Four-time Australian Open champion Monica Seles scored her first win over Venus Williams to blast into the semi finals of the 2002 Australian Open. In a battle of king hitters fought almost exclusively from the baseline, the 28-year-old Seles regained the heights of her world No.1 heyday to oust the No.2 seed 6-7(4) 6-2 6-3 in just under two hours on Rod Laver Arena, Tuesday night.
“Such a tough match,” reflected Monica, who hadn’t beaten Venus in six previous meetings. “It was a weird match for both of us. We were both fighting our own problems. I’m just happy it went my way.”
Seles awoke Tuesday morning with a fever and sore throat and was thankful the match was played at night, in calm indoor conditions. Venus, who suffered from knee tendinitis in the first week, called for the trainer at 4-all in the first set and was off court for a tortuous eight minutes before returning with a strapped upper right thigh.
A near-capacity crowd gasped at the ferocity with which both players clouted the ball. Seles gained the early break to go 2-0 as Venus appeared taken aback at the step up in pace from previous matches. She soon settled and evened at 2-all. Despite her long injury time-out, Venus had little trouble holding service twice on her return to force the tiebreak. The 21-year-old was always in front in the tiebreak, taking it 7-4 with a volley winner.
Seles had battled grimly, but couldn’t seem to put the ball beyond the reach of the sleek, long-limbed Venus. Often, she needed to hit three virtual winners to win the point. “Balls were flying all over the place,” Monica recalled. “It was hard to get a rhythm.”
But Venus fell into an erratic patch on serve early in the second, alternating booming aces with anticlimactic double faults. She all but surrendered the first game with two double-faults. Seles continued to chase tenaciously and blast the ball toward the corners. Her game plan lacked subtlety but not courage. She achieved the double service break to go up 4-1, in a mammoth 18-point game, when Venus, who’d been at game point six times, double-faulted on breakpoint.
Pocketing the second set 6-2, Seles survived a break point in the fourth game then broke Williams to go 3-2. Again, Venus threw in both an ace and double-fault, as well as looping two shots long. She was to make twice as many unforced errors as Seles.
Serving at 4-3, Seles withstood a final fightback from Williams that threatened to turn the match around. She bared her competitive fire by coming back from 0-40 to hold for 5-3. The momentum was all one-way now, and Monica broke Williams in the last game. On the final point, a terrific angled return kept the pressure on Venus, who ultimately dumped a forehand into the net.
While the crowd went nuts, and Oracene Williams joined in the applause, Monica’s reaction was cool and composed.
“Such a see-saw match,” said the winner post-match. “To pull through it and stay focused at the end was really good. As I keep saying, I’m really enjoying myself out there.”
Monica next faces Martina Hingis, the woman who ended her unbeaten Melbourne run at 33 matches in the semi finals three years ago. Seles, who has won their last two clashes, expects “A very different type of match. Martina is very consistent off both sides and hits a high percentage of first serves. You have to rise up to the occasion when you play a champion like her and it’s just a question of who will do that better.”
But no question who did it better tonight. “She deserved to win,” said a disappointed Venus. “She went out there and took it to me. Who knows? Maybe she’ll take the whole Slam home. Great story. She’d deserve it.”