Youzhny Moves To Semis After Five Set Classic

The American flag flapped frantically behind a biting wind at the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium while Mikhail Youzhny and Stanislas Wawrinka fought furiously on the court below.

On a day when a wickedly wild wind swirling at high speed made tennis balls bounce as bizarrely around the court as ping pong balls careening crazily inside the glass of lottery hopper, Youzhny effectively exploited the elements and mastered massive fifth-set pressure to advance to his second US Open semifinal with a hard-fought 3-6, 7-6(7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Wawrinka that spanned exactly four hours.

“It was so close,” Youzhny said. “Right now I’m happy because I just finished the match and I win this match. So (it is a) good result, but already you are in semifinal and you still play.  Of course you want more. Anyway, I don’t think now is good result, so I want more.”

The 12th-seeded Russian will face either World No. 1 Rafael Nadal or eighth-seeded Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in Saturday’s semifinal. The winner of that match will face five-time US Open champion Roger Federer or third-seeded Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final.

“He’s No. 1; he won two Grand Slams; he play really, really well; it will be very tough for me,” Youzhny said of Nadal , adding “Of course it’s better to play (Nadal) here (than) on clay.”

New York City has often brought the best out in Youzhny.

Four years ago, Youzhny reached the Flushing Meadows final four, falling to Andy Roddick, 7-6(5), 0-6, 6-7(3), 3-6..

“It was also close, tough match.  I won first set; I easily lost second.  It was tiebreak in third set.  Nobody know what happens if I won this tiebreak,” Youzhny said. “But, you know, it was four years ago.  Now I think it’s another time, and I’m like another player.  I cannot say I am better player now, but it’s another time and other opponent, so everything can happen.”

While the 28-year-old Russian could face an immense challenge against either Nadal or Verdasco, Youzhny is the only man left in the draw who has a win over Nadal at the US Open.

He beat Nadal in four sets in the 2006 US Open quarterfinal. Though Nadal has won seven of 11 meetings with Youzhny, the Russian with the brilliant one-handed backhand has a 4-3 record vs. Nadal on hard courts.

The victory vaults Youzhny back into the world’s top 10 for the first time since February of 2008 when he reached a career-high rank of No. 8.

Playing determined defense in the opening game of the fifth set, Youzhny centered the ball in a long backhand-to-backhand exchange. Finally, Wawrinka made a move to net, Youzhny bending his legs to get low lasered a backhand blast crosscourt to pass the Swiss and break for a 1-0 fifth-set lead. Youzhny worked his way through a deuce game to consolidate for 2-0.

Youzhny fought off a break point in the fourth game when Wawrinka steered a forehand pass up the line wide. But on the second break point, Wawrinka lured Youzhny forward and the Russian lifted a backhand approach beyond the baseline as a fired-up Wawrinka broke back for 2-2.

It proved to be a short-lived as Wawrinka set a backhand wide and Youzhny broke back for 3-2. Working his way out of a 30-all game, Youzhny held for 4-2.

Seeing the match slip away a frustrated Wawrinka smashed his racquet to the court after burying a backhand into the net as Youzhny held at love for 5-3.

A weary Wawrinka was playing with protective adhesive taping on both quads and took an injury time-out to get re-taped midway through the fourth set. Walking slowly behind the baseline between points, Wawrinka looked lethargic as if worn down by the draining duel he had with Sam Querrey in the fourth round. Wawrinka emerged with a 7-6(9), 6-7(5), 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 win in that match and it took a toll today.

“I think I gave everything today and I try for sure,” Wawrinka said. “I made some big mistake, but after four hours, you’re really tired. I was tired. So it’s not always easy to think and to play the right drop shots or to play the good point and not to break the racquet.”

Youzhny gained the early break and made it stand up as Wawrinka tried to shorten up the points. After Youzhny blocked a backhand volley winner into the open court  to hold for 5-2, Wawrinka left the court, returned minutes later and relied on some strong serving to hold for 3-5.

Wawrinka pulled a new Head racquet out of his bag, but lost his grip in the ninth game. After slicing a backhand into the net, the Swiss wound up and slammed the racquet to the court. Two points later, Youzhny served out the fourth set to level the match.

Wawrinka burst out to a fast start in the third set, breaking in the second game and holding for a 3-0 lead. Sprinting with his back to the net, Youzhny hit a between the legs shot that seemed to surprise Wawrinka who pushed an easy forehand volley wide as Youzhny got on the board at 1-3.

Maintaining his break lead throughout the set, Wawrinka, who bungled several volleys, was stuck at net. Youzhny had a clean look at a pass, but opted to lob and the wind tossed the backhand lob long giving Wawrinka  second set point. Rearing back, the Swiss slammed a 135 mph ace to take a two set to one lead two hours, 28 minutes into the match.

Serving at 5-6 in the second set, Wawrinka was at 30-all when a Youzhny drive was called deep. He challenged and replay showed the ball clipped the back of the line. It ws an unfortunate call for the Russian as Youzhny had the offensive at that point in the rally. He buried a backhand into net and two points later Wawrinka held to force the tie breaker.

