January 29, 2020

Now For Something Sorta Different

Well the semifinals are set for this year's Australian Open, and -- no surprise here -- my picks were pretty far off. Some players recaptured their mojo, and others found theirs for the first time; some powered through unrelenting draws, and a few benefited as their own were cleared out for them. But we're left now with a surprising mix of eight players with very different levels of experience playing at these levels, and while the more decorated certainly have an advantage, you have to like the chances of the underdogs to break through.

Let's start with the obvious favorites -- Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have a combined 36 Grand Slam titles between them, thirteen here in Melbourne alone. They're the only guys standing who've ever even reached the semis Down Under, and their clash Thursday could be another one for the ages. Nole, the defending champ, does seem to have the edge -- and I'm not just talking about his 26-23 record against Fed. Since a weird hiccup in his very first set of the tournament, he hasn't dropped a set this fortnight. Roger, on the other hand, has already been pushed to a fifth twice, avoiding a repeat of his 2018 U.S. Open loss to John Millman in the third round and then saving seven match points against upstart American Tennys Sandgren in the quarters. Could he rebound to put up another fight against the world #2? If anyone can, it'd be Fed, but you have to think the better rested Djoker has the edge here.

And while Nole may be the odds-on favorite not only in his next match, but for the championship overall, the stars in the other men's semi could surprise us -- after all they've already done a good job of bringing the unexpected so far. Two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem has never made it past the fourth round here and lost his openers at the last two Grand Slams. He didn't get this year off to a great start either, losing two of his three round robin matches at the ATP Cup. But after withstanding a surprising test from wildcard Alex Bolt in his second round, he's been on a roll. And in Wednesday's quarterfinal against top seed Rafael Nadal, who -- go figure -- he's only ever beaten on clay, he seemed inspired, fighting off early challenges and winning the four-hour match in as many sets. It was the second time he's beating a #1 player at a Major -- the other one: Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros last year. Could he do it again?

Well he's got to get through Alexander Zverev first. And if Thiem was a surprise, then I'm not sure what you call the German twenty-two year old. Sure, he's been ranked as high as third in the world, but he's never made it past the quarters at a Major and he's struggled mightily this year, going winless at the ATP Cup. But after finally ending Andrey Rublev's impressive run in the fourth round, he came back from a disastrous opening set versus 2014 champ Stan Wawrinka in four sets to make the semis. And while a pledge to donate all his prize money to wildfire relief if he wins the whole event seemed like a long shot last week, it's now feeling a lot more possible that his run could mean way more than his first Major trophy.

The women's draw has shaken out just as unexpectedly -- at least to me. Yes, two of the top seeds have held true to their positions, and maybe I shouldn't be surprised. World #1 Ashleigh Barty may have lost her first match of the year, but she rebounded to pick up the title in Adelaide and without missing a beat has rolled through her early matches in Melbourne, dropping just one set to 18th seed Alison Riske. Even against last year's runner-up Petra Kvitova, she only dropped serve twice. And fourth-seeded Simona Halep was dealt what I thought would be a super tough draw, but dispatched Brisbane standout Jennifer Brady -- who notched a win over Barty there -- in her opener and rolled over Anett Kontaveit in the quarters.

Halep may have the tougher semi against unseeded GarbiƱe Muguruza, who has the same number of Slam titles to her name and is staging quite the comeback herself this fortnight. But the player I'm watching most closely these last few days is twenty-one year old Sofia Kenin, who had only made it as far as a Major fourth round once before. Clearly not the young American everyone was watching in Melbourne, she was actually the one who ended the other one's Cinderella run, beating Coco Gauff in the fourth round, and despite what was probably the toughest section of the ladies' draw was somehow the one who emerged victorious. And, importantly, that's far from her only accomplishment -- over the past year, Kenin's scored wins over Barty, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams. She may not be the most experienced one in these last few matches, but she's clearly got the game to potentially come out the spoiler.

Of course the advantage lies with the players who've been here before and know how to win under pressure. But given all the talent left in the field and how all these guys have been performing, I wouldn't be surprised if some new life is breathed into the finals -- and perhaps even comes away with the titles.

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