Santoro off his game, Nalbandian continued to roll in the second and third sets. So thoroughly did he outplay Santoro that from five all in the first, Nalbandian took the final 14 games of the match. In fact, after using 51 minutes to take the first set, he needed only 50 more minutes to advance to his first ever Australian Open semifinal. Nalbandian punctuated the victory with a backhand winner down the line.

"In the beginning it was very tough, windy," Nalbandian said at the postmatch conference. "Also, Fabrice has a very special game. It's not easy to come and hit winners from the first point."

"In the first set I was a bit nervous- when I got a bit of confidence, I started hitting harder and better, with angles near to the line."

Nalbandian will play the winner of seventh seeded Croat Ivan Ljubicic against Cyprian Marcos Baghdatis.

In his career, he has reached only one grand slam final, which came four years ago at Wimbledon where he lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt. But these days, Nalbandian is a more confident player. Especially since coming back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer at the 2005 Masters Cup Final last November.

"I'm in semis this year, and I hope to win it," he added.

"I feel that I can keep going. I have to keep working, keep playing, keep focus but my goal is to try and win some Grand Slams and I'm ready to do it."

It's hard to argue.

Sharapova Into Semis: In the first women's quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena, fourth seeded Russian Maria Sharapova overcame eight double faults and 36 unforced errors to defeat sixth seeded countrywoman Nadia Petrova 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Petrova finished with 12 double faults and 49 unforced errors.

Both players combined for more than 50 unforced errors in a less than impressive first set which lasted 71 minutes. Each traded three service breaks in the wacky set, spraying serves and shots all over the place.

Twice, Petrova served for the set but didn't come close to putting it away, allowing Sharapova to push it to a pivotal tiebreaker.

In it, the struggle continued until Petrova went ahead 6-4 to setup two set points. But Petrova couldn't convert either and then donated the set to Sharapova by dropping the next two points, including a double fault to give her the set 8-6.

With Petrova continuing to struggle on serve, Sharapova broke right away in the opening game and quickly rolled out to a two break 4-1 lead. But almost as unpredictably as the first set, Sharapova dropped the next two games before holding for 5-3. After Petrova steadied herself for a service hold to make it 4-5, she forced Sharapova to serve it out.

Petrova won the first three points against Sharapova to setup triplebreak point. But Sharapova fought them off and took the final five points to advance to the semifinals.

It made Sharapova three-for-three against Petrova in slam quarters.

"We have tough matches and I've been able to pull through, so I'm very happy," said Sharapova.

She'll play the winner of Lindsay Davenport (1)-Justine Henin-Hardenne (8).

Federer Pushed To Five By Haas

It's not often men's world number one Roger Federer has to sweat. But after leading German Tommy Haas by two sets, that's exactly what the Swiss Maestro had to do before raising his level to advance in a heated fourth round battle 6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 Monday night at Rod Laver Arena.

Making an uncharacteristic 58 unforced errors while his opponent committed just 36, Federer struggled to put away a determined Haas.

After taking the opening set 6-4, Federer dominated Haas in an uncompetitive second which saw him bagel the unseeded German. Using every weapon in his arsenal and finding every conceivable angle for winners, Federer toyed with Haas during rallies to easily claim the set in only 28 minutes.

With Haas looking increasingly frustrated, Federer seemed on his way to another routine straight sets victory. However, Haas wouldn't go away easily. Serving notice in the opening game, Haas fought off a couple of break points to hold. That's when the match swung. Able to lift his game, Haas started striking the ball with more precision and began to fluster the usually unflappable Federer.

When a Federer forehand steered long in the sixth game, Haas had his first break of the match. He then held twice to push it to a fourth set.

The inspired play from Haas continued. Now taking it to Federer during extended rallies, Haas got the better of the play. After breaking Federer in the third game, he made it stand up with some big serving and clutch shotmaking as well as some unusual easy misses from Federer. Coming up with sizzling backhand winners down the line and lunging forehand volleys reminiscent of former German star Boris Becker, Haas had no trouble closing out the set 6-4 to suddenly force a deciding fifth set.

Invoking memories of Federer's Masters Cup Championship five-set loss in which he led by two sets to David Nalbandian last November, Haas had pushed him to the limit, invigorating the crowd.

With chants of "Tommy, Tommy," Haas tried his best to complete the comeback by continuing to apply pressure. However, as champions often do, Federer rose to the occasion, saving his best tennis when he needed it. On some crucial points on his serve, Federer hit lines with a couple of forehands to hold. It was the start of a big finish in which he cracked 18 of his match high 66 winners to just six unforced errors the final set.

Finally sharper, Federer began to dictate points again. Though Haas bravely fought off two break points in the fourth game, he couldn't prevent Federer from breaking to go up 4-2. During a long rally, Haas unfortunately just missed a forehand winner wide, which gave Federer the break. Haas protested in frustration but replays showed that it was properly ruled out.

From there, Federer held for 5-2 and then went for the kill in the eighth game. The end came when Haas struck another forehand long, to which Federer emphatically yelled out, "Yeah!!!!!"

"This is a good match here for me to win in five sets on Rod Laver Arena," Federer said during a postmatch conference afterwards. "I tried to break his momentum, and all I needed was a break. And Tommy made that difficult for me."

"I like to be pushed like this because the media people get on my nerves. They keep asking me wouldn't it be good if you lost a set, wouldn't it be good if you have a tough one. It's all crap man. I'm happy I've had a tough one and I'm still in the tournament."

Federer improved to 9-9 in five-set matches. He next will meet fifth seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals. Davydenko battled back from two sets down to take out 12th seeded Slovak Dominik Hrbaty 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.

