Given the completely unexpected nature of the 2014 Australian Open women’s draw, it’s only fitting that the semifinal battle pits one of the sport’s most overlooked champions against a ground-breaking Canadian whom few saw coming before the fortnight began.
Two-time Australian Open finalist Li Na cruised past Flavia Pennetta in straight sets on Tuesday, setting up an unexpected semifinal showdown with Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in Melbourne on Thursday. Bouchard made history by shocking Ana Ivanovic to become the first-ever Canuck to reach the semifinals.
With that three-set triumph now behind her, she looks to further her unexpected run with a triumph over Li, who is searching for that elusive Australian Open title to complement her 2011 French Open triumph. Expected or not, the matchup is an intriguing confrontation between a largely overlooked champion who is looking to raise her already impressive resume and a rising young star who is poised to put her stamp on the game.
While the outcome of their tussle remains to be seen, there’s little doubt that the winner will be a fan favorite to win what has become an unpredictable Australian Open on the women’s side.
Li and Bouchard will be squaring off against each other for just the second time when they meet in the Australian Open semifinals. As one might expect, Li owns the advantage between the two championship hopefuls.
She defeated her Canadian counterpart 6-4, 6-4 in the round of 32 at the 2012 Rogers Cup in Montreal. Yet given the relative closeness of both sets, Bouchard should come into this battle with a moderate level of confidence, which is boosted by her strong form Down Under.
That said, the fact that this is Li's fourth Aussie semifinal and her second straight makes it hard to imagine she isn't looking forward to a second shot at Bouchard.
There’s something about the Australian Open that brings out the best in Li Na, and that has been the case during the past nine days or so in Melbourne.
Including her destruction of Pennetta on Tuesday, she has lost only one set in her first five matches Down Under, and she only appears to be getting stronger as she prepares to face Bouchard on Thursday.
In her past two matches, the Chinese star has dropped only six games, and in the process she has been nearly flawless with her ground strokes, footwork and execution. The ease of those two wins, which includes a 6-2, 6-0 fourth-round triumph over 22nd-ranked Ekaterina Makarova, makes Li a strong favorite to reach the finals for the second consecutive year and for the third time in her underrated career.
That said, the fortnight hasn't been all smooth sailing for Li, who was stretched to three sets by Lucie Safarova in her third-round match. In fact, the 2011 French Open champion was dusted 6-1 in the first set and had to survive a second-set tiebreaker to avoid the type of early exit that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova suffered.
That sub-par performance, however, has served as a wake-up call, given just how good she has been since. Just about every aspect of her game is dialed in as she heads to the semifinals, and there’s little reason to expect anything less than her best against Bouchard on Thursday.
Despite losing the first set in her past two contests, Bouchard is poised to compete in the match of her life on Thursday at the Australian Open.
The groundbreaking Canadian overcame a slow start in Tuesday’s quarterfinals to claim a 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 victory over the favored Ivanovic, who just several days earlier had dispatched No. 1 seed Serena Williams. That victory came on the heels of a fourth-round triumph over Casey Dellacqua, which she claimed after dropping the first set in a 7-5 tiebreaker.
Those are, however, the only two sets that she has lost during her surprising run to the semifinals, which is by far the deepest of her limited Grand Slam career. Along the way, the 19-year-old has demonstrated a sound and powerful game that has her only two victories shy of a defining triumph in her first-ever appearance Down Under.
Bouchard has been at the top of her game throughout this unexpected journey to the semifinals, displaying a strong service return game and an all-court presence that has made her difficult to deal with. Against Ivanovic, the rising teenage star recorded seven breaks of serve and captured 19 points in her 24 ventures to the net while creating ample power with her ground strokes from both sides.
Beyond that solid physical and technical form, she has displayed a mental toughness that belies her inexperience and explains her breakout 2013 season, when she was named newcomer of the year. After her match with Ivanovic, she told reporters, via ESPN:
It's something I've been doing since I was 5 years old and working my whole life for and sacrificing a lot of things for, so it's not exactly a surprise. I always expect myself to do well. I'm just happy to have gone through this step. I'm not done.
