By David Leggat
Fernando Gonzalez' dream of a double title whammy on centre court in Auckland today ended at the ASB Tennis Centre last night.
He had been eyeing the chance to become the first player in 20 years to leave the Heineken Open with two cheques in his pocket.
Defeat with his American partner Jim Thomas in the doubles semifinals yesterday ended that prospect, but the Chilean will start the singles final against Belgium's Olivier Rochus supremely confident of a fifth ATP Tour title.
Fifth-seeded Gonzalez continued his fine form by making quick work of Argentine sixth seed, Juan Ignacio Chela in the semifinals, 6-4, 6-2.
Rochus was even more emphatic in ending the run of Czech qualifier Jan Hernych, who simply ran out of legs as Rochus won 6-3 6-1.
The two losers both complained about the wind yesterday. Funnily enough, the winners didn't.
Gonzalez admitted he was fired to succeed yesterday by a 1-3 record against Chela, who had won their three previous matches.
When the match against the tall Chela began, betting was even as to who would emerge on top.
As it transpired, the world No 23 made no race of it against the world No 26.
Chela took a 3-1 advantage in the first set but in a battle of lost serves, Gonzalez took it after 40 minutes.
His slashing strokeplay was too good for Chela, who looked lethargic and out of sorts for most of the match. When Chela came to the net, Gonzalez whistled drives past him on both sides; when he stayed back he was outgunned by his harder-hitting opponent.
Gonzalez broke Chela for a 2-1 lead at the start of the second set. The Argentine's head dropped and he had run out of fight long before the end.
Gonzalez's game was not flawless. There were wobbles in his serve, but overall he gave the impression of a man on his way to a title.
In the other semifinal, Hernych looked and played like a tired man. Considering he was playing his seventh match in as many days, having toiled through the qualifying rounds, that was no surprise.
Rochus was worried about pain in his legs after his win over top seed Guillermo Coria on Thursday. But pain has a funny way of disappearing when the going is good.
He was far sharper than Hernych, whose best moment of the week was knocking out former world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first round.
Rochus broke Hernych's opening service game, and flew out to a 5-1 lead. In the second set Rochus broke again to go 2-1 up and that was that.
Hernych admitted he was weary, was well beaten but the week had given him confidence for the future. As for Rochus' chances of victory today, Hernych reckons it's 50-50.
"If he plays like today he has a chance," he said. "Gonzalez is a very good player but Olivier is clever and can mix up his game."
Rochus knows the key to winning today will be "playing smart". "When Fernando hits his forehand it's one of the best in the world."
Translation? Expect plenty of slices and variations from Rochus today as he looks to avoid a slugfest with one of the premiers baseline punchers on the circuit.
Gonzalez respects Rochus' energy. "He's a great player. He's fast and he can play all over the court. But I'm serving good, hitting the ball well so we'll see."
If Gonzalez wins he'll become just the fourth South American to win the Open title, after Jaime Yzaga of Peru in 1992, Chile's Marcelo Rios in 1998 and Brazilian star Gustavo Kuerten two years ago.
The doubles final is between two unseeded pairs. Swede Simon Aspelin and Todd Perry of Australia play German Michael Kohlmann and Yves Allegro of Switzerland.
The finals start at 1pm.