Commentary

Four Russians vying for semifinal berth

Serena Williams is the ostensible favorite to win the Australian Open after a bevy of upsets to the top seeds. But if her current form is any indication, an upset could be brewing.

Originally Published: January 26, 2009
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Dinara Safina Lucas Dawson/Getty ImagesDinara Safina has all the tools, but there are still question marks in her mental fortitude.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Nice or not nice. Fair or not fair. When it comes to the women at the Grand Slams, more often than not they take a back seat to the men's competition. This year at the Australian Open, that is not the case. With one week down and one week to go, the women's draw is dishing out some incredible tennis and story lines. Down to the quarterfinals, the cast of characters is diverse and the possibilities leave the door open for an intriguing Down Under finish.

Here's a look at how the quarterfinal lineup stacks up in Melbourne.

No. 3 Dinara Safina vs. Jelena Dokic
Anyone looking for this year's Australian Open saga that would translate well to the silver screen need search no further than the heartbreak-to-happiness Jelena Dokic story. The Dokic memoir would tell the story of a prodigal teen of Serbian heritage with an Australian passport and the stage father from hell. She eventually matures to divorce dad, finds peace and establishes a reconnection to her adopted country and tennis. After receiving a wild card into the main draw, the once top-10 Dokic was only hoping not to embarrass herself in the first round. But inner serenity, fevered crowd support and solid play helped Dokic to a third career Grand Slam quarterfinal (and first since the 2002 French Open).

Unfortunately, Dokic's Cinderella act does not have her fitting into the glass slipper. She sprained her left ankle during her dramatic fourth-round win over Alisa Keybanova, and it's likely to be hurting a lot more now. She's bound to be tired, having gone the three-set distance in all previous matches. And she was sounding satisfied enough with making it to the quarters. As for Dinara Safina, it's always a "you never know what can happen" roller-coaster ride with the Russian, a tip she apparently picked up from big brother Marat. In the last year, Safina's displayed an increased aptitude for the game, and she could be on track to take over the top ranking if she journeys as far as the semifinals. If Safina keeps focused, she's going to be too much for Dokic to handle.

Prediction: Safina in three.

No. 16 Marion Bartoli vs. No. 7 Vera Zvonareva
If ever there were anyone with the gift to weep at will, it would be Zvonareva. But the often overly sensitive Russian has had nothing to cry about in Melbourne. Playing in her first tournament of the year after a gastro ailment canceled her appearance in the Sydney draw, Zvonareva is competing better than ever. She has yet to drop a set, and in her absorbing second-round match, she double-bageled Edina Gallovits. A baseliner who rarely moves into the court with ease, Zvonareva is likely to find Marion Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon finalist, an obstinate adversary, especially after the Frenchwoman banished world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in such convincing fashion in the last round. If Bartoli can spar to the standard she attained against Jankovic, her flat bullet groundstrokes could deliver a semifinal berth. But if Bartoli is at all erratic, as she was against Luci Safarova in a three-set third-rounder, Zvonareva might have to zip and zag.

Prediction: Zvonareva in three.

Elena Dementieva
Paul Crocl/Getty ImagesElena Dementieva has not lost a match this season, winning two titles en route to the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Carla Suarez-Navarro vs. No. 4 Elena Dementieva
What a difference a year can make -- Carla Suarez-Navarro couldn't muster qualification at last year's Australian Open. Her final-eight result in Melbourne this year is leaving the Spanish media scratching their heads with no answers as to why the 20-year-old clay-court lover is doing so well. One reason could be that the courts are playing slow, so she's able to cover territory from the baseline with a little extra time. Many players have a letdown after posting a big upset, but Suarez-Navarro handled her second-round win over Venus Williams with maturity.

The question now is whether Suarez-Navarro can post a second top-10 upset by beating the in-form Elena Dementieva. The Russian is in position to possibly become No. 1 for the first time if the remainder of the tournament plays out to her favor. Dementieva has a history of choking away matches and a penchant for double-faulting because of a skimpy second serve. But she seems to have developed a sturdier game and confidence since capturing the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. Dementieva arrived in Melbourne having already won two titles this year -- Auckland and Sydney -- and is looking surprisingly fresh. The trickiest part of this first-career matchup is that Dementieva knows little about her stealth opponent.

Prediction: Dementieva in two.

No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetova vs. No. 2 Serena Williams
Serena Williams has to be feeling fortunate to be in the hunt for a fourth Australian Open title. The nine-time Grand Slam champion was less than precision perfect against Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round. When she offered Azarenka a break point to take the first set, Williams uncharacteristically shouted out an obscenity, which quickly elicited a warning from the umpire. Six games later, a gastrointestinal disorder and dizziness had Azarenka heading to the locker room in retirement and Williams heading to the quarterfinals. When Williams gets into the later rounds at Slams, she is in her element, and that's bound to be worrisome for Svetlana Kuznetsova, especially considering that Williams has won four of their five career meetings. Kuznetsova is a master at court coverage, but despite owning the 2004 U.S. Open title and finalist appearances at the '06 French Open and '07 U.S. Open, she lacks self-assuredness. Unless Williams, who is mentally tougher than Kuznetsova, fails to get her act together, the Russian will be heading home after Tuesday.

Prediction: Williams in three.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.