In other Round of 16 action, 21st seeded German Nicolas Kiefer advanced with a 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 win over Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela. Kiefer next plays Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean (25) in the quarters. Grosjean bested countryman Paul-Henri Mathieu 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

Men's quarterfinals got underway Tuesday with fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian facing tricky Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. The winner will take on either seventh seeded Croat Ivan Ljubicic or Cyprian Marcos Baghdatis.

Hingis, Clijsters Advance To Quarterfinal Showdown

The comeback kid Martina Hingis continued her impressive run in Melbourne with a 6-1, 7-6 (8) Round of 16 win over Aussie Samantha Stosur Monday night at Rod Laver Arena.

Having cruised through her first three matches, the former three-time Australian Open champion looked like she would have another routine victory after an easy 23-minute first set against the 21-year-old fan favorite. She used an array of shots from every conceivable angle to keep Stosur off balance.

When Hingis broke early in the second set, she seemed in control. But in an ultracompetitive set that lasted an hour and included several service breaks, Stosur and Hingis slugged it out from the baseline during some lengthy rallies which got the crowd into it. Able to break again and hold for 5-3, Hingis was two points away from victory on Stosur's serve when the powerful Aussie increased the volume by taking the final four points to draw within 4-5.

Having already broken the Swiss Miss three times in the frame, Stosur outslugged Hingis during a baseline rally to level the set five all. But once again, Hingis bounced back with a break to earn another chance to serve it out. In a recurring theme though, Stosur refused to go down without a fight. After saving a match point, she broke Hingis with a forehand return winner on a second serve to force a tiebreaker.

The tiebreak would prove as exciting as the set. After Stosur jumped out to a 5-2 lead with two serves to level the match, Hingis rallied to take the next four points and get a second match point. However, a game Stosur fought it off during an extended 33-stroke rally to extend the tiebreak. Forced to come in, Stosur came up with a gutsy slice backhand approach shot which slid off the baseline forcing a Hingis error. The pro Stosur crowd cheered loudly.

Stosur also denied a third match point. But at 9-8, the fourth match point would finally pay off for Hingis when Stosur netted a forehand, giving Hingis a quarterfinal date with second seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters.

"Sam played an awesome match, she's a real fighter," praised Hingis at the postmatch conference. "She was the last Aussie standing and I'm sorry for that, I look forward to everyone's support in the next round."

In her first ever slam fourth round, Stosur handled herself well. Afterwards, she paid Hingis some worthy compliments.

"Martina is just an unbelievable player. She anticipates really well. She's awesome," Stosur said. "It's just awesome experience playing in front of a crowd like that- it's a feeling I'll never forget."

Before Hingis and Stosur took center stage, '05 U.S. Open champ Clijsters withstood a strong challenge from 15th seeded Italian Francesca Schiavone. In a seesaw battle on the baseline, Clijsters prevailed in straight sets 7-6 (5), 6-4. Despite playing through a hip flexor, she still hasn't dropped a set.

However, the match against Schiavone was far from easy. Trying to serve out the first set, Clijsters was broken by Schiavone to force a first set tiebreak. In it, Schiavone was two points from claiming the set with two serves but felt the pressure by making two unforced errors. A determined Clijsters rallied to claim the tiebreak 7-5, pumping her fist.

After an early break put Clijsters up in the second set, Schiavone broke back to get it on serve. But in the pivotal ninth game with the score even, Clijsters converted her fourth break of the match to setup a chance to serve it out. Despite making 43 unforced errors, she finally put away the fiesty Schiavone to advance.

In other fourth round action, third seeded Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo easily moved into the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-1 pasting of 16th seeded Czech Nicole Vaidisova. She'll next face seventh seeded Swiss Patty Schnyder, who also had no trouble with 12th seeded Russian Anastasia Myskina, prevailing 6-2, 6-1.

Women's quarterfinals begin Tuesday. In a battle of Russians, Maria Sharapova (4) faces Nadia Petrova (6) while top seeded American Lindsay Davenport battles Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lundqvist Up To Challenge Against Devils

First year NHL goalies aren't supposed to be this good. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Ranger rookie Henrik Lundqvist. In making 31 saves in a crucial 3-1 win over the Devils (25-19-5), the man known as Henke back home in Sweden was the difference in making it three in a row for the Rangers while snapping the Devils' nine-game win streak Sunday night at The Garden.

Lundqvist made some tough saves in outdueling three-time Stanley Cup winner Martin Brodeur. Both were superior in net but Lundqvist was just a little better on this night. In solid form as well, Brodeur finished with 30 saves.

Staked to a 2-0 lead on goals by Petr Prucha and Michael Nylander, Lundqvist was forced to come up with a spectacular save late in the second when Petr Sykora and Jed Ortmeyer were penalized 24 seconds apart giving the Devils a crucial two-man advantage. Having already bailed out his teammates in the first during a Darius Kasparaitis elbowing major, the 23-year-old Swede robbed Patrik Elias with one second left. Elias went around Marek Malik and fired a wrist shot labeled for the top corner. But Lundqvist got a piece of it with his glove to preserve the two-goal lead into the third.

In the third however, the Devils pressed and finally got one back when Scott Gomez finished off a nice passing play with Elias to cut the lead in half with 13:24 left. Off a give-and-go with Elias, a streaking Gomez took a pass and fired a wrist shot past Lundqvist inside the far post for his 18th of the season.

With a more determined New Jersey team coming at them in waves, Lundqvist and the depleted Ranger D due to no Kasparaitis had to be on their toes. Playing an in your face grind it out style the Devils generated some chances but couldn't tie it. Lundqvist was equal to the challenge, including key stops on Sergei Brylin, Jay Pandolfo and John Madden.

