Justine Henin said before her match against Maria Sharapova she needed to up her level, were she to stand a chance against the in-form Russian. Well, that didn’t happen, but I’m not sure she could have stopped this Sharapova on one of her good days either. Mighty Maria played one of the best matches of her career against Henin today, who was lucky to hang in the first set long enough to almost take it away from her. The Belgian was down 0-3, 0-30 on her serve, survived a break point at 1-4 and benefited from a poor call in her next service game at 2-5, 30-30, which Sharapova challenged and earned her a let, instead of a likely set point.
Henin, as always, hung tough and fought her way through her service games back to 3-5. Serving for the set, Sharapova started to miss a few serves and produce a handful of unforced errors, which cost her the break. Sharapova had been hitting bombs from the get-go, and she moved exceptionally well for her standards as well. Henin was under constant pressure, but with the first set up for grabs, Sharapova started to hold back a little on her shots, taking less chances and thus losing depth and pace. She also got a bit sloppy on her footwork. Henin meanwhile was slicing her way back into the match, reminiscent of her male No. 1 counterpart.
When the Belgian got back on serve to 4-5, she looked set to turn the match around. But instead it was Sharapova who immediately raced out to 0-30. She got her first set point at 30-40, but the Russian overhit a backhand return on a second serve. Henin saved two more set points on second deliveries, one with a forehand that dropped dead for a winner after hitting the tape. On Sharapova’s fourth set point, the Belgian got her first serve in, but was caught by surprise at the net by a low-paced cross court backhand, which she couldn’t get to properly and dumped into the net. 6-4 to the ’07 finalist.
Despite dropping the first set, Henin battled bravely and seemed to have found some sort of way into the match in those last couple of games. But quickly that perception was shattered in the second set. In her first service game, Henin hit a forehand wide at 30-all, and Sharapova earned the early break after a spectacular rally with both players scrambling for balls, and which Sharapova finished with a backhand winner down the line. She comfortably held for 3-0, and when she hit a somewhat lucky forehand winner off her backfoot to go up 4-0 and a double break, Henin was fighting a lost battle. Undefeated for 32 matches dating back to Wimbledon, Henin earned two break points in Sharapova’s next service game, because the fifth seed seemed to get a little nervous, but a couple of good serves saved the Russian and she finished the match in the following game.
Next up: a friendly face
Sharapova will be very pleased with the result from the other quarterfinal in her half of the draw. She doesn’t have to face her nemesis Serena Williams in the semis – whom she only won 5 games against in 2 meetings last year – but instead finds Jelena Jankovic on the other side of the net.
Serena started well against Jankovic, winning the first eight points, but instead of building on that blazing start, she became lacklustre and hardly went after balls for the next couple of games. Jankovic tied for 2-2 by winning 8 consecutive points herself, and immediately broke Serena again to take the lead. Another break at 5-3 earned the Serb the opening set.
Williams tried to fight her way back into the match but we’ve seen more inspired efforts from her in the past when it comes to digging in mentally. In her press conference afterwards she more or less stated that there was something bothering her physically, but she didn’t want to use it as an excuse. I was a little bit stunned when I read in the transcript she actually credited Jankovic for being the better player. Did she mean it, or did she just say it to not give anything to the haters to churn at?
There’s no doubt that JJ was indeed dominant throughout the match. Serena never had the upper hand for long in a rally, even if she had started one off with some aggressive shots. Jankovic did a great job in countering Serena’s attacks by hitting deep and in the corners and she more often than not took over the initiative after one or two shots. She also returned very well, especially on Serena’s second serves, where she almost always put immediate pressure on her opponent by hitting deep and with outstanding placement. Jankovic knew that being too passive was not going to cut it against Serena and she executed her game plan to perfection. Who knew, with all the court time she’s had, JJ would actually be able to lift her game so well that she played one of her best and smartest Grand Slam matches ever?
I can’t recall having seen Serena choke so bad at crunch time before, but it’s exactly what happened at the end of today’s match. Jankovic played her worst game of the day serving for the win at 5-3 in the second set, but when Serena held two game points at 4-5 40-15, she lost the next four points. At 40-30, a Jankovic return sailed high and short over the net, but Serena failed to put away the easy backhand. At deuce, she double faulted, followed by a forehand miss on match point. Ouch. Guess that No. 1 ranking will have to wait for a while, as Serena will now drop out of the Top 10.
Some quick picks for tomorrow: Federer over Blake in 3, Djokovic over Ferrer in 4, Venus over Ivanovic in 3 and Hantuchova over Radwanska in 2 tight sets.
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