- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

— One shot by Serena Williams sent Svetlana Kuznetsova to the court in a messy spill that left her covered with clay.

The resilient Russian was down but not out. She squandered a big lead in the second set Wednesday but ended Williams’ 18-match Grand Slam winning streak in the French Open quarterfinals, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5.

Williams, seeded second, was seeking her third successive major title and the 11th of her career.

The No. 7-seeded Kuznetsova faced a set point serving at 5-6 in the first set but erased it with a slam and won that set. After her tumble in the second set, Williams rallied three points from defeat to even the match, then took a 3-1 lead in the third.

Kuznetsova mounted the final comeback and broke serve in the last game when Williams pushed a backhand wide.

The seesaw struggle was this close: Midway through the third set, each player had won 100 points.

Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, seeks her second major title. Her opponent Thursday will be Samantha Stosur of Australia, who reached her first major semifinal by beating Sorana Cirstea of Romania 6-1, 6-3.

Stosur, 25, has never won a tour title.

Kuznetsova was serving one point from a 5-2 lead in the second set when she turned her right ankle in pursuit of a shot and fell on her back. She rose with clay covering the back of her shirt and the length of her right arm.

She was unhurt and play quickly resumed, but it took a while for Kuznetsova to regain her footing.

The Russian won with high-risk tennis, whacking winners into both corners and sometimes choosing angles that surprised Williams. Kuznetsova showed lots of variety, too - when she hit a crosscourt lob, Williams staggered helplessly as she watched the ball land beyond her reach.

Williams was sometimes betrayed by uncertain footwork on the clay, which led to repeated errors on her forehand side down the stretch.

On the men’s side, Robin Soderling’s improbable run at Roland Garros has reached the semifinals, and he’ll face Fernando Gonzalez on Friday. In 22 Grand Slam tournaments, it’s the first time Soderling has advanced beyond the third round.

“I don’t want to be too happy, because I have another match coming up,” he said.

As an encore to his upset of Rafael Nadal, the No. 23-seeded Soderling beat No. 10 Nikolay Davydenko 6-1, 6-3, 6-1. Davydenko twice reached the French Open semifinals and was singled out by Roger Federer as this week’s potential champion, but Soderling keeps defying expectations in Paris.

“I always knew that I could play really, really good tennis,” said the 24-year-old Soderling.

He has beaten three consecutive players whose best surface is clay - Davydenko, Nadal and Spaniard David Ferrer. He’ll face another experienced clay-courter in the No. 12-seeded Gonzalez, who became the first Chilean since 1960 to reach the Roland Garros semifinals when he beat No. 3 Andy Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Gonzalez conceded the matchup against Soderling is a surprise.

“Had someone told me I would reach the semifinal of a Grand Slam and I would have to play him, I don’t know if I would have believed it,” Gonzalez said. “When you say French Open, you think Nadal immediately. But Robin is a great player. I mean, he hit the ball harder than most of the guys. If he’s in a good day he doesn’t let you play, so it’s going to be a really tough match for me.”

Gonzalez is 4-3 against Soderling, including 2-0 on clay. Soderling has never won a clay-court title, but he’s riding a career-best eight-match winning streak, all on dirt, giving his confidence a boost.

“If you’d ask me like four years ago, I’d say I will never reach a semis in Paris,” Soderling said. “But for every year, I think I started to play better and better on clay. Maybe so far I had my best results indoors, but then I think clay is my next-best surface, actually.”

Part of the charm at Roland Garros is its tradition for unpredictable outcomes. Before Nadal became the king of clay, the tournament produced plenty of surprise winners.

Five men in the Open era won their first clay-court title in Paris, most recently Gustavo Kuerten in 1997. And whoever wins this year’s men’s title will be a first-time French Open champion.

The quarterfinals scheduled for Wednesday matched Federer against Frenchman Gael Monfils, and Juan Martin del Potro against Tommy Robredo.

In the women’s semifinals Thursday, top-ranked Dinara Safina will face No. 20-seeded Dominika Cibulkova. Safina hopes to reach the final for the third time in the past five major events, while Cibulkova is playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal.

On Tuesday, Cibulkova swept the first 11 games and beat a weary, rusty Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-2. Safina faced her first tough test in the tournament and rallied past Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-4, 6-2.

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