While Lundqvist held the forte, his teammates picked it up down the stretch to hold the Devils without a shot the final 7:32. Everytime the Devils got the puck in deep and were in position to tie it, a Ranger sacrificed his body to prevent shots from getting through. If they didn't block a shot, they took away the puck much like Michal Rozsival did when a streaking Elias cut to the middle and tried to drag the puck for a big chance with over six minutes remaining.

But without the yeoman-like effort of the HMO line of Ryan Hollweg, Dominic Moore and Jed Ortmeyer, the Blueshirts probably don't hold on let alone get the all important fourth win of the first six against the Devils. On one shift with over four minutes left, Hollweg, Moore and Ortmeyer pinned the Devils in their zone for about 45 seconds, resulting in cheers from appreciative fans.

Hollweg, who in the second was pummeled by Cam Janssen in a one-sided scrap, kept coming. His grit along the boards almost resulted in a third goal. For his hard work, he even got 20 seconds of power play time which also almost turned into a goal. That's the kind of dedication the Rangers showed against a red hot rival in a four point swing game which moved them to fourth overall in the East and put them eight points ahead of New Jersey.

With the Devils pulling Brodeur for an extra attacker, they continued to keep the puck in due to the hustle of Brian Rafalski. But anytime they moved the puck, they were challenged by Rangers. In a final sequence of Devils' desperation, three more shots were blocked. Finally, Martin Rucinsky took the puck away at center ice and got it to another gritty player Jason Ward, who passed to Moore. Moore's empty net goal sealed it with 11 seconds left. Very fitting indeed that the game's Number Three Star broke the Devils' backs. An underrated player, who just plays his role.

That's the difference with these Rangers.

Notes: Going for a big hit, Kasparaitis knocked Grant Marshall out of the game with an elbow in the first. Marshall did not return. Kasparaitis could be subject to suspension for his elbowing major. ... In what's becoming an increasing problem, the Rangers were destroyed in the faceoff circle by the Devils 37-16. They lost their best center on draws Blair Betts to a sprained left MCL a couple of weeks ago against Florida. Betts ranked 14th in faceoff percentage winning 55.7 percent. The next highest Ranger is Steve Rucchin at 47.1 percent. ... Fourth in the East, Rangers (28-14-7, 63 points) host fifth overall Buffalo (29-15-3, 61 points) Tuesday night in another four-point swing game.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Roddick Falls To Baghdatis In Fourth Round

There won't be a second career grand slam for Andy Roddick at The Australian Open. The second seeded American was upset by Marcos Baghdatis in four sets 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Sunday at Rod Laver Arena. The 20-year-old from Cyprus, who entered ranked 54th, outslugged Roddick from the baseline to prevail in two hours 32 minutes.

Cheered throughout by Cyprian supporters, Baghdatis fed off the energy with a great performance to make his first ever slam quarterfinal.

Ripping crosscourt forehand winners and backhand winners down the line, Baghdatis kept Roddick off balance in the first set. After each player held for three all, Baghdatis broke for 4-3 when a Roddick forehand sailed long. He made it stand up when he served out the set for 6-4.

But Roddick turned the tables on Baghdatis in the second set. When Roddick got the better of an extended rally to force an error, he broke for a 2-0 lead and pumped his fist. From there, he would add another break and cruise to an easy 6-1 set to level the match.

However, Baghdatis rebounded strongly to break Roddick in the sixth game to go up 4-2 in the pivotal third frame. Fighting off a break point which would have put it back on serve, he served out the set.

With Baghdatis continuing to slug winners in set four, he broke Roddick for the third time in the fifth game when the normally consistent server double faulted. It would be all he needed. Fittingly, he closed out the match with a running crosscourt forehand winner to finish off Roddick. Then, celebrated with his supporters by raising his arms.

"I'm just in my own world and playing great tennis," an excited Baghdatis proclaimed at the postmatch conference. "I think it's one of the best matches of my life."

Baghdatis finished with 63 winners to just 39 for Roddick. He also had 16 aces and broke Roddick three times. Entering the match, Roddick had only dropped serve once the first three rounds. Despite the outcome, Roddick finished with one more total point than Baghdatis- 117-116. He pointed towards how well his opponent played as the difference.

"I didn't play that badly -plus eight in winners to errors- I looked and I won more total points," Roddick noted. "I think I would have beaten most people today, but credit where it's due; he played a very good match."

"The shots he was able to come up with were very good," Roddick said. "Maybe I was a bit spacey out there. I wasn't totally on top of things. It's tough, it's disappointing, but move on."

Baghdatis will play the winner of Ivan Ljubicic (7)-Thomas Johansson (10) in the quarterfinals. That will be played Sunday night.

Also advancing to the quarters was fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian, who took out Spaniard Tommy Robredo (16) 6-3, 6-0, 2-6, 6-2. He'll take on Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, who straight setted David Ferrer (11) 6-4, 7-5, 7-5. It's the first time the 32-year-old Magician has made the quarters at a major.

In third round action late Saturday, top seeded Roger Federer cruised into the Round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Max Mirnyi. Federer had 48 winners to only 10 unforced errors. He'll next face German Tommy Haas.

German Nicolas Kiefer (21) also moved on with a four set win over Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero (15) 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. He'll battle Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela in the Round of 16.

Fifth seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko setup a fourth round match-up against Slovak Dominik Hrbaty (12) by eliminating Aussie Nathan Healey 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5.

Davenport Into Quarters: Top seeded American Lindsay Davenport advanced to the Elite Eight with a 6-2, 6-4 triumph over 14th seeded Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. Despite having a twisted left ankle suffered in her last match taped up, Davenport prevailed in straight sets.

