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Hingis Is Milking This for All It's Worth

Her comeback moves to Aussie quarterfinals. Sharapova reaches semifinals. Federer needs five sets to stop Haas.

January 24, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — There was often no payoff for Martina Hingis when she was practicing at home in Switzerland. Her mesmerizing spins and creativity were greeted with silence.

That happens when your four-legged audience is much more interested in finding a patch of grass.

"I've missed that for three years," she said. "I didn't have it. So sometimes in Switzerland there [are] some cows watching, so that's not the same."

How about countryman Roger Federer's famous cow, Juliette? "Oh yeah, well, she's too far away," Hingis said.

Feedback, which to Hingis is like air and water, is not a problem now. Four matches and a little more than one week into the Australian Open, Hingis has become the story of the tournament.

This is her first Grand Slam event since the U.S. Open in 2002, and her first appearance in Melbourne since losing here in the final to Jennifer Capriati in January 2002. In reaching the final eight, Hingis, a wild-card entrant, has yet to drop a set, and Monday night she survived a test of nerves and fitness against Australian Samantha Stosur, winning, 6-1, 7-6 (8).

Next, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, is second-seeded Kim Clijsters of Belgium, whose recovery from hip and back problems prompted questions about the severity of her injuries from Francesca Schiavone, the Italian player she defeated in the fourth round.

Hingis will have to significantly raise her level, and could be in danger of a one-sided loss if she plays as passively as she did against Stosur in the second set. She was on auto-pilot, leading, 6-1, 5-3, when her momentum vanished.

"I just got late to a few shots," Hingis said. "She was definitely going for my forehand, which was smart. I mean, all the players know it. I know it. Just in the beginning I was coping with it very well, getting me around it.

"That's something I was struggling with five years ago. I was struggling 10 years ago. I came through it today. I know I have to play better against Kim and the next one. But right now all that counts, I made the last eight."

Hingis and Clijsters have played five times, with Hingis winning on four occasions. But the last time they met was in Sydney in 2002, in Hingis' previous tennis life. Since then, Clijsters has reached three more Grand Slam event finals and finally won one in her fifth attempt, at the U.S. Open in September.

No matter what happens, Hingis said she had exceeded her own expectations.

"Making the last eight coming into this event, I would have never thought I got that far," she said. "Now here I am. Really, no one can take that away from me anymore."

There are Hingis-sized expectations, then there are the ones weighing on Federer, who followed her onto the court at Rod Laver Arena. The top-seeded Federer lost a set for the first time in the tournament and almost lost his way completely against Tommy Haas of Germany before making a post-midnight recovery to win, 6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, in 2 hours 58 minutes.

Though Federer looked astonishingly average at times, shanking forehands off his racket frame and missing overheads, he denied that his performance represented an escape, sounding a lot like Pete Sampras did after such adventures.

"I thought I was pretty much in control of the match," Federer said. "I haven't had too many five-setters the last couple of years."

Afterward, Federer was unusually blunt during his on-court TV interview with Jim Courier, using un-Roger-like phrases to sum up his feelings.

"To be honest, I like to be pushed like this.... These media people really get on my nerves," Federer said. " 'Wouldn't it be good if you lost a set?' ... All this [stuff]."

Give credit to Haas for making Federer so edgy. Few players have managed to punish Federer on the court the way Haas did in the third and fourth sets. Haas pummeled his groundstrokes and even hit a couple of superb diving, Boris Becker-style volleys.

Somehow, Courier's name came up during Haas' interview session. Unprompted, Haas went into a long dissertation, using an unprintable expression to describe Courier's admiration for Federer.

"When you actually listen to him commentating or listen to him talk about Roger Federer, sometimes it makes me sick almost," Haas said. "I love Jim Courier, but it's unbelievable. Maybe in six years, I'm going to shake Jim's hand and say, 'Listen, you're right.' Maybe this guy wins 15 Grand Slams. Who knows? This guy right now is pretty much the guy to beat. If somebody can do it this week, great."

*

Fourth-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina became the first semifinalist on the men's side, defeating Fabrice Santoro of France, 7-5, 6-0, 6-0, in the quarterfinals. He hit 47 winners to Santoro's 18, as the first set went 51 minutes and the second and third combined to last 50 minutes.

Santoro, appearing in his 54th Slam, had reached the final eight of a major for the first time. Nalbandian has now reached the semifinals of all four Slams.

In women's action today, No. 4 Maria Sharapova of Russia advanced to the semifinals by defeating No. 6 Nadia Petrova, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in just over two hours, surviving two set points in the tiebreaker.

Petrova, also of Russia, suffered all sorts of serving woes. She served for the first set at 6-5 but was broken at 30, double faulting twice, and added another in the tiebreaker. In all, Petrova double faulted 12 times and had 49 unforced errors.

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