First Ball In, 6/12: Thrill Breakers
Battle of 18-16
Fans in the front rows veered to the right and left like airplane passengers tossed by turbulence during the final-set tiebreaker between Philipp Kohlschreiber and Dustin Brown in Halle. The all-German quarterfinal turned into such a thrill ride, both athletes and audience went airborne at times.
Down 2-5 in the tiebreaker, Kohlschreiber came back, fighting off five match points—and seeing Brown fend off seven—before the 2011 champion squeezed out a 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (16) decision in a breathtaking breaker.
"It was a war of nerves, unbelievable tension, adrenaline, thrill," Kohlschreiber said afterward. "It was very exhausting to keep your calm and stay cool and maybe even enjoy. The atmosphere was extraordinarily great but in the end you just want to leave the court as the winner. I am absolutely happy that I made it in the end."
A day after blasting past world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, Brown showed both wildly entertaining and recklessly extravagant stretches of shotmaking. The 6'5" Brown is unique because he can make the spectacular shot look almost routine and the routine shot look like a struggle. Consequently, he's prone to wild streaks. Bursting out to a 5-0 second-set lead, Brown couldn't locate the service box, hitting seven of his 13 double faults in a second set that saw him lose five straight games before winning the next two to level.
The wild card delivered both highlight-reel winners —Brown hit an eye-popping between-the-legs shot at 5-3 in the breaker, soared into some flying drive backhand volleys that recalled Marcelo Rios, and saved the fifth match point with an ace—as well as mind-numbing errors. He double faulted at 5-2 in the breaker and struggled to control the mid-court forehand at times, including on the eighth match point, when he pushed a forehand down the line long to end it (watch above).
Still, the qualifier who beat Lleyton Hewitt in the second round of Wimbledon last year knows the fear factor he brings on grass.
"After playing a match like this today against Kohlschreiber, being up, being down and fighting and having a match yesterday against Rafa, to be honest I’m not worried about any draw," Brown told ATPWorldTour.com. "I’m pretty sure none of those 120 guys want to play me first round either."
Staring down three set points at 3-6 in the second-set tiebreaker, the Spanish lefthander conceded he "thought it was over." But Lopez found new life slicing an ace out wide to save the first set point, slid a forehand drop shot winner to stave off the second, and used his slice backhand to coax and error and erase the third.
Whipping a slice serve down the middle, Lopez deadened a gorgeous forehand drop shot to reach match point with such casual ease, the second seed could barely move. A rattled Berdych double faulted, Lopez advanced to his first semifinal in nearly a year, 6-4, 7-6 (7), and scored his 50th career grass-court win in the process.
The 2013 Eastbourne champion, who owns grass-court victories over Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Tim Henman, and Marat Safin, is the only Queen's Club semifinalist with a grass-court title to his credit. Lopez's smooth serve is his signature shot—he's hit a tournament-best 54 aces and has faced just one break point in his last three matches—but he made his mark with the drop shot today.
"I didn't know what to do. I was hoping for him to miss the return so I can get a free point, but then he make it and for me [the drop shot] was the only chance to win the point," Lopez told BBC Sport in a court-side interview afterward. "And I was lucky I made it properly so I'm happy to win this way."
Neither Zhang Shuai, who dismissed No. 3 seed Sloane Stephens in 56 minutes, nor Casey Dellacqua, who defeated a hobbled 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm in 48 minutes, encountered much singles stress today. Both will double-up on semifinal Saturday in Birmingham.
Zhang, who will face top-seeded Ana Ivanovic in the first singles semifinal, partners Caroline Garcia against the all-Aussie team of Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty in tomorrow's doubles semifinal. That match will take place after Dellacqua takes on Barbora Zahlavaova Strycova for a spot in her first career WTA singles final.
Though Zhang holds the distinction of being the lowest-ranked woman to defeat a reigning world No. 1—she was ranked No. 226 when she stunned top-ranked Dinara Safina at the 2009 Beijing tournament—she wasn't exactly brimming with confidence when Birmingham began. That's because she had not played a main-draw match on grass since losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova three years ago at Wimbledon.
