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Live Blog: Australian Open Men’s Final, Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

Follow our live blog on the Australian Open men’s final, updated at each changeover.  Will Djokovic complete the first three-peat of the Open era here, or will Murray become the first man to win his second major title in the next major after his first?

Djokovic 2-1*:  Although Murray wins the first point with an impressive forehand, Djokovic sweeps the next four behind some solid first serves that leave him in control of the points at the outset.  A handful of groundstroke errors from the Serb provides the Scot with a love hold as the match starts uneventfully.  At 15-15 in the third game, Djokovic correctly judges that a Murray lob will float long, which it does by a less than comfortable margin.  Still looking a bit casual, perhaps almost too relaxed after his long semifinal, Djokovic cruises to another hold.

Djokovic 3-2*:  Murray finds a cleaner rhythm on his first serve and holds at love again, this time punctuated with an ace.  Although he starts with a 30-0 lead, Djokovic finds himself pegged back to 30-30 with two routine errors.  A crushing inside-out forehand and a nonchalant miss on a drive volley move a game to deuce for the first time.  From there, a brave net approach draws an error from Murray on the pass, and then Djokovic delivers his own scintillating backhand pass down the line off a drop volley that looked out of his reach.

Djokovic 4-3*:  His normally trusty backhand spraying a few early errors, Murray soon faces the first two break points of the match.  A sturdy first serve and a penetrating cross-court forehand do just enough work to avert them.  He then saves a third break point that Djokovic had created by carefully massaging the rally, and a fourth break point escapes on an uncharacteristic backhand error from the Serb.  Two points later, Murray escapes the game with a first serve down the center stripe.  With that potential momentum swelling his sails, he wins the first point of his return game.  But a stunning recovery from Djokovic after a sprawl behind the baseline allows him to rip off a backhand down the line that wins the point anyway.  The quick hold leaves him within range of the first set without having faced any serious pressure.

Djokovic 5-4*:  After some passive groundstrokes, Murray falls behind break point on a cross-court backhand that narrowly misses the edge of the sideline.  Able to save the fifth break point on his serve, he unleashes a first serve and a bold drive volley that takes away vital time from Djokovic’s defense.  Two points and another drive volley later, he stays even in the set.  Although Djokovic loses two points in his next service game, he closes out the game with a confident ace that forces Murray to hold for his survival in the set.

Djokovic 6-5*:  Starting to improve his first-serve percentage, the Scot holds routinely after some court-stretching rallies.  That game departed from the script of their final here two years ago, when a Djokovic break at this stage opened the floodgates for his routine triumph.  Djokovic continues to hold  as well, opening the court with crisp, flat angles that thrust his opponent off balance.  He did not face a break point in this set.

Murray 7-6:  After 15-15, which they reached by trading netted groundstrokes, the Serb unleashes a massive cross-court backhand to set up a comfortable approach and move within two points of the first set.  A pair of backhand errors from Djokovic let Murray off the hook, and a strong first serve clinches the hold.  Neither man dropped serve in this set, although Murray faced greater pressure during it.  A double fault starts the tiebreak ominously for Djokovic, and Murray battles to win the next rally several times over before finally finding the winner.  With a wild forehand, the Serb falls behind 0-3, and Murray soon leads by a double minibreak at the changeover.  Disinterested in the proceedings, Djokovic tosses away the rest of the tiebreak in a deflating finish to a tense set.

Murray 7-6 2-1*:  Holding at love, Murray ranges all over the court to retrieve everything that Djokovic flings at him  before drawing errors in a series of long rallies.  The streak of points reaches eight for Murray, and seventeen of the last nineteen, as he reaches triple break point on the top seed’s serve.   Djokovic recovers to save all three, suddenly transitioning back into offense.  Capitalizing on that miniature surge, he starts to open his shoulders more freely on his groundstrokes and dodges what might have looked like a formidable deficit.  After a massive return for an outright winner, Djokovic reaches 30-30 on the Murray serve following a strangely sprayed backhand wide that his opponent mistimed.  But Murray records the 15th straight hold of the match.

Murray 7-6 3-2*:  Consecutive aces help Djokovic pull ahead to 40-15, only to see a fine return by the Scot and a careless error pull the game back to deuce.  Murray again fails to exploit the opening, though, and allows his opponent to stay hopeful in this set.  The front-runner then delivers an ace of his own to start and another to finish a strong hold.

Murray 7-6 4-3*:  A sluggish start to the next game from Murray offers an easy hold to his opponent.  And a diffident return game from Djokovic allows Murray to do the same.

Murray 7-6 5-4*:  After the Scot challenges on a close volley near the baseline and receives the bad news from Hawkeye, Djokovic fires down first serves that allow him to take command of the rally immediately.  Charging to 40-0 with pinpoint groundstrokes highlighted by a backhand down the line, Murray skirts a double fault to hold serve without a tremor.  He will attempt to break for a two-set lead.

