Thursday, January 25, 2007

Federer Shows Roddick Who's In Charge

Just cue up the theme from Charles 'N Charge and change the theme song to "Roger In Charge."

Throughout the 2007 Australian Open, there was plenty of build up for a semifinal clash between top seeded Roger Federer and sixth seeded Andy Roddick. After how well the 24 year-old American finished up last year under the guidance of tennis legend Jimmy Connors, it was clear that more was expected of the former 2003 U.S. Open champion. Especially after falling in four hard fought sets to Federer for the U.S. Open and then even having match points at the Masters Cup before the Swiss sensation rallied to defeat him.

A couple of weeks ago at the warm-up exhibition, he beat the world No.1 in three sets at the AAMI Classic to give him even more confidence that the gap was finally closing. Though the match didn't count on the ATP Tour, it had to be considered a huge step.

Clearly, Roddick came into this year's first slam believing he could finally exorcise the demons against Federer and finally snap the eight match losing streak if they met in the Final Four and reach his first Aussie Open final. After posting impressive well earned victories over '05 winner Marat Safin and ninth seeded Croatian Mario Ancic, he blitzed former high school pal Mardy Fish in straight sets to setup the much talked about rematch with the defending champion down under.

Maybe it was because of all the talk from Roddick and even some media who really believed the affable American had a real chance to finally reverse his luck against Federer. Or maybe it was just the nine-time slam winner's immense talent which was on full display in a 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 dismantling of his biggest threat at Rod Laver Arena Thursday night in Melbourne. Or maybe it was Roddick's nerves getting the best of him knowing what was at stake.

Whatever the reason, the out of this world Swiss maestro was in a different stratosphere than his opponent to improve his career head-to-head record to 13-1 against Roddick, advancing to his seventh consecutive final at a major which matched a record established by Jack Crawford in 1934.

Hitting 45 winners from every conceivable angle, the 25 year-old took apart Roddick in the first men's semifinal, which lasted only an hour and 23 minutes. So stunning was the performance that it even left his part-time coach Tony Roche and 68 year-old Aussie legend Rod Laver who made the trip from California in shock. One point in particular early in the second set told the story. Taking it to Federer, Roddick moved him from corner to corner and was in a winning position at the net but somehow, the two-time Australian Open champ ran down a deep approach and then in one motion knifed a backhand crosscourt winner off the frame which drew quite a reaction from the audience even leaving Roche to smile.

Amazingly, a match which had started so competitively turned into a tennis clinic by maybe arguably the best to ever play the sport. Though Federer broke Roddick in the opening game to start, the fiery American fought back to get on serve with a break of his own in the fourth game, taking advantage of a rare gift game from the Swede in which he commited four unforced errors. Defying logic, he made only eight the rest of the match.

After each held serve twice more for four apiece in the first set, Federer took control by breaking Roddick a second time. He would then serve out the set, finishing it off in style with an ace. As fate would have it, that would be the end of the match. From the point he trailed 3-4 in the opening set, Federer ran off the next 11 games en route to what amounted to a routine victory. Something that even left him at a loss for words.

"I had one of these days when everything worked," he admitted to the AP. "I was unbeatable. I was playing out of my mind. I am shocked myself."

So dominant was Federer on one of the biggest servers that he converted all seven break points. An unlikely scenario which probably won't be repeated.

Not surprisingly, the extraordinary level of his play was something he wasn't used to in Melbourne even though he was accustomed to it at the other three slams.

"I've played good matches here, but never really almost destroyed somebody. I've done it at the US Open, Wimbledon, French Open. Maybe not so much here because I didn't get so many chances yet," he noted.

"Here at the Australian Open I've won good matches, but never outright dominated another top player in the big stage in the semis or the final. For me, that's a highlight of my career to do it right here tonight, so I'm very, very happy about it."

Federer awaits Friday night's winner in the second semifinal between 10th seeded Chilean Fernando Gonzalez and 12th seeded German Tommy Haas. Neither has ever reached a slam final. Whoever prevails will try to do what Roddick couldn't. Make Federer sweat.

For Roddick, though he tried to stick to Connors' strategy of being more aggressive coming into net and applying pressure to Federer, he had little success only winning nine of 31 points there as too often he watched winner after winner sail out of reach. Never before had he been so outplayed at a major.

