Wednesday, January 20, 2010
A memorable night Down Under
By Ravi Ubha ESPN.com
The Australian Open sprang to life Wednesday courtesy of two enthralling night encounters that ended at almost the same time.
Juan Martin del Potro rallied to edge James Blake in a 6-4, 6-7 (3), 5-7, 6-3, 10-8 marathon that featured thunderous forehands, a plethora of injury timeouts and some contentious moments.
Justine Henin, meanwhile, proved to naysayers she was ready to instigate her comeback with a Grand Slam title after a 7-5, 7-6 (8) victory over Elena Dementieva -- a match filled with 13 breaks and 34 break chances. Tough luck for Dementieva that the two squared off in the second round.
Those numbers suggest the 2-hour, 50-minute affair was ugly, but far from it. Henin flashed her all-court game on Rod Laver Arena, delivering deft drop shots, fierce slices and touch volleys while countering the men's slugfest at nearby Hisense Arena.
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So the Grand Slam champions emerged, while Dementieva and Blake, the former a top-five player and Blake a onetime world No. 4, remained on the outside looking in.
"It was an unbelievable night for the fans," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert enthused. "It was just an amazing night of tennis."
Del Potro and Blake combined to hit a whopping 150 winners, more than the unforced-error count, and this with both men wounded. Del Potro entered the encounter with a tender wrist and arm that necessitated strapping, and Blake received an injury timeout for a knee injury in the second set. That was just the start.
Blake, working on his serve and net game with new coach Kelly Jones, kept it together mentally after a first set in which he berated himself more than once for missing from the baseline. Further, he was up early breaks in the second and third sets, only for the defending U.S. Open champion and fourth seed to mount a temporary comeback.
The real drama unfolded in the fifth. Blake, unseeded at a major for the first time in five years, was up an early break at 2-0. Del Potro broke back with an outrageous backhand pass from outside the tram lines, appearing to restore order. Instead, Blake manufactured a break point of his own.
But del Potro uncorked a second-serve ace down the middle, showing the kind of grit he exhibited against Roger Federer in the Flushing Meadows final, when he also came back from being down two sets to one.
Del Potro broke for 6-5, then decided he needed a rubdown for an injury to his side. It didn't help, as Blake made it 6-6. By that time Blake had issued a threatening glare to Argentine fans who were a little too raucous.
Del Potro's fans had more to cheer when he broke for 9-8. Blake was then hampered by a bad left shoulder in addition to his aching knee, which Jones said was a lingering problem.
There was no comeback this time, and the players suitably exchanged a warm hug at the net.
"This shows to everyone that he really has some balls," said del Potro's relieved agent, Ugo Colombini. "Not playing his best against Blake, who was playing really good; it's proving one more time the kid really has something. He's proving he fights for every ball and leaves everything on court."
Blake, one of the tour's nice guys, lost another Grand Slam heartbreaker. Losing in five sets to Andre Agassi in the 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinals hurt, too. He wasn't helped by playing on two consecutive days because of rain Monday.
"I've had plenty of messages already from people back home who were up at 2, 3, 4, 5 in the morning watching, and I don't even really want to respond to too many," Blake told reporters. "I just feel bad that all of them were sitting up watching and are probably going to sleep a little disappointed."
For Blake, who celebrated his 30th birthday in December, time is running out to get to a maiden Grand Slam semifinal.
"There's a lot of things he can take away from that match and a lot of things we can build on and improve," said Jones, a picture of calm. "The tough part is to get on the plane tomorrow and have [the loss] as the memory. Del Potro just came up with some incredible shots in the end. That's the way it usually happens. James didn't lose it, and I thought the tennis was incredible."
Over on the other court, Carlos Rodriguez, Henin's longtime coach, said his pupil's match was "very intense."
"It was very emotional for me on the court at the end because there was so much intensity," Henin said while speaking to reporters. "To play this kind of match in the second round, for me, after two years off in a Grand Slam, it's just the kind of situation I needed."
At 1-1, the tilt was already 24 minutes old. Henin, who struggled with her revamped serve at a warm-up in Brisbane last week, uncorked four double faults in the second game. Half of the first 16 games went to deuce.
Dementieva, solid from the back of the court, was kept off balance in the opening stages, probably because she was unaccustomed to seeing such variety. Still, she conjured up two set points at 5-4 on the Henin serve. Henin saved one with a forehand into the corner.
Given she's won seven majors and Dementieva none, one suspected Henin would go on to win the next two games. She did. Dementieva let a 40-15 lead slip, so Henin went on the attack. The Belgian won 35 of 43 points at the net overall.
Henin worked a match point at 5-4 in the second, only to send a routine forehand into the net. She had trouble with her forehand down the line the entire night.
Then she blew another opportunity and was broken again for 6-6. Nearly cramping during the tiebreaker, Henin knew she needed to wrap it up in two. She also reminisced about Brisbane, when two match points evaporated in a three-set loss to Kim Clijsters. At 5-3 for Henin, it looked to be over. But Dementieva, a scrapper, earned a set point at 6-5, saved with a gutsy volley that just caught the line.
Chance missed for Dementieva, who lost to Serena Williams in the semifinals at Wimbledon last year after holding a match point.
"I think I just let her play aggressively today," said Dementieva, who dumped Williams in the Sydney Internatonal final last week. "I just let her dictate the whole game. That's not the way I was planning to go on the court."
Henin's next foe is Russian baseliner Alisa Kleybanova, who's devoid of any finesse. Depending on how Henin recovers physically, her Round 3 match should be, on paper at least, much easier.
"But you remember Wimbledon 2007?" Rodriguez asked, referring to Henin's semifinals loss to Marion Bartoli after doing the hard work by eliminating Williams in the quarterfinals. "It's a girl who Justine doesn't know. She hits the ball hard and has nothing to lose."
Tennis lost nothing Wednesday.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.