Gate Crashers (Final Four Preview)

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January 22, 2014 by Parveer Mann

Those new faces and startling upsets you kept witnessing this week are a frank reminder how wacky things can get at the Australian Open. We’ve been privileged in recent years to see so many of the world’s elite face off but Melbourne still remains a slam where breakthroughs and surprises constantly happen. Remember, Ranier Schuttler, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzales, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all reached their only Grand Slam final in Australia and that all happened within the last 10 years.

This year, only three of the final eight players in the men’s or women’s draw have reached an Australian Open final before (Li Na, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) with only two having won at least one (Federer and Nadal). As a result, they’ll be a lot at stake these next four days as Melbourne may once again crown the next new arrival on the tennis stage.

Women’s Draw

(4) Li Na vs. (30) Eugenie Bouchard

An amazing 1.6 million Canadians watched at least a portion of Genie Bouchard’s victory over Ana Ivanovic in the QFs and many more were engaging on social media. It’s a viewing/engagement figure that is usually reserved for the more popular Canadian sports (Hockey and Football) but it speaks to Genie’s appeal through this run. This result is already an outstanding achievement for the 19 year old Canadian who now faces her toughest challenge, Li Na.

The 32 year old Li Na is looking once again to advance to the Australian Open finals but she nearly didn’t get here after facing match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round. However, she has rebounded quite nicely since and has looked like one of the favourites. Both players have faced only once before in 2012 when Genie was only beginning her pro career so it’s hard to compare those results. Its clear Genie is visibly stronger now on both her backhand and forehand but the difference will still be her ability to keep her mental composure on the big stage.

With all that said, I think Li Na’s experience and her high level thus far should be able to see her win in two straightforward sets. Prediction: Li Na in 2 sets.

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

After missing a golden opportunity at last year’s Wimbledon, Agnieszka Radwanska returns to a Grand Slam semifinal with another chance to exercise demons. Always considered undersized and overmatched against the women’s elite, Radwanska put on a clinic against defending champion Victoria Azarenka in their quarterfinal clash. She used ingenuity and excellent point construction to both dictate the match and force Azarenka into terrible shot choices. It was possibly the best match we’ve ever seen her play against the Big Three (S. Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka).

Her opponent is the equally diminutive Dominika Cibulkova who is making her second career Grand Slam semifinal appearance. Known for her relentless defensive and offensive game, Cibulkova returns to this stage after a nearly five year absence (2009 French Open). She’s also returning while playing some of her best tennis as she destroyed Simona Halep in the last round when many expected the younger Halep to prevail.

I think these two will play a fairly competitive match with Radwanska setting the tone with her incredible angles and shot making. Prediction: Radwanska in 3 sets.

Men’s Draw

(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (6) Roger Federer

You would think after 32 meetings, we would know everything we need to about these two legends. However, like seemingly everyone else this offseason, Roger Federer underwent a few changes. He went back to the larger racquet that he was testing out after Wimbledon and added Stefan Edberg as a coaching advisor. Both changes seem to have made an immediate impact as he has played like the vintage Federer in his now 11th straight trip to the Australian Open semis.

On the other hand, Rafael Nadal has changed little from his great 2013 season and is simply happy to be back in Melbourne. After facing an initially daunting draw, Nadal has advanced fairly unscathed after losing only one round so far. However, his match with Grigor ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov was even closer than the score line and you could argue if that Nadal shows up against the more polished and actual Federer like that he will lose.

Knowing that, I think the advantage still lies with Nadal based on the matchup problems he presents for Roger. Add in, the experience of having just faced the similar style presented by Dimitrov and I feel that Nadal finds a way to win again in this classic rivalry. Prediction: Nadal in 5 sets.

(7) Tomas Berdych vs. (8) Stanislas Wawrinka

One of these two men is on the verge of advancing to their first Australian Open final. By the numbers, Tomas Berdych may be having the best Australian Open of anyone but it is Stan Wawrinka who carries all the momentum. After finally unseating Novak Djokovic, Stan has crossed one of the major hurdles that has held him back in previous Grand Slams and in the process gained more admirers (including Roger Federer who was fist pumping throughout the fifth set in his win over Djokovic).

The key to this match will probably lie on if Berdych’s powerful serve/forehand can hold up and be the best shot on either side of the court. If it does not, Wawrinka is talented enough to prolong rallies and hit incredible angles on either side of the court. Prediction: Wawrinka in 4 sets.

Clockwise: Na, Radwanska, Nadal, and Wawrinka.

Clockwise: Na, Radwanska, Nadal, and Wawrinka.

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