|I would have liked to wait for the teams after the match, but it was already 1am and I was so tired, so I ended up going straight home. It seems like all the matches at this year's event are taking forever, making for very late finishes. I guess it will be the same tonight, which I will be going to again, when France take on Russia on the main court, and Italy play Chinese Taipei on court 1. There are lots of variables as to who can make the final from Group B out of France, Russia and Italy. At the moment, all I know is that if Russia beat France, they qualify. If they don't win, then other factors come into play. In any case, they will be facing the Slovak Republic in the final, after the Slovaks won their tie against Germany today, albeit not in the best of circumstances - Nicolas Kiefer was forced to withdraw after tearing ligaments in his ankle early on in his match with Dominik Hrbaty. Very unfortunate for him.
Thursday 8 January 2009:
Somewhat tired from the night before, we headed back to the Dome around 7pm to see the tie between Russia and France. There was also another tie on court 1 between Italy and Chinese Taipei, but only the women's match went ahead, as Yen-Hsun Lu withdrew due to injury. So all eyes were on centre court to see who would make it through to tomorrow night's final. I missed the women's match but heard that Dinara Safina beat Alize Cornet pretty convincingly, putting Russia within striking distance.
It Marat Safin could beat world #6 Gilles Simon, the Russians would qualify, if not, it would come down to the mixed doubles, and Italy would also still be in the running. So there was a lot to play for in this match. The 2 had never played each other before, and I was intrigued to see how they would match up. Both came out looking keen and sharp, and, just like Safin's other two singles matches this week, the first set came down to a tiebreak. Unlike the previous two matches though, it was his higher-ranked opponent who took the honours, boosting France's finals hopes.
In the second, Simon's top 10 ranking began to show, as he seemed to be the slightly better player. Safin was not playing badly, but not quite as well as the other 2 nights - or perhaps it was just the fact that his opponent was a better quality player. In any case, Simon triumphed 6-3 in the second, keeping France's and Italy's finals chances alive. As already mentioned, a tie win for Russia would put them through, but a tie win for France would result in a count back between France and Italy to determine who makes the final.
Given the fact that the brother/sister combination of Marat & Dinara had not worked overly well during the week and they had not won a match, the odds were probably slightly in France's favour. And this proved to be true in the first 5 games of the first set, when France secured a double break to lead 4-1. The Safin siblings, however, seemed to be communicating better tonight, and managed to claw their way back, breaking the French pair three times to claim the set 6-4. All four players were giving it their all - there were several "Allez"s coming from the French end, and the Russians were also pumping each other up quite a bit - something we hadn't seen much of in their other 2 ties.
They continued where they left off at the start of the second, racing to a 3-1 lead. However, when it looked like they had the match and tie sewn up, the Russians had a few moments of self-destruction, which saw them lose their advantage. They responded with another break of serve though, and advanced to a 5-2 lead. They had two chances to break Cornet at 15-40, but some strong serving from the young Frenchwoman meant the Russians were going to have to earn their finals berth by serving the match out themselves. And they did, taking the set 6-3 to claim the match and a spot in the final. It was a very popular win, and the Russians will definitely be the sentimental favourites in the final!
After the match, we went back to the hotel for a little while. We saw Gilles Simon and Alize Cornet come back with their coaches, and Marat also came back by himself. He stopped and talked for a bit, because we have met him many times over the last 8 years through our mutual friend, Amit. We told Marat how well he was playing and how great it was to see him come back here and finally be in the final with his sister. He was so sweet and nice!!! It's amazing that a player like him can stop and talk normally without any issues. Of course, the best part of the night for me was getting 2 kisses on the cheek from him!! So, all in all, a great way to end a great night! I look forward to seeing the Russians take on the Slovak Republic in the final!
Friday 9 January 2009:
So, we had now reached the end of a great week of tennis. Just 1 tie remained - could the Slovaks claim their 3rd title in 8 years? Or would the Russian siblings get their first Hopman Cup and the second for their country? It was definitely going to be a close encounter.
I managed to get in on time tonight, and was ready for a close women's match between Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova. Safina again started off a bit slowly and seemed quite nervous, whereas Cibulkova appeared pumped up and sharp. However, Safina was able to clinch a hard-fought first set in a tiebreak. After that, I really don't know what happened to her. Her shots went right off the boil - either massive bombs that went well out, or lazy shots which hardly made it halfway up the net. Big brother Marat had come to sit in the Russian box and cheer her on - I hadn't seen him do that all week, so perhaps he jinxed her!!! In any case, Safina lost the set 1-6, and Cibulkova was clearly growing in confidence. Her shots were clean and strong, and she was definitely looking the better player. This continued in the third, when Cibulkova secured 2 breaks and raced to a 4-1 lead. It looked like she had the match wrapped up, and Marat obviously thought so too, because he left the box to get ready for his match, whereupon Safina started to pick up her game. Maybe he really had been a jinx!!! Dinara appeared to tighten up her game a bit and claw her way back, but it was still not enough to stop the Slovak, who ended up winning the set 6-4 to put her country 1 win away from its 3rd Hopman Cup title. She was so pumped up after her match, doing fist pumps to her team...while a dejected Dinara stalked off the court visibly gutted. The better player had definitely won the match though.
So Russia's hopes rested on Marat Safin - who cannot always be relied on, as you never know which Marat will be taking to the court. If his form this week is anything to go by, however, he would hopefully be playing well. His opponent would certainly be no stranger to him. He and Dominik Hrbaty have played 14 times before, with their head-to-head at 7 wins apiece. In fact, they played each other here at the Hopman Cup in 2001 - I remember that match well, because it was on court 1, and myself and 2 other female friends had been madly cheering on Marat even then, despite it being a dead tie!! Both players had been virtually at the prime of their careers. It's unbelievable to think that now, 8 years later, when both players are on the verge of retirement, we would all be back again, same time, same place - but this time at the final!
Both players came out looking intense and focused, and provided entertaining rallies right from the start. It was going to be a close one. Neither looked like they were going to give in - Hrbaty was his usual fired-up self when playing for his country, and even Marat, who doesn't usually display a lot of positive emotions, was pumping himself up quite a lot. This was definitely not exhibition stuff - this was a real match. Safin finally won the first set with a sizzling winner in yet another tiebreak. Considering Hrbaty is coming back from injury, he was playing exceptionally well and did not give up for one instant. The way he was able to get back all of Marat's big shots and serves was reminiscent of a machine! Safin had his chances to break Hrbaty, who was down 0-40 on his serve at one point, but the Slovak held strong, and in the end it was the Russian who faltered - giving Hrbaty the set and forcing the match to a third set.