"I sprained it a little bit the other day," she said. "It was just a little bit swollen. ... I kind of jammed it on one shot. Hopefully, it will have a little time to get better."

She'll play eighth seeded Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, who eliminated Spaniard Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-0, 6-3.

Sixth seeded Russian Nadia Petrova also moved on with a 6-3, 6-1 win over countrywoman Elena Vesnina. She awaits the winner of Maria Sharapova (4)-Daniela Hantuchova (17). That match was scheduled to take place Sunday night.

In Saturday's late action, second seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters setup a Round of 16 match against Italian Francesca Schiavone (15) with a 6-1, 6-2 conquest of Italian Roberta Vinci. Schiavone advanced 6-0, 6-0 over Spaniard Maria Sanchez Lorenzo.

Aussie Samantha Stosur also made the Fourth Round with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 win over Austrian Sybille Bammer. She'll play Martina Hingis next for a chance to make the quarterfinals.

Sykora Shoots Down Bruins

It wasn't a memorable effort for the Rangers but they'll take it. Petr Sykora's shootout goal in the sixth round allowed them to escape Boston (18-21-8) with a 3-2 victory at TD Banknorth Garden Saturday night. It was the Rangers' second consecutive win, which gave them to finish .500 on a four-game road trip.

They overcame a lack of discipline in more ways than one to steal two points against a quicker and hungrier opponent. Having blown a two-goal lead in the second, the Blueshirts were on their heels most of the third period. Some of it was due to an aggressive Boston forecheck. But also, some lazy turnovers in their end along with two penalties to rookie Petr Prucha put them on the defensive, forcing Henrik Lundqvist to make some tough saves. Strong throughout in his second straight start, the Swedish sensation stopped all nine Boston shots plus two more in overtime to force a shootout. Lundqvist finished with 29 saves to give his team a chance.

In their first shootout since Marek Malik's highlight reel goal which ended the longest ever SO this season in the 15th round on November 26, New York improved to 4-1. Boston dropped to 0-4.

Much like the game, it didn't come easy. Staked to a 1-0 lead in Round One on a Jaromir Jagr forehand deke against Tim Thomas, Thomas denied Petr Prucha to give Boston one final chance. Patrice Bergeron forced sudden death when he opened up Lundqvist's five-hole. With Thomas stopping Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka, Lundqvist repelled P.J. Axelsson and Ben Walter's attempts to win it. That's when Sykora scored when he flipped a backhand top shelf. Brad Isbister's shot was padded away by Lundqvist to give the Rangers a much needed two points in a tightening playoff race. They tied Buffalo for fourth in the East and still lead the red hot Devils by six points heading into a pivotal match-up later tonight at The Garden.

Jason Ward scored his seventh goal of the season to put the Rangers ahead 7:27 into the first. Off a Boston turnover, Nylander intercepted a puck at the blueline and then fed Ward down low, who tucked the puck around Thomas.

In the second, Sykora increased it to 2-0 at 2:39 when he put home a Ville Nieminen rebound. But the Bruins rallied to tie it, scoring twice 4:11 apart. Off a Ranger turnover, Marco Sturm stuffed home a shot past Lundqvist to cut it to one. Then, two unnecessary penalties 15 seconds apart allowed Boston to draw even. After they were assessed a bench minor for too many men, Marek Malik was sent off for tripping. Brad Stuart capitalized when he one-timed a Brad Boyes feed past Lundqvist.

The Bruins came close to winning it late in regulation off a Lundqvist turnover. After playing a puck, Lundqvist was caught out of his net but Bergeron's one-timer was blocked by a sliding Fedor Tyutin to save the game. Tyutin suffered a laceration but returned after being stitched up.

Thomas turned aside 27 of 29 shots.

Notes: Darius Kasparaitis returned after missing three games due to a sprained knee. He replaced Thomas Pock, who was sent back down to Hartford. ... Marcel Hossa left the game in the first after being hit with a puck. His status is unknown for tonight. ... Ex-Ranger Brian Leetch sat out with an injury. ... Rangers (27-14-7, 61 points) host the Devils (25-18-5, 55 points) Sunday night at 7 PM. Devils are a perfect 9-0 in 2006. New York leads the season series 3-1-1.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Serena Falls To Hantuchova

For the first time in the last three years she entered, Serena Williams won't be holding the trophy down under. The much maligned American star was eliminated in the third round by Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova 6-1, 7-6 (5) Friday at Rod Laver Arena. The loss snapped a 16 match winning streak at Melbourne Park.

Williams- who won the Australian Open the last two times she played in '03 and '05- never found her game against the 17th ranked Hantuchova. Spraying shots all over the court, Williams made 37 unforced errors in the disappointing early exit.

"I had enough preparation, I was prepared. I just didn't play my best today," Williams pointed out at the postmatch conference. "I just was hitting balls every which direction. Just going everywhere. I didn't feel any of them."

"I just made a lot of errors today," she added. "I just couldn't find my shots at all. Like everything I was trying just wasn't working. It was just one of those days."

While she struggled to find her game at the start, a sharper Hantuchova hit kniving returns mostly from the forehand side. She took advantage of Williams' second serve, winning 20 of 29 points. Able to dictate points from the baseline, Hantuchova broke Williams and led 3-1 before a brief rain delay. But if Williams thought it would help, instead Hantuchova continued to play well, breaking Williams twice more enroute to an easy first set. It was the first time in four career matches she ever captured a set off Williams.

