Jarkko Nieminen wins his first ATP tournament
In the fifth final of his career, Finnish tennis No.1 triumphs at last in Auckland
Well, he went a hell of a long way to do it, and it was seen in Finland only by nighthawks who tuned in to YLE's live TV coverage, but Jarkko Nieminen has finally achieved what he has promised to do for a couple of years: in the early hours of Saturday morning he demolished Mario Ancic of Croatia in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, to win the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand.
In so doing he shrugged off four previous final defeats and became the first-ever Finnish tennis player to win an ATP Tour tournament. Congratulations to him.
In the end, it proved a relatively simple task, requiring barely an hour. Despite having weathered a three-hour, three-set marathon semi-final the previous day against Olivier Rochus, an encounter that was widely regarded as the match of the tournament, Nieminen seldom looked under pressure against the 5th-seeded Croatian, who is ranked No. 21 in the world. Nieminen was seeded No.7 and went into the tournament as No.29 on the ATP lists.
The Finnish left-hander took the first set without difficulty, breaking Ancic twice in the process and holding his own service to love in the final game. Ancic was serving well enough, and was clearly the more enthusiastic of the two in approaching the net, but Nieminen passed him regularly and the Croatian also made a dozen unforced errors, seemingly affected more than his opponent by the rain delay that had held up matters for around an hour.
The fourth game of the second set proved decisive. While Nieminen struggled with his first service, Ancic failed to take advantage of the three break points he was offered.
Nieminen took the hint and immediately broke Ancic to love for 3-2 and held his own service for a two-game advantage.
He then kept the lanky Ancic moving around the court with some admirable penetrating ground strokes, and the pay-off was almost instantaneous: he broke him again to 15, dropping just one of the three break points offered.
After the nightmare of taking ten match points to dispose of Rochus in the semi-final, Nieminen finished this match off at the second time of asking, and was clearly pumped at having finally taken a trophy.
He admitted in the post-match interview that he had been a little fortunate to meet an off-colour Ancic - who had played brilliantly earlier in the week and had removed top-seed Fernando Gonzales with almost insolent ease - but there was an element of modesty in these remarks: Nieminen was simply too fluid around the court and too consistent to lose this match.
Quite apart from the enormous relief and confidence-boost of the win, Nieminen collected 35 Champions Race points and a hatful of ATP entry-list points (and a cheque for just under USD 60,000), and he will go into next week's Australian Open several places higher in the world rankings than he was seven days ago.
He has made a great start to the year; a place in the quarter-finals in Adelaide, when the eventual tournament-winner Florent Serra proved too good for him, a first title, and a singles record of 7-1 so far in 2006.
It is only to be hoped he knows how to hit the "reset" button and start the season's first Grand Slam tournament without too much thought of what he has just done for himself and for Finnish tennis.
On Monday, Nieminen appeared to have had no ill-effects from his full week in Auckland: he saw off his Australian Open first round opponent, Australian wildcard Marc Kimmich 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in less than an hour and a half.
In the second round he will face Yeu-Tzuoo Wang of Taiwan, who was leading by two sets to love and 4-1 in the third set when his opponent Mariano Zabaleta of Argentina retired. The players have met once before in Bangkok 2005, when Nieminen emerged the winner in three sets.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Nieminen into final in Auckland; seeded 26th in next week´s Australian Open (13.1.2006)
ATP pages: Jarkko Nieminen
Heineken Open, Auckland
TVNZ match report and comments