Saving The Best For Last
March 31, 2010 -- Justine Henin's reputation preceded her on court today. Many fans thought she'd crush Caroline Wozniacki, the #2 seed, in two quick sets.
"She's not bad," one man said to his two sons, as they watched the Dane walloped a cross-court swinging volley from their third tier seats.
Instead of Wozniacki proving herself to Henin and tennis fans, Henin initially was left finding her rhythm over a two-hour and forty-five minute three set win -- 67 (5) 63 64.
"I was in a lot of trouble in the first set," Henin began. "She pushed me to play and work a lot. She's very smart player and has been really tough."
Henin warmed slowly to Wozniacki's tenacious game. The petite Grand Slam Champion, who received a wildcard entry to the Sony Ericsson Open, couldn't find her rhythm, the court, or her aggression. She had never played the nineteen-year-old Wozniacki.
"It wasn't easy for me to find a good balance," Henin said. "A lot of balls were coming back in the court. She didn't do a lot mistakes. I didn't have two balls in a row that were the same rhythm."
At 6/2 in the tiebreaker, Wozniacki had the set on her racquet. But Henin took the next three points. You could then see determination on Wozniacki's face. She was done with Henin's surge, and forced a shot long. One more set and Wozniacki would be in the semifinals -- the farthest she would ever have gone here.
After a medical time out in the second set, Henin loosened up. Her back has been problematic for over a week.
"At 3/2 I got some opportunities to break her, but I couldn't do it," Henin began. "I faced a few break points after that, and then I really played my good tennis -- going more to the net and be aggressive, especially on returns."
"Her second serve was not really attackable," Wozniacki said. "She was taking her chances and taking the ball early. She's a great player. I need to go back and work and try to win next time."
Caroline Wozniacki was disappointed with her results, naturally. She had her chances, as she told the press. But she gave away little else that would have illuminated her experiences over the course of the match. She didn't seem surprised by Henin, although they had never met on court. She didn't think the 18-month Henin hiatus had damped the champion's game or fighting spirits. She didn't think three Belgian players through to the quarterfinals of this year's Sony Ericsson Open was remarkable, either. She was "happy for them."
Fans could begin to believe that Caroline Wozniacki really has it in her to be a world-class champion and win Majors, from today's competition. She has made the transition from counter-puncher and defensive player, to an offensive player who can exert aggression as well as temper tactics.
One hopes she can learn to open up and let fans inside her world, just as she has shown the world her finer tennis game.
When Justine Henin meets Kim Clijsters in the women's semifinals, the French-speaking Belgian better find her rhythm faster than she did today. Otherwise, the dance will be over.
Clijsters boogied from the first ball struck tonight in her quarterfinal match win over Aussie Samantha Stosur.
The U. S. Open Champion Clijsters connected on down-the-line backhand winners and wrong-footed her opponent to clinch her spot in the semifinals 63 75. She won 86% of points off her second serve and was a bit under 40% for break point conversions. But most impressive was Clijsters attitude.
"Sam's definitely improved a lot," Clijsters began. "I think she was a little bit more consistent today, from the past. She's really worked a lot on her serve and the next shot."
Tonight's quarterfinal match was Stosur's second in a row at the Sony Ericsson Open. Although she won't improve in her singles record, she is through to the doubles semifinal with her partner Nadia Petrova.
For an international audience such as there is here in south Florida, the late night marquee match between Spaniard Rafael Nadal and Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga was a match made in tournament-director heaven. Before the players came out, smatterings of French and Spanish echoed through the hallways below the stadium seats. Inside minutes before the match, French and Spanish flags waved.
"Rafa... Rafa... "
"Allez Jo... Allez Jo..."
The jittery audience vibes rattled the racquets of both players, initially. The first two games went fifteen minutes. A see-saw start.
But like Clijsters, Nadal soon dominated. Rafa simply out-blasted his opponent. Tsonga repeatedly attempted to catch the #4 seed off balance or in the wrong spot. It was close to impossible. His reactions were too keen. He saw the ball as if it were the size of a basketball.
As talented as Tsonga can be, fans must have been a bit disappointed that he didn't move to a plan 'B,' if one existed. Standing along the baseline and getting pushed farther and farther into the backcourt should have been reminder enough to Tsonga that things weren't on a good trajectory. But, he did not change. And, he did not convert any of his eight break point chances.
Nadal thrilled his Spanish fans, close to 12,000 with his 63 62 victory.
"It's amazing going on court with this atmosphere," he began. "The crowd was always very emotional here. I'm very happy to play at the level tonight against very difficult opponent like Jo."
Nadal was reluctant to reveal anything specific about his upcoming semifinal with Andy Roddick, who defeated Nicolas Almagro today 64 63.
"When playing against Andy always is a big challenge," Rafael said. "His serve, and he's a very good competitor. It's going to be a very tough match, no? I think I have to play my best tennis."