The Women’s Semis: At The Open

We’re cooking down in Melbourne at the Australian Open now, on and off the court. The heat continued into last night, when the women duked it out in a wonderfully entertaining pair of semifinal matches. Thank them for restoring some semblance of order to the draw. At least the women’s draw. After nearly two weeks, the top women’s seeds all made it to the quarters, with the exception of Mary Pierce. The Number Five seed was replaced in the draw by Martina Hingis, and although she was unseeded we certainly know all about her; she’s no unknown from Pachooch. The women delivered.

The only blight on the evening occurred when Kim Clijsters rolled over on her ankle, spraining it badly enough that she could not continue, even with a tape job and after testing it with one further point. It is ironic that it was Clijsters who most severely injured herself on this surface, an odd mix of pulverized tires that heats up in warm weather and causes shoes to stick to it. Players have complained about this surface from Day One. The Australian Open is consistently regarded by players as their favorite Grand Slam event, but this court surface leaves something to be desired. The organizers of the event wouldn’t consider changing it for Lleyton Hewitt, they probably won’t for Kim Clijsters either.

They still regard Clijsters as one of their own. “Aussie Kim,” they call her, despite the end of her engagement to Lleyton Hewitt last year. So it is unfortunate that one of their favorites has gone down because of this surface. Is it really worth keeping just so you can say it’s a unique surface for a Grand Slam event? Is it cheaper, or what? They wanted something different from clay but not as fast as grass or hard courts, so they came up with… Hhhmm. If I were Clijsters I would feel a little bent out of shape by that. She was in a tough match that well could have turned her way in that third set. Now we’ll never know.

Apart from this unfortunate occurrence, we can say that the women acquitted themselves very very well. Almost brilliantly, in fact, if you compare them with some of the matches leading into the semis. Petrova-Sharapova in particular was an abominable match to watch, by all accounts.

But last night the women played their hearts out. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the Number Eight seed, defeated Number Four Maria Sharapova in three sets. This was just a great women’s match, featuring the best offensive and the best defensive players in the game today. Sharapova was pummelling winners and rocketing huge forehands at Henin-Hardenne throughout the match. She looked rather awesome at just the right time, having looked rather “scratchy” as Mary Carillo put it in her earlier matches. This is a woman with a lot of pride in her game, and the ability to pull herself up in a match and aggressively fight her way back in when she’s down. Does anyone else in the women’s game seem to love being down as much as Sharapova? She needs a target for all that aggression.

Justine put on an awesome display of aggressive defense, running furiously from side to side after Maria’s missiles, retrieving shot after shot, always looking for chances herself to seize the advantage and come forward. Justine had her hands full from the outset. Some would say before the outset, since the Powers That Be turned an outdoor match into an indoor one by closing the roof when the heat inched over 96 degrees. This favored Sharapova, she had more trouble with the windy conditions and the heat in her previous matches. Justine was salivating at the prospect of playing in them. Score one for Sharapova on the roof factor. Some key line calls were muffed in Justine’s favor, however, and they most likely turned the match. ShotSpot is on its way, or whatever they want to call it. Not soon enough, for some of us.

Unfortunately, Sharapova could make the big shots only intermittently. The second game of the first set was a mini view into the match as a whole. Justine held, but with difficulty. She showed a lot of creativity in her defense, but Sharapova had too much power to overcome in the first set. You felt like it was just a matter of time before Maria dialed in her game and ran away with the match. But Justine promised aggression and in the second set she delivered, attacking Maria’s second serve to great effect, and coming out ahead more often than not in the long, intense rallies. She stepped it up as Maria slipped down a notch. Second set to Justine, 6-1.

The third set saw Sharapova struggling with fatigue, and Henin-Hardenne fighting to hold the momentum on her side. You could almost say that, at 2-2 with Justine serving, it felt like a match game. After a long struggle, Justine held serve. Sharapova had her moments, but she had worn herself out. The match concluded with Justine’s trademark shot, a clean backhand down the line that broke Sharapova’s serve and gave her the match, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Number Three seed Amelie Mauresmo took on Number Two Kim Clijsters in the second women’s semifinal match. Clijsters’ physical condition has been in question since before the tournament started. She nearly did not show up, feeling her body was not fully ready to take two weeks of matches after her spate of injuries over the year.

Her body held up though, until the episode with the ankle occurred at 2-3 in the third set. More questionable was what occurred at the start of the second set, after Clijsters won the first, 7-5. What goes on in Kim Clijsters’ mind after she’s won a first set, and starts on the second? Whatever it is, it’s happened before, like in the second set in her match against Martina Hingis. She appears to go on a mental walkabout. Did something happen inside her to tweak what should have been a happy response to winning the first set? Does she feel a twinge of pity perhaps for the beating she’s usually giving her opponents? Questions have lingered about Kim being “too nice” to really win a lot of majors, so it should be raised again here.

“I felt empty out there,” said Clijsters when asked about this after the match. Suddenly she seemed to lose her power supply. An odd comment given how she started the match vigorously, perhaps she took a bit of grief for her hesitant play against Martina Hingis and resolved to play tougher against Amelie from the start.

In the second set, Amelie broke in the opening game, then struggled for her own serve. She got an insurance break on a poor game from Clijsters, who sprayed several shots. Amelie broke another time in the set and then served it out. 6-1, Mauresmo.

The third set did not improve for Clijsters. I realize now the moment when she signalled she was going to lose. She tossed her racquet. Not once. But twice. When have we ever known Kim Clijsters to do this? She knew at that point she was going to lose and there was no way around it. She was already down a break. The outburst seemed to focus her, she counter-attacked, and broke back herself. Suddenly another momentum shift took place. Numerous shifts took place throughout, adding nice little flecks of color to what was a very satisfying women’s match to watch.

How often do we get to say that about women’s matches? I know Mauresmo probably feels a bit neutralized emotionally because of the injury to Clijsters, but let’s hope she can easily accept that luck from whatever source is also a valuable tool for her repertoire. I think Amelie is going to win this tournament. I’m in league with Brad Gilbert here. It’s almost like the universe is looking down on Amelie and realizing now she may be needing a little nudge, so they start tossing the odd bit of luck her way. And you need luck to win a Grand Slam. Along with good health and good shotmaking.

Amelie did not have to test her nerves in a final moment against Clijsters. Will that prove a blessing or a hindrance? I say blessing. Perhaps that will free her up a bit inside, so she can go out and play the really brilliant match we’ve been waiting for from this woman. Her fluid and powerful game is lovely to watch. Clijsters is fun to watch too, but in a different way. Her forehand is a spectacularly blistering shot. But Clijsters is into grinding out matches too much, I like Amelie’s style of play better. She’s the artiste.

Allez, Amelie.

– – – – – – –