Now poised for a semifinal date with Li Na, Bouchard is not at all done Down Under.
Experience meets exuberance in this unexpected but interesting semifinal matchup. Given that, the biggest unknowns are how Bouchard will handle the moment and whether Li has the legs to topple yet another teenager in this physically taxing Grand Slam.
There’s no denying the top form that both players have exhibited, as combined they have dropped just three sets in Melbourne. There’s equally no mistaking the different places they are in their careers as they prepare for just their second-ever meeting.
For her part, Bouchard is the rising star who is making her first-ever Slam semifinal appearance, while Li is the cagey veteran who is competing for her third trip to the Australian finals.
Bouchard is the third teenager that the 31-year-old Li will have to face during this Australian Open, and the Canadian brings a significant level of power and confidence to their semifinal battle. As a counter, the most decorated Chinese player ever presents a level of poise and determination that Bouchard has yet to face in this fortnight.
Given their relative lack of experience against each other, the match will likely come down to how composed the young Bouchard can be on such a big stage and just how much Li has left in the tank to counter her opponent's youthful energy.
Given her significant comfort level at the Australian Open, coupled with Bouchard’s relative lack of experience, Li enters this semifinal match as the clear favorite.
That said, the upset-minded Bouchard is playing with house money and presents a solid test to the Chinese veteran, who must be focused and determined to realize a second straight Australian Open final appearance.
With that in mind, it’s critical that she gets off to a strong start and avoids the type of early miscues that nearly earned her an upset loss to Lucie Safarova in the third round. Bouchard is in top form, and given any type of opening, she can spring yet another surprise.
Without question, Li has been consistent in every aspect of her game during this tournament. She has served well, covered the court with great efficiency and delivered on every game plan regardless of the opponent.
On Thursday, she needs to continue that form by controlling the crucial points with her solid ground strokes and court coverage while capitalizing on her experience edge over Bouchard when the stakes are highest.
If she does that, a third trip to the Australian Open finals will be in her future.
Bouchard is preparing for the biggest match of her professional career on Thursday. Given that, how she handles the pressure and challenge of Li will go a long way toward deciding whether she can move onto an even bigger moment in the finals.
In her run to this point, the Canadian has been impressive, to say the least. Her power from both sides, excellent court coverage and determined return of serve have carried her to the semifinals. Provided those attributes do not escape her, she will be a difficult test for Li.
All that said, Bouchard has to avoid the slow starts that have challenged her in the past two matches. The 19-year-old dropped the first set against both Dellacqua in the fourth round and Ivanovic in the quarters, but she still managed to rally for the win. Duplicating those comeback efforts against the more experienced and accomplished Li, however, would be a much taller task.
Instead, she needs a strong start against her veteran opponent, which would calm the nerves and allow her to remain aggressive. Fourteen years the junior of Li, Bouchard needs to be the aggressor, taking chances on her return of serve while getting to the net as early and often as possible.
If she can do that, it’s not a stretch to suggest she has better than a puncher’s chance to upset Li and reach the first final of what promises to be a very bright career.
After a relatively benign start Down Under, the 2014 Australian Open has been anything but predictable during the second week on the women’s side.
Given that, it's not a stretch to expect a semifinal surprise from Bouchard on Thursday.
The Canadian teen has already gone further than anyone could have predicted, and given her high level of play and confidence that belie her experience, she is a good bet to continue her run with an upset of Li.
Yes, Melbourne has been a friendly place for the accomplished Chinese player, who is competing in her fourth semifinal Down Under after a relatively stress-free run over the past week-and-a-half.
That said, Bouchard is a much tougher test. The 19-year-old has the power to test Li and the ability to get things done from the baseline and the net when necessary. She will put considerable pressure on the veteran's serve, just as she has done to opponents throughout her run to the semis.
It will be a tight, well-played match, but we’re calling for a 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 upset victory by Bouchard that will announce her as one of the sport’s rising stars.