The semifinal stage is set as the women take to the court tonight with the men competing tonight and Friday to earn a spot in the year’s first Grand Slam final.
There have been no surprises on the men’s side, as the top four seeds safely made the final weekend. Well some more than others, as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray easily got through, while David Ferrer and Roger Federer had a little more work cut out for them.
Before play gets underway, here are the top storylines heading into the final weekend at the 2013 Australian Open.
Serena Williams is NOT in the Final Weekend
Has the torch been passed on for American women’s tennis? A new era may have dawned Wednesday night as viewers watched 19-year-old Sloane Stephens defend against Serena’s serves and groundstrokes. Although Serena suffered from a back injury half way through the match, Stephens took her game consistently to the 15-time Grand Slam Champion.
Arguably the news of the tournament, Stephens bested favorite and top contender Serena Williams 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
The real stand out was Stephens' net game, as she ventured forward and was 18 for 20 at net.
Looking at the other three semifinalists, all have to be more motivated than ever now that Serena is out. Especially Maria Sharapova, as she has looked very strong these past two weeks, not dropping a set and serving well. With her confidence, Sharapova could repeat her 2008 title run.
But don’t count Azarenka, the defending champion, out as she also has been playing well defending her first Grand Slam title. Azarenka's path did get considerably easier when Stephens won and she expects to reach the final for the second straight year.
Roger Federer and Andy Murray Set Up Clash
Probably the most intriguing semifinal match features the world's best as they meet on a big stage for the first time since the summer Olympics. Murray, the fresher of the two, had a relatively easy win over Frenchman Jeremy Chardy while Roger Federer had to play his best against Jo Wilfried Tsonga in a three-and-a-half hour five set match.
Head-to-head, Murray leads 10-9, however in Grand Slams, Roger has won all their encounters. But don’t count the Scot out quite yet. Murray silenced most critics when he finally bested Federer at the Olympic finals in three easy sets and when he won his first Grand Slam in New York.
Can Murray beat Federer tomorrow? It’s hard to say. Both have looked pretty impressive throughout the tournament, Federer more so, not being broken until his quarterfinal match. However, it will be interesting to see if the five setter will affect Federer, and if Murray can get his first Grand Slam win over Federer. Murray has shown over the years that he can beat Federer when contesting best two out of three sets, but can he get all three sets Friday? He wasn’t the favorite in New York against Djokovic and looked what happened.
In the end, Federer hasn’t looked this good in Melbourne since the 2010 Australian Open. Look for the Swiss to book a spot in the final.
Li Na is on the Rise Again
Li’s run at the 2013 Australian Open is impressive seeing the results of new coach (formerly with seven time Grand Slam Champion Justine Henin) Carlos Rodriguez. Since winning her first Grand Slam at the 2011 French Open, Li has struggled to re-establish herself at the top of the women’s game. Rodriguez is helping her back as she reaches her first Grand Slam semifinal since 2011.
Unfortunately for Li, she has to get past the red-hot Sharapova. Li proved in the last round against Agnieszka Radwanska that she can take out players on a roll, handing the No. 4 seed her first loss of the season. Li played very aggressively against Radwanska, moving her side-to-side painting the lines with winners. She’ll need to do that again if she wants a shot at the final.
Will Djokovic’s Five Hour Match Affect Him in the Final Weekend?
In his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych, Djokovic seemed unfazed from his Sunday night marathon, dispatching the Czech in four sets.
The good news for Djokovic is that his opponent is fresh off a five set victory in the previous round as Ferrer had to dig deep after being down two sets to love against countryman Nicolas Almagro.
Though Ferrer has five career wins against Djokovic, none have come at Grand Slams. Don’t expect Ferrer to get his first here as he faces Djokovic on the Serb's best surface. However, Ferrer won’t go away slowly, and his game has potential to give Djokovic trouble as we saw at the 2012 US Open semifinals. Ferrer can grind with the “Big Four” and should provide an entertaining match.
Look for Djokovic to get through in four sets, as he owns the night matches on Rod Laver arena.
But the real question is will he be fresh enough for the Federer/Murray winner? Djokovic proved his fitness last year as he came back from a five hour semifinal match against Murray to put away Nadal in almost six hours. If Djokovic wants his third straight, and fourth overall, Australian Open title, he needs to get past Ferrer in reasonable time.
All and all these semifinal matches should not disappoint, as they rarely do at the Australian Open.