This wasn't one of those famous oven-baked days at the Australian Open, but Justine Henin-Hardenne and Lindsay Davenport had exchanged ground strokes for about three hours and 38 games today in the fourth round, taking turns pounding their way into the lead.
Someone was going to go down. Few at Rod Laver Arena expected it to be so literal.
Henin-Hardenne toppled over in agony after the first point of the 39th game of their match, cramps seizing her left thigh. A concerned Davenport came over to her side of the court to check on the well-being of Henin-Hardenne, who received an injury timeout and was packed in ice.
It seemed an incredible finish to what had already been a dramatic marathon. Just as incredibly, Henin-Hardenne staggered home the winner, taking the last two games to defeat the ninth-seeded Davenport, 7-5, 5-7, 9-7, in 3 hours 13 minutes. For the fifth-seeded Belgian, it was her first victory against Davenport in six matches.
She hit a forehand winner off Davenport's second serve to win it, tossed her racket and tumbled to the court again. This time, the pain was undercut by twin emotions of relief and joy.
"I thought I was gonna die, but I played with my heart and I just went for it. So thanks for everything," Henin-Hardenne told the crowd, which gave the players a prolonged standing ovation. "I was cramping and then I thought the match was over for me, because it was really tough and I fight a lot. I just wanted to win the match. I just wanted to give everything I could."
The Belgian was visibly in pain the last two games but kept running down Davenport's shots. During the injury timeout, she had ice bags under her arms, on her legs and on her neck.
"She's turning into an ice cube over there," said John McEnroe, who is doing commentary for Australian television.
Henin-Hardenne returned to the court, trailing 0-15 at 7-7. With almost everyone wondering if she could continue, she hit an ace on the very first point and went on to fight off a break point.
The match, which veered between erratic and one of high quality, seemed as though it would be a routine victory for Henin-Hardenne. She led, 7-5, 4-1, and had break points for a 5-1 lead before Davenport fought her way back. The tide went completely the other way in the third set and Davenport was poised on the edge of victory, taking a 4-1 lead, before the momentum switched again.
"There were so many twists and turns," said Davenport, who won the Australian Open in 2000. "The momentum would go up and down and up and down. I never had someone cramp and fall over. I never thought I would be more fresh than my opponent after a three-hour match. The level of tennis she was able to come up with was just too good."
She was asked if she was disappointed that she couldn't put an injured opponent away.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Davenport said. "You don't know me well enough to know how I really feel. I would have been a lot more disappointed if I had lost five and love."
Two of the other quarterfinalists were expected to reach the final eight. Second-seeded Venus Williams defeated Nicole Pratt of Australia, 6-3, 6-2, in 77 minutes. Williams, who will play No. 7 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the quarterfinals, double-faulted eight times and hit 35 winners to only four for Pratt. Williams played an ambitious brand of tennis, coming to the net 36 times, winning 26 points.
Pratt thought Williams would have to lift her level in the second week.
"I think she's a bit shaky in different areas," Pratt said. "There's girls like Kim [Clijsters] and obviously Serena [Williams]. I think they're hitting better off the ground than Venus at the moment. But Venus has a great serve and is able to pull out points when she needs them. Other girls don't have that."
Hantuchova, who has lost one set in four matches, survived a difficult test against No. 12 Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, winning, 7-5, 6-3, in the fourth round. Melbourne was the site of a career breakthrough for Hantuchova last year. She won the doubles with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and nearly took Venus Williams out of the tournament, losing, 7-5, in the third set in the third round.
"She'll definitely be motivated to get a win against me," Williams said.
Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain is the surprise quarterfinalist, defeating Denisa Chladkova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-3. It is her second Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Ruano Pascual has been able to take advantage of a weaker part of the draw that opened up when two-time defending champion Jennifer Capriati lost in the first round.