Wizards of Oz (X): Federer, Murray, Azarenka, Serena, Tsonga, and More in the Australian Open Quarterfinals

Can Federer glide as effortlessly past Tsonga as past his earlier opponents?

Today unfold the remaining quarterfinals in Melbourne, which will decide who joins Sharapova, Li, Djokovic, and Ferrer in the final four of the season’s first major.  We break down key facts to know and trends to watch in these four matches on Rod Laver Arena.

Azarenka vs. Kuznetsova:  Fans who have followed women’s tennis only over the last few years might find it surprising that an unseeded Russian owns a winning record against the world #1, who has looked nearly unstoppable at hard-court majors in 2012-13.  A two-time major champion, Kuznetsova won their first three clashes several years ago, while she remained in her prime and Azarenka still early in her development.  More relevant are their two meetings last year, both won by Vika in straight sets.  The world #1 routed Kuznetsova in their only recent hard-court encounter, ten months ago at Indian Wells, as her baseline consistency proved more than adequate to exploit the erratic lapses in her opponent’s fading game.

Reviving her career this month, the Russian has swept nine of her last ten matches and showed surprising poise in closing out a tense three-set contest against Caroline Wozniacki.  Also shown by Kuznetsova in that fourth-round match were her skills at the net, where she won all but two of twenty-five points as she relied on her natural athleticism to improvise as necessary.  A player of equal athleticism, Azarenka prefers to play rallies tethered to the baseline unless she can move forward to finish points easily.  The Russian will need to continue her all-court play to trouble Vika, for her meager serve will win her few free points, and—recent improvements notwithstanding—she cannot outhit her consistently from the baseline.  Kuznetsova might win a set if she catches fire at the right time, but she ebbs and flows too much to defeat an opponent of this caliber.

Serena vs. Stephens:  Three weeks ago, they met in a Brisbane encounter that showed how much promise the future of Stephens may hold.  The young American did not look overawed by a veteran who mentors her at times outside competition, swinging freely and even looking disappointed when a close first set slipped away from her, as though she had expected to win.  Nevertheless, Serena did stifle her routinely in the end, and one expects the 14-time major champion to bring a greater level of intensity to a major quarterfinal.  Stephens thus must raise her level even higher to keep this match competitive.

Due to enter the top 20 after the Australian Open, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA sparkled in ousting fellow prodigy Laura Robson after the latter’s victory over Kvitova.  Somewhat less splendid was her three-set battle against the less dangerous Bojana Jovanovski, who nearly snatched away their match after Stephens had won the first set.  In her first major quarterfinal, the 19-year-old must play less passively than she did then, for the authoritative progress of Serena leaves her little margin for error.  Only slightly less commanding than Sharapova, the older American has lost just eight games in four matches as opponents have found no answers to her first strikes on serve and return.

Chardy vs. Murray:  Before he vaulted into unexpected prominence by toppling Del Potro, Jeremy Chardy recorded two victories over top-eight opponents at consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments last summer.  The latter of those, in Cincinnati, came against a Murray weary from his gold-medal campaign at the Olympics.  Exploiting that opportunity, Chardy had claimed no success at all in their previous four meetings, winning one total set.

The outlook on this match depends in part upon how much one attributes the Frenchman’s upset of the former US Open champion to his own brilliance and how much to his opponent’s listless tennis.  Chardy deserves credit for building upon that victory by overcoming the tenacious Seppi in four sets, but he remains a diamond in the rough with no prior experience at this stage of majors.  Also very raw is his game, which relies almost exclusively upon his forehand in a groundstroke asymmetry that the balanced Murray tends to dissect in other opponents.  The Scot has not found his most convincing form this fortnight, despite winning all twelve of his sets, and he has complained of inconsistent timing during practice as well as matches.  Known for several days now, those issues have persisted and could deplete his confidence if the underdog bursts out to a sizzling start.  Heavy hitters on a hot streak, even those much lower in the rankings, often blasted through Murray before he soared to major glory.  Has that pattern ended, or will Chardy become the latest in an Australian Open tradition of surprise finalists and semifinalists, from Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Tsonga and Verdasco?

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Beyond the Montreal tournament, the GOAT has impaled Tsonga on his horns in eight of their nine matches, establishing him as the clear favorite here.  Among those victories was a straight-sets demolition in an Australian Open semifinal three years ago and another in a quarterfinal at the 2011 US Open.  Tsonga’s only victory outside Montreal does raise some eyebrows, though, for this upset in a Wimbledon quarterfinal marked the first time that Federer had lost a major after winning the first two sets.  He never broke serve in the final three sets of that match, a slightly concerning fact in view of his struggles to break serve through much of his first four rounds here.

But Federer has looked the better player of the two by a distinct margin, and perhaps the best player of the tournament despite the most challenging draw of any contender.  The Swiss superstar still has not dropped a set after dispatching rising stars Tomic and Raonic.  Even areas of frailty in recent years have held firm for him, such as his backhand and his movement, while he has not even lost his serve or faced serious pressure in more than a handful of service games.  Not an elite returner, Tsonga should not test Federer much more severely in that department than his previous victims, and he suffered familiar lapses of focus in meandering past an overmatched Gasquet a round ago.  The immensely talented Frenchman could not claim a victory over any top-eight opponent in 2012, an alarming trend for someone with his previous successes against them.  At the outset of 2013, a sturdy effort against Federer would give Tsonga and new coach Roger Rasheed a reason to believe that the worm may turn.