Who can stop the surging Serbs? Ivanovic and Jankovic are the Eastern European answer to the Williams sisters, while Novak Djokovic is shaping up to be Roger Federer’s main rival on anything but clay. All three of them have got a legitimate shot at winning their first major this week in Melbourne.
Djokovic did himself a great favour by avoiding the grind against David Ferrer today. Yes, the Spaniard was hitting more than a few unforced errors out there, but Djokovic was playing excellent tennis for the first two-and-a-half sets, dominating the Spaniard from the backcourt playing controlled aggressive. He admitted he got a little nervous with the finish line in sight, which cost him a 5-3 lead and four match points, but Djokovic wouldn’t waste any extra time and finished the match off in three sets nonetheless. Can you believe he’s in the semis facing Federer, having spent less time on court than the Swiss?
More surprising than Djokovic’ win over Ferrer was the performance Ivanovic put on against Venus Williams. Both women exchanged breaks three times during the first half of the opening set, with Venus only winning 2 points in her first three service games. Venus wasn’t hitting too many first serves, and Ivanovic won every point on Williams’ second serve until she overhit a forehand return on break point for a chance to go up 5-3.
In the tiebreak, Venus failed to make her experience count as she missed some routine shots to hand Ivanovic the opening set. On set point, Venus missed an easy backhand drive-volley, after earlier on in the match she dumped a somewhat similar ball with a one-hander into the net.
Ivanovic needed some time to think about winning her first career set against Williams, as she immediately fell a break behind in the second. Venus got down well for a low backhand volley in the best rally of the match to take the 2-0 lead.
Down 0-3 and serving at 30-30 all, Ivanovic hit what would turn out to be a crucial backhand down the line winner. It was a risky shot but it paid off, and these kind of gutsy plays were exactly what won the Serb the match in the end. Ivanovic wasn’t afraid to step up and hit a big ball on the important points and she really played her best tennis during the last few games of that second set, in which Venus definitely pushed her to the limits. The Wimbledon champion held two break points at 5-4, but Ivanovic hit a winning serve on 15-40 and an ace down the tee to get back to deuce. Two misses by Venus won her the match.
Ivanovic now has an excellent shot at reaching her second Slam final, as she faces the competent, but non-elite Daniela Hantuchova.
Ivanovic and Hantuchova have met three times before, all in 2007. I remember their first encounter, on the grass of Rosmalen (the tournament that is officially listed as ‘s-Hertogenbosch), quite vividly. I was watching their quarterfinal with Djambuli Chakvetadze, who midway through the match made the priceless remark: “This is no tennis.” He was spot on, as it was indeed painful to watch both women spray one shot after another, until Hantuchova had eventually won 6-3, 6-1.
There’s plenty of reason to expect a better match this time, as Hantuchova was very impressive in her quarterfinal win over the fast-rising Agnieszka Radwanska. I don’t see the Polish girl as a consistent future Top 10 player, but she hasn’t exactly been flying under the radar ascending the rankings. She’s already beaten three high-profile Russians on Tour in Sharapova, Kuznetsova and Petrova.
Ivanovic and Hantuchova don’t have time for a day’s rest, as they’ll be back on court tomorrow for their semifinal. Even though Hantuchova has been playing on Tour for almost ten years, it’s Ivanovic who’s actually got the most experience at this stage of a Grand Slam. Hantuchova has never been in a semifinal of a major before, and I don’t believe she’ll take that personal record one step further by advancing to the final. I’ll pick the red-hot Ivanovic in two sets.
The one-to-watch should be that other semifinal, featuring the two Bolletieri prodigies Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic. In the three times they’ve played out their match (Jankovic retired once against Sharapova too), it went to three sets each time. Sharapova leads those battles 2-1, but lost their last match in the Birmingham final last year, 7-5 in the third. The match-up is very enticing, with Sharapova the aggressor against the natural counter-puncher, Jankovic, but the million dollar question is, how will JJ hold up physically? I can’t see her running down Sharapova-bombs for three sets, considering she has been complaining about her physical state in every press conference she’s given. Both players are high on confidence, but I’ll stick with Masha to pull through. Jankovic only has a real shot at winning if she could claim the opening set.
A quick word about the Nadal – Tsonga duel: Little Muhammad has had a great run so far, but I just can’t see the guy taking three sets from Rafa in a Grand Slam semifinal. The first set plays an important role in this match as well. I read somewhere this week, or was told about the fact that Nadal has never lost a Grand Slam match in which he won the first set, except for his loss to David Ferrer at the US Open last year. I wouldn’t quite pick Tsonga over Ferrer on endurance.
Quote of the day goes to chair umpire Steve Ullrich, who tried to silence a loud baby during the Djokovic – Ferrer match by suggesting: “Please give our crying friend the bottle.”
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