Murray 7-6 6-5*:  Punished for an overly meek approach, Djokovic watches a Murray forehand pass sail by him on the first point of this crucial game.  Two points later, a bold smash from deep on the court for a clean winner puts the Serb ahead.  He closes out the hold with sturdy baseline play but cannot subject Murray to much pressure as the Scot closes out a second straight set without a loss of serve.

Sets even 7-6 6-7(3-7):  Although a double fault temporarily opens the door for the Scot at 30-30, Djokovic closes out a second straight set full of holds with punishing forehands, a well-angled smash, and a cross-court backhand for a clean winner.  The two men then trade overpowering first serves on the first two points of the tiebreak.  After Djokovic had double-faulted away the first point of the first-set tiebreak, Murray double-faults away the first minibreak of this tiebreak.  A forehand error from the Scot leads him trailing 2-4 at the change of ends, and a service winner soon deepens his arrears.  Responding with a forehand error of his own, Djokovic permits Murray to stay within range. Another draining rally ends with a meekly netted backhand by the Scot, though, and his slice finds the net on the Serb’s first set point to even the match after a pair of lopsided tiebreaks in each of the first two sets.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 2-1*:  Opening with a commanding service hold, Djokovic strikes two aces and even wins a Hawkeye challenge, a rare event.  Not much more challenging is the next service game from Murray, where the difference in effectiveness between his first and second serves surfaces.  Spreading the court with effective wide serves, Djokovic holds routinely again as his opponent’s forehand starts to falter.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 3-2*:  A love hold for Murray quickly restores the set to level terms as the Serb struggles to find a way into rallies.  Two routine errors from the third seed late in the defending champion’s next service game remove any threat of pressure on the latter.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 4-3*:  Considering the holds that flow so easily on both sides, 40-30 seems like a chance for Djokovic, but he lets Murray draw level by failing to corral a wide serve.  A crushing cross-court backhand highlights the defending champion’s next service hold, which ends with a spectacular series of defensive retrievals.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3:  With a forehand rocket on the first point of the eighth game, the Serb signals his intent to score a crucial break.  He then recovers a drop shot, drawing an odd miss from Murray, and rips two brutal forehands to reach triple break point.  While Murray fends off the first two, aided by his opponent, his forehand finds the net on the third for the first break of the match.  Serving for the set, Djokovic establishes his authority with massive first serves and closes out the set at love.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 2*-1:  Down 0-30 on his serve in the first game, Murray desperately needs a hold to start this must-win fourth set positively.  He wins the next three points before floating an inside-out forehand wide to reach deuce.  A lovely backhand stab volley off a potent pass provides him the key to unlock the hold.  In the second point of his next game, Djokovic slaps a careless inside-out forehand into the alley to position Murray with a 0-30 chance, and an error on his forehand down the line presents the first break point on his serve since early in the second set.  Untroubled by the danger, Djokovic thumps down three first serves to hold.  On the second and third points of the next game, Murray cannot track down a blistering backhand return and dumps a double fault into the net.  Running around his backhand to strike an inside-in forehand, Djokovic claims double break point.  Saving the first break point with a service winner, Murray surrenders the second after a long rally with a netted forehand.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 4*-1:  A flicker of hope shines upon the Scot when he reaches 30-30 in the next game, extinguished with a tame forehand error and a backhand pushed wearily long.  Serving in a must-hold game, Murray falls behind 0-30 but regroups to win three straight points by exploiting some wayward groundstrokes from the Serb.  Djokovic stretches the game to deuce with a forehand perfectly placed in his opponent’s forehand corner before the third seed again earns a game point.  Pulverizing groundstroke after groundstroke off the baseline, the Serb refuses to relent and returns the score to deuce.  From there, a dazzling series of defensive sprawls and a double fault from Murray leave Djokovic with a stranglehold on the proceedings.

Djokovic 6-7 7-6 6-3 5*-2:  Perhaps a little too comfortable, the Serb donates two quick errors that he erases in part with an imaginatively angled forehand.  The increasingly tired Murray shows little resistance from there.  A rather careless return game from Djokovic, aiming for form rather than function, extends the final through another changeover.

FINAL:  Djokovic 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-3 6-2:  With the title on his racket, Murray strikes a pair of elegant passing shots past the top speed as he approaches the net too rashly.  Three points later, Djokovic jerks him from side to side, earning a championship point.  He wastes no time in converting when Murray nets a backhand to hand the Serb his coveted Australian Open three-peat.

Murray will rue the three break points that he squandered in Djokovic’s first service game of the second set, which could have dealt a serious blow to the defending champion’s spirit.  The Serb allowed him only one break point the rest of the way in a sparkling sequence of 21 consecutive holds.  Djokovic has won four of his six major titles at the Australian Open, equaling Agassi and Federer for the most by any man here in the Open era.

Live Blog: Australian Open Women’s Final, Victoria Azarenka vs. Li Na


Follow for updates from the women’s final as the match unfolds.  Victoria Azarenka seeks to defend her title and her #1 ranking, but Li Na looks for a third straight victory over a top-four opponent.