However, the second set would be much tougher for Hantuchova. With Williams predictably raising her level, it made for a very competitive set which lasted an hour. As Williams steadied, Hantuchova tightened up in the fifth game to give Serena her only break of the match. In fact, she converted her only break point. After holding for 4-2, Williams looked poised to force a third set. But instead of wilting Hantuchova held and then answered with a break to put the set back on serve.

With Hantuchova ahead 6-5, Williams faced triple match point but climbed out of it with some help from her opponent. Having fought off the first, Serena watched Hantuchova hesitate to play a backhand which landed on the baseline. Thinking that the ball would be called out, a surprised Hantuchova awkwardly played the shot out to keep Serena alive. Williams then aced her way out of trouble and finally forced a tiebreaker.

After Hantuchova raced out to a 3-0 two minibreak lead, Williams fought back to go ahead 4-3. But Hantuchova took the next three points to setup two more match points. Serena saved a fourth with a service winner, forcing Hantuchova to close it out. When a Williams return sailed long, Hantuchova had her biggest slam victory to reach the Round of 16 where she'll play fourth seeded Maria Sharapova.

Along with sister Venus ousted in the opening round by Tszvetana Pironkova, Serena's third round defeat was the earliest both have ever been eliminated in the same slam event.

On Day Six, third seeded Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo advanced into the Round of 16 when her opponent Michaella Krajicek retired. After dropping the first set 6-2, Krajicek cited heat exhaustion due to grueling conditions. Mauresmo will face Czech Nicole Vaidisova (16), who ousted Italian Flavia Pennetta (20) 6-4, 6-2.

Patty Schnyder (7) moved on with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Aika Nakamura. Schnyder next faces Russian Anastasia Myskina (12), who defeated Sofia Arvidsson 6-3, 6-1.

Martina Hingis continued her impressive comeback with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Iveta Benesova. She awaits the winner of Samantha Stosur-Sybille Bammer.

In other third round action, Francesca Schiavone (15) was taking on Maria Sanchez Lorenzo with the winner to play either Kim Clijsters (2) or Roberta Vinci.

Blake Fails To Deliver: Taking the court after Williams, American James Blake (20) couldn't back up his promise. Before the tournament, he mentioned that "for the first time in his career, he felt like a contender." Unfortunately for Blake, 16th seeded Spaniard Tommy Robredo didn't oblige.

In a rematch from the '05 U.S. Open Round of 16 which Blake prevailed in four sets, Robredo exacted revenge with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 triumph. It was Robredo's first career win over Blake in five meetings.

Like Williams, Blake made too many errors against a quality foe. Overhitting the ball, Blake finished with 46 unforced errors while Robredo had just 14. Also similarly to Williams, Blake had problems winning points on his second serve, converting only 20 of 46.

Much like their match in New York, Blake got off to a slow start and was broken in the second game. The steadier Robredo made it stand up to claim the first set.

The second set saw Robredo continue to have the better of the play. With Blake trying to dictate points with punishing ground strokes, Robredo was content to get them back with some effective topspin which drew some miscues. After the two players exchanged breaks, Robredo broke again to take control. Serving for a two set lead, ironically, Robredo was in the same exact position he was at the Open last fall. But this time, he didn't falter and closed it out.

When Robredo broke for the fourth time early in the third frame, he had enough to finish off Blake. Though Blake didn't go away easily, Robredo came up with some difficult passing shots, including a lunging crosscourt forehand and another down the line on the dead run. Robredo finished with 24 winners.

Robredo will next face fourth seeded Argentian David Nalbandian, who bested Finn Jarkko Nieminen (26) in four sets 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

Tenth seeded Swede Thomas Johansson advanced to the Round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Frenchman Gilles Simon. He'll next face Croatian Ivan Ljubicic (7), who also made the fourth round for the first time in his slam career by eliminating Spaniard Feliciano Lopez (31) 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-0.

On Day Six, two Frenchmen setup a Round of 16 match-up. Sebastien Grosjean (25) ousted sixth seeded Argentine Guillermo Coria 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. He'll meet fellow countryman Paul-Henri Mathieu, who took out Luis Horna 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7), 6-1.

Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty (12) also advanced with a five set win over Russian Igor Andreev (23) 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. Andreev, who was two games away from advancing fell victim to 100 degree heat. On match point, he didn't attempt to return Hrbaty's second serve up the middle. Hrbaty takes on the winner of Nikolay Davydenko (5)-Nathan Healey.

Fresh off his upset win of Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Ignacio Chela moved into Round Four with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Kristof Vliegen. He'll play the winner of Juan Carlos Ferrero (15)-Nicolas Kiefer (21).

Also advancing was German Tommy Haas, who eliminated Aussie Peter Luczak 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. He'll play the winner of Roger Federer (1)-Max Mirnyi (30).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pierce and Hewitt Bow Out

Day Four wasn't kind to Mary Pierce or Lleyton Hewitt. Both Pierce and Hewitt were upset in the second round last night in Australia.

The women's fifth seed, Pierce fell in straight sets to Iveta Benesova 6-3, 7-5 while last year's men's runner-up Hewitt was taken out in four sets by Juan Ignacio Chela 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-2.

The 31-year-old Pierce had trouble with her younger opponent's pace from the baseline. Benesova, a 22-year-old Czech who entered the match ranked 42nd, achieved her best slam result making the third round. The two-handed player was more consistent against an erratic Pierce, finishing with 22 less unforced errors. For the match, Pierce had 41 compared to Benesova's 19.

With Pierce unable to find the range in the first set, Benesova took advantage to close it out in 34 minutes.

In the second set, Pierce altered her game to throw Benesova's rhythm off. Able to go up a break for 5-3, she had a golden chance to force a final set. But in a lengthy ninth game, the persistent Benesova fought off a couple of set points and took advantage of a couple of easy misses from Pierce to get back on serve. Remarkably, Benesova ran off the final four games to pull out the match, finishing it in style with a drop shot winner.

