Like the upcoming Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona—huh?—Cardinals, there’s been a slight flukiness to this year’s Aussie Open. On the men’s side, we still have Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but this was supposed to be the year of Andy Murray and the dominance of the Big Four. Did anyone believe Fernando Verdasco, who has never done anything of note at a major, or Andy Roddick, who was notable at the start of the event mainly for going so unnoticed, would still be hanging around in the semifinals? As for the women, Williams, Safina, and Dementieva aren’t surprises, but Vera Zvonareva’s presence throws it all out of whack somehow. The Russian women just seemed so 2004.
These small surprises should be welcomed. They keep us believing that nothing is set in stone in sports, and we wouldn’t watch in the first place if that weren’t true. The only downside is that they make any attempts at pre-tournament predictions—the hard labor of every sportswriter—laughably futile.
So, with those last two words in mind, I’ll take a crack at picking the winners of the four semifinals that we’ll see over the next two days in Melbourne.
Dinara Safina vs. Vera Zvonareva
Safina leads their career head-to-head 5-4, but Zvonareva has won their last three meetings, all of which took place last year, on hard courts, and ended in straight sets. Along with Williams, Safina has been playing the escape artist at this year’s Open, coming back from match point down against Alize Cornet and winning 6-4 in the third set over Jelena Dokic. She’s been erratic but stubborn, while Zvonareva has looked better with every match. In fact, she’s looked the best of any woman in the tournament, hauling off on blatant full-swing winners from both sides. It’s always a mistake to think that someone’s fabulous form one day will continue the next, but after her run at the 2008 year-end championships, Vera seems to be for real this time.
Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick
I said before his last match that Roddick might be the game’s purest defender right now. That doesn’t mean he’s the best at it—it just means that he does it the most. He outlasted Djokovic by hitting big serves, not making errors, running balls down, and not wilting in the heat. He can’t rely on outlasting Federer, especially if the roof is closed tonight. I’d say a defensive Roddick has no shot in this one, but then again he’s tried the throw-everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink at Federer many times, and it hasn’t worked—when the Swiss struggles, it's usually not because he's getting overpowered. Roddick won the last time they played, in March 2008, but I can’t remember for the life of me how he did it. Even if Andy does remember, Federer is a lots sharper now than he was last spring.
Serena Williams vs. Elena Dementieva
Interesting—I had no idea that Dementieva had won their last three meetings, including one at last year’s Olympics, which ended with two 6-1 sets in a row. Serena likes to say that every match is on her racquet, and she’s usually right. But Dementieva will have a major say in this one. If she keeps up her recent form of relentless baseline bombardment and doesn’t let it get close enough for her serve to start wandering, she should win. But Serena has a habit of looking bad in earlier rounds only to escape and find her best form later. She also has a habit of winning semis and finals at majors.
Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco
In theory, Verdasco should have beaten his countryman and fellow lefty somewhere along the way. He's got too much raw game not to have found it one time. But he’s 0-6 against Nadal, with only one of those matches, at Queen’s in 2007, going the distance. The last time they played, at the French Open in 2008, Nadal locked him early and eventually won 1, 0, and 2. Verdasco has been impressive, from his newfound determination under pressure—in the past, he would have folded in a heartbeat when Tsonga showed signs of life in the third set yesterday—to his patient, Agassi-like way of yo-yoing his opponents back and forth along the baseline. But Nadal has been even better.
Enjoy them, both for the big names and the surprising names we’re going to see. For once, I’m thankful I can watch these Slam semis in my not-too-scorching apartment.