Originally created 01/25/02

New spot for Johansson: a Grand Slam final

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On the verge of advancing to his first Grand Slam final, Thomas Johansson was almost shaking.

"It's a great feeling to have in your body because you want it so bad," he said.

And the 16th-seeded Swede got it Thursday night - a spot in the Australian Open final with a 7-6 (5), 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over unseeded Jiri Novak.

On Sunday, he will play the winner of Friday's semifinal between seventh-seeded Tommy Haas and ninth-seeded Marat Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion who ousted Pete Sampras.

Johansson is 0-1 against Haas and 1-2 against Safin.

"I'm a little bit of an underdog," Johansson said. "I'm still going to be nervous."

In the women's final Saturday, defending champion Jennifer Capriati will meet three-time winner Martina Hingis.

Capriati, who won her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne last year by beating Hingis, advanced with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 victory over fourth-seeded Kim Clijsters.

Capriati, the French Open champion, is seeking her third title in her last five Grand Slam tournaments. Hingis reached her sixth straight Australian Open final by beating four-time champion Monica Seles 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Johansson, who never before had been past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event, got that shaky feeling when Novak was serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the last set.

The Czech saved three match points before hitting a forehand long on the fourth, and Johansson threw his racket high in the air.

Johansson has six lower-level tournament titles from his eight years on the professional tour. He had low expectations coming into the Australian Open.

"But after the first two rounds I've been playing maybe my best tennis ever," he said. "I think my game came together. I felt a lot better on the court. I could go for my shots more, and I was serving a lot better."

Johansson was helped by upsets in his half of the draw, which included No. 2 Gustavo Kuerten, No. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 5 Sebastien Grosjean, 6 Tim Henman and No. 10 Goran Ivanisevic, the Wimbledon champion.

On his way to the final, he faced only two seeded players - No. 21 Younes El Aynaoui and No. 26 Novak, who never before had gone past the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament.

Still, Johansson is far from the lowest-seeded player in a recent Grand Slam final. Ivanisevic was a wild card when he won Wimbledon last year.

Novak, who reached the semifinals without meeting a seeded player, said he was "on fire" in the second set. In the fourth set, Johansson regrouped.

"He had nothing to lose," Novak said. "He started returning well."

Johansson broke for 3-2 in that set and again for 6-3 in a game that featured eight deuces and seven set points before Novak hit a backhand into the net.

The Swede said he was so relieved to win the first set, "I fell asleep" in the second before starting to rebound.

He and Novak are similar in several ways - they were born two days apart in March 1975 (Novak is older), both play the same baseline game and both played on a team of tennis pros that beat NHL players in a street hockey game in Montreal last year.

Both also took more than 20 Grand Slam events to reach their first semifinal.

Johansson, however, had the support of a blue-and-yellow-clad cheering section of about 70 Swedes, who stood to chant after almost every point.

"They are great to have when you're struggling on court and you feel a little bit down," Johansson said.

With Johansson serving at 2-3, 40-0 in the third set, he hit a backhand crosscourt that was called out. As he protested to the umpire, Novak conceded the point, making the score 3-3.

"I saw that the ball was definitely in," he said.

"Jiri is one of the nicest guys on the tour," Johansson said. "That was a very nice thing."


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