Thai challenger Srichaphan boots Hewitt at Japan Open

by Rob Smaal

Lleyton Hewitt may be the No. 1 tennis player in the world, but Friday afternoon at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum he played second fiddle to a little-known slugger from Thailand.

Paradorn Srichaphan scored an emphatic 6-4, 6-3 win over top seed Hewitt to book his place in the semifinals of the AIG Japan Open. Srichaphan, a lanky 23-year-old ranked 31st in the world, used a booming serve and an effective backhand to ensure that Hewitt would not be around to defend his Japan Open title.

“To his credit, he played extremely well,” said a low-key Hewitt after the match. “He played that power game that’s caused a few upsets this year.”

In the women’s bracket, Japan’s top hope for a titlist in this event, Ai Sugiyama, was bundled out by Croatia’s Silvija Talaja after blowing a one-set lead. The top-seeded Sugiyama disappointed her faithful fans — who must be used to that feeling by now — when she went down 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 to the world’s No. 95-ranked women’s player.

In an earlier men’s match, 2000 French Open runnerup Magnus Norman won a battle of Swedes when he scored a 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 win over compatriot and namesake Magnus Larsson. The match marked the first time the two had met in either an ATP or Grand Slam event. Norman will next face American Vincent Spadea, a 6-3, 6-0 winner over Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, for a place in Sunday’s final.

In the other men’s quarterfinal Friday, Dane Kenneth Carlsen defeated Anthony Dupuis of France 6-3, 6-2 in a battle of unseeded players. Carlsen is next on the docket for Srichaphan.

On the women’s side, American Sarah Taylor set up a semifinal clash with Talaja when she saw off another Japanese hope, Yuka Yoshida, 6-4, 6-2. The other women’s semifinal will feature Jill Craybas of the U.S. against Thailand’s Tamarine Tanasugarn. Craybas beat Jelena Kostanic 6-2, 6-1 on Friday, while No. 2 seed Tanasugarn had a tougher time in her 6-4, 1-6, 6-1 win over Alicia Molik of Australia.

But the day clearly belonged to Srichaphan. The easygoing Thai jumped out to a quick 4-1 lead in the opening set before Hewitt dug down and won the next three games to square things up. Srichaphan was able to hold serve for a 5-4 lead before breaking Hewitt’s serve to take the opening set.

After both players had held serve through the first five games of the second set, Srichaphan nailed a beautiful lunging passing forehand down the line past a stunned Hewitt to break for a 4-2 lead.

Srichaphan closed out the next game with a pair of aces to go up 5-2 before Hewitt battled back with two aces of his own to hold serve and get back to 5-3. Then, with one of the biggest scalps of his career up for grabs, the hard-serving Srichaphan made no mistake, hammering two more aces and another serve that was too hot for Hewitt to handle to close out the victory.

“Today, I had nothing to lose,” said a relaxed Srichaphan, who was seeded eighth here, in a postmatch interview session. “He’s No. 1 in the world. I was telling myself, ‘Just keep playing your game.’

“The last two times I played Lleyton I came close but I was a bit shaky on the important points. I was able to learn from that.”

Srichaphan, who had been 0-3 against Hewitt prior to his win Friday, has just one career ATP title to his credit. Still, he beat Andre Agassi at Wimbledon this year and his star appears to be on the rise.

“I feel I represent all Asians when I’m out there, not just Thailand, and it feels great,” said Srichaphan, the top-ranked player in Asia and a huge star back home in Thailand.

For his part, Hewitt was philosophical about the setback.

“My game’s a bit patchy at the moment,” the current Wimbledon champion and former U.S. Open winner explained. “(Friday’s loss) is a bit of a downer, but that’s sport — you’ve gotta bounce back.”