By HOWARD FENDRICH
LONDON — Whether in a match, a set, a game — or even within a single point — Sabine Lisicki simply cannot be counted out.
Especially at Wimbledon, where she is one victory from becoming a Grand Slam champion.
Fashioning the same sort of comeback she used to eliminate defending titlist Serena Williams at the All England Club, the 23rd-seeded Lisicki reached her first major final by edging No. 4 Agnieska Radwanska of Poland 6-4, 2-6, 9-7 in a compelling, back-and-forth match Thursday.
“I just fought with all my heart,” said Lisicki, who twice was two points away from losing to 2012 runner-up Radwanska. “I believed that I could still win, no matter what the score was.”
On Saturday, Lisicki will face 15th-seeded Marion Bartoli, who took a nap on a locker-room couch before heading out to Centre Court and earning a berth in her second Wimbledon final with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over No. 20 Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.
It’s only the second time in the 45-year Open era that two women who have never won a Grand Slam trophy will play for the championship at the grass-court tournament.
Germany’s Lisicki and France’s Bartoli also form the second-lowest pair of seeded women to meet for the Wimbledon title. In 2007, Bartoli was No. 18 when she lost to No. 23 Venus Williams.
“In the beginning of the tournament, no one, I think, (expected) those names in the semis or in the finals,” Radwanska said.
That’s for sure.
In 11 of the past 13 years, one Williams sister or the other — and sometimes both — reached the final at the All England Club. This year, five-time champion Venus sat out because of a back injury, while five-time champion Serena’s 34-match winning streak ended with a loss to Lisicki in Monday’s fourth round.
In that match, Lisicki won the first set, dropped nine games in a row to fall behind 3-0 in the third, and eventually took the last four games.
In the semifinals, Lisicki won the first set, dropped nine of 11 games to fall behind 3-0 in the third, and eventually turned it around.
“I thought, ‘I’ve done it against Serena, so you can do it today as well. Just hang in there,’” Lisicki said. “It gave me so much confidence.”
Some of that derives from a more daunting recovery. In 2010, she badly injured her left ankle and missed five months.
Not only did she fall outside the top 150 in the rankings, but Lisicki says her rehabilitation felt like a course in how to use that leg.
“I can still remember when the doctor told me that I have to be on crutches the next six weeks. I was like, ‘OK, when can I get back?’ That was my first question,” Lisicki recalled Thursday. “That period made me such a much stronger person and … I know anything is possible after learning how to walk again.”
She cited inspiration drawn from two injured athletes in other sports, NFL quarterback Drew Brees and Alpine ski racer Hermann Maier.
Brees tore his throwing shoulder in the last game of the 2005 regular season, and needed a complicated operation. Let go by the San Diego Chargers, he wound up signing with the New Orleans Saints and led that franchise to the Super Bowl title in 2010. Maier, who won two Olympic gold medals and four overall World Cup titles, nearly lost his right leg — and his life — in a 2001 motorcycle accident. Sidelined for two years, he returned to win the World Cup in 2004.
Lisicki also was motivated by a text message she said she received before Thursday’s match from the last German woman to play in a Grand Slam final, back in 1999, Steffi Graf.
“She told me to go for it,” Lisicki said.
Lisicki’s formula against Radwanska was the same one she employed while beating major champions Francesca Schiavone in the first round, Sam Stosur in the third and Williams: powerful serves, stinging returns and an uncanny ability to get to balls that seem out of reach. On Thursday, Lisicki smacked serves at up to 122 mph, including nine aces, and hit eight return winners.
Her game clearly is built for grass. She is 19-4 at Wimbledon, 16-15 at the other three major tournaments. She’s 8-2 in three-setters at Wimbledon, 5-9 at the other Slams.
Bartoli also has been most successful at what many players consider tennis’ most prestigious site. Her career winning percentage at Wimbledon is .730; it’s .586 at the other Slams. She is 2-0 in Wimbledon semifinals, 0-1 elsewhere.
“I had to play, I don’t know, 500 percent, I think, to beat Marion today. She was just too good,” said Flipkens, who fell face-down in the grass in the sixth game, landing on her bandaged right knee, and later received treatment.
“I tried my slices. She didn’t have any problem with that. I tried the drop shot. She got it,” added Flipkens, who never had been past the fourth round at a major. “I tried a lob. I tried everything, actually.”
Hitting two-handed shots off both wings — like her idol, Monica Seles — Bartoli took the first three games of each set and never relented.
“Definitely,” said 2006 Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo, the French Fed Cup captain serving as an adviser to Bartoli, “the best match of the tournament for her.”
As always, Bartoli took practice cuts between most points, pumped her fist after nearly every point she won, and sprinted to the sideline at changeovers.
“It’s not like I want to annoy my opponent,” Bartoli said. “It’s really me trying to be ready for the point that is coming.”
She figures she’s much better equipped to handle a Grand Slam final now than when she managed to win only five games in the loss to Venus Williams six years ago.
“I’m just doing everything better, honestly,” said Bartoli, who was only 22 when she made her major final debut.
Lisicki, 23, and Radwanska, 24, have known each other since they were junior players, and their styles could hardly be more different. All in all, Lisicki is far more aggressive than Radwanska, who relies on varying speeds and angles while mainly aiming to keep the ball in play. According to the official statistics, Lisicki finished with far more winners, 60-21, and far more unforced errors, 46-10.
Lisicki won her first five service games and was up a break in the second set when everything changed. Radwanska broke five times in a row, until Lisicki finally held again to get within 3-1 in the third. Lisicki ran off five out of six games, ignoring the distraction of a courtside scoreboard that began flickering, then was shut off. At 5-4 in the third, Lisicki served for the match, twice getting within two points of victory, but Radwanska broke again.
At 6-5, 30-all, and again at deuce, Radwanska needed two points to win. She couldn’t do it.
“I had a lot of chances. Couple of easy mistakes,” Radwanska said. “It cost me.”
At 7-all, Lisicki broke by nearly sitting on the grass for a backhand that forced Radwanska to miss a volley. Given another chance to serve it out, Lisicki capped the most meaningful victory of her career with a forehand winner.
“It’s unbelievable the way she came back again in the third set,” said Lisicki’s coach, Wim Fissette, who used to work with four-time major champion Kim Clijsters.
Radwanska, who spent nearly three total hours more on court than Lisicki in previous rounds, played with both thighs heavily taped.
“If we play in two days from now,” she said, “I think it would be definitely different.”
Asked why she offered Lisicki only a cursory, no-look handshake, then quickly left the court, Radwanska answered: “Should I just be there and dance?”
Understandably, Lisicki’s mood at her news conference was cheerier. She couldn’t stop smiling or chuckling.
“When I arrived here at the tournament, I just said that anything’s possible. That’s what I believed. I still do,” Lisicki said. “I came to win every match that I walk on the court (for), and that’s what I’ve done so far.”
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