“Before the tournament I never think I can straight win four matches to reach the semifinal, because in my life I don't win so many matches on grass,” Zhang told the Aegon Classic web site. "I'm learning every day how to play on grass a little bit more and hopefully I will get a few more matches to improve."
A slow start and mental slip cost Sloane Stephens today. The 2013 Wimbledon quarterfinalist dropped her opening service game in both sets, then she spaced out.
Stephens failed to play a Zhang return in the third game of the second set, mistakenly believing the ball would float long. It landed on the line; Stephens dropped her serve and her head as Zhang cruised to a 6-3, 6-1 win.
The 19th-ranked American remains the highest-ranked woman yet to reach a WTA final; Stephens will try to keep her streak of six straight Grand Slam fourth-round (or better) appearances alive at SW19.
(1) Ana Ivanovic vs. (9) Zhang Shuai: The lone Top 20 player still standing at this event, Ivanovic has been imposing in dropping serve only twice, dictating with her forehand, and surrendering just 12 games in her three wins. The 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist, who has won a WTA-best 35 matches this year, should be eager to reach her first career grass-court final. The 36th-ranked Zhang is 3-18 lifetime vs. Top 20 opponents, but two of those three wins have come in the last month.
(16) Casey Dellacqua vs. Barbora Zahlavaova Strycova: Both know their way around net: Zahlavaova Strycova has won 17 doubles titles; Dellacqua was a 2013 doubles finalist at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. The 62nd-ranked Czech beat lefty Lucie Safarova in round two and breezed past 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens today. The 29-year-old Dellacqua may feel the nerves one win from her first career WTA final, but she's hitting the ball cleanly and looked calm defeating second-seeded Samantha Stosur before beating Date-Krumm. Dellacqua has not surrendered serve in three of her four tournament wins.
Alejandro Falla vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber: The top of the draw featured world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, massive-serving Milos Raonic, and a pair of former Wimbledon semifinalists in Richard Gasquet and Jerzy Janowicz, yet the 30-year-old Falla made it through to his first semifinal of the year. Kohlschreiber should be empowered in saving match points to beat Brown. The 2011 Halle champion has won four of his five titles on home soil, including Dusseldorf on clay last month, and is 5-0 lifetime against Falla. In their lone prior grass-court meeting, Kohlschreiber used his superior variety to beat Falla in four sets at Wimbledon eight years ago.
(2) Roger Federer vs. (4) Kei Nishikori: This could be the most electric semifinal of the day, as well as a danger match for the six-time Halle champion. Nishikori has beaten Federer two of three times, including a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 quarterfinal win in Key Biscayne last March. Federer serves with more authority, but Nishikori, who is third on the ATP in return games won (34 percent) is a sniper on return with a knack for timing the big strike. Both like to take the ball early, so court positioning is key. Nishikori is bidding for his first grass-court final, while Federer is the most successful grass-court player of the Open era, with 13 titles and an .872 winning percentage on grass.
(15) Radek Stepanek vs. (10) Feliciano Lopez: Though the 35-year-old Stepanek has controlled this rivalry, winning eight of 10 career clashes, they've split their last four meetings. Both veterans can change the pace and close at net; the left-handed Lopez is the more forceful server, while the right-handed Stepanek the more accurate returner. The 32-year-old Lopez will try to use his forehand to move the Czech, while Stepanek's backhand down the line, a key shot in his upset of defending champion Andy Murray, is essential to finding the Spaniard's weaker backhand wing. Lopez, the 2013 Eastbourne champion, is the only semifinalist with a grass-court title to his credit and has hit a tournament-best 54 aces in four matches.
(1) Stan Wawrinka vs. (4) Grigor Dimitrov: They partnered in doubles, falling in the first round, and now square off in singles. Whenever Wawrinka has reached a quarterfinal this year, he's gone on to take the title (Chennai, Australian Open, Monte Carlo). A 2013 grass-court finalist at s-Hertogenbosch, Wawrinka has won all 22 of his service games this week without facing a break point. A 2012 Queen's Club semifinalist, Dimitrov plays for his third final of the year. The youngest man in the Top 20 has lost five of six sets against Wawrinka. Dimitrov must protect his second serve, take cracks with his forehand, and use his all-court skills to try to press the third-ranked Swiss.