Rafael Nadal yesterday booked an all-Spanish Australian Open semi-final against Fernando Verdasco as Serena Williams clawed back from a set down in searing heat to keep her dreams alive.
The world No. 1 fought off a determined rear-guard action by battling French six seed Gilles Simon to win 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 as he goes in search of his first title here.
The victory earns him a crack at Verdasco for a place in the final against Roger Federer or Andy Roddick after the left-hander sent French fifth seed and last year’s runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga packing 7-6 (7/2), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
“For Spain it is incredible to have two of us in the semi-finals. It means at least one Spaniard will be in the final and we have to happy for that,” Nadal said. “But I know it will be a tough match against Fernando.”
Verdasco, previously best known as Ana Ivanovic’s boyfriend, has shot from nowhere to join a long line of players to make a name for themselves at the year’s opening Grand Slam, powering into his first Major semi in 23 attempts.
“What I’m thinking right now is that I’m playing good, I’m feeling good,” Verdasco said. “I just think that I can beat anyone. I don’t put a limit in this tournament. I’m in the semi-finals right now and I think that I can lose in the semi-finals but also be in the final or win the tournament.”
In contrast to Verdasco’s seven-year wait to make the business end of a Grand Slam, Williams booked her 15th Grand Slam semi-final as temperatures soared to 41˚C.
The roof was finally closed on the Rod Laver Arena and Williams was a beneficiary.
The three-time champion was a set down to Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova at the time but recovered her composure against the fuming eighth seed to run out a 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 winner.
It earned the experienced American a shot at ice-cool Russian Elena Dementieva, who powered past unseeded Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-2.
The other semi-final sees third seed Dinara Safina play her Russian compatriot Vera Zvonareva.
Williams looked in serious trouble as she struggled in the first set of her match but was granted a reprieve when the stadium roof was closed early in the second set under the tournament’s extreme heat policy.
The 28-year-old admitted the move made a huge difference.
“I was in a lot of trouble today but I just relaxed and I really wanted to fight and at least go three sets,” she said. “I said, ‘Serena you can do it’ — it’s when I play my best.”
Despite making the last four, she said she was yet to hit top form.
“It’s really encouraging [to win] because this whole tournament I felt I’ve been off and I haven’t been playing my best,” she said.
Kuznetsova handled the heat better but could not cope with the pressure generated by the nine-time Grand Slam champion, failing at crucial moments in the match.
The Russian was angry that they were ordered off court for the roof to be shut while she had a grip on the match.
“Yeah, I was definitely angry. Why should I not be? The game was going my way,” the 2004 US Open champion said.
Dementieva, who is now on a 15-match unbeaten streak, was untroubled by giantkiller Suarez Navarro, who knocked out Venus Williams in the second round.
But she was not happy after playing her entire match, which preceded the Williams-Kuznetsova clash, with the roof open.
“Why not close the roof? Not only for the players, but for the spectators, as well,” she said. “I think if you have a roof, why not use it?”
She was nevertheless relieved to overcome the dangerous Suarez Navarro and set up a showdown with Williams.
“You don’t know what to expect from her. All the matches that we play, all the last three matches, were completely different games,” she said of Williams.