"It was frustrating. You know, it was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible. Besides that, it was fine," Roddick sarcastically remarked during an entertaining postmatch conference.

"I was playing well coming in. There's no reason to think...if you would have told me this beforehand, I probably didn't foresee it."

For the down to earth American who was clearly frustrated last night, it's back to work.

"You do your best not to get discouraged. I caught an absolute beating tonight, no two ways about it. You deal with it and you go back to the drawing board."

"I thought it was a good tournament. But I've proven to myself that I can get to the semifinals of Grand Slams," he added. "I'd love more than anything to get past that, to get over that hurdle for sure."

In order for that to happen, he'll still have to find a way to climb the ladder against the best the game has to offer and forget about this one. It just wasn't his night. There should be plenty of opportunities to gain revenge the rest of the year. Hopefully for tennis, he'll finally breakthrough.

Comebacking Serena To Take On Sharapova For Title: Before Roddick was dismissed by Federer, the women took center stage in the semis.

Serena Williams continued her successful comeback down under by posting a straight sets 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over 10th seeded Czech Nicole Vaidisova. Ranked No.81 entering the tournament due to injuries, the two-time Australian Open champion once again was tougher during the most crucial points in her hard fought win to go from longshot to making the final. It's her first final in two years since winning down under over Lindsay Davenport.

In a seesaw first set, the 25 year-old seven-time slam winner traded breaks with Vaidisova before fighting off a set point to force a tiebreaker. In it, she built a 5-1 lead but couldn't hang on as her 17 year-old opponent valiantly fought back to square it at five all. But then as she usually does in the biggest moments, Williams stepped up by smacking a backhand winner to get a minibreak before closing out the set by drawing an error.

It looked like she would cruise to victory in the second set as she jumped out to a 5-1 double break lead. But one game away from the final, Williams couldn't put away her fiesty opponent. After Vaidisova held, she got one break back with a backhand winner to cut the lead to 5-3. Then the match got even more intense as Vaidisova fought off four match points before holding for 4-5. With Williams serving for the match, she even saved a fifth match point. But when Serena emphatically slammed an overhead, she had finally secured a spot in the final leaving the intense American thrilled with the result.

"I can't believe it," she expressed. "That's awesome. If I play well, which I don't think I've even reached yet at all in this tournament...it's really hard for anyone on the women's tour to beat me."

That kind of confidence will be huge against her opponent, Maria Sharapova. The top seeded 19 year-old Russian advanced into her first Aussie Open final by posting a straight sets 6-4, 6-2 win over fourth seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters.

It was last year that the same two met in the quarterfinals and Clijsters proved to have too much in three grueling sets over Sharapova. But a year older with a U.S. Open fresh in her repertoire, the two-time slam champion outslugged her opponent from the baseline, finishing with 16 more winners- 27-11.

Though she got off to a slow start, Sharapova fought back twice from a break down in the opening set before going on to claim the up and down frame. After Clijsters broke her to go ahead 4-3, she raised her level to break consecutive times, taking the final three games of the set.

When she broke Clijsters for 2-0 in the second set, the Russian was in control. But the triumph wouldn't come without a challenge. In the fifth game, she overcame four double faults and fought off three break points to hold for 4-1. After each held serve, Sharapova broke for the fifth time in eight chances ripping a clean forehand winner down the line to clinch the match and end the retiring Clijsters' Australian Open career.

The 23 year-old former 2005 U.S. Open champ is planning to retire at the end of the season and start a family with fiancee Brian Lynch. It was an emotional sendoff for the popular player who once dated Australia's own Lleyton Hewitt.

"There are a lot of people I want to talk to face to face, people that work here and people I want to keep in touch with," she pointed out. "I have so many great memories from my times in Australia, not just tennis wise but also all the friends I have made."

The good news for Aussie fans is she hinted that she still planned to comeback as a spectator in future years and enjoy the event.

For Sharapova, she'll try to avenge her crushing three set semifinal defeat two years ago against Williams. It was an epic battle in which eventual champion Serena fought off match points before coming out on top. It won't be easy.

"I think she has nothing to lose," said Sharapova, who already has secured the No.1 spot in the world no matter the result Saturday. "Those are always dangerous opponents."

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