- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2011

As the sun set over College Park on Saturday evening, 102nd-ranked Irina Falconi appeared poised to shake up the Citi Open. The last American remaining in the field had just cruised past 32nd-ranked Nadia Petrova to earn a 6-1 first-set victory, leaving her hulking Russian opponent muttering curses under her breath.

But Petrova — whose world ranking continues to dip as her three-year winless streak persists — was determined not to let another golden opportunity slip through her fingers. The tournament’s towering second seed powered her way through the next two sets 6-1, 6-3 to earn a place in Sunday’s final against top-seeded Shahar Peer.

Hustle and precise ground strokes allowed Falconi to keep her opponent off balance in the first set. Once Petrova found her groove, though, there was no stopping her.

“The second and third set, I think she served exceptionally well,” Falconi said. “I think her top-five status in the world really came out.”

Despite the loss, 21-year-old Falconi might look back on the tournament as another positive step in the progression of a promising career. Prior to this week, she had never reached a quarterfinal as a professional. Tomorrow, she will hop on a flight to Vancouver, where she intends to take her improvement even further with a win.

“There’s a tremendous amount of positives [from this tournament],” Falconi said. “I’m top-80 after this tournament, it was my first semifinal, and there’s just been so much progress that my team and I have made. We’re going to use so much of what happened this week for the rest of my career.”

Falconi’s exit was preceded by a considerably more heated semifinal match between Peer and third-seeded Tamira Paszek. Once again, a prodigious first-set performance proved misleading, as Paszek’s 6-3 triumph was followed by a pair of dropped sets.

Perhaps Paszek might not have run out of gas had it not been for her marathon 3-hour 42-minute quarterfinal match — the second longest match of the year in women’s pro tennis – against Alberta Brianti on Friday. With her legs shaking and head spinning, the 20-year-old Austrian received a medical timeout in the middle of the second set of her semifinal match. Although she managed nine hours of sleep Friday night, Paszek — who was also involved in a 3-hour 41-minute match in a third-round victory at Wimbledon this year — admitted some left-over fatigue affected her performance down the stretch Saturday.

“The second set I was struggling a lot with the heat,” Paszek said. “I hardly even had 12 hours to recover from yesterday. So I was just trying to hang in there.”

Another factor that might have swung the momentum in Peer’s favor was a controversial decision over a broken ball during a second-set tiebreak. After Paszek appeared to win the second point, the referee ordered a replay in light of a broken ball. Paszek argued the call and went on to lose the next four points. Peer looked rejuvenated in the third set, frequently displaying emotion during a hard-fought 6-4 victory that featured inspiring tennis from both players.

Now, spectators can gear up for a Sunday showdown featuring the tournament’s top-seeded players. Although Petrova defeated Peer in their last meeting five years ago, the nine-time singles champion won’t be taking her opponent lightly.

“She’s a different player right now,” Petrova said. “She improved a lot and she’s got some wins now, so it’s a completely different Shahar.”

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