January 23, 2013

Shocked and Awed

The semifinal pairings are set Down Under, and it's not entirely the slate you might have expected. Sure, most of the favorites have come through, but there is one glaring exception, and even those who survived have been run through the gauntlet. And the ones who seem freshest might be the ones most under the radar.

Novak Djokovic faced his biggest scare in the round of sixteen, pushed for five hours by fifteenth seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, a man who hadn't given him much if any trouble in their last ten meetings, dating back to 2007. He had a much easier time with Tomas Berdych in the quarters, but his semifinal opponent David Ferrer was stretched to the limit. Against compatriot Nicolas Almagro, against whom he held a spotless 12-0 record, the underrated Spaniard took about an hour to find himself down two sets to love. But Almagro, always more comfortable on clay, has never gotten out of Major quarterfinal -- battling injury late in the decider, he finally succumbed, allowing the more experienced fourth seed through to another semi. Djokovic and Ferrer have a surprisingly tight history, 9-5 favoring the world #1. But only one of David's wins has come off the clay, and he's only managed to win one set at a Major. With Nole now riding a nineteen-match win streak in Melbourne, it'll be tough to unseat the two-time defending champion, but it wouldn't be the strangest thing that's happened this fortnight.

The bottom half of the men's draw has been surprisingly more calm. Andy Murray, hoping to prove he's no one-Slam wonder, is the only man standing who hasn't lost a set yet, but the two-time runner-up here has also only faced one seed in five matches. The stakes will clearly be raised in his next round. Roger Federer, playing his tenth straight semi in Melbourne, knocked out a win late Wednesday night against recent nemesis Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman had Fed's number for most of the match, actually winning more points through the first four sets, holding the recent #1 to just two receiving points in the second. But the four-time champion Down Under was able to regroup when it counted -- Federer got the only break in the decider and the right to a twentieth meeting against Murray. Of course, the Scotsman is one of the few people with a (slight) winning record against the great Fed, and despite recent wins at the Olympics and in Shanghai, he's never made much of a dent at a Major. If that's going to change this week, he's going to play a whole other type of ball.

The seeds on the women's side didn't work out quite as neatly, as they did for the men, but until the last few hours of quarterfinal play we were expecting to see some very familiar faces contesting the ladies' title at the Australian Open. Last year's runner-up and 2008 champion Maria Sharapova has been nothing short of spectacular -- in five matches she's dropped serve just two times and has delivered five bagel sets to three different opponents. In total, she's lost only nine games. Her semifinal opponent, 2011 finalist Na Li, has been on point herself, getting revenge over for a Sydney loss to previously undefeated Agnieszka Radwanska in Tuesday's quarterfinal. But though this has been a good time of year for the Chinese woman in the past, MaSha put a definitive stop to a four-match losing streak to Li last year, and with the strong numbers she's putting up on serve, it's hard to see her giving up the advantage in the next round.

And while the performances by these ladies has been top notch, it's the results from the top half that have held the biggest surprises. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka was the first of the favorites to be tested -- she dropped her middle set to young American Jamie Hampton in the third round -- and though she found herself down an early break against resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova in Wednesday's quarter, eventually ran off with the second to make her way back to the final four. But the drama was nothing compared to what would follow -- five-time champion Serena Williams, sporting a super-solid 40-1 record since the French Open, was widely considered the favorite here, too, despite her #3 seed. But Sloane Stephens, the youngest player in the top fifty, had different plans -- carrying her best ever ranking into the event, she hadn't met a single seed in her first four matches in Melbourne, and with a 0-5 record against top ten players her chances weren't good against her childhood idol. But after dropping the first set to Serena, she rallied in a way that no one expected -- after Williams strained her back up a break in the second, Stephens took advantage, breaking serve on three of four chances and ending a streak of twenty-eight straight set wins for Serena. When she held tough in the decider, scoring what's by far the biggest win of her nascent career, she made history as the youngest American in over a decade to make a Slam semi. Vika's gotta like this match-up a whole lot better than the one she would have faced -- she's only taken one set off Serena since her lone win in Miami four years ago -- but the way Sloane played on Thursday, she won't be an easy mark by any means.

Things are far from over, of course, and if recent results have shown us anything, you can't assume you know what's going to happen next.Just about everyone left still has a chance to take home the title in Australia, and while experience may help, it's clearly not the only thing that matters.

And as we watch all the action awestruck, we can't help but feel the best is yet to come.

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