Wizards of Oz (IX): Sharapova, Djokovic, Radwanska, Ferrer, Berdych, and More in the Australian Open Quarterfinals

Will Agnieszka Radwanska send Li Na into the shadows of this Australian Open?

When the quarterfinals begin, the action in singles compresses to Rod Laver Arena for the rest of the escalating drama.  Here is a tour of what to expect from an all-Russian match, an all-Spanish match, and two collisions between top-eight contenders.

Li vs. Radwanska:  These two top-eight women have compiled a history of closely contested meetings that has taken a few curious turns lately.  After Radwanska won their first match of 2012, Li swept three straight on the second-half hard courts that included two routs.  Aga’s revenge came with a flourish at Sydney last week, when she broke her former nemesis repeatedly en route to a straight-sets triumph, although she struggled to deliver the decisive blow.  That match marked Li’s only loss of a season against twelve victories and a title, while Radwanska has won all 26 of her sets and has collected two titles.

Relatively unheralded as a contender, Li has progressed quietly through the draw but has looked very efficient in doing so as she has spurred memories of her 2011 final and 2010 semifinal here.  Neither player should dominate on serve, despite solid efforts in that area from both here, so rallies should unfold that contrast the Chinese star’s flow with the Pole’s syncopation.  Designed to disrupt, Radwanska’s smorgasbord of spins and speeds will test the rhythmic Li, who will aim to take time away from the world #4 by striking the ball early and constantly redirecting her groundstrokes.  The woman who can impose her tone more thoroughly should prevail in a clash of mentally resilient competitor.

Ferrer vs. Almagro:  Fond of playing Nadal to Almagro’s Ferrer, the man who will become the top-ranked Spaniard after this tournament never has lost to his compatriot.  Some caveats apply, however, such as the dearth of outdoor hard-court meetings in a rivalry predictably centered on clay.  Not since 2006 have these two quarterfinalists met on a surface similar to Rod Laver Arena, since when both of their games have improved dramatically.  Moreover, Almagro often has kept their encounters extremely close, taking Ferrer to final sets in half of them and holding match points in a final-set tiebreak at Madrid last year.

Through the first four rounds, Ferrer has looked slightly the superior player.  Recording his best performance at a hard-court major to date, Almagro needed five sets to escape an inexperienced American in his first match, and his dominance over the higher-ranked Tipsarevic lost some of its luster when the Serb retired.  Also experiencing more difficulty than expected against an unheralded American, Ferrer rebounded from that four-setter to demolish a former tormentor in Nishikori.  That match should boost his confidence for a more familiar foe in a quarterfinal where the favorite’s compact two-handed backhand will contrast intriguingly with the underdog’s florid one-hander.

Sharapova vs. Makarova:  When they met in the same round here last year, the more famous Russian permitted just five games.  Like the all-Spanish quarterfinal, the all-Russian quarterfinal offers the latest edition in a head-to-head controlled exclusively by one player.  Sharapova has lost just one set in four meetings with Makarova, although they played two tight sets in Miami most recently.  Mauled badly by Maria’s return on this court before, the lefty’s serve must sustain the pressure more successfully this time, and a high first-serve percentage would play a vital role in achieving that goal.

Not expected by most to reach consecutive quarterfinals in Melbourne, Makarova claims that she learned from last year’s experience to become a more mature competitor at this stage.  The often fiery Russian indeed looked composed when she upset world #5 Kerber in a tight two-setter, at least outside a wobble late in the first set.  From that passage of play, as well as her flirtation with surrendering a 5-0 lead to Bartoli, one still suspects Makarova when the pressure rises.  Pressure has not entered Sharapova’s vocabulary at this tournament, where she continues to set records of implausible domination.  Never before has anyone lost just five games en route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, which raises the question of how she will respond when and if some adversity does arise.  In a battle between two women who love to create outrageous angles, Sharapova will hope to make Makarova rue her professed eagerness to reverse last year’s disappointment.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Winless against the Serb on a hard court, Berdych notched his only victory over him en route to the Wimbledon final three years ago, his best result at a major to date.  Once Djokovic evolved into his invincible self when 2011 began, the Czech never came close to repeating that feat.  Part of this lopsided rivalry has hinged on the contrast between Berdych’s forehand-reliant game and the world #1’s groundstroke symmetry, which offers him a far greater advantage in backhand-to-backhand exchanges than any edge that his opponent can claim in forehands.  Also, Djokovic’s movement allows him to track down the first strikes that Berdych can hurl at him more effectively than can most players, returning them with the depth necessary to maneuver himself into the rally.

On this occasion, though, Berdych may harbor some legitimate reason to hope.  The cathartic but exhausting epic with Wawrinka, which sprawled across five hours, may have left him drained of the energy to grind down the Czech’s offense as he has in the past.  By contrast, his challenger has reached this stage without dropping a set or engaging in any physically taxing battles.  If Berdych claims an early lead, he could test Djokovic’s resilience.  All the same, the world #1 proved his nearly supernatural ability to rebound from one marathon to the next in Melbourne last year when he spent nearly 11 total hours on court in consecutive matches against Nadal and Murray.  Berdych should not gamble on a depleted Djokovic entering the court at his best major.