Competition, Pure and Simple
January 24, 2010 -- The game was competition. Tennis was secondary. The fact that both women shared Belgium's cultural heritage had no particular significance. Each woman, rather, came to Rod Laver Arena court on Sunday to do one thing and one thing only -- compete.
Wildcard Justine Henin, a 7-time major titleholder, and Qualifier Yanina Wickmayer, a 2009 U. S. Open semifinalist, played a match tonight that was comparable to an exceptional final.
Their rallies were long, shooting intense emotions through the packed stadium of 15,000 fans. Each woman tweaked strategies in an attempt to dominate, for at least one point. Wickmayer sent a return forehand right down the center of the court once, for example. It threw off Henin a squeak. Wickmayer took the point. Sometimes these slight alterations failed. Either way, the point was over. Move on.
In the first set, Henin drew blood with a break. Her edge provoked an instant reply from Wickmayer. She broke back at love.
Their forehands were their formidable shots, as much as the tennis world seems to laud Henin for her backhand. One deep forehand echoed a mirrored reply. Wickmayer at times connected with the ball earlier, thereby extracting precious seconds from Henin to dominate in a point, the set, and the match. It all spun on competitive spirit, gritty will, intuitive and mysteriously sharp reactions.
The opening set had to end in a tiebreak, everything about them and the match being equal.
At 3-all, Wickmayer committed a forehand error. Henin gladly took the point, saw the green light, and clipped off three winners: a backhand up-the-line, a inside-out forehand, and a smart serve and volley winner -- her punctuation point play of the tournament, so far.
One forehand error from Wickmayer in the tiebreak had tipped the scale. One forehand error! One point. Set to Henin. That's what champions do.
"I had my chances in the first set," Wickmayer told the press. "I started off a little nervous. It was new, playing that court. It was a big match for me."
Wickmayer trotted to the baseline to begin set two. You could almost read her mind ... Win the tiebreak, I'll show you offense. Beat me by a point, you haven't seen anything!
Wickmayer had three break point chances in the second, won every one, and took the set in less than a half hour at 6-1. Henin couldn't do anything, wouldnÕt do anything, or took a break -- which isn't likely although she did quit in the second set of the 2006 in the Australian Open final because of a stomachache. Mauresmo already had her number -- 6-1, 2-0.
"Second set I think I played great," Wickmayer said. "I really did what I had to do, got aggressive."
Henin's subdued level of intensity in the second contributed to the drubbing by Wickmayer.
"The first set asked me a lot of energy and a lot of intensity," Henin began. "Then the beginning of the second set, uhm, I slow down a little bit. She didn't give me a lot of points at that time. And she played very good tennis."
Wickmayer's dominance in the second donated zero advantage in the third, though. Henin wasn't going to get her wildcard-self ousted by a 20-year-old twice-as-tall pretty-blue-dressed princess. Fans hoped not, of course, too.
"At the end of the second set, it was difficult mentally to stay in the set," Henin said. "But started to be really focused on the third set. I got the opportunity to start it pretty well, and that's what I did. Finally I could keep my serve. I served well today."
Her mind spoke secretively, as the third gathered steam. Beat me six to one! I'm coming back right at you. Double the offense. I'll show you changeups, serves and volleys, and drop shots that will rattle your baseline game.
Henin's game face was on. She earned a break. She deserved to win. Wickmayer threatened at 40-all, but with her first match point Henin served and volleyed her way into the quarterfinals of the 2010 Australian Open. That's what champions do. And Henin did it, once again.
"I love being on court," she said to fans immediately afterward. "I'm glad I could come through."
"Well, of course, I'm disappointed," Wickmayer began. "But, I mean, it's a great experience for me and I'm really glad the way I played, the way I handled everything. I know what to work on. I saw what points still need to be better."
Although her section of the draw mapped a clear shot to the semifinals, Dinara Safina's chance to compete late into the second week abruptly stopped at the start of the second set in her match against countrywoman Maria Kirilenko. Safina's back wasn't cooperating with her expectations and intentions.
"It was getting worse and worse," Safina said in her press conference. "I felt a little bit stiff in practice like during the serve, but nothing serious."
The Australian Open is the third tournament where her back has dictated. Earlier this month she withdrew from competition in Brisbane. At the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, she retired because of her back. Safina said the condition was bone edema. Her doctor's in Germany will examine her this week.
According to information on Johns Hopkins website, bone edema 'is considered sign of osteoarthritis. What it means in terms of mechanism of the disease is still being studied.'
"I did MRI before I came here, and my bone edema was getting much smaller," Safina explained. "It could not happen like this. I just don't know what happened. It's shocking."
No one doubts the competitive edge Juan Martin del Potro brings to a match. He demonstrated it to the world in last year's U. S. Open final. His shaky start gave way to utter dominance and his first major title. He tried to do the same thing today in his match today against Marin Cilic, but the Croatian was too consistent and del Potro's unforced errors mounted.
"You know, after four hours, you have to focus," del Potro said. "He broke me very soon in the fifth. I had my chance in the last game. I miss a forehand. I think he did better than me and he won."
Marin Cilic, seeded #14, advanced to the quarterfinals 57 64 75 57 63, for the first time in his young career.
The competitive spirit of Fernando Gonzalez floated away at the close of the fourth set against American Andy Roddick. Andy challenged a crosscourt forehand from Gonzalez at set point and won it. The chair umpire decided that Gonzalez had no play on the ball, so the set went to Roddick. Gonzalez, additionally, hurt -- his right hip was sore. He moved gingerly to his right.
Gonzalez wears his emotions on his sleeve. He was quite visibly 'gonzo' in the fifth. Roddick cruised through the final set and won it, and the match, when Gonzalez double faulted on the fourth match point. The score was: 63 36 46 75 62.
Roddick will face Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals.