Safina impossibly comes through again

Updated: June 4, 2008

PARIS -- Wednesday was Groundhog Day for Dinara Safina. For the second consecutive match, the excitable 22-year-old executed a breathtaking escape against a fellow Russian.

In the fourth round, Safina dropped the first set to top-seeded Maria Sharapova, then trailed 2-5 in the second. After overcoming a match point and another 2-5 deficit in the tiebreaker, she rolled in the third set to reach the quarterfinals. On Wednesday, Elena Dementieva played the role of Sharapova and again, impossibly, Safina came through.

Really, this is starting to get ridiculous.

"Once you went through this, you always believe," Safina said. "Why not the second time?"

AP Photo/Laurent Baheux

Svetlana Kuznetsova is through to her fourth career Grand Slam seminal.

Dementieva had a match point, but her nerve and serve left her and Safina prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0. Safina, through to the first Grand Slam semifinal of her career, will meet another Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova on Thursday.

Kuznetsova defeated Kaia Kanepi (pronounced KEYE-ah Ka-NEP-i) 7-5, 6-2 in the other quarterfinal.

Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the draw, the Serbs will have their own private play-in to the championship round. It's No. 2 Ana Ivanovic versus No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, and the winner will find herself one victory from her first Grand Slam singles title -- and the No. 1 world ranking.

The light-bulb moment for Safina came when she was trailing Dementieva 4-5 in the second set. She was ruining herself with errors, going for too much, so she decided to ratchet things down a bit. Voila! Patience on clay is the greatest of virtues.

"I think she was confused because I wasn't [hitting any harder]," Safina said in an interview with French television. "I said, 'You're going to have to hit a winner now.'"

Safina, who saved a match point against Dementieva (Dementieva hit a backhand into the net, leading 5-3 on Safina's serve) just as she did against Sharapova, never trailed in this tiebreaker, but faded slightly after winning the first three points. At 3-all, she ran off three straight points and you could see and feel Dementieva's grief hanging heavily in the air over Court Suzanne Lenglen.

The third set? Don't ask. It was a total meltdown. Dementieva won a total of 14 points.

"It was very hard to play the third set after I had so many chances to finish the match," Dementieva said. "I was trying to get myself back into the game, but it was kind of difficult."

Kanepi and Kuznetsova have a history. For starters, they are both 22 years old, with Kanepi the older by 17 days. In the 2001 junior tournament here at Roland Garros, Kanepi actually beat Kuznetsova -- and Safina -- on her way to the title.

That was eight years ago. Kuznetsova has won nine tournaments (one of them the 2004 U.S. Open) and nearly $9 million, while the best Kanepi has done is reach the final in Hassfelt, Belgium, and accumulate only $525,000 in career winnings.

Briefly, it seemed that Kanepi might give Kuznetsova a go. She was up a break in the first set, 4-2, but eventually her big groundstrokes started getting loose. Kuznetsova, a pro's pro, turned up the juice and broke Kanepi in the seventh and 11th games. That was it for the Estonian, who had her best Grand Slam tournament ever.

Like the two Serbs, Kuznetsova's reward for winning at Roland Garros would include the No. 1 ranking.

"Definitely, it would be nice," Kuznetsova said. "But also to win Grand Slam for me, to win French Open is also big. But I still don't see so far ahead, because my next match [is] going to be so tight."

She'll be the favorite against Safina -- but so was Sharapova.

"Dinara is playing very well on the clay court," Kuznetsova said. "She won in Berlin, she won two matches here with match balls down. She has too many lives, so I have to be careful with her."

Women's semifinal predictions
Jankovic has spent most of the tournament complaining about the heavy balls here and the stress it has placed on her right forearm. Well, now she'll get some rest. Ivanovic has been rolling through the draw like, well, Rafael Nadal, and seems fresh and ready to embrace this opportunity. Ivanovic has won 10 of the 14 sets between them because she has the bigger game.

Ivanovic in straight sets.

Safina has invested a ton of energy coming back in her last two matches. You get the idea that she may have finally run into a wall that she can't take down. Kuznetsova has steadily, quietly worked her way through the draw. Justine, Venus, Serena, Maria -- they're not going to beat her here. Only Safina, who must be running on fumes, can prevent her from reaching her second final here at Roland Garros.

Kuznetsova in three.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Last hope

Monfils

David Ferrer had the point, the critical first set point of the match, under control. He hit a nice, deep forehand approach shot, driving Gael Monfils well behind the baseline, then scurried to net in good position. But the only thing that could have gone wrong -- a net cord -- did.

The ball, changing speed and direction abruptly, skipped past Ferrer. And so the exuberant 21-year-old Frenchman won the first set and, ultimately, the match. Monfils handled a tired-looking Ferrer 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 on Wednesday, advancing to his first career Grand Slam semifinal, but his next match won't be so easy.

That would be No. 1 seed Roger Federer.

It was a great day for France, since Monfils is the country's first male citizen to make the semifinals here since Sebastien Grosjean did it seven years ago. Monfils will try to become the first French men's champion since Yannick Noah's celebrated triumph a quarter-century ago.

Ferrer, who was coming off two five-set matches, seemed to be without his biggest weapon: grit. He went quietly in the last set, leaving Monfils to wrestle with the big three on his own. While Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are seeded 1-3, Monfils isn't seeded at all. He's ranked No. 59 in the world and seems an unlikely candidate for the semis, since he had won only five tour-level matches all year after a knee injury kept him sidelined until March.

At the 2000 Roland Garros junior boys' tournament, Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu emerged as the winner. Two years later, it was fellow countryman Richard Gasquet. In 2004, Monfils followed suit, raising French hopes again. So far, not one of these junior champions has delivered an adult Grand Slam title.

When he finished off Ferrer, Monfils leaped for joy, bringing the giddy crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen with him. He took off his shirt, as is the recent custom of the French men, and pounded his oversized heart with his fist.

Monfils was happy but restrained during his postmatch press conference, saying he hadn't achieved his objectives -- first to beat Federer and then to win the tournament. He said one of the keys to his win was being fresher physically than Ferrer, who had just played two five set matches.

The newly-minted semifinalist became considerably more animated when the subject of his apparel was broached. Monfils appeared after his last match with a University of Miami jersey -- this time, it was Michigan, not that it mattered terribly much. Monfils is what you might call a general fan of American sports, as revealed by the following:

Q. Today you're wearing an American sports jersey again. Can you tell us what it is?

Monfils: Well, this one is '86. That's the year I was born. And then it's Nike, so that's it.

Q. Did you select it at random?

Monfils: No, 1986, that's when I was born, and I like wearing these type of jerseys.

Q. And since you wore the Hurricanes jersey, did you have any feedback from your fans?

Monfils: I need to check on the Internet.

Q. So you're going to play Federer. You played him twice this year. So is it like a France versus Brazil soccer game?

Monfils: I would rather say Lakers versus Boston. It's going to be a big match, but "the" match is not a semifinal. It's going to be a big match, probably the most important match in my career so far, but it's not the Game 7 yet.

-- Greg Garber

Top Gun

Oudin

Melanie Oudin, the top seed in the junior girls' tournament, had another easy match on Wednesday. She defeated Anastassia Grymalska 6-3, 6-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Oudin, a 16-year-old from Marietta, Ga., has lost only six games in six sets and has pitched two shutouts. She will now face No. 10 seed Elena Bogdan of Romania, who was a 1-6, 7-5, 8-6 winner over No. 7 seed Bojana Jovanovski.

-- Greg Garber