Wizards of Oz (XI): Previewing Sharapova-Li, Azarenka-Stephens, and Djokovic-Ferrer

Can Hogstedt offer Sharapova special advice on how to tame his former pupil?

We offer a tour of the three semifinals on Thursday as the Australian Open reaches its penultimate stages in both the men’s and women’s draws.

Sharapova vs. Li:  The two highest-earning women in the WTA prepare for their latest chapter in one of its most curious rivalries, defined largely by the ebbs and flows in Sharapova’s career.  Sweeping all five of her meetings with Li before shoulder surgery forced her sabbatical, she struggled with this opponent’s steadiness and steeliness in dropping four straight upon her return.  The tide turned markedly in 2012, however, not long after Sharapova had signaled her resurgence by reaching finals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.  Winning a clay encounter of excruciating suspense in the Rome final, she dismantled Li with ease in both of their hard-court meetings for the loss of seven total games.

Under this rivalry runs the intriguing undercurrent of their coaches.  While Sharapova works with Li’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, her semifinal foe has enlisted the services of Justine Henin’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez.  Just as Hogstedt surely can impart valuable insights to his charge, then, so can Rodriguez from his experience watching the Belgian duel with Maria on a multitude of grand stages.  In their 2012 meetings, Sharapova showed a commitment to breaking down Li’s forehand, her more powerful but less reliable wing.  Although most fans know these women best for their backhands, their forehands again could play a key role in determining the outcome, for they generally mirror the responses of both women to pressure.

Pressure is not something with which Sharapova has grown familiar this fortnight, in which she has dropped just nine games.  But she has saved an astonishing quantity of game points and break points in winning nearly all of the multiple-deuce epics that she has played.  Li, who also has not lost a set, showed similar fortitude in sweeping the vast majority of her long games against Radwanska, toppled by her in the quarterfinals.  Not lacking for courage or fortitude, each woman will take audacious swings at any opportunity that presents itself in a match full of splendid shot-making—and abysmal errors as well.

Azarenka vs. Stephens:  Rarely do opponents collide for the first time in a major semifinal, but even more rarely does a woman reach a major semifinal in just her seventh main-draw appearance at one of the four elite tournaments.  While Sloane Stephens probably would not have reached the semifinals without Serena’s back injury, she deserves credit for keeping her composure despite her inexperience when that match stretched deep into a final set.  Now, the 19-year-old faces the challenge of rebounding within a day from the most important victory of her career, not an easy feat to achieve even for someone of greater experience.

Not suffering from any physical woes at this stage, Azarenka has not looked quite her unbeatable self of early 2012.  The top seed did look more impressive in her quarterfinal than in any previous stage of her title defense, outlasting a severe first-set test from a resurgent Kuznetsova.  As the tournament has progressed, Azarenka has begun to serve with greater authority, a key against an opponent in Stephens who still does not earn many free points on her serve.  If the defending champion can claim and consolidate an early lead, the underdog might fade.  All the same, the American teenager does not look the complacent sort who would content herself with reaching the semifinals.  Stephens brings a precocious willpower to the court that bodes well for her future as an elite contender, and she likely will force Azarenka to earn her third straight berth in the final of a hard-court major.  What remains unlikely is the potential of her still-developing games to threaten the extremely polished, balanced weapons wielded by the world #1.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  Twice before have they intersected on Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic winning both in straight sets.  He swept the Spaniard in two semifinals at the US Open as well, conceding only one total set in those two matches.  Outside the clay where Ferrer plays his best tennis and Djokovic his worst, in fact, the Serb has dominated this rivalry relentlessly with the strange exception of the year-end championships.  Denied in all four of his major semifinals, by one of the ATP Big Four each time, Ferrer must overcome a significant mental hurdle to make his Sunday night debut.

Finding the confidence that eluded him for so long in marquee matches, Ferrer did record a minor breakthrough last fall by securing his first Masters 1000 shield.  And he has become a far more consistent threat at majors in the latter stages of his career, reaching the quarterfinals or better at each of them for the first time in a season last year.  At this tournament, however, he has hovered a few notches below his finest form, fortunate to escape his compatriot Almagro in the previous round when the latter failed to serve out the match three times.  Famous for his consistency, Ferrer donated more errors than usual in that match and repeatedly struggled to hold serve, an ominous sign ahead of his battle with the best returner in tennis history.  An ominous sign for Djokovic, meanwhile, lies in the nine sets that he has played across the last two matches, which have forced him to dig deeper into his reserves of energy at this stage than he would prefer.

Nevertheless, every man who has played a five-hour match before the final—except the perennially star-crossed Andy Roddick—has won the Australian Open, and the world #1 has won 19 consecutive matches at the major that has witnessed his greatest successes.  Aiming to move just one victory from a historic Melbourne three-peat, Djokovic should weather Ferrer’s limited offense with ease and chip away at his defense inexorably in a grinding baseline encounter.