Rainer Schuettler has been on a never-ending comeback trail the past three years. On Friday, the 31-year-old German recaptured some of his old form to shock world No. 21 and second seed Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 7-5 and storm into the semis of $416,000 Kingfisher Airlines Open.
The victory marked the season's best performance for Schuettler, who was once ranked as high as fifth and has not gone past the second round in an ATP Tour event this year.
"I don't know if it was the best performance of the year but I had the confidence," said 143rd ranked Schuettler who is now up 3-2 on head to head against Hewitt.
If Schuettler was tired, Hewitt, in his own words, was flat after playing back to back matches and that too after a bout of viral infection that forced him to pull out of a reverse singles in Australia's Davis Cup tie against Serbia last weekend.
"Yeah, I felt a bit flat. It didn't help. There were so many momentum swings. He too played some great tennis and average tennis," Hewitt said. "I was unlucky not to win the second set. If I had won that, it could have gone any way from there.
"I had my chances in the second set. I was up 5-2 and 15-40. He didn't have anything to lose and went broke for it. At that stage everything came off. It is one of those things, it is hard to dictate terms to such players."
Schuettler was broken in the third game of the first set but broke back immediately to make it 2-2. Then a double fault followed by a backhand error by Hewitt gave him a double breakpoint in the sixth game. The Aussie obliged with a forehand error.
The players traded breaks at the start of second set before Hewitt went up with another break in the fourth game. Schuettler then save two breakpoints in the eighth game before turning the heat on his rival with a brilliant crosscourt winner to go up 5-4.
The German then capitalised on Hewitt's misfiring forehand to go up 6-5 before serving out the set and match.
Santoro in semis
Meanwhile, Fabrice Santoro’s magical wrists proved to be stronger than Jarkko Nieminen's muscles. The Frenchman gave the fourth seed Finn a master class in touch tennis while registering a 6-3, 6-4 win in the quarterfinals.
Santoro will be up against top seed Richard Gasquet in an all-French semifinal. The 21-year-old talented player made a short work of Austrian sixth seed Stegan Koubek for a 6-2, 6-4 win.
Oliver Rochus had a smooth passage to the last four as German Nicolas Kiefer retired due to gastroenteritis when 1-4 down in the first set. Left-hander Nieminen is ranked 25 in the world but he learnt a sporting dictum the hard way from Santoro — that any player could only be as good in his game as his opponent allows him to be.
Santoro, with his emphasis on digital precision, whether it be service return or slice or drop shot, dictated the pace of the game and never really allowed Nieminen to play his strong ground-strokes. In fact, Nieminen had only a handful of winners in the entire match that lasted an hour and 21 minutes.
And let no one believe that Santoro lacked power. ‘The Magician’ frequently showed that whenever needed — as when Nieminen tried to make a match of it in the early part of second set — he could switch gears effortlessly.
A key weapon in Santoro's armoury was his quirky forehand slice, played two-handed and with the left hand on top, making it look a left-hander's backhand. Santoro used that shot to deny his rival the pace he needed, and Nieminen never really had a strategy to counter it.
Santoro ran away with the first set in 31 minutes, despite his rival gaining the first break of serve, in the third game. Nieminen set up a breakpoint with two brilliant service returns and converted it with a forehand smash.
The fifth seed, who has never won a Grand Slam so far, hit back by forcing a double breakpoint in the very next game. Nieminen had an 80 per cent first serve for the match but his serving deserted him at that crucial moment. Santoro capitalized on that and took the break with a sensation backhand pass.
Santoro made it a double break after a perfect service return and double fault by the 26-year-old Nieminen in the sixth game. The second set saw Nieminen drop serve in the third game after his two approaches to the net were foiled cleverly by his rival.