A part-time Israeli army soldier who graduated near the top of her class in sharpshooting nearly ended Serena Williams' run at the Australian Open.
Shahar Peer was two points away from victory before Williams rallied for a 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 win on Tuesday. Israel's highest-ranked female player will move from No. 17 to at least No. 14 next week. "She's a champion and she knows how to handle these situations," Peer said. "She was playing too good in the end." The 19-year-old Peer has helped take tennis to new heights in Israel, and she had a small but loyal following of flag-waving fans at Melbourne Park. Her fourth-round upset of 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and her match against Williams were televised live at 4 a.m. in Israel.
The win over Kuznetsova dominated the sports news in Israel, and even put her on the front pages of Monday's newspapers, overshadowing both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the incoming army chief of staff.
Olmert opened his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday by applauding Peer's performance.
"I'm really happy people are just supporting so much for me in Israel," Peer said. "I guess everyone is happy." Peer had trouble converting break points _ she managed only 3 of 13 in the match. Williams, a winner of seven Grand Slam titles, converted 5 of 6 chances.
"It was 4-all in the third, I had three break points," Peer said. "She aced me every time, on two break points. You can do nothing. You can just clap hands for her."
Peer's compulsory Israeli army commitments are flexible _ professional athletes are allowed to travel and fit in their military duties when home. She had nearly three weeks of basic training last November and does mostly office work. She scored well in rifle shooting during basic training, no doubt helped by her proficiency at aiming forehands and two-handed backhands across the net.
"I don't know if it's from tennis or whatever, but I really liked it," she said. "I was not bad."
Williams was aware of the stir Peer has created in her country, the only Israeli female player in the top 100 except for veteran Anna Smashnova at No. 63.
"Her performance and her play for all of Israel is great," Williams said. "I couldn't be more happy for her because you have just one person going the lone ride. I think she's doing a great job.
"She's obviously a solid player. She obviously has a very bright future. I think Israelis might be up (at) four in the morning a lot more."
Peer had a strong start to the year, losing a semifinal at the Gold Coast in Australia to Dinara Safina.
"I think the match three weeks ago against Safina when I was (ahead) 6-4, 5-1 bothers me more," Peer said. "Today it wasn't that I was shaking or whatever. I went there and she was playing good.
"One day I won from two match points down, and one day you lose. This is tennis. This is sport."