Four-time champion Monica Seles and reigning Wimbledon and US champion Venus Williams moved one step closer to a quarter final meeting after overcoming strong third round challenges on Rod Laver Arena, Friday.
In her first real test of the 2002 Open, the 28-year-old Seles, the No.8 seed, needed some of her fiercest hitting to get past Italy’s Francesca Schiavone 6-4 6-4. Seles was in all kinds of trouble early against the 31st seeded Italian.
Schiavone, who beat the former No.1 in a marathon three-setter at the Hopman Cup a fortnight ago, picked up where she left off in Perth, using her flowing backhand, deceptive pace and pugnacious spirit to charge to 4-2, with two chances for a double break, before a desperate Seles picked up the pace to crunch through the next four games.
Service breaks were exchanged at the start of the second set, and the grunts, groans and shrieks just got louder as the two women went at each other like a couple of gladiators. A thrilling point at 4-2 30-15 on the Seles serve, which she won with a running backhand pass, had the crowd on its feet and gave Seles the momentum to go 5-2.
Seles slowly imposed her champion’s will but she was pushed the whole way. Thwarted while serving for the match at 5-4, she finally clinched it on the Schiavone serve with a forehand winner down the line.
“It was a very tough match,” confirmed Seles. “She runs down every ball. Thank gosh on the key points I played well.”
A warm crowd favorite here, as she is everywhere, the 28-year-old Seles extends her remarkable record at the Australian Open to 40 wins from 42 matches. The first of her four titles came in 1991 as a 17-year-old prodigy. Her fourth title, in 1996, is her last Grand Slam victory. The American next faces either Nathalie Dechy or Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues.
The second-seeded Williams hobbled through her second round against Kristina Brandi with left knee tendinitis and was in doubt for today’s encounter with talented young Slovak Daniela Hantuchova. Apart from the knee bandage, Williams also took the court with taped wrists (a legacy of a previous bout with wrist tendinitis). The athletic American moved far more freely than in her previous round, but when four games flew past before she was able to get on the scoreboard, mumblings swept the crowd as to whether Williams would last the match.
The 18-year-old Hantuchova, who zoomed 70 places up the rankings in 2001, shrewdly moved the American from side to side with her fluent groundstrokes, especially forcing Williams wide on the backhand, to exert maximum pressure on the left knee. Hitting freely, and with Williams landing just 44 per cent of her first serves in play, the Slovak took the first set 6-3.
As fear over the state of her knee was allayed, Williams’ champion’s pride struck back in the second. She broke serve at the first opportunity and fought back from a 0-40 deficit to hold for a 2-0 lead. An eight-game streak carried Williams to 2-0 in the third set. However, she fell into error, losing her service game at 1-2 from 40-15 up with a double fault at deuce and an errant backhand. The tall and slim Hantuchova, with a game as photogenic as her looks, swept through the next three games to lead for the first time in the deciding set.
Williams held to draw level at 3-3 and then three consecutive, dramatic service breaks decided the match. Hantuchova led 40-30 but failed to win the seventh game. Williams was next broken to 30, with one of Hantuchova’s winners an impressive lob which she scooped up on the half-volley.
On her serve at 4-4, Hantuchova had the match on her racquet. Twice she reached game point but inexperience on big occasions proved costly. Both times, she committed errors going for risky winners. Williams piled on the pressure on her first break chance, and unleashed three huge forehands to force the error.
Serving for the match at 5-4, Williams made no mistake, going through 3-6 6-0 6-4 in one hour, 47 minutes. “I’ve been in these situations more than she has, so I was probably a bit more prepared,” the second seed said of her slow start. Agreed Hantuchova: “On the big points I went for it and I missed it. I think a little bit of inexperience cost me the match.”
William’s fourth-round opponent is No.13 seed Magdalena Maleeva, who overcame Lisa Raymond 7-5 6-1 on Vodafone Arena. “For sure I’ll have to hit a lot of balls,” Williams predicted, looking ahead to the next battle. “She (Maleeva) is older and plays calculating tennis.”
But we’re destined to see a lot more of Daniela Hantuchova. “She played very well, ran down all kinds of balls, was doing all the right things,” praised Williams. “She’s come a long way from the first time I played her a few months ago.”
That meeting was at Wimbledon last year, where Hantuchova went on to win the mixed doubles. Twice last year, the teenager pushed Jennifer Capriati to three sets; in the latter encounter at the Canadian Open, the youngster led by a set and two breaks before having the maturity to admit she choked.
Hantuchova admires her countryman Miloslav Mecir, who was a finalist to Ivan Lendl in the 1989 Australian Open, and seems to possess some of his soft-handed touch and languid style. She’d be an exciting addition to the top 10. Agrees Williams: “She has the height and the leverage and she thinks on the court too. I enjoy playing her. She puts the challenge to you.”