January 30, 2015

Who Wants it Most?

That really might be what it eventually comes down to.

With only two matches left before we crown the singles champions at this year's Australian Open, we've really whittled down the bunch to a couple of the sport's most ambitious stars. And with this weekend's title rounds sure to feature some big-hitting, power games, it may be the emotional drive that ultimately gives the winners their edge.

Five-time champion Serena Williams has had a bout of bad luck in Melbourne the last several years. Since winning her last trophy here in 2010, she'd notched surprising losses in early(-ish) rounds and only once made it as far as the quarters. But this year, despite some hiccups early she's back on a mission. It hasn't been easy for her -- she dropped sets to both Elina Svitolina and her Roland Garros vanquisher Garbiñe Muguruza, but even after a tight first set in Thursday's semifinal against upstart Madison Keys, she dug deep to pull out the win. The victory earned Serena her first final Down Under in five years, ending her longest-standing drought at any of the Slams, and put her within spitting distance of Major #19. It would also tie her for the third spot on the all-time Slam title list -- and that's a kind of motivation that few others will ever have a chance to experience.

But Maria Sharapova will have her own motivation pushing her through Saturday's final as well. The 2008 champion had a huge opportunity to double up in Australia a few years back when she met a as yet untested Victoria Azarenka in the final. Playing her sixth Major championship match, experience should have been on her side, but the then-fourth seed was pummeled, picking up just three games in two sets. Since then the Russian has gone on to dominate Roland Garros, an unlikely setting for a woman who once described herself as a cow on ice on clay, but hasn't made a real play for any other Slam. This year, though, she too seems renewed -- since saving match points in a scary second round, she's only lost a handful of games, crushing two U.S. Open semifinalists and 2014 Cinderella Genie Bouchard during her run. She has a discouraging 2-16 record against Serena, and hasn't beaten her since 2004 -- has only taken two sets off her in the last decade, in fact -- but the Brisbane champion has shown just how eager she is to turn things around, and I expect her to finally put up a huge fight for the crown on Saturday.

Four-time champion Novak Djokovic will certainly throw a few punches himself. The man who'd first risen into the spotlight with a title here in 2008 had become almost untouchable in Australia this decade, notching twenty-five straight match wins at the Open through 2014. But he lost his grip last year in a marathon quarterfinal loss, ending a fourteen-match win streak against eventual winner Stan Wawrinka in a four-hour nail-biter -- the third time in a row the two went the distance at a Major. He was on course for a rematch this year too, and with both men surging through their respective quarters, it seemed they were primed for another battle, and they didn't disappoint. For nearly three hours Djokovic would take and cede the lead over his opponent, but finally in yet another deciding set he turned up the heat, blanking the world #4 in just over thirty minutes to make his fifth final Down Under, his fifteenth Slam championship match overall. Once he's gotten this far in Melbourne, he's never lost, and though it hasn't been that long since he last tasted victory on these grounds, he'll be hungry to keep that record standing.

Standing in his way is the only one in this group who hasn't claimed a title here yet, but Andy Murray sure has had plenty of chances. He made his first final in 2010 but lost in straight sets to the great Roger Federer; he returned a year later but was absolutely drubbed by Nole. And in 2013, after he'd finally broken the Grand Slam seal, he squandered an opportunity again against Djokovic and fell in four long sets. Hampered by injury for much of last year, the Scot wasn't really in contention for a title until after the U.S. Open, but he made the trip to Australia a seemingly new man. He's rolled through his matches so far, only losing one set apiece to top-ten seeds Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych, and has broken serve an event-leading thirty-four times. And his two Majors have come at Novak's expense, so perhaps fourth time will be a charm for Murray in Melbourne. After all, how many times can he make it this far and come home with nothing?

Of course, pure desire won't be all it takes to win the trophies this weekend, but you can't ignore the extra little push any of these players could get from their passion to get back on top at the Australian Open. It could inspire some amazing performances over the next few days, and whoever walks away with the crowns may have shown just how much a little bit of motivation can mean.

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