Serena claws way to final as Clijsters crumbles

Australian Open: No 1 seed fights back from 5-1 down in third set to secure all-Williams showdown as Agassi takes stroll

Kathy Marks
Friday 24 January 2003 01:00

The women's final at Melbourne Park will be an all-Williams affair yet again, but Serena made it to the party only by the skin of her teeth after facing two match points against Kim Clijsters yesterday.

Down 1-5 in the third set of their semi-final, Serena staged a comeback that astounded everyone, including herself, winning six consecutive games to defeat the Belgian No 4 seed 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. Her elder sister, Venus, had already booked her place in the final with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Clijsters' fellow Belgian, Justine Henin-Hardenne, on the same court two and a half hours earlier.

The world No 1, whose New Year resolution was to add the Australian Open title to her collection of three grand slams, said: "I honestly don't know how I was able to win. I just kept fighting, one point at a time, and, the next thing I knew, the match was over. I think I was a bit fortunate to get through, because Kim played a wonderful match."

Clijsters credited her opponent's fighting spirit and superior tennis for their dramatic reversal of fortunes. But the truth is that, after outplaying Williams for nearly two hours, her nerve failed her spectacularly as she served for the match at 5-4. She double-faulted twice and visibly crumbled as Williams levelled for 5-5 and then ran away with the next two games. The No 1 seed, who made 65 unforced errors, did not win the match; Clijsters lost it.

Clijsters, who had two match points at 5-2, denied being afflicted by nerves. "I was feeling pretty good," she said. "The only thing I regret is those two double-faults. I can't blame myself for anything. I tried to hang in there; at the end, it just wasn't good enough."

The defeat was a bitter disappointment for the Belgian, who had made the semi-finals without dropping a set and had built up the momentum to reach the final, perhaps even win her first major title, after beating both Williams sisters at the WTA Championships in Los Angeles in November and won 26 of her last 28 matches.

Yesterday, she moved Serena around the court so much that the American had to have treatment for blisters early in the third set. Clijsters broke serve twice for the 5-1 lead, but Williams saved both match points with big volleys, then hung on as the Belgian tried to serve out the match for a second time.

"She started playing much more aggressively, and if she plays her best tennis, it's very hard to beat her," said Clijsters. "She hit everything a little bit harder and closer to the line. That's why she's No 1. She can step it up. But I think this match shows, and other matches have shown, that more players are getting close to them (the Williams sisters), not just me."

Henin-Hardenne, who had fought an epic match against Lyndsay Davenport in the fourth round, never presented a serious threat to Venus yesterday. The American dominated the encounter, and appeared relaxed and confident. "She played much more aggressively than me," the Belgian said. "She returned well, she served well, she came to the net more often than me."

Serena said she wanted the Australian title "more than anything", but added: "Venus is playing a little better than me at this tournament, so I'll have to pull something out of my back pocket. I'm going to go out there and try to win two sets by any means necessary."

Venus, who lost the last three grand slam finals to Serena and is keen to reassert her seniority, said she had no trouble competing against her sister. "On the court, I'm a competitor," she said. "No matter who it is, I hate to lose. If she were to twist her ankle on the court, of course I'd be concerned, but I'd still have to go out and hit the next shot. That's the way it is."

In the men's singles, Andre Agassi strolled through his semi-final against South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, winning 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. In Sunday's final, he will meet either America's Andy Roddick or Rainer Schüttler of Germany.

The Agassi-Ferreira match was mercifully brief, taking just 87 minutes to complete. The two 31-year-olds were both playing in their 50th grand slam, and that was the most interesting part of the encounter. Agassi never let Ferreira into the match. He broke serve six times while Ferreira did not break once.

Agassi, a triple champion in Melbourne, was asked if he was a better player than ever. "I'm stronger and fitter and I have 17 years' experience, so my vote is probably yes," he replied.

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