Wawrinka withstood two set points and on Youzhny’s third set point he sliced a backhand that flirted with the top of the tape before settling on his side of the net.

Shrugging that near-miss off, Youzhny curled a crosscourt running forehand pass that eluded Wawrinka’s outstretched racquet for a fourth set point.

That shot prompted Youzhny’s typically non-expressive coach, Boris Sobkin, who can be as stoic as Stonehenge, to leap out of his seat and pump his fist toward Youzhny. Empowered by that shot, Youzhny cornered Wawrinka on the backhand side and beat him with an inside-out forehand winner, leaping in the air in celebration after seizing the one hour, 10-minute second set.

Wawrinka sprinted out to a fast start in the third set, breaking in the second game and holding for a 3-0 lead. Sprinting with his back to the net, Youzhny hit a between the legs shot that seemed to surprised Wawrinka who pushed an easy forehand volley wide as Youzhny got on the board at 1-3.

Richard Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Dinara Just Like Marat

There’s no denying Dinara Safina’s talent. At 23, the younger sister of former Grand Slam champion Marat Safin has accomplished plenty, joining older brother as the only siblings to ever reach No.1 in the world.

Despite holding the top spot after finishing runner-up at the first two grand slams (Australian, French), the enigmatic Safina has fizzled lately with a poor second half this season that’s included a blowout Wimbledon semifinal defeat in which she got only a game off Venus Williams and a third round U.S. Open exit at the hands of unheralded Czech Petra Kvitova to conclude a disappointing stay in New York.

Though it’s been a breakthrough year in terms of rankings and reaching her first ever major finals, something seems to be missing. After another disappointment at the upset marred Pan Pacific Open, falling to unknown qualifier Chang Kai-Chen in three sets, Safina continues to receive heavy criticism for something she can’t control. When she became the 19th women’s top ranked player on April 20, it was due to hard work.

Not long ago, the second ever female Russian to hit No.1 (joined Maria Sharapova) was ranked just outside the Top 15 when she upset seven-time slam winner Justine Henin in a French tuneup, sending the Belgian to retirement. Two and a half years later, the 27 year-old saw that it was possible to return thanks to countrywoman Kim Clijsters’ impressive run claiming her second Open earlier this month with triumphs over both Williams sisters, completing it with a straight set victory over current No.5 riser Caroline Wozniacki.

So, Safina’s path to winning that elusive major just got tougher. She certainly hits one of the biggest balls on the WTA Tour. But thus far, her struggle to gain worldwide respect reminds us too much of Marat, who’s hanging it up later this year. Sadly, one of the game’s most gifted players on the ATP is burnt out at 29. While that’s an age when many in tennis call it quits, one ponders how many more majors he could’ve won if he’d put his mind to it.

Back in 2000, anything seemed possible with the then 20 year-old destroying Pete Sampras in straights at the Open. Something unheard of. With a great serve and blistering ground strokes that included a deadly backhand, the big man’s future looked very promising. Instead of continuing to win majors, he enjoyed his success a little too much. Perhaps the new lifestyle contributed to him not fulfilling potential.

Though the root of the problem couldn’t really be blamed on partying but rather Safin losing concentration during matches. He was always a tough out making three Australian Open finals. After dropping the first two due to an admitted bout with confidence, he won his second slam in grand fashion by upsetting Roger Federer in a memorable five set semifinal that saw him fight off match point. Fresh off ending the Swiss Maestro’s 26-match win streak over Top 10 foes, he completed it by besting Aussie hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt in four sets.

Following the impressive run, many including us expected him to get back in contention. However, that never came to fruition with Safin teasing many with his immense skills. Amazingly, he had his best run at Wimbledon in 2008 going all the way to the semis before Federer drove him nuts in three tight sets. That it came with him ranked No.75 was no shock. You never could tell what you were getting from the only Russian man who ever made the Final Four at the All England Club.

Maybe that helps better explain Safina who’s still young enough to have a great career. She can take solace knowing that Marat has a Hall of Fame resume featuring the two slams, two Aussie runner-ups, No.1 ranking and helping their home country Russia win its first ever Davis Cup in 2002 on a stacked team that included former No.1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mikhail Youzhny and Andrei Stoliarov. They also won in 2006 with Safin an integral part winning doubles with Dmitry Tursunov and a singles win over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso.

For the younger Safina, she’s already won 12 titles, reached two slam finals, hit No.1 and won Olympic silver in singles when she fell to countrywoman Elena Dementieva in three tight sets at Beijing. So, her career has hardly been disappointing. If only she could get over the hump and win a slam, it would silence many critics. But hey. We could easily say the same thing for the talented Dementieva and former outspoken No.1 Jelena Jankovic, who’s dipped to No.8.

For the ladies, it’s not easy to win majors when you’re competing with Venus and Serena Williams. If Sharapova returns to form next year, watch out. With Clijsters and Henin back along with Wozniacki looking to take the next step, the women’s game has become much better. Another proven Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova also won her second slam routing Safina at Roland Garros earlier this year. American Melanie Oudin made a name for herself at Flushing Meadows as did German Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.

