Clijsters beats Hingis to regain top ranking

MARTINA HINGIS found out yesterday that she can still slug it out with the best. She also knows she still has a way to go to get back to the top.

Second-seeded Kim Clijsters, overcoming a rash of mistakes, ended Hingis’ dramatic comeback run at the Australian Open, winning 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to reach the semi-finals and take over the No. 1 ranking.

“It’s been a long time since I played her,” Clijsters said after Hingis, a three-time champion here, exited the Rod Laver Arena to a loud ovation. “She’s improved a lot since she was at her best.”

The victory guaranteed the reigning U.S. Open champion will take over the top ranking from Lindsay Davenport, who lost in the quarter-finals.

“After the year I had last year, this is the cherry on the cake,” she said. “It was never a goal. Keep working hard and good things happen.”

She next plays No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo, who reeled off the last nine games to beat No. 7 Patty Schnyder of Switzerland 6-3, 6-0.

Hingis quit in 2002 due to persistent foot and heel injuries. Ranked No. 349, she returned to competitive tennis on January 2 and was 7/2 coming into the match, playing on a wild-card entry.

But the best player that she had beaten here was 30th-seeded Vera Zvonareva in the first round. Everyone was eagerly waiting to see her face a top player like Clijsters.

Hingis looked nervous, tentative and overmatched at the start, as Clijsters won 12 of the first 16 points and jumped ahead 4-0.

The crowd began almost evenly split for the two players but shifted quickly to the beleaguered Hingis, who twice angrily whacked balls into the net after missing easy volleys.

Clijsters was picking up easy points off her serve and pouncing on Hingis’ weak serves, which often were 30 km/h (20 mph) slower.

Often finding herself lunging for stinging Clijsters groundstrokes deep in the corners, Hingis stayed in the match with her defense.

Clijsters led by a set and a break. Then Hingis settled in and started measuring Clijsters’ speed as the Belgian’s consistency collapsed.

Clijsters, who has been suffering from hip and back pain, looked stiff, spraying shots all over the place, and finished with 48 unforced errors. But she pulled herself back together in the third set.

“I was feeling very weird out there,” Clijsters said.

“I felt very empty. The second set wasn’t good at all. I just hit the wall. All of a sudden I just felt no power in my legs to push off.”

But she played the important points well in the third set.

Hingis said the difference was partly in her head. “I always used to have this mental edge over other players,” she said. The comeback will continue, with Hingis heading next to Tokyo while mapping out which tournaments - and how many - that she will contest this year.

On the men’s side, top-ranked Roger Federer struggled for the second consecutive match but still advanced to the semi-finals by ousting No. 5 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5), fending off six set points in the third set before taking it in a tiebreaker.

Federer fell behind 15-40 while serving at 5-6, then fought back to hold, shouting and pumping his fist in a rare show of emotion. Davydenko had triple set point at 6-3 in the tiebreaker but squandered all three and one last opportunity before double-faulting at 7-8.

The Russian saved one match point while serving at 5-6 in the fourth. He led 2-1 in the tiebreaker before Federer took control by winning four straight points. He finished off the match in 3 hours, 13 minutes with a service winner, throwing his arms in the air in celebration.

Federer will play No. 21 Nicolas Kiefer of Germany, who survived a nearly five-hour match - and a 96-minute final set - to defeat No. 25 Sebastien Grosjean of France 6-3, 0-6, 6-4, 6-7 (1), 8-6.

Kiefer, fined for foul language in a previous match, frequently questioned line calls, getting warnings for obscenities as he lost the fourth-set tiebreaker and again when he was broken for a second time in the fifth set.

In a bizarre point as Grosjean served to stay in the match at 5-6 in the fifth set, Kiefer tossed his racket over the net just after Grosjean hit a forehand into the net.

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