January 27, 2010

Two Chinese, a Wildcard and a Defending Champion Walk Onto a Court...

Could the Australian Open women's semifinal be any more random?

Even with all the great tennis we've been seeing over the last several days -- from the most unlikely of sources -- I don't think anyone would have guessed that these are the four women who'd make it to the Final Four: world #1 Serena Williams, 2004 champ Justine Henin and compatriots Jie Zheng and Ni Li will battle tonight for the chance to play for the first Major title of the year. And they've all had somewhat bumpy roads to this point.

Serena is easily the favorite of the group. Last year's
titleholder has made it her mission to win even more Slams and has manifested that mindset since stepping on the court in Melbourne -- until Wednesday she hadn't dropped serve once this entire tournament. In the quarters though she was a bit imperfect against Victoria Azarenka, a woman who had been serving strongly herself this fortnight, and given her performance against the Belarusian, I began to wonder if Serena would advance. But down a set and two breaks in the second, Williams did what she does best, acing herself out of trouble and making the semis here for the fifth time.

The other half of the bracket is headlined by an unseeded Justine Henin trying to make her eleventh Grand Slam final. Despite being a finalist in Brisbane, she's only a wildcard Down Under and has fought through one obstacle after another to emerge from the toughest quarter of the draw. For the past five rounds Justine has displayed the same elegance and power she had in the first part of her career. As one of the tinier players on Tour, it's not surprising that she's struggled a bit on serve and committed more errors than she has winners, but Henin has shown little indication that she can't still compete at the top level, even after a nearly two-year absence.

She will meet another diminutive player in Jie Zheng, ranked thirty-fifth in the world. An accomplished doubles player, this by far is her best singles performance in Melbourne and, really, any tournament for some time -- her last title came in 2006. Jie hasn't met a top-ten player yet this tournament, but she's had sound performances against the second-tier elite, including Marion Bartoli and Alona Bondarenko. Henin will be her toughest competition so far, but she's had the most rest of any woman taking the court on Thursday. I won't hold my breath, or go so far as to call for an upset, but stranger things have happened.

Serena's opponent on Thursday will be Na Li, vanquisher of the elder Williams. She rounds out the first ever Slam semi with two Chinese contenders and next week becomes the first ever woman from that country to break into the top ten. Her last round was a sloppy victory, one with seventeen breaks and second-serve percentages below forty, but a victory nonetheless. After being down a set and 4-5 on her foe's serve, the #17 player in the world found what she needed to stage her best Major performance. Of course to go any further, she'll have to defeat her third favored and most intimidating rival yet. And with less than twenty-four hours since she ended her last match, it's an uphill battle to even dream about an all-China final.

It's a motley crew for several reasons: culturally diverse, rankings all over the map, various levels of experience and title tallies, and probably one of the shortest semis, by height, in history. But it could also set the stage for a pretty good end to the championship -- and will surely result in a story that will endure the year!

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