DUBAI // While the top half of the draw for the most competitive women's tournament ever held in the UAE has remained rock solid with Ana Ivanovic and Elena Dementieva standing firm to contest last night's quarter-finals with the Williams sisters, there has been carnage in the bottom half.
Four of the world's top eight who helped make up a stellar cast for the Barclays Dubai Championships - all of the top 10 travelled here to compete for the $350,000 (Dh1.28m) first prize - have fallen by the wayside before the serious business gets under way with today's semi-finals. Dinara Safina, the world No 2 and her fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked seventh, did not even manage to get over the first hurdle in the $2million (Dh7.34m) tournament, while Jelena Jankovic, who ended last season on top of the world but is now down to third, managed to win only a single match.
The popular Serbian followed that with what she described as the worst performance of her life in succumbing to Estonia's Kaia Kanepi late on Wednesday night and departs with serious misgivings about her immediate future. Joining that elitist trio through the exit door last night was another Russian, Vera Zvonareva, who was out-fought in a gripping battle with France's Virginie Razzano which threatened to spill over into the evening session.
It took the evenly-matched combatants 2hr 23min to play the two sets of their 7-6, 7-5 contest which finished only a few moments before Venus Williams and Dementieva were due on court for the first of the two night matches. Razzano, 25, who is ranked 58 in the world and won the second and last of her career titles two years ago, was both emotionally and physically drained after completing her second epic victory of the week - she was the one who gave Safina's reputation an almighty jolt.
Looking as though she was about to collapse at any moment through exhaustion, she finally did so after putting away a clinching backhand to break the resistance of Zvonareva, who arrived here full of confidence after winning last week's WTA tournament in Thailand. What Razzano will have left for today's confrontation with the equally unfancied Estonian Kaia Kanepi is anybody's guess. It was evident as she blatantly slowed down the pace of her dramatic scrap with Zvonareva that she was running low on energy reserves.
The tactic irritated Zvonareva, runner-up to Venus at last November's prestigious Tour Championships in Doha. Zvonareva complained afterwards that the constant delays broke her concentration but she scolded herself for not having the composure to deal with the problem. Countless times Zvonareva, eight times a winner on tour, was ready to serve only to have to suspend the process while her opponent towelled herself down or found some other way - a comfort break at the end of the first set for instance - to buy herself recovery time.
Razzano, who also had a visit from the trainer at one of the changeovers has only herself to blame, though, for not getting back to the locker room much sooner. Serving for the first set at 5-4 she double-faulted twice to present Zvonareva with a lifeline that led to a tie-break conclusion to that opening set which Razzano eventually won on the 16th point - courtesy of a double fault by her opponent.
A similar scenario ensued in the second set when Razzano got into a position to serve for the match at 5-3. Again a double fault put her under pressure but there was no excuse for missing the simplest of backhand volleys on break point which again reprieved Zvonareva. Three times in the next game with Zvonareva serving, Razzano came tantalisingly within two points of a famous victory but on each occasion the higher-ranked Russian played the big points better and courageously drew level at 5-5.
Then after Razzano had held serve comfortably, the Frenchwoman, who had missed several simple smashes, put a more tricky one away to find herself earning two match points. Zvonareva saved the first of them with a brilliant backhand pass when she had been on defensive for nearly all of the 13-stroke rally but was powerless to prevent Razzano from converting the second of them, fittingly with the ripping backhand which had been her most productive weapon throughout the marathon struggle.
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