In a true measure of poetic justice, one of the most unpredictable Australian Opens in recent memory will feature a women’s semifinal pitting a significant but underachieving talent against a budding star who until this week has performed largely under the radar.
On the strength of an impressive three-set victory over two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, potential-rich Agnieszka Radwanska will square off against upstart Dominika Cibulkova in a semifinal match few saw coming during an Australian fortnight that no one will soon forget.
Radwanska, who is on the short list of the best women without a Grand Slam title, overcame a bumpy second set to notch a convincing 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 victory over Azarenka, reaching her first-ever Australian semifinal in the process.
Likewise, Cibulkova, who has been almost unstoppable in this championship, made easy work of Simona Halep, dispatching the 11th seed 6-3, 6-0 to reach the second Slam semifinal of her young career.
On the strength of those victories, the pair will square off in a much-anticipated battle that will deliver one to within a victory of a career-defining moment and the other to unavoidable disappointment.
Here’s a look at what to expect when the unpredictable Radwanska meets the up-and-coming Cibulkova in the second women’s semifinal Down Under.
If previous form between the two holds true, it could be tough sledding for Cibulkova in her quest to best Radwanska and reach her first-ever Grand Slam final.
In six prior matches between the Australian Open adversaries, Radwanska has captured five of them, and she has dropped a set in only one of those triumphs. That domination includes the duo’s most recent battle in Tokyo last year, where Radwanska easily chased Cibulkova 6-3, 6-4
That said, the Slovakian doesn't have to look too far back for a glimmer of hope in her upcoming battle with the 24-year-old. Cibulkova defeated the Pole 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 to capture the 2013 Bank of the West Classic, one of three WTA victories in her still-young career.
That triumph was sweet revenge for Cibulkova, who just months before was blitzed by Radwanska 6-0, 6-0 in the Sydney finals leading up to the 2013 Australian Open.
Their only previous Slam meeting came during the third round of the 2009 U.S. Open, which Radwanska won in dominant fashion, 6-0, 6-3.
With top seeds crumbling all around her, Radwanska hasn't just held steady in this Australian Open; she has displayed some of the best tennis of her career during the biggest moments of the championship.
Lifted by her impressive victory over Azarenka in which she largely dominated the match despite losing the second set, the No. 5 seed is just one win away from her second Grand Slam final, and perhaps her best opportunity yet to win that elusive first major.
"For sure the best quarterfinal I've played ... I've played a few here,'' Radwanska said during an on-court interview following her victory over Azarenka. ”One day I had to step up to get to the semifinal, so I'm so, so happy today was the day.”
While it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing, Radwanska has played aggressively in this Australian Open, utilizing her powerful ground strokes and strong court coverage to pressure opponents, especially during critical points in several close matches.
In fact, the Pole has been pushed to the limit in three of her five Australian contests but hasn't dropped more than two games in any of those decisive third sets.
Considering that high level of play when all the chips are in, it’s a safe bet that Radwanska will prove a difficult out in what remains of this impossible-to-handicap Australian Open.
While displaying an exciting combination of speed, power and finesse, the diminutive Cibulkova has been one of the most pleasant and enjoyable surprises on the women’s side of the 2014 Australian Open.
In a performance that has absolutely belied her No. 20 seed, the 24-year-old has largely breezed through the ladies draw, losing just a single set in her five matches Down Under.
That run was highlighted by a stunning victory over former Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. After dropping the first set relatively easily, Cibulkova showed her resolve and steely nerves by rallying past the career Grand Slam winner 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
The feisty Slovakian followed that shocker with her absolute demolition of Halep on Wednesday, and as a result is poised to reach the first Grand Slam final of a career that up to now has largely played out in the shadows.
In Australia, however, Cibulkova’s talent and determination is quickly grabbing headlines, as she has taken out three top-20 talents while displaying an infectious and energetic style of play.
