Commentary

Vetting the Down Under semifinalists

Updated: January 28, 2010, 12:30 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Australian Open semifinals are upon us. Wow, that went quickly.

We break down the eight players remaining, assessing their chances of winning the season's first Grand Slam. With only two matches to glory, even the underdogs can't be ruled out.

Men

Roger Federer: Federer hasn't looked as assured as in previous Grand Slams, faltering slightly against a pair of Russians, Igor Andreev and Nikolay Davydenko. But not for the first time, his serve bailed him out, notably against Davydenko late in the fourth set of their quarterfinal. Bothered by the sun in the late afternoon, the 15-time Grand Slam winner won't have to worry about that anymore, since only night matches remain for the men. He has been here before, has played a ton of huge matches and has solved Andy Murray, his probable foe in the final. Did we mention he's rife with talent?

Andy Murray: If he meets Federer in the final, Murray no doubt will think of the four-match winning streak he once held against the Swiss. The Scot, looking to finally end his Grand Slam drought, played perhaps the best match of his career Tuesday in the quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. He had the right blend of offense and defense, mixed up his serve, served big when he needed to and crunched his forehand like never before. He'll be fresh for the semis, too, having not dropped a set and finished earlier than expected against the ailing Nadal. Murray will be looking for revenge for a previous loss against Marin Cilic on Thursday -- and should get it.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Whether it was a fluke or not isn't the point. Tsonga downed Federer, his Aussie semifinal opponent, last summer in Montreal after trailing 5-1 in the third. How many times will Federer ever relinquish such a lead? Still, it'll give Tsonga confidence. His high-risk game can bring great rewards if firing, and the Frenchman has navigated past the likes of heavy-hitting Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic, despite a bad wrist. For once, Federer won't be the clear crowd favorite, either.

Marin Cilic: Cilic's rise hasn't been meteoric. Rather, he's done it slowly but surely under the stewardship of laid-back coach Bob Brett. Cilic packs a punch from the baseline, his backhand much more reliable than his inconsistent forehand. He beat Murray, Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick in the past five months, so when his backcourt game and serve are firing, he's a match for anyone. Fatigue, though, might catch up with him against Murray in their rematch. Unlike Murray, the 21-year-old has already gone the distance three times.

Women

[+] EnlargeJie
Paul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesZheng Jie will rely on experience against her opponent, Justine Henin, in the semifinals.

Serena Williams: Never count out Williams at the Australian Open. She pulled off comebacks en route to the title in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Having coasted in the first four rounds this time out, the 11-time Grand Slam winner did it again in the quarterfinals against Victoria Azarenka, down a set and 4-0. Williams played two and a half hours with strapping on her leg Wednesday, but Thursday's opponent, Li Na, had to stay on the court for another half-hour. If Williams shows the form she exhibited in the third set against Azarenka, Li (and perhaps Justine Henin in the final) better watch out.

Justine Henin: Henin probably is a little surprised she's still in the tournament. Elena Dementieva, Alisa Kleybanova and Yanina Wickmayer all had their chances to make sure Henin's comeback hit a roadblock. Even Nadia Petrova in the quarterfinals missed an opportunity, up a double break in the second. Henin played early Tuesday, so she'll benefit from a full day -- plus -- of rest. She should be recharged in the semifinals against Zheng Jie, in a different type of match. Zheng won't blow Henin off the court, which sets up an interesting dynamic. Henin's slicing, dicing and shotmaking skills have overtaken Williams in three of their past four head-to-heads.

Li Na: Li sure has benefited from a second chance. Since saving a pair of match points in the third round against drifting Hungarian Agnes Szavay, she has defeated Daniela Hantuchova (still no slouch), fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams. She's headed for the top 10. So, her confidence is high. All four matches she's contested against Serena Williams have been competitive -- including a three-set win in 2008. Mind you, not having a day off between the quarters and semis might catch up with the 27-year-old. And maybe she'll just be happy to be there.

Zheng Jie: Li's countrywoman Zheng has some big-match experience. She appeared in the 2008 Wimbledon semifinals, which ended in a hard-fought loss to Serena Williams. Don't expect too many clean winners when Zheng faces Henin, since they're both so quick. Another strength for Zheng is her return game. If Henin's first serve is off, Zheng will look to punish the Belgian on the second serve. Getting ball after ball back can go a long way in women's tennis.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.