Easy for Nadal the early bird after late, late show
Monday 21 January 2008
The longest night turned into the shortest day at the Australian Open here yesterday. Just 18 hours after Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis had walked out of Rod Laver Arena following the latest finish in Grand Slam history, Paul-Henri Mathieu shook hands with Rafael Nadal after retiring hurt during the second set of the day's final match. With the clock showing 10.25pm, the evening staff at Melbourne Park could hardly believe their luck.
Tournament organisers, meanwhile, probably greeted the early finish with a huge sigh of relief. While Hewitt's five-set victory over Baghdatis after four hours and 45 minutes had provided wonderful entertainment for the thousands who were still in Rod Laver Arena at 4.30am the previous morning, the tournament director and referee, Craig Tiley and Wayne McKewen, faced a barrage of questions over their scheduling.
Hewitt himself refused to lambast his home Grand Slam tournament, but media pundits queued up to criticise the decision to ask two of the world's leading sportsmen to play into the small hours of the morning, while Australians asked whether the chances of their No 1 player had been compromised. Hewitt was due back on court in tonight's evening session to meet Novak Djokovic, who had completed his own third-round match hours before the former world No 1 began his Saturday epic.
Hewitt and Baghdatis, who beat the previous record late finish by an hour, did not start until just before midnight after the preceding matches in Rod Laver Arena had taken much longer than expected. A simple solution would have been to move the first match of the evening session, between Venus Williams and Sania Mirza, to the adjoining Vodafone Arena or to postpone it until yesterday, but both players wanted to keep to the schedule and McKewen decided not to go against their wishes.
Defending his verdict as "the right decision", McKewen said he had agreed with Hewitt and Baghdatis that their match would be postponed only if Williams and Mirza had gone to three sets. Tiley added: "There's no question that we had an unbelievable night of tennis that was beamed around the world. I think we must be careful not to forget that, because at the end of the day, the tennis fan – which we all are – had an unbelievable experience last night."
With Casey Dellacqua, the last Australian woman, featuring in yesterday's night session, Tiley and McKewen were probably holding their breath when David Nalbandian, the crown prince of five-set comebacks, walked into Rod Laver Arena just six hours and 27 minutes after Hewitt and Baghdatis had left. However, the No 10 seed, who has had back trouble, took less than two hours to lose 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 to Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Richard Gasquet, the No 8 seed, was next up and lasted only one set longer before going down 6-2, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his fellow Frenchman. Tsonga, who beat Andy Murray in the first round, is through to his first Grand Slam quarter-final and now faces Mikhail Youzhny, who trounced Nikolai Davydenko, the No 4 seed, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1.
The winner of that contest will face Jarkko Nieminen or Nadal, who went through after Mathieu retired with a leg injury when trailing 6-3, 3-0.
There will be no doubt about the top billing for the women's quarter-finals, with Justine Henin, the game's outstanding player, taking on Maria Sharapova, the world's highest-earning sportswoman. Both were in fine form, Henin extending her winning run to 32 matches by beating Su-Wei Hsieh 6-2 6-2 and Sharapova dropping only two games in beating Elena Dementieva.
Neither player has dropped a set yet and Henin admitted: "Now it's like another tournament is going to start. There are things I'll have to improve and I'll have to really raise my level. Now it's another story."
Henin has won six of their eight matches, but Sharapova gave one of her best performances of a disappointing 2007 when running the Belgian close in the final of the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships. The match lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours and Henin recalled: "It was a big fight, one of the best matches of my career, one of the best matches of last year. She's back at her best and I know I have to be at my best to beat her. She's a fighter."
Sharapova remembered the Madrid match as the longest she had ever played. "Justine will do whatever it takes to win the point," she said. "No matter how long the point, no matter how many times you run her side to side, she's willing to be out there all day and challenge you to make the errors.
"My goal is trying to do the same thing to my opponent. When I was younger I used to hit two or three balls and then go for the winner, but as I've become physically stronger and better I'm able to play longer matches and longer points. I still play my game, but I try to make my opponent go for the big shots."
Serena Williams, relieved not to be facing Henin in the quarter-finals after losing to the world No 1 at that stage of the last three Grand Slam events, beat Nicole Vaidisova in straight sets and now faces Jelena Jankovic, who ended Dellacqua's fairy-tale run by winning 7-6, 6-1.
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