Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Australian Open 2014 Ladies Semifinals Preview

After a barrage of upsets in the 4th round and quarterfinals, we are down to the final four of the Australian Open ladies singles draw. Of the four protagonists set to take stage on Thursday, Na Li is the only player the punditocracy would have expected to be here at the onset of the tournament. The only certainty now is that there is going to be a new Australia Open champion, as an upstart from Canada, the Chinese veteran, a Slovakian baseliner and the tennis artist from Poland battle for a golden opportunity to win a grand slam.

Eugenie Bouchard (30) vs. Na Li (4)

The clichéd thing to say would be that Bouchard reaching the semis is the stuff of dreams. The truth is that those in the know have been predicting this reality for the Canadian teenager since she was on the junior circuit. With her calm demeanour, excellent control and shotmaking ability from all parts of the court, Bouchard has the hallmarks of a potential grand slam champion. In the quarterfinals against Ana Ivanovic, Bouchard hit 47 winners overall and of her 27 baseline winners, she had impressively balanced numbers on the forehand and backhand, managing 15 and 12 respectively. What the stats don’t reveal however, is the Canadian’s impressive resilience, as she has come back from a set down to win her last two matches against crowd favourites, further completing the picture of Bouchard as a top tennis player.

Lying in wait in the other corner is another sentimental favourite in Na Li. Desperately unlucky to lose two close finals at the Rod Laver Arena, Li knows she won’t have a better chance to win the Australian Open now that both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have departed. The fourth seed was almost knocked out by Lucie Safarova in the third round, but has since increased the level of her tennis substantially. Li had little difficulty overcoming Flavia Pennetta in the quarterfinals, managed to hit winners at will off both wings. Crucially for Li, her first serve percentage has improved to almost 65% in the last two rounds, and the Chinese looks in much better rhythm when she doesn’t have to worry about her serve.

Despite the huge gap in experience, I think Bouchard actually has the more powerful groundstrokes of the two. It comes down to a question of whether she can do it consistently in the high pressure situation of a semifinal. Li has the dual advantage of experience as well as the desire to cross the final hurdle after coming so close last year. Bouchard has the edge from the baseline, and is also more comfortable at net if the need to mix it up arises. However, Li’s serve is more consistent, and she is also smart when it comes to varying the pace of rallies. There are simply too many variables in what should be a fantastic semifinal, hence I will refrain from making a call.

Dominika Cibulkova (20) vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (5)

Cibulkova followed up her upset of Maria Sharapova in the fourth round with a comprehensive thrashing of Simona Halep in the quarterfinals that not many saw coming. There is nothing complicated about the Slovakian’s game, it's simply a philosophy of seeing the ball and hitting it hard from the baseline. With the exception of her match against Sharapova when she had to come back from a set down, Cibulkova has hammered every opponent by occupying a position from the centre of court and unleashing her flat strokes off both wings.

One of the rare players to rely on finesse and tactical variety rather than brute force in the women’s game, Agnieszka Radwanska reached the semifinals after putting on a highlight reel of a third set in an outstanding victory against Victoria Azarenka. Allying a speedy defence with the cutest of drop shots and well placed volleys, Radwanska had the crowd in Rod Laver Arena on their feet on several occasions. It’s remarkable to think that the fifth seed came into the tournament on the back of five consecutive defeats on the WTA tour, but she has played her way into form during the business end of the tournament.

Cibulkova has done tremendously well to make it to this stage, and is clearly a dangerous opponent that can’t be underestimated. However, it's going to be extremely hard for the 20th seed to win on the basis of sheer power against Radwanska. With her smart tactics, variety of angles and incredible speed, I expect the in form Radwanska to qualify for her second grand slam final on the back of two well fought sets.
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