January 29, 2009

All Good Things...

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I woke up this morning.

After a rash of upsets and star-making performances during this year's Australian Open, I'd begun to think we could see some new faces shine as they held up their championship trophies this weekend.

But the three semifinal matches that have so far been played showed a reversion to the norm.

I had high hopes for Elena Dementieva in her match against Serena Williams. Though the Russian trails the current world #2 in almost any major metric -- ranking, number of titles, service speed, career prize money -- Elena has been on a roll. She had won the pair's last three meetings, most recently in the Sydney semifinals and at last year's Olympics. And she'd amassed a stunning 15-0 record for the year, complete with two titles.

Serena, however, had random logic on her side. Commentators loved to point out that she's won the Australian Open in every odd year since 2003 and that she's never lost a semifinal or final match in Melbourne. Of course there was more behind Serena's strength than strange statistics -- she led the women's draw in aces, twenty-eight before she even met Elena, and had won a stunning 73% of her first serves. She'd rallied after being down a set to Svetlana Kuznetsova to notch an impressive win in the quarters. And she had some serious motivation -- a trophy here would be her tenth career Grand Slam and help her regain the #1 ranking.

The match wasn't easy for either player -- for Elena especially, as she marked her first loss of the year -- but the outcome was probably expected. Serena won 6-3, 6-4, taking little more than ninety minutes to score the victory. In the end the score didn't reflect how hard Elena fought (it seldom does), but it did represent Serena's continued presence as a real force in tennis.

In the finals she will meet her third Russian in a row -- Dinara Safina was also triumphant over compatriot Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, bringing the seventh-ranked player's best major run to an end.

Vera has never made it past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam, and she's lost in the first round here three times. But she's coming off her best year on record and pranced through her first five matches in Melbourne without dropping a set, even earning her first win over tenth seed Nadia Petrova since 2004. She should have been pretty confident against Safina. Again, despite the discrepancy in ranking, Zvonareva had won all three matches they played last year, including a semifinal matchup in their hometown of Moscow.

But Dinara was on top of her game Thursday. She was certainly the aggressor in the match, scoring two times as many winners as her opponent, but also committing twice the unforced errors. She was dominant at the net, winning seven of eight points there and dictated points on both first and second serves.

As a reward Safina will get to attend her second Grand Slam final -- she lost to Ana Ivanovic last year at Roland Garros -- and make her own case for the #1 women's ranking, the first time she would achieve that honor in her career. Serena has taken all but one of their six previous matches, but with a title on the line I'm betting we could see some sparks

And then came the gentlemen.

Unfortunately I had to be up early enough this morning that I was able to catch the end of the first men's semifinal match live -- just in time to see Andy Roddick lose to Roger Federer. Again.

Roger led the series 15-2, but he was facing a new and improved Roddick. With the help of a new coach and in better physical shape, Andy had made it to the finals in Doha, his first tournament of the year. Earlier this week he silenced naysayers in Australia when he outlasted reigning champion Novak Djokovic in the quarters, scrambling for balls no one has the right to chase down. Even before meeting Federer in the semis, Andy stood atop the leader board in aces, scoring 79 zingers, twenty-one more than the world #2.

But his run was brought to a halt too -- Roger dominated, as he usually does, in three sets. He scored 51 winners and only fifteen errors, without a single double fault. While Federer couldn't quite match Roddick's serve in speed, he was able to score sixteen aces and win an astonishing 83% of his first attempts, 58% of his second. Though the last two sets were tighter, there was no question Roger is eager to get his hands on a record-tying fourteenth Grand Slam championship.

He still has one match to go though, and will face one of the two Spaniards playing their semifinal match today.

Rafael Nadal is clearly the favorite to beat Davis Cup teammate Fernando Verdasco -- he's won all six previous meetings. But Verdasco has been on a roll of his own, stunning fourth seed Andy Murray and #5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in consecutive rounds. It remains to be seen whether the semifinals will bring an end to his string of victories as well.

Of course, I've been waiting for the Nadal-Federer rematch for some time -- but Australia seems to be the venue of choice for new talent to emerge, and an upset by Verdasco would certainly not be the first.

So good luck to all, and may all your (future) winning streaks be long-lasting!

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