Sharapova wins war of Russian attrition

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The Independent Online

Sometimes life just isn't fair. Nadia Petrova was a set and 5-3 down to Maria Sharapova in yesterday's all-Russian quarter-final and trading fearsome blows on her first break point when a forehand from the Wimbledon champion clipped the top of the net and limped over the other side.

On the following point Sharapova staged an action replay and Petrova, scrambling to reach the ball after another net cord, put her forehand into the net. When Petrova then hit a service return long, it was game, set and match to Sharapova, who won 7-6, 6-3 to earn a semi-final tomorrow against Venus Williams.

It was hard not to feel sympathy for Petrova, who for long periods had given Sharapova her toughest work-out of the championship.

Four Russian women reached the quarter-finals - Sharapova is now the only one left after Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina lost to Lindsay Davenport and Amélie Mauresmo respectively - but it was hardly a comradely collection. Relations between Sharapova and some of the other Russian women players are said to be strained, with suggestions that the Wimbledon champion would not be welcome in the country's Fed Cup squad because she has lived in America from an early age.

As Petrova spent much of her own youth in Egypt, the 23-year-old Muscovite is probably not among those critics, though this did not apparently prevent a fall-out between their two camps at a tournament in Carson, California two years ago.

According to reports, Yuri, Sharapova's father, claimed Petrova had responded to his daughter's fist-pumping at the start of the third set with an unlady-like gesture. Yuri was then said to have taunted Petrova for the remainder of the match, which upset her coach, who pushed Yuri into a rubbish bin before security guards were forced to intervene. Presumably Petrova's father, Victor, who was one of the best hammer throwers in the world, was nowhere in sight.

Yuri was a picture of restraint for most of yesterday's match, coming to life only when his daughter put an easy backhand into the net midway through the first set and as she prepared for the tie-break. There had been no breaks of serve in a closely contested first set and only one break point, which Petrova saved at 5-4 with a powerful serve.

The No 8 seed, combining strong hitting from the baseline with occasional forays to the net, forced Sharapova into a number of errors, but on the big points of the tie-break the champion moved up a gear, breaking serve at 6-6 with a forehand winner down the line and taking the set with a thumping forehand behind a big serve.

By the start of the second set Sharapova was in overdrive and raced into a 3-0 lead, after which Petrova did well even to make a contest of it. Sharapova was hitting with formidable power by the end.

The 18-year-old has yet to drop a set and is playing with the assurance of a champion. "Last year I wasn't expected to be in the second week of a Grand Slam," she said. "This year I've been in the semi-finals of the Australian Open and the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. I feel I'm being consistent."

Has the experience she has gained from winning here 12 months ago helped with the way she copes with certain points? "Yes, especially when I was down at break point," she joked. "I told the ball to hit the net and roll over. That's what comes with experience."

Few players can match the experience of 29-year-old Davenport, although it is more than five years since the world No 1's last Grand Slam title. Her 7-6, 6-3 victory over Kuznetsova, the reigning US Open champion and No 5 seed here, was a stuttering affair. Both players hit their share of firmly struck winners, but mistakes were also plentiful.

Kuznetsova lost the first two games, recovered to earn a set point at 5-4 which she failed to convert and then played a dreadful tie-break, losing six points in a row. The outcome of the second set was rarely in doubt once Davenport had taken a 3-0 lead.

Only 12 months ago Davenport was talking about retirement, but since spending more time in the gym the 1999 Wimbledon champion has regained her world No 1 status and rediscovered her appetite for the game.

"After I opened my big mouth I started playing better and believing in what I was doing," said Davenport, who plays Mauresmo in the semi-finals. "Now it's so far from my mind that I'm not even thinking of stopping. I feel really excited to be where I am."