Friday, January 26, 2007

Unseeded Serena Simply The Best, Pummels Sharapova For Third Australian Open Title

Just call her the Queen down under. When it comes to winning big matches in Australia, Serena Williams is much like rock star Tina Turner's hit: Simply The Best.

Doubted by many entering the tournament as an unseeded 81st ranked player in the world, Williams finished off her improbable run by taking apart top seeded Russian Maria Sharapova in a lopsided final, 6-1, 6-2 in front of a capacity Rod Laver Arena Saturday in Melbourne Park. Needing only an hour and three minutes, she became only the second unseeded woman to ever win the title joining Chris O'Neill, who accomplished it back in 1978 as a No.111.

It was the 25 year-old American's third Australian Open and eighth career slam. Her last one came two years ago in the same setting when she fought off match points against Sharapova in an epic semifinal before saving championship points against Lindsay Davenport before coming back to take the trophy.

This time, it came much easier for Williams as she played arguably her best match of a storied career. With the spotlight on, she came out extremely focused with an intense look in her eyes staring across at her accomplished 19 year-old opponent who the last time they met for a Grand Slam beat her soundly to win Wimbledon three years ago. Maybe that was on her mind as she then went out and executed a gameplan to perfection.

Dictating rallies from the very first toss of the ball, Williams was in a zone. Keeping Sharapova way behind the baseline and stepping in to take full advantage of a weak second serve, the popular American champion struck winners from both sides, finishing with 16 more (28-12) in dealing her opponent the worst slam defeat of the Russian's career.

After holding easily in the opening game, Williams battled back from 40-15 down to break the No.1 seed. Following another routine service hold, she broke Sharapova for a second straight time at love in impressive fashion. Having taken 10 straight points to get within two of another break, Serena emphatically won those points via a sizzling backhand winner down the line and then a forehand return winner to go ahead 4-0. She saved a break point in the fifth game before holding.

After Sharapova had a rare easy service game to get on the board for 1-5, Williams closed out the set without a problem. When she drew a long Sharapova backhand, the American yelled, "Come on!"

Not even a new set could revitalize the resilient Sharapova. Broken for the third time in the match in the opening game, it was an uphill battle just to get into the match. With Serena serving to consolidate the break, the Russian was given a big chance to get back on serve thanks to two consecutive double faults which produced only her second break opportunity. But it was quickly erased by an ace before Sharapova committed two unforced errors to give Williams a 2-0 lead.

It would become a double break cushion for Serena thanks to a Sharapova double and netted forehand. On cruise control, Williams easily held for 4-0. At that point, she had a shot to produce the most lopsided women's final in Aussie Open history.

But to Sharapova's credit, she had her two strongest holds and forced Williams to serve for the title. After winning the longest point of the match on a Sharapova forehand error, she nailed two aces to setup three championship points. When a big serve up the tee produced a short reply from her overmatched foe, Serena put the exclamation point on the huge victory with a backhand winner down the line before falling to the court in jubilation.

Congratulated at the net by Sharapova, an excited Williams then walked over to her corner to slap hands with her Mom Oracene Price and other supporters. It was a special moment for a player written off by skeptics after only playing in four tournaments last year due to a knee injury. But as her runner-up pointed out during the trophy ceremony, she shouldn't have been overlooked.

"You can never underestimate her as a performer...I know what she's capable of and she showed that today," a gracious Sharapova admitted to the audience. "She has showed it many, many times."

For the three-time Australian Open winner who seems to like odd years as evidenced by her victories in '03, '05 and now '07, it was clearly very emotional.

"I'm really enjoying this!" she boasted after lifting her ranking to No. 14 in the world.

"I'd like to thank my mom. I was a bad student this fortnight," she joked to the crowd's amusement. "I yelled at her, said some things under my breath. But she just kept coming. I really appreciate it."

As she thanked her family, coach and trainer, Serena made it a point to remember her late half-sister Yetunde Price, who died tragically of gunshot wounds in 2003.

"Most of all I would like to dedicate this win to my sister, who's not here. Her name is Yetunde. I just love her so much," she said getting emotional. "I'll try not to get teary-eyed but I said a couple of days ago, if I win this it's going to be for her. So thanks Tunde."

If that's what inspired her, it was truly a memorable tribute which won't soon be forgotten.

Gonzalez Routs Haas To Reach First Grand Slam Final, Faces Federer: The easy part is over for Fernando Gonzalez. That's if you consider the No.10 seeded Chilean's impressive wins over No. 19 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 5 James Blake, No.2 Rafael Nadal and No.12 Tommy Haas easy. All would probably conclude the same thing about the rejuvenated Gonzalez. That the 26 year-old is playing the best tennis of his career.

With a new coach, he's playing terrific and continued his run Friday night by dominating Haas in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 to reach his first career Grand Slam final. So dominant was Gonzalez that he took the first 11 points of the match to set the tone. Moving freely from the baseline and using an effective slice backhand to setup a monster forehand which produced a ridiculous 18 of his 44 winners, he controlled the match from start to finish never allowing Haas to get untracked.

Serving flawlessly and attacking the German's serve, Gonzalez was never threatened in a match which took only an hour and 31 minutes to complete. Remarkably, the Chilean made only three unforced errors with them all coming in the second set. The only one which was marginally close. Striking an array of winners which featured backhands up the line and crosscourt, forehands every which way including one on the dead run which spun in, Gonzalez kept his opponent off balance even mixing in some deft touch on drop shots. He even finished it off with a running backhand crosscourt winner.

So overwhelming was his performance that invoked memories of defending champion Roger Federer's destruction of Andy Roddick the previous night. In that match, Federer allowed just six games and struck an eerily similar 45 winners as Roddick searched for answers. So can the man known as "Speedy" keep up this wonderful display against the best player in the world?

"He's the No. 1 player in the world by far...I lost many times with him," he admitted afterwards. "But now I'm playing much better than the last time we played. And it's only one match. I'm going to give everything that I have to try to win my first Slam."

For his career, he's never beaten Federer losing all nine times they've played. But he's also never played this well. In past years Gonzalez would go for broke too much and usually compile a large amount of errors to go with his winners making for a risky proposition when it came to just advancing. Now he's cleaned that up and will enter with a lot of confidence as he attempts to stop Federer from claiming his 10th career slam.

"I'm going to try to do the same thing that I've been doing: playing good tennis, don't do it too much, because my forehand side I feel I can do whatever I want. Is going to be a tough, but I'm playing a great level."

If he can maintain his high level, it could make for a compelling final. The action will take place live on ESPN2 Sunday morning at 3:30 Eastern time, 7:30 PM Australian time. If you can't catch it live, it will be replayed Sunday at noon. The way Gonzalez has played, there could be a surprise in store. We'll soon find out late tomorrow night.

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