Commentary

Serena closes door on Kuznetsova

Serena Williams was wilting away under the stifling heat, and it was the critical decision to close the roof on Rod Laver Arena that changed her fortunes and propelled her into the Australian Open semifinals.

Originally Published: January 28, 2009
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The anticipated record heat wave finally descended over Melbourne, blanketing the city, with only the rarest tease of a breeze as the Serena Williams-Svetlana Kuznetsova quarterfinal match went off under oppressive midday conditions on Wednesday.

The air was still and stifling. And the personality of the match was initially flat and functional, void of any player emotion.

Serena Williams
Paul Crock/Getty ImagesA visibly ebullient Serena Williams was a game away from being ousted from the Australian Open.
Three female fans sitting together in the stands said it best with notes pinned to the wide brims of their straw hats: "I'm hot," "Me, too," "Me, three."

"It was really an out-of-body experience," said Williams, describing the stagnating heat. "Like I felt I was watching someone else play in a blue dress, and it wasn't me, because it was so hot out there. And I kept trying to tell myself that it's not hot."

Not surprisingly, Williams had no complaints when the referee's office declared it steamy enough to invoke the tournament's extreme heat policy and closed the convertible-topped Rod Laver Arena roof after the first set.

At the time, temperatures soared to just over 107 degrees, and who knows how much hotter it was on the court with the sun baking the cement. The same three women now displayed new signs in their hands: "Thank you," "For closing," "The roof."

It was a fateful decision for Williams, one that left her in contention for a 10th Grand Slam title despite not playing at the top of her game at this Australian Open. Once safely indoors and under the air conditioning, a revitalized Williams rebounded for a 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 quarterfinal victory, while the cooled climate somehow left Kuznetsova heated and wilting.

"Definitely angry," said Kuznetsova, afterward, who wanted the roof to stay open. "Why should I not be? Game was going my way."

In the opening set, a listless Williams surrendered her serve in the ninth game at love. Although Kuznetsova failed to serve out the set in the next game, she set up another shot to close out the set by breaking serve again in the 11th game. This time, Williams had no response as the Russian won all four points on serve to go ahead by one set.

"I don't think it was the heat, I just think she was thinking about the heat, if you know what I mean," said Oracene Price, the mother-coach of Williams. "She's not playing her best tennis but she's getting through, which is encouraging."

Kuznetsova's game became increasingly error-ridden by the end of the second set -- she tapped out with 42 unforced errors. And she missed some chances, most notably a chance to serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set when from 15-15 she made three costly errors -- a double fault, a forehand long and a forehand into the net.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
William West/Getty ImagesSvetlana Kuznetsova has never advanced past the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
"She missed some opportunities, but Serena just played very great at the crucial point of the second set," said Olga Morozova, a former Grand Slam finalist who began coaching Kuznetsova in the fall. "That's what happens. Serena just moved up to the next level and I think, maybe, Sveta was not ready for that."

Facing the possibility of defeat as Kuznetsova served for the match, Williams inspired herself to gut it out on the promise of a stiff punishment if she surrendered.

"Well, I was thinking, 'OK, if you lose, you're going to fly coach all the way back to Florida,'" Williams said. "How uncomfortable that would be. That motivated me to do a little better."

After fighting through the second set, Williams broke serve in the fourth and sixth games of the third set to stamp her ownership of the match.

The victory finds Williams the odd woman out in this year's almost all-Russian semifinal class. She'll face Elena Dementieva of Russia, the very player who ousted her in the semifinals of her last tournament in Sydney, for her 13th career final berth at a Grand Slam. The other semifinal will pit countrywomen Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina against each other.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.