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(photo credit: AP)
Shahar Pe'er's career reached another new height on Saturday as the Israeli teenager advanced to the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time while defeating a top 10 player, also for the first time.
Pe'er erased an early deficit to storm by Russian Elena Dementieva 6-4, 7-5 in the third round of the French Open, setting up a match against former world No. 1 Martina Hingis on Sunday for a spot in the quarterfinals.
"I just think everything is coming together now and I don't need to think why and how, I just have to keep playing like this and keep winning and enjoying on court," she said at the post-match press conference.
Exactly one week after Pe'er scored her first wins over top 20 opponents - topping Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Anastasia Myskina on successive days on the way to her third WTA Tour title of the year at the Istanbul Cup - she dug her teeth into the sixth-seeded Dementieva, who reached the final at Roland Garros in 2004.
Pe'er suffered an early break as Dementieva took a 4-1 lead, but the Israeli didn't blink as she roared back to win the next five games and take the opening set.
The 26th-ranked Pe'er then broke Dementieva once more to start the second set, but the world No. 8 regained the momentum and scored a pair of breaks as she again surged to a 4-1 lead. Pe'er outlasted Dementieva in a lengthy fifth game and then mounted a comeback, tying the set at 4-4. Dementieva kept pace for the next two games, but the turning point came in the 11th game, when Pe'er broke the Russian for the final time, setting up the chance to serve for the match.
The 19-year-old didn't falter, and with the crowd behind her, put Dementieva away after a one-hour, 44-minute thriller. Pe'er let out a victory shout and rushed to give coach Dedi Ya'acov a hug, but it didn't take long for her to return focused at the press conference.
"I think whenever I go on the court, I just fight for every ball and every point. I never give up," Pe'er said. "I just think I was playing a little bit better today. I was playing a lot of winners. I was just consistent more than [Dementieva]."
Shortly after Pe'er's victory, Hingis knocked out Croatian Ivana Lisjak 6-1, 6-1 to set up the fourth-round meeting - the first between the players.
The first question Pe'er faced from reporters was whether the fact that she's carrying all Israeli hopes on her shoulders put any additional pressure on her. But Pe'er, who correctly remembered that the last Israeli singles player to get to the fourth round at a Grand Slam was Anna Smashnova at the same event in 1998, was also aware that Smashnova then lost her next match to Hingis.
But Pe'er didn't show any signs of being nervous. "So it's going to be great [against Hingis]. I hope to make it. But it's no pressure. I mean, I came here... defending [last year's] third-round [appearance], and now I am in the fourth round. I've had an unbelievable four weeks. I think I just have to keep going like this."
It became clear rather quickly that for many, Pe'er's win was a sort of coming-out show. A room full of reporters, who knew relatively little about the young woman from Maccabim, began inquiring how it is that she became successful on clay when there are so few clay courts in Israel, how she can combine her mandatory military service with her budding tennis career, and who were her favorite players growing up.
Pe'er joked that clay is now her favorite surface and calmly answered all the army-related questions ("What do you actually do?" "Were you good at shooting?") by explaining that the army has "a special program [for] sports people. I can travel and whenever I'm at home, I have to go for three hours every day... answering the phones and doing some computer stuff."
And when she was younger, "Seles... was my favorite player. I really liked her, how she was on the court, and how she was behaving and playing. And after was Capriati."
Pe'er, who is also still alive in the women's doubles competition, where she and French partner Marion Bartoli teamed to beat Patty Schnyder of Switzerland and Latvian Liga Dekmeijere 6-1, 6-3 on Friday, is just about the only thing fans in Israel have left to root for at the event, after the fifth-seeded men's doubles team of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich were upset by the Swiss duo of Yves Allegro and Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 7-6(3) in the second round on Saturday.
Harel Levy and his Australian partner Stephen Huss also were eliminated in the same stage Saturday, losing to the No. 2 seeds, Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden and Belarus's Max Mirnyi 6-1, 6-2.
On Friday, Pe'er and Erlich lost in the opening round of the mixed doubles to Liezel Huber of South Africa and Leos Friedl of the Czech Republic 6-2, 7-6(8).
Ram and Russian partner Vera Zvonareva won their mixed opener 6-0, 6-3 against the local pairing of Alize Cornet and Jeremy Chardy.