January 23, 2014

Something Old, Something New

This is not your grandmother's Grand Slam.

From the start this Australian Open has been one of turn-arounds and shockers, upsets and breakthroughs, and players you'd never expect to last into Week Two of a Major were not only sneaking through the draws, but destroying their competition. And here we are on the verge of championship weekend with a real possibility of seeing a duo of first-time winners in Melbourne.

Dominika Cibulkova has long been one of the craftiest players on Tour, consistently giving top players a tough time, even when she didn't eventually beat them. But while her contemporaries were piling up trophies and climbing the rankings, she only won her first title a little over two years ago and struggled to stay in the top twenty. Last year she had twelve first round losses and only won four matches at the big events.

But she's certainly turned things around this fortnight. Armed with a longer racquet -- remember how that catapulted Sara Errani in 2012? -- and seemingly a new focus, she's decimated opponents so far, losing just a set to Maria Sharapova in their fourth round, but ceding three or fewer games in four other matches. In the semis on Thursday she rolled over Aga Radwanska, a woman she also beat in the Stanford final last year, by taking advantage of weak second serves and winning points on twelve of fourteen net approaches. The win gives her entry to the first Grand Slam championship match of her career, and the way the petite Slovak has been playing, it's hard to see her getting intimidated on the big stage.

But two-time runner-up Na Li will do her best to do just that. With three Major finals under her belt -- and, importantly, one trophy -- she'll certainly be the more experienced player on Saturday. And she's been on point Down Under as well -- undefeated so far this season, she's lost just a handful of games since saving match point in the third round and won five games in a row to start her semi against super-Cinderella Genie Bouchard on Thursday. She's also beaten Cibulkova in all four of their previous meetings. Still something tells me this match won't be cut and dried -- if Domi comes out swinging as she had all week, we could be in for an exciting contest.

On the men's side it will be Stanislas Wawrinka making his debut in a Major title match. The long-time Swiss #2, like Domi, only has a handful of crowns to his name, but he spent 2013 really defining his game. He took out Andy Murray in Monte Carlo, beat two top-ten players on his way to his first Masters final, and put up two of the best matches of the year against then-#1 Novak Djokovic in Melbourne and again in New York.

Most recently stopped in the U.S. Open semis, Wawrinka had only gotten as far as the quarters here once before, but after finally ending a long losing streak to the three-time defending champion on Tuesday, he followed up with a decisive win over one-time Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych in the final four. It was his second long match in a row -- the final three sets took three tiebreaks and nearly three hours -- but he got a retirement in his first round and a walkover in his third, so he might be relatively well-rested by the time he plays on Sunday.

He'll face off, though, against a much more experienced champion -- though this time the task for him is slightly more daunting than the one for Cibulkova. In the only semi left to be decided, world #1 Rafael Nadal will face off against four-time Aussie titleist Roger Federer for the last spot in the final. The two have combined for an astounding thirty Grand Slam trophies and have played in a total of forty-two Major championships -- nine against each other. Rafa has dominated their head-to-head too, winning more than two matches for each one he's lost, and has taking nine of twelve meetings over the last four years. He's also coming off a 36-4 hardcourt record in 2013 and a title in Doha to start this year. But Roger has been at the top of his game Down Under, barely dropping a set to Andy Murray in the quarters and firing off forty-five aces to Nadal's twenty-nine. He might be nearing the end of his career, but this could be the best fight we've seen between these champions in quite some time. And that might work to Wawrinka's advantage -- Stan has only notched one win against this pair -- against Fed almost four years ago -- and will be more than happy for the two to leave each other battered by the end of their match.

While odds certainly lie with the players who've been here before -- and those who've walked away with titles -- the couple Grand Slam virgins still alive are sure to put up a fight for these trophies. They've both shown they have what it takes to battle the big guys and could each deliver one more shocker at this already incredible event. Whether either is ultimately crowned champion this weekend remains to be seen, of course, but they may never have a better opportunity to strike.

And after everything that's gone down in Melbourne the last two weeks, you know whoever walks away the winners will have earned it.

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