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.

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