"I'm so excited. It was the best match I've ever played. I'm really happy," Bedesova said at the postmatch conference Thursday. "This is definitely the best win in my whole career."

She'll next face Martina Hingis, who continued to impress in her comeback with an easy 6-1, 6-1 win over Finn Emma Laine.

Second seeded Kim Clijsters advanced with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Meng Yuan. Third seeded Amelie Mauresmo won 7-6 (1), 6-2 over Emilie Loit. Mauresmo will next play Michaella Krajicek, who took out Sania Mirza (32) 6-3, 7-5.

Other seeds who advanced included Patty Schnyder (7), Anastasia Myskina (12), Francesca Schiavone (15), Nicole Vaidisova (16) and Flavia Pennetta (20).

Meanwhile, Sofia Arvidsson upset Dinara Safina (19) 6-4, 6-0 while Ana Ivanovic (21) fell to Australian Samantha Stosur 6-3, 7-5. Maria Sanchez Lorenzo eliminated Anna-Lena Groenefeld (22) 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. Aika Nakamura took out Gisela Dulko (31) 6-1, 6-1.

Austrian Sybille Bammer also advanced.

While Pierce was the big name sent home on the women's side, third seeded Aussie Hewitt was eliminated by Chela in a four set match which lasted over three hours.

Facing a familiar foe who he beat in a heated battle which included Chela spitting at him during a break in the third round last year on his path to the final, the 24-year-old Hewitt struggled for the second consecutive match.

After making 61 unforced errors in his five set first round win over Robin Vik, an unsteady Hewitt had 62 more which contributed to his demise. Against a similar opponent style-wise from the baseline, it was a recipe for disaster. Conversely, Chela finished with just 34 and had 49 winners.

Flat from the outset, Hewitt was broken right away by Chela in the first set. Though he broke back, he continued to have problems holding serve for the second consecutive match. Continually giving Chela break point chances, Hewitt paid the price to fall a set behind. For the match, Chela converted eight of 21.

Twice early in the second set, Hewitt held break leads of 2-0 and 3-1. But each time, a determined Chela bounced back. When Chela broke Hewitt for the third time in the set, he was able to make it stand up when Hewitt a volley to lead by two sets.

Trailing by two sets, Hewitt came out with more purpose in a seesaw third set, which saw him again trade breaks with Chela. As the two dueled in lengthy baseline rallies, it began to take its toll on the Aussie. During the fifth game of the set, Hewitt injured his left foot during an extended rally. Once it was over, he received a three minute medical timeout to have it taped up by a trainer. Unable to move as fluidly, he would hobble on it the rest of the match.

Despite not being 100 percent though, Hewitt perservered to get the set to a tiebreaker. However, before he could claim the set 10-8, Chela fought off six set points.

With the set lasting 71 minutes, it might have taken whatever fight Hewitt had out of him. Right away, Chela broke for the seventh time and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Hewitt earned one last break chance with a running forehand winner but on the next point, his backhand floated long. Unusually quiet most of the match, Hewitt let out a roar of disapproval. It would be his last chance.

Two games away from his biggest slam victory, Chela also received a medical timeout for some cramping in his thighs. One point away from having to serve it out, Chela took the final four points on Hewitt's serve to win the match. Symbolically, Chela concluded it with an inside-out forehand crosscourt return winner, producing a scream and pump of his fist before shaking hands with Hewitt.

Reminded about last year's incident, Chela said through a translator, "They talked a lot about what happened last year, but when I got on to the court I was just thinking about the tennis match and not about what happened last year."

Chela will next face Belgian Kristof Vliegen, who ousted 28th seeded Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in four sets 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

Top seeded Roger Federer advanced easily with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-0 destruction of German Florian Mayer. He'll next play former doubles partner Max Mirnyi (30), who took out Davide Sanguinetti 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (8).

Fifth seeded Nikolay Davydenko advanced in four sets while sixth seeded Guillermo Coria won in straight sets. Coria will play Sebastien Grosjean (25), who prevailed over Juan Monaco 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Dominik Hrbaty (12) needed five sets to overcome veteran Dick Norman 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 10-8. Juan Carlos Ferrero (15) also needed five to beat Janko Tipsarevic 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.

Australian Peter Luczak upset Olivier Rochus (24) 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (1), 6-1.

Other Round Two winners included Nicolas Kiefer (21), Igor Andreev (23), German Tommy Haas, Aussie Nathan Healey, Paul-Henri Mathieu and Luis Horna.

Roddick Into Round of 16:On Day Five Friday, second seeded American Andy Roddick cruised into the Round of 16 over Frenchman Julien Benneteau 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. He'll meet Marcos Baghdatis, who eliminated German Denis Gremelmayr in similar fashion 6-2, 6-1, 6-2.

David Ferrer (11) also advanced over Mario Ancic (18) 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. However, eighth seeded Argentian Gaston Gaudio fell victim to Fabrice Santoro, who posted a 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 1-6, 6-4 victory. Ferrer will meet Santoro next.

Meanwhile on the women's side, top seeded American Lindsay Davenport needed three sets to beat Russian Maria Kirilenko (25) 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. She'll next face Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova (14), who eliminated Mara Santangelo 6-3, 6-1.

Fourth seeded Maria Sharapova advanced without a problem over Croatian Jelena Kostanic 6-0, 6-1. She faces the winner of Serena Williams (13)-Daniela Hantuchova (17), which won't be played until later today.

Nadia Petrova (6) defeated Maria Elena Camerin 6-1, 6-2. Eighth seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne also moved on with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Virginie Razzano.

