Henin-Hardenne shatters top seed Davenport’s hopes

JUSTINE HENIN-HARDENNE upset top seed Lindsay Davenport 2-6 6-2 6-3 yesterday to advance to the Australian Open semi-finals.

The loss may cost Davenport, who lost in last year’s final to Serena Williams, the top ranking she has held since October 24.

Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo both have a shot at becoming the new number one.

The possible drop in her ranking doesn’t worry Davenport.

“It’s not up in my priority list,” Davenport said. “My whole goal is just to get better. I’ll be playing fewer tournaments this year, so it’s inevitable.”

Eighth seed Henin-Hardenne faces a semi-final with fourth seed Maria Sharapova, who overcame troubles with the gusty winds in the Rod Laver Arena and saved two set points in an error-filled tiebreaker before ousting sixth seed Nadia Petrova 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.

“It was definitely not easy,” said Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion. “It was a miracle when someone held serve.”

The wind also played havoc with the serves of Davenport and Henin-Hardenne, who combined for 13 service breaks and 18 double-faults.

The only two players who didn’t seem to have problems with the wind were fourth seed David Nalbandian, who won the last 14 games in defeating unseeded Fabrice Santoro 7-5, 6-0, 6-0 to reach the men’s semi-finals, and unseeded Marcos Baghdatis, who continued his dream run by defeating seventh seed Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.

Nalbandian and Baghdatis will meet in the semi-finals.

With Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron watching on, Henin-Hardenne had her serve broken four times in the first set. After her fourth double-fault on break point gave Davenport a 5-2 lead, Henin-Hardenne angrily whacked the ball into the net.

Davenport returned the favour, double-faulting on set point in the second set.

Henin-Hardenne, the reigning French Open champion and the 2004 Australian Open winner, finally got the break that really mattered, converting on her fourth opportunity with Davenport serving at 2-3 in the third set.

She withstood three double-faults in her last two service games, finishing off the match when Davenport sent a backhand service return long.

“I think I played pretty solid in the second and the third sets,” said Henin-Hardenne. “She put me under a lot of pressure in the first but I kept fighting.”

Davenport, who has worked hard on her conditioning, was disappointed to see her game deteriorate as the match progressed.

“I felt like I started off really well,” Davenport said. “I felt like I got away from my game plan. Once she got some confidence and took control, she’s really tough to beat. Tonight maybe I took a step backwards, but I feel I’m going in the right direction.”

Henin-Hardenne, who spent the end of last season sidelined with a hamstring injury, expects a tough semi-final against Sharapova, who has been bothered by a sore shoulder.

“She has confidence and wants to be in the final, so it’s going to be a great match,” the 23-year-old Belgian said.

Sharapova survived two set points in an error-filled tiebreaker after Petrova twice served for the first set.

Petrova hit 12 double-faults, including one serving for the first set at 6-5, another facing set point in the tiebreaker and one to surrender another break at 1-3 in the second.

It was a testy match. Petrova has clashed in the past with Sharapova’s father Yuri, who loudly encourages his daughter. Sharapova looked in his direction frequently, for what she called “inspiration” and “motivation.”

“I just tried to ignore him completely,” Petrova said. “I didn’t look at his side once.”

In tears at times and spiking her racket, a frustrated Petrova finished with 49 unforced errors.

“I just feel like I simply gave it away,” said Petrova, who added that she needs to work on her toughness. “It couldn’t be a better present.”

Sharapova was frustrated too, but still made it 3-0 against Petrova in three straight Grand Slam quarter-finals.

“I get unhappy when I make six double-faults in four service games,” she said. “I just tried to hang in there.”

On the men’s side, Masters Cup champion Nalbandian overwhelmed Santoro.

The 33-year-old Santoro, playing in the quarter-finals for the first time in 54 Grand Slams, never had a game point after holding at 5-5 in the first.

“After that first set, he just gave me a lesson,” Santoro said. “I try many things, but he has the answer all the time. He just played great tennis, wonderful.”

Santoro had Nalbandian sprinting from side to side, net to baseline, chasing drop shots, volleys and lobs until the 24-year-old Argentine got his ground strokes working and started passing him on both sides.

“In the beginning it was very tough, windy,” Nalbandian said. “When I got a bit of confidence, I started hitting harder and better, with angles near to the line.”

Nalbandian clinched it with his 47th winner. He said his upset win over top-ranked Roger Federer in the season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai in November increased his confidence.

Clearly having fun in his best Grand Slam performance, Baghdatis has become a crowd favourite.

Cheered on by dozens of chanting Greek supporters, the Cypriot ran his list of seeded victims to three by beating Ljubicic. He earlier upset second seed Andy Roddick in the fourth round and 17th seed Radek Stepanek in the first.

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