Ivanovic fightback sets up Sharapova final

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The Independent Online

Ana Ivanovic reached the Australian Open final here today after one of the great comebacks in Grand Slam history. The 20-year-old Serb, who will play Maria Sharapova in Saturday's final, lost the first eight games of her semi-final against Daniela Hantuchova but recovered to win 0-6, 6-3, 6-4. Sharapova beat Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-1, taking advantage of a back injury suffered by her opponent to reach her second successive final at Melbourne Park.

Ivanovic, who reached the French Open final last year, could do nothing right for the first three-quarters of an hour but Hantuchova, who was playing in her first Grand Slam semi-final, does not have the best of reputations as a front-runner. As Ivanovic came back, the 24-year-old Slovakian's game started to fall apart.

The first set was over in just 25 minutes. Hantuchova was immediately into her stride, while Ivanovic looked nervous and hesitant. With the roof over Rod Laver Arena closed because of rain, the world No 3 had trouble adjusting to the conditions. The underdog's confidence grew as the favourite's waned and was typified when Hantuchova converted her first set point with a confident serve and volley.

Hantuchova broke at the start of the second set, but signs of a Serbian revival were confirmed in the third game when, after 46 minutes of play, Ivanovic finally got on the scoreboard after hitting an inside-out forehand winner down the line.

When Ivanovic levelled at 2-2 it was game on, though she enjoyed a huge slice of luck at game point. The Serb's backhand down the line was going well out until it hit the net post and bounced into court, upon which a flummoxed Hantuchova hit her forehand out.

At 3-4 Ivanovic made a crucial break as Hantuchova double-faulted when serving at 15-40. The Serb served out for the set, which she took with a clever wrong-footing volley.

The first turning point of the final set came when Ivanovic held serve to level at 3-3 after a 14-minute game of seven deuces. At 4-4 Ivanovic played a superb game, running down every shot, and broke serve when Hantuchova missed a simple volley. The Serb converted her first match point in the next game when Hantuchova put a forehand return into the net.

As Hantuchova left the court as quickly as possible, after the most cursory of handshakes with her opponent, Ivanovic thanked the crowd, who have warmed to her over the last fortnight. "If it wasn't for you guys I would be booking my flight back home," she said.

While Jankovic, the other half of the Serbian double act, ended her semi-final in pain, it is debatable whether her injury affected the result. Sharapova, her confidence no doubt lifted by her victory over Justine Henin in the quarter-finals, raced into a 5-0 lead in the first set, barely making a mistake, while Jankovic struggled to find any sort of rhythm.

When the Serb went 0-30 down on her serve in the next game a swift end to the set seemed inevitable, but Sharapova shanked a simple backhand and thereafter seemed to lose confidence. Jankovic saved two more set points in that game, courtesy of further backhand errors, and then broke for 5-2 when Sharapova double-faulted.

Two more set points came and went in the next game, but Sharapova finally held her nerve to take the set 6-3. With her watching father, Yuri, clenching his first in solidarity, Sharapova set up her sixth set point with an ace and converted it after chasing down Jankovic's poor drop shot.

Jankovic's physical problems became increasingly evident in the second set as she left the court for treatment after dropping her serve in the opening game. At 4-0 down Jankovic finally won another game, but there were tears in her eyes as she received more treatment at the changeover.

The end was swift. Sharapova held to take a 5-1 lead and then took the match by breaking Jankovic to love. The final point summed up her opponent's pain. The Serb, normally one of the game's great athletes, looked like a creaking veteran as she made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to play a backhand down the line.

Jankovic said later that she hurt her back when 3-5 down in the first set. "It was painful," she said. "I felt a strange pain in my back. It felt like I was stuck and that was the moment when I felt it was over, that I couldn't keep going.

"It's not a muscle problem. It's the joints or the bones. I couldn't keep up. I wanted to withdraw, but that wouldn't have been fair on the crowd. It was a semi-final, so I did what I could to finish the match. I also thought that Maria played very, very well. She deserved to win, but I couldn't really give her a match."

Sharapova gave Jankovic credit for her comeback at the end of the first set. "I was playing good tennis but as everyone knows Jelena plays very well when she's behind," she said.

The Russian hopes her experience of the big occasion will be important in Saturday's final, particularly after her crushing defeat by Serena Williams 12 months ago. "I had the experience coming into last year's final and it didn't turn out too good," she said. "I really hope I can take advantage of the experience I have behind me. I'm looking forward to being in the final and I hope I can produce some good tennis."