Other Round Three winners included Virginia Ruano Pascual and Elena Vesnina.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Roddick Cruises To Third Round

Much has been made of American Andy Roddick's chances to win his first Australian Open. The 23-year-old second seed entered 2006 off a disappointing '05, which saw him upset by Gilles Muller in the first round of the U.S. Open. Stunned by the result, Roddick vowed to make some changes for this year. So far, so good as he coasted to his second straight set win in three days, taking out big server Wesley Moodie 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 to advance to a third round match against Frenchman Julien Benneateau, who defeated Guillermo Garcia Lopez 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-1.

In a very close first set, both big servers were in form for the first 12 games. Neither player could even crack their opponent's serve. But that quickly changed when Moodie tightened up trying to stay in the set to force a tiebreak. An unforced error and a double fault gave Roddick all he needed to claim it.

Finally gaining more confidence on his opponent's serve, Roddick began to get more looks in the second set. Though Moodie fought off a couple of break points, Roddick finally broke through to lead 5-3. From there, he closed out the set without any trouble to go up two sets, giving a fist pump.

Looking for the putaway, Roddick broke Moodie in the opening game of the third frame. Just for good measure, the fiery gunslinger broke Moodie for a second time when he ripped a crosscourt forehand winner to lead 5-2, prompting another pump of the fist. From there, he closed it out with ease.

For the match, Roddick won 85 percent of points on his first serve, faced only one break point and had 30 winners to just nine unforced errors. In discussing how cleanly he played at the postmatch conference, he said, "I'll take that most days."

"I definitely felt Wes was going to come out and play big like he did, I needed to play well today."

Ginepri Not As Fortunate: While Roddick didn't break a sweat against Moodie, American Robby Ginepri (13) wasn't as lucky against second round German qualifier Denis Gremelmayr. The '05 U.S. Open semifinalist blew a two set and break lead in falling to Gremelmayr 2-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Ginepri was a potential Round of 16 opponent for Roddick. Combined with the first round exit of Taylor Dent, Roddick's draw has opened up considerably. What he does with it remains to be seen.

A night earlier, American Alex Bogomolov, Jr. upset ninth seeded Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in more ways than one. While he defeated Gonzalez in an ultracompetitive five sets 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-5, Bogomolov irked Gonzalez with some on-court antics. Included during the match were some loud screams of, "Come on" when his opponent missed shots on big points. Bogomolov also repeatedly pounded his chest and made faces at Gonzalez, clearly unnerving him. At one point, the chair umpire had to get between them during a break. Bogomolov next faces Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round.

Other players who moved on were seventh seeded Ivan Ljubicic, eighth seeded Gaston Gaudio, David Ferrer (11), Mario Ancic (18), Jarkko Nieminen (26), Fabrice Santoro and Marcos Baghdatis, who upended Radek Stepanek (17) 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 0-6, 7-5.

Also falling was Czech riser Tomas Berdych (19) to Frenchman Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. Spaniard Feliciano Lopez (31) ousted Gilles Muller in four sets 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4.

American James Blake (20) also advanced with a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 win over French qualifier Jean-Christophe Faurel. Blake will next meet the winner of Tommy Robredo (16) versus Dmitry Tursunov.

Serena Into Round Three: After struggling to a three set opening round victory over Na Li, American Serena Williams (13) easily handled Frenchwoman Camille Pin 6-3, 6-1 in 49 minutes. It was her 16th consecutive win at the Australian Open. Williams has won it the last two times she's played ('03, '05). She missed '04 with injuries.

Much sharper, the defending champ played with a purpose in outslugging Pin from the baseline. After a loose third game (four errors) which gave Pin a break for 2-1 in the first set, Williams broke right back with some forceful hitting, keeping her opponent on the run. Turning it on, Serena finished with 30 winners and five aces.

"I definitely had some things I wanted to work on today, so it was cool," Serena said.

"The last two times I played here, I did really well," she pointed out. "I'm just hoping to keep it up."

Williams next plays Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova (17), who ousted Akgul Amanmuradova 6-4, 6-1.

Meanwhile, American top seed Lindsay Davenport defeated Croatia's Karolina Sprem 7-6 (4), 6-3. She'll next meet Russian riser Maria Kirilenko (25), who eliminated Galina Voskoboeva 7-6 (1), 6-4.

Other women who advanced were sixth seeded Nadia Petrova, eighth seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne, Svetlana Kuznetsova (14) and Olga Savchuk, who upset Jelena Jankovic (23) 6-3, 6-4.

Another upset victim was Elena Likhovtseva. The 18th seeded Russian fell to Spaniard Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-4, 6-4.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian Tszvetana Pironkova who upset Venus Williams on Day One couldn't duplicate her success against American veteran Laura Granville. Granville defeated Pironkova 7-5, 6-2.

Other winners included Jelena Kostanic, Elena Vesnina, Maria Elena Camerin, Mara Santangelo and Virginie Razzano.

Fourth seeded Russian Maria Sharapova was scheduled to take on American Ashley Harkleroad in the night session.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Hewitt Survives First Round Scare

Lleyton Hewitt came into Melbourne with much fanfare. Australia's biggest name in tennis is married to Australian actress Bec Cartwright. They recently had their first child together, a daughter whose pictures along with Mom and Dad appeared in magazines across the country. With much attention focused off tennis, the '05 Aussie runner-up hadn't played much entering the year's first slam.

Already having lost twice in tuneups, Hewitt almost fell victim for the third time against virtual unknown Robin Vik Tuesday afternoon in Australia. Vik- a 25-year-old Czech who had only two career slam appearances both last year entering this match- gave Hewitt all he could handle in a five setter which lasted three hours and forty-five minutes. A rusty Hewitt fought back from two sets to one down to pull out a 6-4, 2-6, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3 win at a packed Rod Laver Arena.

