They can teach you inside-out forehands and kicking second serves from dawn until dusk, but nothing can quite prepare you for the gut-wrenching emotions of the climax of a Grand Slam tournament. As Nicole Vaidisova discovered in the semi-finals of the French Open here yesterday, the biggest stage can also be the cruellest.
Vaidisova, only six weeks past her 17th birthday, led Svetlana Kuznetsova by a set and 5-3, only for her hopes to crumble into the red Parisian dust. Kuznetsova took nine of the next 12 games, as well as the crucial second set tie-break, to win 5-7, 7-6, 6-2. In tomorrow's final the Russian will play Justine Henin-Hardenne, who brushed aside her fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in only 69 minutes.
Within an hour of leaving the court in tears, Vaidisova was insisting that nerves had not been a major factor. She wished she had served better, praised Kuznetsova's fighting spirit and said she would learn from the experience. It sounded like a bold attempt to put a brave face on it, but the fact that the Czech doubted even whether she would watch the final back home in Prague indicated the depth of her disappointment.
Nevertheless, Vaidisova, already the world No 16, will surely look back on this tournament as her major breakthrough. In beating Amélie Mauresmo and Venus Williams she proved that the latest product of the Nick Bollettieri academy is ready to compete with the world's best players.
For an hour and a half it seemed that Kuznetsova would be her third top 10 scalp here. The Russian was consistently outrallied as Vaidisova punished anything that was short, regularly hit the lines and served with power and precision. Kuznetsova hung on, however, making her opponent play every ball, and the flow of Czech winners turned into a stream of errors.
Kuznetsova, who is enjoying her best run since winning the 2004 US Open as a 19-year-old, broke back at 5-4 when Vaidisova missed an easy forehand and served a double-fault. At 5-5 in the tie-break the Czech fluffed another routine forehand and hit a backhand long. Kuznetsova broke in the first game of the third set and never looked back.
"She was playing unbelievably in the second set and all I could do was defend," Kuznetsova said. "At 5-4 I knew I had to win the game so I told myself I just had to put the balls back in. Finally she made a few mistakes. She got a bit nervous. I know how it feels because I've been there in that position so many times.
"In the third set I knew much more. I think I'm better physically than she is. I was just playing every point. She suddenly started to make more mistakes and I was attacking more.
"She's comfortable if you hit the ball at her all the time. Sometimes the stronger you hit it the stronger she will answer it. If you change things a bit and make the bounce more difficult she makes mistakes. It's tough for her when she has to move. She has very long arms and legs."
Kuznetsova has beaten Henin-Hardenne only once in 11 attempts. The defending champion has yet to drop a set here this year and trounced Clijsters, who was celebrating her 23rd birthday, 6-3, 6-2. Clijsters was in the contest until her serve was broken in the eighth game.
Henin-Hardenne served out to take the set, courtesy of two successive aces down the middle and Clijsters' mistakes piled up in a one-sided second set.
Roger Federer, aiming to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, meets David Nalbandian in today's men's semi-finals, while Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, plays Ivan Ljubicic.
Jimmy Connors is to work with Andy Roddick, who has been without a permanent coach since parting company with Dean Goldfine earlier this year. Roddick's brother, John, has worked with him on a temporary basis since February.
Instant replay video technology to rule on disputed line calls will be used during the US Open and 10 other men's and women's tournaments in America this summer. Players will be allowed to challenge two line calls per set, as they were when the system was first used in Miami earlier this year.Reuse content