January 28, 2015 by Parveer Mann
It’s a funny thing about Grand Slams; the eventual champions always seem to be on a collision course with the storylines or opponents that have come to define them. Whether it is two first-time Australian Open semifinalists facing their number one ranked compatriots or the giant shadow cast by one legend over her perceived rival. It could be something simple as seizing an opportunity opened up by two tennis icons or finishing a battle that has taken over three years to contest.
As one of the toughest competitors on tour, Maria Sharapova certainly seems to play in her fair share of dramatic matches over the course of any tournament. The unlikely element this time is nobody expected that drama to come against an unlikely qualifier in the second round when she had to fight off two match points. However, Maria has seemed to use that as a catalyst to propel her over Diyas, Peng and Bouchard. One concern remains is that her traditionally inconsistent first serve percentage has wavered under 58 per cent except for the Bouchard match when it peaked at 64 per cent. She’ll need to keep it at that level to compete against the potential above-average returners over the next two rounds.
Her opponent, Ekaterina Makarova has quietly reached her second consecutive Grand Slam semifinals after her run in New York last year. The Australian Open has always been her strongest slam (five consecutive years going to the Round of 16 or beyond) and this year, she has elevated her game. Even though her peripherals are hard to explain (79 winners to 96 unforced errors in five matches), she has yet to drop a set or even been remotely challenged in one. The key I notice when I watch her is how methodical she is on both service and return games. The ball placement is superb and the ability to avoid simple mistakes keeps her alive in many games.
These two have played at two previous Australian Opens in 2012 and 2013 with Maria winning both encounters quite easily. Overall, Sharapova leads the overall head to head 5-0 and it most likely will take a subpar Sharapova serve to open this match up for Makarova. Prediction: Sharapova in 2 sets
*Urban Tennis contributor Gurveer likes Sharapova in two easy sets*
Following in the footsteps of Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard, Madison Keys is the third teenager in as many years to make the final four in Melbourne. Equipped with the most powerful groundstrokes in the game, Madison entered this slam (her first under the mentorship of Lindsay Davenport) seeking consistency and mental resilience to help her manage an already talented repertoire of shots. So far, she’s exceeded all those benchmarks and offered two marquee performances against two of the biggest hitters in the game (Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams) to put herself in her maiden Grand Slam semifinal. Beyond the nerves, the biggest concern facing Madison may be her health as she seemed to tweak a thigh injury in her quarterfinal victory that forced her to withdraw from last year’s Wimbledon.
Another former teenage star stands in Madison’s way as Serena Williams reached the semifinals in Melbourne for the first time since 2011 after a straight set victory over last year’s finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Outside of sporadic coughing in her post-match interview, nothing seemed to bother Serena in a clinical performance against the overmatched Cibulkova. That’s not to say that Serena hasn’t struggled so far this Australian Open, dropping the first sets in matches against Caroline Garcia and Elena Svitolina.
This will be the first meeting between Serena and Madison, who seeks to become only the eighth woman to beat Serena and Venus at the same tournament. I feel both players have the ability to dominate their serve so it will be who can take advantage of the rare break chances. Prediction: Williams in 2 sets
*Urban Tennis contributor Gurveer likes Serena in two sets*
One thing is certain; Tomas Berdych is living the good life right now. Fresh off his recent engagement, he has yet to drop a set at this year’s tournament and most importantly, he beat Rafael Nadal (convincingly!) after 17 straight defeats in the quarterfinals. After pursuing Ivan Lendl in the offseason, Tomas Berdych decided on Dani Vallverdu (a former member of Andy Murray’s team) and that decision seemed to pay dividends in his match against Nadal. It was extraordinary watching Berdych dictate play throughout the match and generate winners at will.
On the opposite end, Andy Murray is enjoying a little good luck too. Initially faced with a daunting section of the draw, he has managed to avoid the biggest obstacles (Federer) and played well against two other talented youngsters (Dimitrov and Krygios). The key statistic for Murray has been his ability to end points off his racquet (190 winners in 5 matches) and that has allowed him to take pressure off his back/legs for later in the week.
Overall, Berdych has a 6-4 edge against Murray but the two have not played since Cincinnati in 2013. It will be important for Berdych to find the same angles against Murray that he did against Nadal. For Murray, he’ll need to have more success reading that serve and putting Berdych on his heels in every long rally. Prediction: Murray in 5 sets
*Urban Tennis contributor Gurveer picks Murray 6-2 in the fifth set*
So, who’s ready for Round 3? Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka will face-off for the third consecutive year in Friday’s semifinal. Their previous two clashes could easily have been named the best match of that respective year. More importantly, the winner of each went on to win the Australian Open titles so there will be a lot at stake.
I’ve respected Stan’s approach to this year’s Australian Open, realizing he has to forget about last year and approach it as a new tournament. Even though he’s played well, many had doubted his wrist/elbow strength and the quality of opponent before his match with Kei Nishikori. Meanwhile, Djokovic has looked confident in his role as favourite. The four-time Australian Open champ has spent very little time on court and looked especially sharp later on in his match against Milos Raonic in the last round.
In the head-to-head, Djokovic dominates 16-3 but as mentioned earlier, they’ve split their last two in Melbourne. I think both players are prepared to go five sets if needed and the difference will probably be if Stan can establish his backhand as the best shot in the match. Prediction: Djokovic in 4 sets
*Urban Tennis contributor Gurveer likes Djokovic in four sets*