"I didn't feel like I was striking the ball quite the way I would have liked," Hewitt told the press at a postmatch conference. "That's when you got to grit your teeth and hang in there, try and find a way to win when you're not playing well. That's what I can be proud of what I was able to do."

Amazingly enough, Hewitt's opponent entered the match with an ATP record of just 10-12 despite being ranked a career high 57th due to getting his points up in Futures tournaments. Right away though, the similar in style Vik tested Hewitt in a competitive opening set by breaking him twice. But Hewitt cameback with three breaks of his own to claim the 42-minute set.

Despite going down a set, Vik continued to play well from the baseline, smacking a few backhands down the line for some of his match high 66 winners to keep Hewitt off balance. With Vik controlling much of the play, he had no problem breaking Hewitt a couple of more times to level the match.

The third set was a little more unpredictable. Much like the first set, both players had success breaking. After being an early Vik break down, Hewitt bounced back with two more breaks and seemed in command. But while serving for a set lead up 5-3, he couldn't close out Vik. Instead, Vik turned the tables on Hewitt by taking the final four games to go ahead.

With Hewitt's timing off on many shots in the fourth set, Vik rolled to a 3-1 lead and was in position to go up two breaks. But Hewitt fought it off to stay alive. Down 4-3, he took advantage of a rare loose game by Vik to get back on serve and then won his third straight game to lead 5-4. Just when Hewitt seemed to have things under control, Vik cameback to go up 6-5 with a chance to serve for the match. However, a determined Hewitt broke him at love to force a tiebreak.

In it, the 24-year-old Aussie played sharper tennis from the baseline while his inexperienced opponent made some of his 66 unforced errors to give Hewitt the breaker, squaring the match.

Clearly, Hewitt had an edge with it going to a fifth set. He had won seven consecutive five setters and was 18-8 in his career. Vik had never played a fifth set before.

It showed right away when Hewitt broke in the opening game on one of Vik's 13 double faults. But the fiesty Vik wouldn't give up. With Hewitt up 2-1, Vik had a few chances to break but ran into some bad luck on one point. With both players scrambling, Hewitt came up to the net and hit a volley lob within Vik's grasp but his legs gave out, netting the overhead.

Even though he trailed 3-1 to one of the game's best players, the Czech wouldn't go home without a fight. When he held for 2-3 and then broke Hewitt in another lengthy game, the match was all leveled. But with Hewitt facing the prospect of being knocked out of a first round of a slam for the first time since losing to Ivo Karlovic at '03 Wimbledon, he raised his level to take the final three games, finally advancing to a second round meeting with Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela. Chela triumphed over British teenager Andy Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

At the end of the day, not much separated them. In fact, Vik won five more total points- Vik-178, Hewitt-173. Each player also had 13 double faults and broke each other nine times. Hewitt was 9-of-21 while Vik converted 9-of-28.

But ultimately, Hewitt's experience allowed him to move on.

In other men's action, top seed Roger Federer cruised to an easy straight sets win over Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. Meanwhile, Nikolay Davydenko (5) cameback from a set down to defeat Ivo Karlovic 7-5, 4-6, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. Sixth seed Guillermo Coria also needed five to beat Victor Hanescu 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. Dominik Hrbaty (12) was also pushed five by Oliver Marach before advancing 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3.

However, there were some upsets. German Tommy Haas eliminated Frenchman Richard Gasquet (14) 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. Luis Horna stopped Frenchman Gael Monfils (22) 6-4, 7-5, 6-1.

Other first round winners included Nicolas Kiefer (21), Igor Andreev (23), Olivier Rochus (24) and Max Mirnyi (30).

On Day One, second seeded American Andy Roddick made short work of Michael Lammer 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. American Taylor Dent (27) didn't have as much luck against Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Lopez eliminated him in straight sets 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (4).

On the women's side, defending champion Serena Williams (13) avoided the same fate as sister Venus by defeating China's Na Li 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-2. Third seeded Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo cameback to beat Tiantian Sun 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

'05 U.S. Open runner-up Mary Pierce (5) easily disposed of Nicole Pratt 6-1, 6-1. Meanwhile, '05 U.S. Open winner Kim Clijsters (2) handled Yoon Jeong Cho 6-3, 6-0 despite playing with a hip flexor. Seventh seeded Patty Schnyder ousted Eleni Daniilidou 6-4, 6-3.

Also advancing were Anastasia Myskina (12), Francesca Schiavone (15), Nicole Vaidisova (16), Dinara Safina (19), Flavia Pennetta (20), Ana Ivanovic (21), Anna-Lena Groenefeld (22), Marion Bartoli (27), Gisela Dulko (31) and Sania Mirza (32).

The lone upset victim was '05 Australian Open semifinalist Nathalie Dechy. The 11th seeded Frenchwoman lost to China's Zi Yan 7-6 (5), 2-6, 3-6.

Hingis' Slam Comeback Begins: In her return to the Australian Open, former world number one Martina Hingis easily dispatched of Russian Vera Zvonareva (30) 6-1, 6-2 in the night match.

Playing with vigor, the 25-year-old Swiss Miss struck the ball well from the baseline, moving Zvonareva side-to-side. Able to dictate most of the rallies with her tactical counterpunching game, Hingis took the Russian out of her rhythm and flustered her.

She finished with 17 winners and made only 11 unforced errors.

"You don't know how good it feels," an excited Hingis said. "This surface, this stadium has been so good for me."

Hingis will next face Finland's Emma Laine.