- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England — Amelie Mauresmo could sense another Wimbledon semifinal slipping away with each of Maria Sharapova’s piercing shrieks and powerful shots.

And then, slightly out of character, Mauresmo won a key point and let out a scream of her own, a bit of a bellow to release the tension.

It sure worked.

The top-seeded Mauresmo gave away a big lead yesterday before collecting herself to pull out a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory over 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova and reach her first final at the All England Club.

“It was not perfect,” said Mauresmo, who entered the day 0-3 in Wimbledon semifinals, “but it still was a win.”

Her opponent tomorrow will be No. 3 Justine Henin-Hardenne, who overcame problems with her serve and trademark backhand to beat No. 2 Kim Clijsters 6-4, 7-6 (4), moving within one win of a career Grand Slam.

“I don’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore,” said Henin-Hardenne, trying to become the first woman in the Open era to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back without dropping a set at either.

“I proved enough on the tennis court: the fighter I am, how much I can compete.”

Mauresmo’s always had an easier time with the physical demands of top-level tennis than the mental demands, and she appeared to be collapsing yesterday. Up a set and leading 3-1 in the second, the Frenchwoman got to love-40 on Sharapova’s serve: That meant three chances to go up 4-1.

But after Sharapova erased one break point with a swinging forehand volley, Mauresmo made consecutive forehand errors to let the occasion slip. And then it got worse: Mauresmo double-faulted twice in each of her next two service games, part of a five-game run that handed Sharapova the set.

“Maybe,” Mauresmo acknowledged, “I was thinking too much.”

Late in the troublesome second set, she saved a break point with a service winner and responded with that cathartic yell of celebration, at least as loud as the grunts that accompany so many of Sharapova’s groundstrokes.

“I probably felt I needed to let it go, let it out a little bit,” Mauresmo said. “I just felt that I needed to do that at that moment of the match. Didn’t help me win the second set, but maybe helped me a little bit in that third.”

Mixing speeds and tapping back returns, Mauresmo broke for a 2-0 lead in the final set, and soon it was 4-0. Still, Mauresmo had one last rough patch.

Sharapova got to 4-2, then earned a break point that would have made it 4-3. But Mauresmo gathered herself and drilled an ace at 112 mph, then broke in the next game to end the 2-hour, 13-minute match.

“This is an important step for me. I found myself in a tense situation and was able to turn it around. I’m especially proud of that,” Mauresmo said. “It’s probably one of my most important victories. There have been few — or no — occasions when I was able to turn around the situation like that.”

Remarkably, she made only one unforced error in the first set (a double-fault) and then limited her mistakes to five in the third; her 11 miscues in the middle set helped Sharapova immensely.

The Russian was wild throughout, committing 40 unforced errors.

“Especially in the third set, after having the momentum,” Sharapova said, “there was no reason for it to just go the other way all of a sudden, you know?”

But Mauresmo displayed the sort of fortitude that’s escaped her at critical moments in the past. In 2004 and 2005, she won the first set of her semifinals here before losing; she’s 0-1 in U.S. Open semifinals; and she’s attributed her failure to go beyond the quarterfinals at the French Open to succumbing to the pressure of playing before her compatriots.

Rafael Nadal is a two-time French Open champion who’s quite quickly become adept on grass, reaching his first Wimbledon semifinal by eliminating No. 22 Jarkko Neiminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in a postponed quarterfinal yesterday. Nadal plays Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis today, while three-time champion Roger Federer faces unseeded Jonas Bjorkman for a spot in Sunday’s final.

The women’s title match will be a rematch of January’s Australian Open final, where Mauresmo collected her first Grand Slam trophy but was denied a chance to feel what it’s like to win championship point at a major: Henin-Hardenne quit in the second set, citing an upset stomach from pain medicine she took for a shoulder injury.

“She probably feels very happy about it — the opportunity to have revenge,” Mauresmo said.

Henin-Hardenne didn’t want to talk about what happened in Melbourne, or what her thoughts are on the possibility of becoming the 10th woman to have won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments at least once.

She did say she’ll be thinking tomorrow about her grandfather who died on July 8, 2001 — the day Henin-Hardenne lost to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in the Belgian’s first major final.

“I was very young and not mature at all at that time,” said Henin-Hardenne, who’s since won five Slam titles.

Playing her 20th tour match against Clijsters (each won 10), Henin-Hardenne figured out a way to win despite putting in only 49 percent of her first serves, making more unforced errors (17-13) and repeatedly missing backhands.

In a match of streaks, Henin-Hardenne was steadier. She trailed 4-3 in the first set, but reeled off 11 straight points and 14 of 15. Henin-Hardenne also fell behind 3-1 and 6-5 in the second set, but came back each time.

“She played well when she had to,” U.S. Open champion Clijsters said. “That’s what she’s good at.”

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