February 17, 2021

A Golden Opportunity

We're just an hour away from the start of this year's first Australian Open semifinals, and we might just be on the verge of some very historic moments.

The eight players still standing each have a shot at doing something amazing -- whether it's setting a new record or breaking new ground, we're guaranteed to see something very special over the next few days.

And whoever comes out on top will truly have something to celebrate.

Let's start with the ladies, as they are the ones kicking things off first. On the top half of the draw we have a first time Major semifinalist taking on a slight favorite on paper, but perhaps a big favorite in practice. Karolina Muchova, who's only ever played the main draw here twice before, only ever winning one match, stunned top seed Ashleigh Barty in the quarters -- that after notching a big win over compatriot Karolina Pliskova a round earlier. Meanwhile Jen Brady, who only had her Grand Slam breakthrough late last year, has been playing like a veteran throughout this fortnight. She hasn't yet faced anyone ranked in the top thirty, though -- her biggest "threat" so far was a struggling world #33 Donna Vekic -- and actually lost her only previous meeting with Muchova in late 2019. Still, the fact that one of these ladies could be playing in her first Major final this weekend shows just how wide open this sport is.

Of course that favorite would be a severe underdog on Saturday, as she will either face 2019 champ Naomi Osaka or 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams who is trying for an eleventh time to make history. What is sure to be a blockbuster match between those two will be the first semi played Thursday, and will certainly set the bar high. Osaka, who has a slight edge in their head-to-head, thanks to that stellar win over Serena the 2018 U.S. Open final, is running a nineteen-match win streak that technically dates back to last February. Serena, meanwhile, has had some hiccups over the last few months, notching some surprising losses during the American hardcourt season -- and she's famously come up short when the stakes were highest for years. But while she looked shaky at points during her Melbourne campaign, she was solid in her win over second seed Simona Halep in the quarters. Could she finally break her jinx here? Well she has to get past Osaka first, but if she does, it'll be hard to stop her.

And while the women's draw is a tale of haves and have-nots, things are a lot more unfamiliar for the men. Sure, favorite Novak Djokovic, a winner here a record eight times already, is still alive and kicking, he's faced more challenges than he's used to. An injury in his third round against Taylor Fritz forced him to five sets, and he needed to go four against his next two opponents too. And while his semifinal opponent tonight is by far the lowest ranked player his faced this fortnight, world #114 Aslan Karatsev can absolutely not be overlooked. The qualifier made history as the first man or woman to reach a Major semifinal in his debut -- he's never made the main draw of any Slam before -- and his list of victims is impressive: Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Grigor Dimitrov. Can he add the biggest prize to that list? Well, if Djokovic is still struggling with pain, there may never be a better chance to do it.

The bottom half of the men's draw features two more players looking to make history for themselves. Daniil Medvedev is looking for his second Major final, but this time he's in a much better position to come away with the title -- he did, after all, very nearly do it the last time. The young Russian is now riding a nineteen-match win streaks, with titles in Paris, London, and at the ATP Cup in his belt, and while he had a bit of a hiccup in the third round, going five sets against Marton Fucsovics, he's been largely unstoppable. He'll first face Stefanos Tsitsipas who staged the comeback of his career versus Rafael Nadal in the quarters -- down the first two sets he rallied in four-hour marathon to earn just his second win over the multiple record, but probably his most important. He'll have to overcome another losing record if he wants to make his first Slam final -- he's got a 1-5 record against Medvedev, but he's shown he's able to overcome history, and there may never be a better time to do it.

Whether we get a first-time champion this weekend or see another record set, we certainly will have a lot to talk about this year. We'll see if the Cinderellas and standouts in Melbourne will be able to keep their momentum up throughout the year, but hopefully, whatever happens, we've only seen the start of what they have to bring.

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