There’s plenty of talent which also includes Russian enigmas Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova, who have big enough games to compete but lack the mental capacity. This is a similar issue Safina’s dealing with as is former 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic, who continued to struggle in a first round loss to Czech Lucie Safarova in which she had 11 double faults. Italian Flavia Pennetta, who reached the Open quarters before falling to Serena also is a good player. So too is 20 year-old Serbian Victoria Azarenka who after a strong start has experienced growing pains which have included temper tantrums.

So much of the battle is the head. Something Safina’s older brother referred to when he conquered Federer down under, terming the big upset a “head battle.” Very little separates the top players on each side. However, sometimes it’s what’s going on upstairs which can determine the outcome. This is also true of sports in general where even the biggest stars such as Alex Rodriguez can struggle under the spotlight. Whether that continues for the Yankee star third baseman on a superb team this October, we’ll know soon enough.

Aside from dealing with confidence issues, there’s also strategy which comes into play in an ultra competitive sport like tennis. Players who can adjust during matches usually have success. That can sometimes require alternating game plans. Something we haven’t seen a whole lot of on the women’s side where a plethora of top ranked players go bigger and bigger 24/7. Even with her injuries, Sharapova’s been a disappointment who should have more than two slams (2004 Wimbledon, 2007 U.S. Open). Power can only take you so far.

Tennis can use players who think outside the box like former No.1 Martina Hingis. Precisely what they’re getting with Clijsters and Henin who can hit with the best of them but also possess great speed and balance which helps create angles. They also aren’t afraid to come to the net to finish points. Something we saw the 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki do in her loss to Clijsters. Another player who closes well is Venus by using her size and athleticism effectively. Younger sis Serena is capable but usually prefers outslugging opponents while playing great D.

To truly be great, a player must always be willing to adjust on the fly. If something’s not working, change it up. How many times do you hear the frustration in Brad Gilbert or Martina Navratilova’s voice? They beat it over and over again and probably shake their heads in disgust at such gifted players not getting the most out of their God given ability.

For Safina, who can implode on the court similarly to emotional brother Marat, she must address this. It will be crucial to her future. She’s plenty good enough to win majors. But it’s taking that next step which will help determine how successful she is.

She seems like a wonderful person with her entertaining brother’s winning personality. So, she knows what’s wrong. It’s how she goes about fixing it that could wind up in even better results.

Oudin Shocks Dementieva In Three Sets

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – It was a tough night for Melanie Oudin, as she lost the nightcap of her doubleheader. The 17 year-old teamed with Japan’s Ayumi Morita and lost a straight set loss to the Spanish doubles team of Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual, 2-6, 1-6.

But you can forgive the Georgia native as she won the match of her life earlier in the day, defeating No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva in three sets, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

“During the match I had confidence, and, I mean, I was right there with her the entire time, said Oudin, who is following up a fourth round performance at Wimbledon. “I didn’t think that she wasn’t blowing me off the court. She wasn’t hitting winners left and right on me. We had long points. I was right there with her.

“I knew if I could play well and keep being aggressive and staying in there that I could do it.”

Describing her play as fearless, the young American went right after her Russian counterpart. She held her own in the first set and then dominated the final two, putting Dementieva on her heels as she went right after her opponent.

And she was playing hurt. With her left thigh wrapped, nursing a strained muscle, which required attention from the trainers in the third. Yet, the young girl was able to play through the pain for her biggest win of her life.

“I strained my IT band a little bit, and it was getting better,” she said. “I think today though, kind of everything that was going on, the whole – first time playing on Arthur Ashe, I was beating No. 4 in the world, about to beat her. I think that it just kind of started cramping a little bit. I should have had the whole thing taped.

“Just a little bit of everything. A lot of things were going through my mind, so I think a lot of things went into it. But I think it will be fine for my next match.”

Everything has been going fine for Oudin this year. Although she never moved past the second round in any tounaments other than the two Grand Slams she played, she surprised a number of people in London by defeating Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon before she set foot in Queens.

Now, though more is expected from her. She has been called the third best American woman behind the Williams sisters and is an up and coming star in the WTA circuit.

“I think that it’s really cool to be called the third best American behind the Williams sisters,” she said. “That’s just incredible since I’ve watched them since I was a little girl. They’ve been like my idols. I’m really proud of that to be the third best American.”

And Oudin really believes in herself. In fact, she wrote “Believe” on her sneakers during her match, representing her commitment to the sport.

“For me, it’s all about that,” Oudin said. “It’s believing that I can beat these girls and hang there with them. If I didn’t have that, then there’s no way I would have been able to win today.

“Because believing like in myself and my shots and playing within myself today, that’s how I won is knowing I believe that I could do it.”

Oudin will have her work cut out for her on Saturday as she plays Maria Sharapova who won in straight sets over 17 year-old New Jersey native Christina McHale, 6-2, 6-1.