By Jane Voigt — Crystal balls have been the gimmick behind hundreds of ill-conceived endeavors. But, as we all know, they don’t work. Because who would have believed that two semifinalists would be seeded 17 and 30? And, let’s be frank, who would have believed that Agnieszka Radwanska would succeed playing finesse to the power game of Victoria Azarenka and dominate? Answer … no one.
But that’s they way this Australian Open has gone. The top three women’s seeds have packed up and flown to distant lands, leaving four capable women we did not wholly suspect would appear poised to play for a hallowed berth in the women’s singles final.
Li Na (No. 4) versus Eugenie Bouchard (No. 30)
Li Na was seen in our imaginary crystal ball. We expected her to go this far. And, it’s her best shot at a second Grand Slam. Except, of course, she must first defeat ‘Genie’ Bouchard, the naissant Canadian sensation.
Li has experience on her side. A heavy plus. She made the semifinals of the U. S. Open and has been the runner-up in Melbourne twice: in 2011 and 2013. The big stage of big tennis arenas can dwarf even the most confident of players. Remember how Sabine Lisicki crumbled in the Wimbledon final?
Bouchard has played on big stages, too. She met Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros and lost; and, she played Ana Ivanovic in the second round at Wimbledon, which means her head-to-head with the Serbian 2-0.
Although both women are exceptionally talented off the ground, the weight of Li’s shots exceeds those pinging off Bouchard’s Babolat stick. If Li can deliver dominant court positions with a higher rate of success per point, the match is hers. She is fit mentally and physically. Carlos Rodriguez has fired up Li with rigorous fitness regimens. They have refined her foot work and, thus, given her more explosive strength to track down balls.
Tennis is a running game. If you can get to the ball your chances of extending a point go up.
Li’s willingness to approach the net has improved; Rodriguez pushes her to vary her tactics, get off the baseline. It hasn’t been easy. After she almost lost to Lucie Safarova, Rodriguez talked to Li, asking her what she wanted and why she would play as she did against the No. 26 seed.
“After three questions, I was feeling already punching me down,” Li told the press. “So I was like, okay, I should do something. Otherwise, I think he was so pissed.”
Bouchard will come in to the net, too. We saw her mix it up against Ana Ivanovic. The 19-year-old has a bevy of talents that seem more akin to a woman 10 years older … like Li Na, only she is 12 years older.
Li Na’s weapon is her backhand. If she can wield it with conviction, she could take the match. Bouchard’s weapon is her forehand. Since they play right-handed, the patterns are there for one to pounce at an opportune moment — short balls. Bouchard likes to take the ball early, though, which could present timing issues for Li.
“I always believe in my ability,” Bouchard told the press after defeating Ivanovic. “I always expect myself to do well.”
The Australian Open is also known as the Asian Pacific Open. Thousands of Chinese fans will fill seats in Rod Laver Arena. They all want their Li Na to win.
‘Genie’s Army’ has made a name for itself in Melbourne Park. Bouchard joked with the press that she would fly them to all her tournaments, they give her such a lift.
‘Genie’s Army’ supports their favorite Canadian, during her defeat of Australian Casey Dellacqua.
Audience support is a factor. Especially if the match gets touchy. Bad line calls. Poor posture from Li or Bouchard. Racquet smashing, whining, a poorly timed request for a trainer could set off the opposition fan base. Victoria Azarenka’s ‘I’m a brat routine’ against Radwanska was not well received. People booed. If either Li or Bouchard allows their mind to wander off court, the door opens wider for her opponent. Keep your eye on the ball, as they say.
Dominika Cibulkova (No. 20) versus Agnieszka Radwanska
No big-babe tennis here. Cibulkova is five-three and Aga is five-four. But there will be a contrast in styles, which should entertain.
Radwanska ousted the defending champion, 61 57 60, employing a sweet finesse that left fans on their feet. She is quick, strong, and anticipates like a cat hunting a mouse. No one expected her to defeat Vika because of her power and drive. And, Radwanska had not beaten her in over two years. But Vika was left powerless against the crafty Pole.
Cibulkova is a power player and it has been on fine display this Australian Open. She has slapped away opponents the way she slaps tennis balls. She has dropped one set through to the semifinal; and, she defeated Maria Sharapova 36 64 61. At 19, the Slovakian played in the semifinals of Roland Garros but lost. Her maturity on court since then, plus lots of changes to her game moving from one coach to another, has provided an invaluable court bag of experience.
“In the end of the second week of the Grand Slam nothing is easy,” she said. “There is pressure you can feel from everywhere. I still want to do the same thing what I came into the tournament. I want to really enjoy it and play my tennis. That’s when I play my best.”
The problem is her opponent. Radwanska will attempt to divert Cibulkova’s best intentions, strategies and hopes. If the No. 5 seed executes her smart finesse game, Cibulkova will have to be prepared to change hers, as Azarenka was not able to do. Question is, does Cibulkova have a plan B.
The two met three times in 2013. Radwanska double-bagelled Cibulkova in the Sydney final. In Stanford Cibulkova prevailed in three in the final. In Tokyo, Radwanska dismissed her up-coming opponent in the round of sixteen. All in all, Radwanska holds the 5-1 head-to-head record.
But, this is a Grand Slam semifinal. This is their first semifinal at The Australian Open.
As a side note … Andy Murray was asked who he would pick to win the title. He pointed to Radwanska.