January 25, 2013

Something Old, Something New

There's a lot at stake as we enter finals weekend at this year's Australian Open -- three of the players left standing are out to prove they're no one Slam wonders, while the fourth is attempting to make history and become the first man ever to win three straight titles in Melbourne. And while they've all become familiar with playing this level of ball in recent years, there is still a feeling that we're on the verge of a new era in this sport, and each of these players could be the one ushering it in.

Defending champion Victoria Azarenka will play her second straight Major final on Saturday, her third in the past twelve months. She got here by the skin of her teeth, though, losing a set during the first week to Jamie Hampton and withstanding a controversial medical time out deep in the second set of her semi against Sloane Stephens. In the championship match she'll take on surprise finalist Na Li, the breakout Down Under two years ago -- nearly thirty-one years of age, the Chinese woman is playing her best ball late in her career, and with dominating wins over red-hot Aggie Radwanska in the quarters and 2008 champ Maria Sharapova a round later, she's shown she's far from her twilight. Li actually beat Vika here during her 2011 run, and during her campaign for the French Open that spring, but the Belorussian turned the table and has won their last four matches in a row. In about twelve hours time one of these ladies will have won her second Major title and, considering the field down in Melbourne, will have done so under some very daunting circumstances. If the world #1 has recovered enough over the last two days, this trophy is hers for the taking -- but something tells me Li's got what it takes to surprise us all.

There's more than a day left before the men's championship is decided, but the anticipation is nevertheless sky-high. Novak Djokovic has reached his sixth Slam final in his last seven tries, while Andy Murray has somehow set up a rematch of the 2011 final -- which he lost -- and the 2012 U.S. Open final -- which he won. Nole's had his scares along the way, barely making it out of the fourth round, but he sailed through his semi against relentless Spaniard David Ferrer in less than ninety minutes time. Meanwhile Murray, who hadn't faced a test at all during his first five matches in Melbourne, finally made his own history against four-time champion Roger Federer in the semis. Though he held a solid 10-9 history against the record-holding former #1, the Scot had only won one set off the Swiss at a Major. But Murray came out of the gates running in Friday's match -- with Fed likely feeling the effects of a long five-setter against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his quarterfinal, Murray pounced early, firing off twenty-one aces and holding tough when his opponent forced another decider by winning a fourth set tiebreak. After four full hours of play, he'd notched his first Slam win over the legend, and set himself up for his sixth Major final. Nole has twice avenged his loss in New York and, having an extra day of rest after his semi, will probably be fresher for the final. But Murray seems to have finally found his game when it counts, and if he keeps his cool on Sunday, he might be the one to derail Djokovic's path to history.

It's probably not the final pairings many were expecting in Melbourne, and as these four athletes march down the aisle toward the first Grand Slam of the year, even with all their combined experience, it does seem we're going to see something special this weekend. It's no one's first time here, but the outcomes could certainly change the landscape of tennis for the rest of the year. Maybe even longer.

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