Fed and Serena face revived foes
Even at the pinnacle of his game, can Andy Roddick surmount Roger Federer? Will Serena Williams shake off the rust versus her intrepid Russian opponent? The Down Under final four matchups promise to be nothing short of sensational.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- We're two matches away from getting the Australian Open final almost everyone wants -- Roger versus Rafa in a repeat of their Wimbledon epic. First, however, Roger Federer needs to overcome a revitalized Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal must eliminate fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, this year's surprise semifinalist.
Meanwhile, it's Serena against the Russians, with the No. 1 ranking also at stake. Spare a thought for the women: They'll have to play in the afternoon, possibly without protection from the roof at Rod Laver Arena during a fierce heat wave.
Here's a closer look at the semifinals:
Asked about the decision to insert Federer's tilt against Juan Martin del Potro in the evening session, tournament director Craig Tiley said it was simply the Swiss star's turn. Federer ended up demolishing the Argentine in 1½ hours after needing five sets to oust Tomas Berdych on Sunday afternoon.
Officials accommodated Djokovic in Week 1 when he wanted to play in the day rather than evening, Tiley added this as he busily completed tasks outside the player lounge:
"I would have guessed Juan Martin and Roger wouldn't have been what it was," said Tiley, a former coach at the University of Illinois. "But first we're going to try to stick to the integrity of fairness, because if I switched it again, and then another player is in a situation where they play back-to-back days, I personally have a bigger gripe with that than someone getting protection at night. It must be fair."
Roddick won't mind one bit that Djokovic, the schedule and heat continue to make headlines. And the resident of Austin, Texas, appearing in his second Grand Slam semifinal since the 2006 U.S. Open, has to be as confident as he can be against Federer. Roddick, the world No. 9, has a 2-15 head-to-head record against his opponent and ended an 11-match losing streak in Miami last year. The American is ultra-fit after losing 15 pounds and seems to be bonding with new coach Larry Stefanki.
When the pair met with much hype in the semifinals here two years ago -- Roddick triumphed in an exhibition weeks before -- Federer crushed the longtime U.S. No. 1 in 1 hour, 23 minutes.
"I'm excited playing Andy," world No. 2 Federer said. "I'm happy for him. He's doing well here again."
He's probably happier Djokovic won't be on the other side of the net Thursday evening.
"Andy is obviously going to go into it with good feel, because he's hitting the ball well," said Roger Rasheed, the coach of Frenchman Gael Monfils and a commentator for host network Channel 7. "Is that good enough to beat Roger at his best? All suggestions would say no."
Prediction: Federer in three.
Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Fernando Verdasco (14): Verdasco's 0-6 record against Nadal means little at this point. He is playing the best tennis of his career, elevated by clinching Spain's Davis Cup title last month and feverishly working with Andre Agassi's former fitness coach, Gil Reyes, later in December.
Did breaking up with Serbian stunner Ana Ivanovic help, too?
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Verdasco has kept his cool, contesting the key points with much aplomb. He saved 11 of 13 break points against Tsonga, mostly by being the aggressor and not waiting for an unforced error.
"Right now I believe so much in myself, about my game," Verdasco said. "I'm feeling pretty good, and I just think that I can beat anyone. I'm in the semifinals right now, and I think that I can lose in the semifinals, but also be in the final or win the tournament."
Nadal's improvements since he burst onto the scene as a classic clay-courter are there for all to see: The backhand is crisper, the slice more effective, the serve has more pop, and lingering well behind the baseline is no longer an option. Winning Wimbledon in July was the outcome, and Nadal now hopes to reach a maiden Grand Slam final on hard courts.
Tsonga and Fernando Gonzalez, both underdogs, upset the Mallorcan in the semifinals and quarterfinals in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He hopes to avoid a hat trick Friday.
Prediction: Nadal in four.
Serena Williams (2) vs. Elena Dementieva (4): If anyone needed more evidence that Williams is the best battler in women's tennis, she provided it against Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova on Wednesday. Williams (yawn) rallied from a set and a break down to move a step closer to winning a fourth Australian Open crown in yet another odd, as in every other, year.
Extra motivation emanated from an unlikely source.
"Well, I was thinking, 'OK, if you lose, you're going to fly coach all the way back to Florida,'" Williams said. "How uncomfortable would that be?"
Beware, Dementieva is flying high.
The elegant Moscow native hasn't lost a match in 2009 and downed Williams in the semifinals of the Medibank International in Sydney nearly two weeks ago. The much-anticipated battle wasn't even close -- Dementieva prevailed 6-3, 6-1 for a third straight victory against the nine-time Grand Slam champ.
Dementieva achieved her career goal by winning Olympic gold in Beijing in August, which, she says, boosted her confidence. Her only two appearances in Grand Slam finals resulted in defeats to countrywomen five years ago.
"I think she's actually playing some of the best tennis on the tour," Williams said. "She's really stepped up the level of her game to an unbelievable level. I'm going to have to play really well to do well."
Dementieva, without ill mom Vera, steamrolled foes in the fourth round and quarterfinals. Still, the world No. 4 was guarded when asked about her prospects Thursday.
"The last three matches [versus Williams] were completely different games," Dementieva said. "You don't know what to expect from her."
Prediction: Williams in three.
Safina dropped the opening set in her second-round clash, saved a pair of match points against bubbly Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the fourth and coughed up 11 double faults in a narrow win over Aussie Jelena Dokic in the quarterfinals.
The internal demons that afflict Safina's more famous brother, enigmatic two-time Grand Slam champion Marat Safin, also haunt the 22-year-old. She has admitted to facing two opponents on court -- herself, as well as the woman on the other side of the net.
"Dinara's getting better, of course, but there are still moments where she's not going to play so good," Krajan, 29, said. "She had a good time last year, three or four months where everything was going perfect. She was confident. Now it's different. You can't always play like that. At the moment she has good results, but she still can't find her game perfectly after the offseason."
Those double faults back up the theory. Safina sits second in the dubious category, a tad behind Dokic. Even the locals must have found it hard to watch Safina uncork four alone in the 10th game of the second set against Dokic.
"It starts mental, and then it gets technical," Krajan said. "She starts to rush mentally. She doesn't feel safe at these moments. She just wants to play defense and go as far back as possible behind the baseline."
Zvonareva, she of the striking blue eyes and perennial visor, is as unassuming away from the court as she is volatile on it. Picking up where she left off in 2008, Zvonareva hasn't conceded a set en route to attaining a first Grand Slam semifinal.
Zvonareva has beaten Safina in their last three meetings, all in straight sets.
Prediction: Safina in three.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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2009 AUSTRALIAN OPEN
Women's singles: Serena Williams, United States
Rafael Nadal, Spain
Men's doubles: Bob and Mike Bryan, United States
Women's doubles: Serena and Venus Williams, United States
Mixed doubles: Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi, India
Official scoreboard: Scores
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