Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
(4) Li Na vs. (30) Eugenie Bouchard
Head-to-head: Li leads 1-0
Rod Laver Arena, second match
The oldest and youngest semifinalists exude the energy and form to go the distance. Making her Melbourne debut, the 19-year-old Bouchard is the second Canadian to reach a Grand Slam semifinal in the Open era. Li, 31, is trying to find the finish line in Oz after two runner-up results.
Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, the quarterfinal casualty of the Canadian teen, says Bouchard’s unpredictability is unsettling. Bouchard is smart, tough, well balanced off both forehand and backhand, and uses her leg strength to stay low behind the ball. She can create angles on the run, but is Li is more explosive on the move and is willing to pull the trigger on the down-the-line drives.
Pressure is the trickiest variable to consider predicting a match. I distill this to a couple of core questions—Is Bouchard ready to step up and win a match of this magnitude? Can Li tighten up and lose it?—I will answer yes to both. However, when the Happy Slam wreaks major havoc, Li keeps fighting: She showed resilience despite rolling her ankle and crashing to the court in the 2013 final, and she kept cool battling back from match point down to beat Lucie Safarova in round three.
Li is playing her best tennis of the tournament now: She’s broken 10 times and lost just six games in her last two matches. The 2011 Roland Garros champion is the only Grand Slam champion and best pure athlete still standing. She’s empowered by a 10-match winning streak, and I like Li to reach her third Melbourne final in the last four years.
The Pick: Li in two sets
Albert Einstein wasn’t talking tennis when he wrote: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere,” but his theory applies to Radwanska, who combines a Ph. D in point construction with a major degree of mischievous finesse. The fifth seed showed all-court creativity befuddling two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and now renews a rivalry with Cibulkova that dates back to their 10-and-under days.
The shortest woman in the Top 50 has cast a colossal shadow in Oz, downsizing three seeds in succession—including No. 3 Maria Sharapova—and the 5’3” Cibulkova will use her kill shot, the forehand, to attack Radwanska’s weaker forehand wing. She sports the thickly-muscled legs of a grinder, but Dominika is a fighter who will sting flat shots, aiming to beat Aga to the punch in rallies and become Slovakia’s first Grand Slam finalist.
The two also have a notable recent history: Radwanska dissected Cibulkova in the 2013 Sydney final—dishing out a double bagel—before squandering a 4-2 third-set lead and falling 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 seven months later in the Stanford final.
Holding serve and changing direction while hitting down the line are key here. Radwanska has more gears to her game; her feel, court sense, precise returns, and ability to create angles are assets. Aga already beat a bigger hitter in Azarenka—Dominika is quicker around the court than Vika—and if the 2012 Wimbledon finalist holds her nerve, she should advance to her first Melbourne final.
The Pick: Radwanska in two sets
(7) Tomas Berdych vs. (8) Stanislas Wawrinka
Head-to-head: Wawrinka leads 8-5
Rod Laver Arena, first night match
Wawrinka wears a Beckett quotation as inspirational ink on his left forearm; Twitter humorist Berdych tattoos shots as if trying to brand the ball with string burns. The man who takes the first strike has the best shot to make the winning mark in this third Grand Slam meeting between 28-year-old veterans.
Berdych beat Wawrinka in four sets at the 2009 Australian Open. Wawrinka won their most recent major meeting in four sets at the 2013 U.S. Open. The flat-hitting Czech has reached the semifinals at all four Grand Slam events and showed solid net skills partnering Radek Stepanek to lead the Czech Republic to its second consecutive Davis Cup last November. The 2010 Wimbledon finalist fought off nine of the 12 break points he faced defeating third-seeded David Ferrer in the quarterfinals—the only times Berdych has dropped serve in the tournament.
Despite his gripping four-hour quarterfinal conquest of defending champion Novak Djokovic, Wawrinka, who received a third-round walkover, has spent four fewer minutes on court than Berdych, who has won four of his five matches in straight sets. If Berdych, who leads the tournament in first-serve points won (85 percent), continues to serve with such command, he will be very, very tough to beat. Ultimately, I give Wawrinka the edge based on his versatility, willingness to play with aggression at crunch time under coach (and 2000 Melbourne semifinalist) Magnus Norman, his three straight wins over Berdych last season—and hunger to reach his first major final.
The Pick: Wawrinka in four sets