Aussie Open semis: Who has the edge?
The men's and women's semifinals at the Australian Open should feature a little bit of everything. In the men's draw, the world's No. 1 player, a former Aussie Open finalist, and a premiere player from the United Kingdom looking to make Grand Slam history will be in action. The women's semis feature the best player in our sport, an improbable pair of countrywomen, and an amazing comeback story.
Women’s semifinal: No. 1 Serena Williams vs. No. 16 Li Na
Based on her play in the opening set versus Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, it didn’t seem likely that Li would make it to the semifinals. The No. 16 seed was dismantled by Venus 6-2 in the initial set, but her confidence was not shaken even when Williams served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. While Li was aided by Williams’ 11 double faults and 53 double faults, Li’s trend of inspired play against the world’s best players continued in this match.
Li has won eight of her last 13 matches against players ranked in the top five. If she is going to upset Venus’ sister, Li will need to rely on her defensive skills. She has an outstanding return game and has extended rallies well in Melbourne.
Serena pulled off one of the greatest escape acts of her career against Victoria Azarenka. The top-ranked American seemed bothered by a leg injury and couldn’t sustain any rhythm to start the match. When the 20-year-old from Belarus moved ahead 4-0 in the second set, it appeared the match was over. But Williams asserted herself rallying to take the set in a tiebreaker and easily won the third set 6-2 to wrap up the match.
Just when tennis fans thought they had seen everything from Serena, the world No. 1 added another chapter to her amazing legacy. The schedule will not help Williams because there is no day off between the women’s quarterfinals and semifinals. At this stage of the tournament, the top seed would certainly benefit from a day of rest.
Serena has defeated Li in three of the four matches they’ve played, including a pair of victories last year. If her right leg holds up, Williams should end Li’s Cinderella run and avenge her sister’s loss.
Women's semifinal: Justine Henin vs. Zheng Jie
What is it about Belgium and comebacks in women's tennis? A year ago, Kim Clijsters captivated the tennis world by capturing the U.S. Open in her third tournament since coming out of retirement. Justine Henin has a chance to duplicate Clijsters’ Grand Slam comeback success in merely her second event since ending her retirement.
Henin served notice she was ready for a deep run in Melbourne in the second round when she knocked out fifth-seeded Elena Dementieva. Just as she did during her ascent to reaching the world No. 1 ranking, Henin has used variety to her advantage in Australia, effectively mixing the pace and depth of her shots in her first five victories.
Henin’s serve has slowly been improving throughout the tournament and helped her dispatch Nadia Petrova -- who had been impressive in wins over Clijsters and Svetlana Kuznetsova -- in straight sets in their quarterfinal match.
The Belgian will take on another unseeded player -- Zheng Jie of China. In this era of big hitters on the WTA tour, this match features a pair of players who rely on fitness and finesse. Jie has played steady tennis at Melbourne Park, committing just nine unforced errors in her quarterfinal win over Maria Kirilenko.
Jie has advanced to the semifinals at a major for the second time in her career. In 2008, Jie lost to Serena Williams when she reached the final four at Wimbledon. Jie probably won't have enough to withstand the challenge of another multiple-Grand Slam winner when she takes on Henin. Henin should be able to attack Jie’s serve, which lacks the power of the game's elite players.
Championship experience could be another deciding factor. The 2004 Australian Open champion will be playing her 17th Grand Slam semifinal. Henin made it to the final of her first event in Brisbane earlier this month. The former world No. 1 is poised to play for the title at Rod Laver Arena.
Men's semifinal: No. 1 Roger Federer vs. No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Roger Federer has reached his 23rd consecutive semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament, which may be the most amazing statistic of his brilliant career. To put that figure in perspective, Ivan Lendl set the previous mark by advancing to 10 straight major semifinals in the 1980’s. Federer is 21-3 all-time in Grand Slam semifinals and there’s no reason to believe he’s going to stumble in Melbourne.
Federer is feeling better physically this year than he has in recent years Down Under. In 2008, the Swiss Star was battling mononucleosis when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Last year Federer was slowed by a nagging back injury when he lost to Nadal in the championship match. The top seed seems at peace on and off the court this year in Melbourne Park and is primed to capture his 16th Grand Slam title after stumbling in the final last year at the U.S. Open.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has emerged as one of the most popular players in Melbourne in recent memory and always generates a positive response from the crowds at Rod Laver Arena. The 2008 Australian Open runner-up avenged his loss in that final by defeating Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals to earn his spot among the last four men standing at the first major of the year.
But unlike 2008 when he was an unseeded player, the Frenchman did not sneak up on any opponents this year. Emotion is a critical part of Tsonga’s game so it’s imperative that he tries to get off to a quick start in this semifinal. Tsonga takes chances on the court and it will be intriguing to see if he can limit his unforced errors as he hits for the lines. The No. 10 seed will need to serve well and pile up the winners on his big forehand. The man known as the “Muhammad Ali of Tennis” on the ATP World Tour definitely has a puncher’s chance.
Men’s semifinal: No. 5 Andy Murray vs. No. 14 Marin Cilic
Cilic has displayed a penchant for pulling out dramatic victories during his two weeks in Australia. The No. 14 seed needed five sets to advance in the second round and went the distance edging fourth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro in a five setter in the round of 16. Cilic maintained that momentum beating an ailing Andy Roddick in five sets in the quarterfinals, after squandering a two-set advantage to start the match.
Heading into 2010, the Croatian had enjoyed a steady climb with his play at the Slams, reaching at least the fourth round at each of the majors. He’s taken the next step on one of the sport’s biggest stages down under by utilizing his blistering serve and attacking style.
While Cilic has been logging long hours on the court in Melbourne, Murray will be the fresher player in this semifinal match. The No. 5 seed won his first four matches in Australia in straight sets prior to meeting Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Murray dictated the terms against the Spaniard before the defending champion retired in the third set with a knee injury. Murray has improved his conditioning in recent years and that dedication to fitness is paying dividends Down Under.
Cilic started the year by defending his title in Chennai and hasn’t lost a match this year. If Cilic is going to remain undefeated, he can draw confidence from his last match against Murray. Cilic dismantled the Scot in straight sets in the fourth round at the U.S. Open last year.
But there was an asterisk attached to that performance. Murray was bothered by a wrist injury in the match and wasn’t nearly 100 percent. Murray has won three of the four matches they’ve played, including a victory at last year’s French Open. Cilic moves very well for a 6-foot-6 player, but it will be intriguing to see how much energy the big man can muster at this stage of the tournament.
Murray is the superior tennis tactician in this match. If Murray is going to become the first man from the U.K. to win a Grand Slam singles title since Fred Perry in 1936, he can’t allow Cilic to hammer away from the baseline. Murray will try to counter the Croatian’s power with precision and keep his opponent on the move. Murray will need to play the angles and take advantage of the entire court if he’s going to overcome the latest big man to make a big splash at a major.