Pe'er makes history Down Under

Beats No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova in Australian Open 6:4, 6:2.

peer 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
peer 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Violent clashes between Serbs and Croats, 40-degree heat and torrential rain are dominating the headlines from the 2007 Australian Open. There's been tennis too, some of it mesmerizing, but it's been largely relegated to the back-page headlines by a catalog of off-court controversies. On Sunday afternoon, however, Israel's top player, Shahar Pe'er, made her own headline when she thrashed the woman ranked No. 4 in the world, Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 6-2, earning herself a tantalizing clash against former world No. 1 Serena Williams in the quarterfinal. Pe'er, seeded 16th, has virtually guaranteed herself a place in Israeli tennis history because her victory over Kuznetsova is expected to make her the highest ranking Israeli tennis player ever. The 19-year-old is currently ranked 17th on the WTA listings, but will almost certainly rise to 14th in the world - leapfrogging Anna Smashnova's record ranking of 15th in 2003 - even if she loses against Williams on Tuesday. But even Pe'er's giant-killing act could not counter the screaming headlines about the 150 Serbs and Croats who had to be removed last Monday in what has been described as the first ethnic riot in the history of the tour. The Serbs taunted their rivals by chanting "Ustache," a reference to Croatian Nazis who committed atrocities during World War II. Or the extreme heat policy, which was invoked on Tuesday when the mercury hit 40 degrees, and which wilted women's No. 1 seed Maria Sharapova to a mental state she described as "delusional" and consigned the "happy slam," as men's No. 1 Roger Federer had previously described the tournament, to the dustbin of history. Or the revelations later in the week that police were investigating an alleged indecent assault on a young boy in the toilets at Melbourne Park. Or, for that matter, when a man was arrested for filming up a women's skirt. But on-court, play continued, and Pe'er, after a three-hour epic match in round three, claimed her first top-five scalp. "I just went there and gave everything," she said afterward. "I'm happy the way I played." She said she played "very aggressive" tennis, improving her first serve percentage as time went on and smashing 22 winners in the 77-minute match. "I just went there and took my points." But the Israeli lost her opening service game, before rebounding to break the former US Open champion three times in the first set to clinch it 6-4. She then waltzed to a 3-0 lead in the second set, and was ahead 4-2 when rain suspended play for eight minutes. The small but noisy band of Israel supporters, most of them Australian Jews or Israeli backpackers, must have wondered whether Pe'er would lose her momentum, as qualifier Dudi Sela did in the second round against Russian rebel Marat Safin, when rain also stopped play at Vodafone Arena. Sela, ranked 202 in the world, was on the brink of downing the former world No. 1, but was foiled in a five-set thriller. But Pe'er, who was cheering for Sela from the stands last week, did not buckle. She held her serve when play restarted and then broke the Russian to claim what would have been the story of the women's tournament so far had Lucie Safarova not defeated defending champion Amelie Mauresmo earlier in the day. Pe'er immediately ran to embrace some of the flag-bearing Israelis in the crowd. "It doesn't matter if I'm match point down, leading or losing, they're always there. It's really nice. It means a lot," she said. Among her supporters were Israelis Adam Rosenberg and Or Aviguy, fanatical tennis fans who said they had planned their world trip around the tennis. "We have so many hopes for Shahar," Aviguy said. "It's the most incredible atmosphere with all the Israelis sitting together. It's unbelievable." Asked if she was aware of the impact her success was having in Israel, Pe'er said: "I don't see the [Hebrew] newspapers. I don't like to look at the Internet. But I know it's crazy there. Especially today they put it [the match] at 4 in the morning on an Israeli channel. I heard a lot of people watched it. Probably it will get crazy more and more." Pe'er now faces an even tougher task against Williams, a two-time Australian Open champion. The 25-year-old is ranked 81 in the world because a knee injury last year forced her off the tour, but her performance so far in Melbourne has been formidable. "I'm just going to go out there like today and give everything I have. I have nothing to lose," Pe'er said. The pair has met only once before, with Williams winning in straight sets, although Pe'er was ranked 140th at the time. If Pe'er does prevail over Williams, she would face the winner of the clash between two Czechs, Safarova and Nicole Vaidisova, for the chance to be the first Israeli to play in a grand slam singles semifinal. She would also, no doubt, become the Cinderella story of the tournament.