25 January, 2012

Australian Open Semifinal Previews - Final Four Women

Hisense Arena
Did tournament director Craig Tiley and crew at the Aussie Open REALLY get this lucky entering finals weekend or was there some deal with the devil?  Despite its usual thrilling matches, twists and turns, this year's Australian Open has yielded four blockbuster semifinals.  Three of the top four women in the world are still in the tournament, the fourth is the defending champion.  As we write this, three of the top four men are already in the semifinals, while the fourth, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is prepping to play David Ferrer (World No. 5) in the final men's quarterfinal.  Either way, four of the top five men will be in Melbourne's final four.

Looking ahead, which of the women will play for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup...well, we've got an idea or two.  Here is your 2012 Australian Open Women's Semifinal Preview.

Women's Semifinals

Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova

(2) Petra Kvitova v. (4) Maria Sharapova

Well, we've certainly seen this matchup before; it was, of course, our 2011 Wimbledon final.  As we all recall, Kvitova won going away; 6-3, 6-4 in her maiden major final.  Anyone with more than a gnat's grasp on tennis history knows we've also seen something a lot like it before.  The Czech's unyielding performance against an established major champion was eerily reminiscent of Sharapova's own 6-1, 6-4 demolition of Serena Williams in the final at the All England Club seven years prior.  In fact, the next time Williams and Sharapova met (in the 2004 WTA Tour Finals), Sharapova won again en route to the title.  Just like in 2004, the younger woman, Kvitova, won the 2011 rematch, as well as WTA Championships last year to back up her Wimbledon title.  The prologue to Serena Williams' story of course, is that she was far from finished.  She had six majors in the bag when she met Maria on that bright summer day in southwest London; she would more than double that total across her career.  Might Maria do the same?

What do the historical parallels tell us?  Abso-friggin-lutely nothing, but they're fun facts, huh?

Why did Sharapova lose at Wimbledon last summer?  Two things.  First of all, her opponent, Kvitova had a good day.  Looking at this year's Australian Open, the Czech has played the tournament in two modes: brilliant and barely awake.  She opened the tournament in brilliant mode versus Vera Dushevina, then barely snapped awake in time to finish off Carla Suarez Navarro.  She also took an ill-timed mental nap late in the second set against Ana Ivanovic before winning her fourth rounder.  In other words, vacillation has been the name of the game this fortnight for Kvitova.  If she's on though, she's particularly tough to beat.  Second, Sharapova's serve was MIA.  Six double faults and winning just 58% of her first serve points in that Wimbledon match wasn't going to yield a winning result.  That meeting on the lawns was classic latter day Sharapova.  Powerful, but erratic, especially on the big points.  In Australia, after a tough first rounder on her serve, Sharapova has been over 70% in her next four matches and she's won a minimum 66% of first serve points all tournament long.  In her semifinal versus Ekaterina Makarova, there was every chance for we spectators to start hashtagging that four-letter word that starts with "y," but Sharapova kept it together and came through with minimal drama.

Outlook: As pointless as this sounds, is as true as it is.  The player who has the better day will win the match.  If either woman comes out flat, her opponent should rule the day.  That said, based on form this fortnight...

Finalist: Maria Sharapova

Victoria Azarenka and Km Clijsters

(3) Victoria Azarenka v. (11) Kim Clijsters

The shriek vs. the splits.  To a casual tennis fan, that's how this matchup will ultimately be defined.  In reality, it's a compelling meetup of two of the biggest hitters in women's tennis today.  Clijsters is the elder stateswoman, the 28 year old Belgian four-time major champion. She's been in the consciousness of tennis fans for so long that she's had time to win a major, retire, became a mother, un-retire and become a bad-ass mutha on the hardcourts before she comes to this Aussie Open semi.  Azarenka is the upstart, the 22 year old Belarussian who's long been on the cusp of breaking big, but has yet to reach a major final.  Like the other semifinal, the veteran has all the career bonafides, but her young opponent is no slouch either.  The head-to-head favors Clijsters 4-2, but they've only played once since Vikarenka's now fabled "conversation with Grandma."  The one in which Chris Ev...er, Vika's grandma implored her to tune down the histrionics and enjoy her life on the tour.  Vikarenka won that only post-Grandma match, last spring in Miami.

Jersey Kim has played sparkling tennis over the course of this Australian Open.  The defending champion tweaked her ankle against Na Li/Li Na in the fourth round and it looked for all the world that she was on her way out of the event, another casualty of injurypalooza.  Then she blasted 39 winners past a severely outgunned Caroline Wozniacki and it was suddenly, game on once again.  It was actually that match that forced me to re-assess my thoughts on this semifinal.  Agnieszka Radwanska was Azarenka's quarterfinal opponent and if you think about it, similar in some ways to Wozniacki.  Radwanska is a counter-puncher, a backboard, she wins by outsteadying her opponent more than anything else which is Wozniacki's m.o. to a t.  While Clijsters was presumably less than 100% yesterday, she found angles, she painted the lines (especially in the corners) and she kept Wozniacki at bay because of it.  Azarenka got past Radwanska easily after a tight first set in which she choked away a breaker at love.  What ultimately appeared to be Radwanska's undoing was that she started that second set a step slow; putting her retriever's game suddenly and inextricably under duress against the big-hitting Belarussian.  Azarenka hit the ball deep, she hit the ball hard, she squealed tremulously, but she didn't use the whole court.  Clijsters will do exactly that, expanding the geography, using her geometry, forcing Azarenka to go for more, more often.

Outlook: Clijsters' health and consistency will define this match.  Both are questionable, though both seemed non-issues versus Wozniacki.  Azarenka can't just slug the ball down the center of the court and expect to get past a healthy, motivated Clijsters.

Finalist:  Kim Clijsters (I'm allowed to change my mind, right?)


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