|espnW.com: U.S. Open Tennis|
MELBOURNE, Australia -- For two sets of their all-Spanish quarterfinal, it looked as though 10th-seeded Nicolas Almagro had finally gotten the better of No. 4 David Ferrer after 12 straight losses dating back to 2006.
It would have been a good time to break the streak.
Almagro, the owner of a whiplashing one-handed backhand who is trying to transcend his reputation as a clay-court specialist in recent years, was aiming for his first career Grand Slam semifinal in 34 appearances.
But Almagro, facing one of the tour's most unyielding ball retrievers, began to unravel with the match on his racket and proceeded to squander his chances in spectacular fashion. He wound up on the wrong end of an often sloppy endurance contest that featured, among other horrors, eight breaks of serve between the two men combined in the fourth set alone.
Ferrer called his 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory a "miracle," but he was clearly being charitable to a friend. Almagro served for the match three times but never earned a match point.
After a crisp start that saw him hold serve relatively easily and commit only 19 unforced errors through the first two sets, he piled up a whopping 75 for the match -- a decline in form he blamed on tweaking his adductor and ankle midway through the third set. By the fifth set, Almagro was hobbling, hampered by pain in the groin area, and couldn't compete effectively.
"I think I tried to play my best tennis today," Almagro said with a slightly defiant tone. "I say [a] few days ago with my last press conference I will try to play aggressive, I will try to play my best tennis, and I think I did today. Is not enough to beat David. But we'll see what happen in the future. I am ready to work and we'll see.
"I don't want think that it's a mentality problem. If I have mentality problem, I think I didn't win the first two sets."
After Ferrer cracked a forehand winner on match point, the two men exchanged an affectionate hug at the net and walked toward the chair umpire with their arms around each other.
"I think it was not a best match we are play together, no?" Ferrer, who reached his fifth career Grand Slam semifinal, asked rhetorically. "But the important is the victory, and I win."
China's 30-year-old Li Na made a big decision last summer. The 2011 French Open winner, who felt her game was stagnating, decided to give her coach notice, but he remains in her life, as her husband.
Li coaxed Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez -- who once maintained he would never guide another elite player -- to work with her beginning in August. Rodriguez took his time, assessing Li's game and her professional mindset for a couple of months. He concluded that the latter needed more work than the former.
"What I learned is, nobody [in her entourage], even her, was ready when she won a Grand Slam," Rodriguez said. "She lost completely her path."
The coach decided to push her fitness-wise and count on that to build her consistency and confidence.
The combination of that new voice and this venue has been profitable for Li. The sixth seed reached her third Australian Open semifinal in four years, solving Polish fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in an uneven 7-5, 6-3 win.
Radwanska had parlayed her well-engineered all-court game into a 13-match win streak -- including an easy win over Li in Sydney two weeks ago -- and two titles coming into Melbourne, where she hadn't dropped a set before Tuesday. Both women struggled to hold serve in the first set and the entire match was an error-strewn affair, but Li was better on the big points, converting six of seven break opportunities.
"I think I wasn't fast enough today," Radwanska said. "Especially from the beginning of the match, I was really running a lot. It cost me a little too much power in the beginning of the match.
"Some of the games she didn't let me do anything. Very deep balls all the time. Good serve. She was really playing good tennis today."
Li returned the compliment.
"I was feeling today against a wall, you know," she said. "She can hit everywhere, but without a mistake. I was feeling just very tough. You have to focus on every shot. Not every point, every shot. If you hit like slow or like short one, she'll attack."
Three-time Grand Slam winner and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport said she found it "a good sign at [Li's] age, that she was willing to give herself over to such an authoritative coach."
Rodriguez said Li is still an eager pupil.
"It's very easy, because she absorbs your words and applies them," he said. "She was ready to make changes."
Li will face second-seeded Maria Sharapova, who advanced to the semifinals with a 6-2, 6-2 win over fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
Sharapova, who has dropped only nine games en route to the semifinals, said she's not sweating the fact that she has gotten to this rung of the ladder without being pushed.
"Well, going into the match, my goal is not really to be tested,'' she said.
Sharapova said Li, her final obstacle on the way to the championship match, appears refreshed and refocused since her coaching switch.
"I think at different times in a player's career you need that extra motivation, you might need a change,'' Sharapova said. "She's been there, she's done that, she's a Grand Slam champion. It wasn't like she needed someone to come in and fix her game. I don't think that was really the plan.
"But sometimes when you just have a different surrounding and a new voice, they might be saying the same things but it just gets to you a little bit differently and your motivation changes. So that certainly was a big factor for me when I had to make that decision a few years ago, because at the end of the day we know how to play tennis, you know.''
The world's top doubles team, Italians Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci of Italy, eliminated the 12th-seeded Williams sisters in a seesaw three-set quarterfinal, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-5. Venus Williams struggled with her service games, but the family's biggest concern may be the condition of the other sister, who has to play a singles quarterfinal against surging 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens on Wednesday.
Serena Williams, who rolled her right ankle in the first set of her opening singles match, appeared to be in some discomfort late in the doubles match, moving more tentatively, hopping on one foot and wincing in pain at one point. The sisters declined an interview request.