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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shaky Safina passes Lisicki test

Photo Titled Lisicki composed
Sabine Lisicki of Germany plays a forehand during her match against top seed Dinara Safina.

Despite 15 double faults and 38 unforced errors, Dinara Safina outlasted dynamic German teenager Sabine Lisicki to win a tougher-than-expected quarter-final 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-1. The world No.1 battled for two hours 25 minutes to book a semi-final tie against Venus Williams.

If the unheralded Lisicki, 19 years old and in her first Grand Slam quarter-final, had any nerves about the big occasion on Centre Court, she certainly handled them better than her opponent. The Russian may be top of the world rankings but she has yet to prove she has the big match temperament to go all the way in a Grand Slam environment.

The top seed won the toss and elected to serve – a brave move on her part since, as her serve goes, so her game goes. The opening game began with services that were long, net (double fault), let, let, fair, let, long, but Safina somehow held. Lisicki on the other hand started as she meant to go on – with an ace, her 30th of the tournament, and held serve more conventionally.

Safina was to be less fortunate in her second service game. Two double faults presented her opponent with a pair of break points which the Russian promptly saved, but when a third one came, disaster struck. A point had to be replayed after a call was overruled, which meant that Dinara had to go through the chore of serving all over again. A third double-fault later and Lisicki was in the driving seat.

Once she had been broken, Safina paradoxically seemed under less pressure and served more comfortably, but she rarely looked like threatening Lisicki’s service. The German did face break points in mid-set but had the nous to realise that the harder she served, the harder Safina returned. Serves of 80-90 mph became the order of the day, which kept Safina guessing and made Lisicki’s aces all the more unreturnable when she fired one of them down instead.

At 5-3, all the German had to do was serve out for the set, but it was as if she suddenly realised that the pressure was now on her. Until that point, any rally that had gone beyond four shots had automatically gone to Lisicki, the lithe teenager giving Safina – whose movements on grass are cumbersome at best– the runaround and picking her spots at will. This ability deserted her momentarily and Safina needed no second bidding, breaking back to 15 then holding her nerve to level at 5-5. The best chance for the six-foot Muscovite to take the set was via another break, but Lisicki got her stroke-making back and the scoreboard announced 6-6.

A tiebreak is the worst form of mental torture for the fragile Safina psyche, who had previously had to endure gales of laughter from the Centre Court crowd after a service from the deuce side just failed to clip the inner tramline – on the wrong side of the court. Though she held the first point, a break was never far away and Lisicki soon had three set points only to wobble again, putting an easy volley wide on the second one with the court at her mercy. She challenged the call, and while she may or may not have believed that the ball had clipped the line, it gave Safina an extra 30 seconds to wait before serving. By default or design on Lisicki’s part, it was a masterstroke – Safina double-faulted, as she had done on match point in the final of the French, and handed the set to the teenager.

Nerves crept into Lisicki’s game halfway through the second set and it was her turn to double-fault on break point, handing Safina the advantage in the crucial seventh game. At 5-4, she had the chance to serve out but began with a double-fault – her ninth of the match. She obstinately refused to vary her line or length and found herself facing a break point which she saved with a big serve. But then she lost her temper, railing and hurling invectives at the chair umpire instead of letting her tennis do the talking – an unwise move after she had been given a warning for hurling her racket to the ground after her double fault on set point in the opener. More nerves and second serves ensued, but Lisicki was the shakier of the two. Safina held to lead 6-4 and set up a nerve jangling decider.

The Russian broke to open the third, hurtling into the net and digging out a drop, only to hand the initiative back after a mammoth game in which she saved three break points, squandered two game points and ran the gamut of challenges, mis-hits, drops, double faults only for the net cord to hand Lisicki the break back.
That, however, was as good as it got for the plucky German teenager, who had obviously spent her final cartridges in breaking back. Safina’s superior fitness powered her to five straight games, and she even had time to practise her famously febrile serve when Lisicki called a medical time-out for cramp. The deciding set gave the final scoreline a lopsided look, and was poor reward for Lisicki’s incredible run this past week which saw her defeat three seeds and two top 10 players.

Safina, meanwhile, knows that she will have her work cut out for her on Thursday against five-time champion Venus Williams. But winning a quarter-final on her least favourite surface while only playing at her best in sporadic bursts represents some kind of progress for the world No.1.

Centre Court - Ladies' Singles - Quarterfinals
Dinara Safina RUS (1)Winner6566
Sabine Lisicki GER 7741

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