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).

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