A tough test certainly waits against Radwanska in the semifinals, but given the craziness that has invaded the Australian Open during this second week of competition, it would be foolish to count Cibulkova out of that coveted trip to the finals.
Given the unpredictable nature of this Grand Slam, the match between the roller-coaster ride that can be Radwanska and the relatively inexperienced Cibulkova is perfectly paired.
Radwanska has amazing talent, but given her history of in-match meltdowns and ill-timed inconsistency, it really is anyone’s guess as to what to expect from her against an aggressive opponent like Cibulkova.
Likewise, the 20th-seeded Slovakian has been to just one previous semifinal, and given just how open the women’s draw has become, she must be feeling the power of the opportunity in front of her.
What we do know, however, is that both players thrive on their aggressiveness and like to control the flow of the match. Given that, both Radwanska and Cibulkova desire strong starts to implement their style of play.
If it’s the No. 5 seed who gets the fast start, she can likely avoid the demons that have plagued her in the middle of big matches in the past, including her painful semifinal loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year.
If it’s Cibulkova who lands the early blows, however, she’ll likely ease her own nerves and put significant pressure on her opponent to hold it together and turn things around.
Whichever way it ultimately swings, the early moments of this match will be critical to determining who emerges on the doorstep of a career-defining win Down Under.
Just as she was against Azarenka on Wednesday, Radwanska is at her best when she is dictating the action and mixing up her attack. Provided she can implement that game plan against Cibulkova, she is a strong favorite to reach the second Grand Slam final of her career.
There’s no doubt that the No. 5 seed was brilliant in the quarterfinals, employing a mix of power and finesse to get the best of the two-time defending champion. Her game plan to keep Azarenka off-guard with a mix of drop shots and slice forehands was complemented by terrific court coverage and overall aggressive play.
If that Radwanska shows up in the semifinals, she will indeed be a difficult player to beat. Such an approach will put significant pressure on Cibulkova to maintain a fast-paced style of her own to counter the Pole.
Given the stakes of the match and the talent on the other side, the Slovakian might then struggle to avoid the type of errors that Azarenka made throughout the quarterfinals. Should that indeed play out, it will be Radwanska who finds herself in a Slam final for the first time since the 2012 Wimbledon Championships.
If Cibulkova hopes to reach the first Grand Slam final of her rising career, she’ll need to play a clean match against the favored Radwanska and be prepared to counterpunch throughout.
Typically the aggressor on the court, Cibulkova would do well to manage her way through the semifinal match with Radwanska, taking risks when appropriate but also controlling her urge to speed the pace when the points get big.
Radwanska understands that this is her best chance to win that elusive Slam title and will undoubtedly look to control the match from the get-go. While Azarenka allowed her to do that in the quarterfinals, Cibulkova needs to be more aggressive and utilize her terrific court coverage to extend points and keep the Pole from getting too comfortable.
By correctly identifying when to take risks and also when to play it safe, the 24-year-old will keep the match close and be in position to utilize her own energy and aggressiveness to gain control of the match late.
That game plan might be slightly contrary to the 20th seed’s instincts and style, but it will put the pressure squarely on her opponent, who at times during her career hasn't exactly handled it well.
After multiple disappointments and unexplained struggles, Radwanska has brought her top tennis to the Australian Open, and given the chaos that has happened around her, she has to be considered a strong threat to finally claim the Slam title that up to now has escaped her.
There’s no denying the No. 5 seed will get a tough test from Cibulkova and will have to play her best tennis to advance to her first Australian Open final. That said, it just feels like it’s the Pole’s time to achieve the greatness many have predicted for her during the past couple years.
Her performance against Azarenka, who had won 18 straight matches at the Australian Open, was close to dominant, and outside of a tendency to become her own worst enemy, there’s little reason to expect anything less than her best in the semifinals.
It will be a hard-fought match, but Radwanska will prevail 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), setting up a finals battle against either Li Na or Eugenie Bouchard.