Azarenka 1*-0:  Having claimed that she would silence her nerves for her second final here, Li suggests otherwise with a double fault to open the final.  Not nervous herself, Azarenka pounds a series of deep returns that allow her to move inside the baseline early in the rallies.  A pair of routine errors from 30-30 hand the first of what should be many breaks to the defending champion.

Li 2-1*:  When she starts her first service game, Azarenka now looks edgy and quickly returns the break with some tepid errors.  Steadying herself in the next game, Li opens it by winning a long rally with a clean forehand winner, her first of the match.  As expected, she dictates most of the rallies for better or for worse and ends most of them with winners or unforced errors.  With some more solid serving, she earns a valuable hold to reverse the early deficit.

Li 3-2*:  Smartly freezing and wrong-footing Azarenka by redirecting her groundstrokes, Li breaks easily under the weight of her superior power as the top seed looks a trifle sluggish.  Down 30-15 on her next return game, Vika drills a backhand down the line that appears to alleviate some of her simmering frustration.  Two game points spurned, one on a gruesome miss, Li dumps a backhand in the net to keep the set on serve (or on break, if you prefer).

Li 5-2*:  With a massive backhand that cleans the sideline splendidly, Li earns the third straight break after surrendering just one point to Azarenka.  Her return continues to maul the Belarussian’s serve, both first and second.  Azarenka has won just four points in three service games as she still looks for her first hold.  By contrast, Li holds serve at love with a resounding statement that moves her within a game of the first set.

Li 5-4*:  The top seed urgently needed to hold, and she does by finding more first serves before following them with deep penetrating groundstrokes.  Serving for the first set, Li donates a loose sequence of points that leave her pinned at triple break point.  Her groundstrokes narrowly missing their targets, she saves just a single break point before another sloppy error moves the set back on serve, although Azarenka still must hold to draw level.

Li 6-4:  From 30-30, a crushing cross-court return winner off the forehand positions Li at set point, but Azarenka saves it when her opponent’s return sails long.  The two women then trade sizzling forehand winners as the quality of the match improves, Vika’s coming off a sharply angled pass and the Chinese star’s after a point that she set up with groundstrokes off both sidelines.  A second set point vanishes with a fine drop volley from Azarenka, not usually a specialty of hers.  But a third set point arrives when Li catches the Belarussian leaning the wrong direction and punishes her with an inside-out backhand winner, only to squander it with a return error.  The fourth set point falls into her ledger without the need to strike a ball, though, when Azarenka double-faults well long.

Li 6-4 0-3*:  Break #8 arrives immediately when Li’s backhand drifts into the alley in a surprising sign of weakness from a normally steady shot.  Clearly not free of her nerves yet, she contributes more errors in another Azarenka game that reaches deuce and ultimately break point.  Able to save the break point with a service winner, Vika steadies herself to play some of her most impressive tennis so far as she paints both sidelines with both groundstrokes in a Djokovic-like sequence that finally silences the tenacious Li.  The unforced errors flow ever more freely from the Chinese star’s racket, recalling her wayward start to the second set in the 2011 final after she had won the first.  Vika claims an extra break to take control of this set, for now.

Li 6-4 2-3*:  In every service game but one, Azarenka has dropped her serve or faced break point.  That trend continues when a crisp inside-out forehand from Li follows a wayward forehand from Vika to regain part of the deficit.  Ranging along the baseline midway through her next service game, she tumbles onto the court as she appears to sprain her ankle.  Not as gruesomely twisted as some before her, it requires a medical timeout that halts the momentum of the match even further.  When she returns, however, Li unleashes aggressive backhands to hold off the slightly out-of-tune Azarenka.

Li 6-4 3-4*:  Battling to regain the other break, Li moves across the baseline more effortfully but almost as effectively.  She draws an error from Azarenka via a well-timed lob and soon finds herself down triple break point when the defending champion misses a straightforward forehand.  A netted ball on the third appears to drain some of the spirit from her as a merciless Vika digs out of trouble to hold.  Faced with a virtual must-hold, she double-faults consecutively at 15-15 as her movement starts to falter.  Azarenka nets a routine backhand on the second to keep the set tight, and some clean serving from Li allows her to escape the game.

Li 6-4 4-5*:  Bombing a pinpoint backhand return on the first point of the eighth game, Li moves Azarenka off the court by creating a sharp forehand angle.  By netting a drop shot, the defending champion sets up double break point.  When Azarenka sprays a forehand on the second, the set returns to even terms after the top set had led by a double break.  Struggling to capitalize on the momentum shift, Li nets some routine groundstrokes and sends a backhand long on break point.

Sets even 6-4 4-6:  Appearing to suffer increasing pain in her ankle, the Chinese veteran concedes the next game quickly with a series of routine errors.  Azarenka holds without facing a break point for just the second time and holds for just the third time overall in two sets.  Li now must regroup herself mentally and physically for a final set as her ankle trouble continues to loom.

Li 6-4 4-6 2-1*:  At 15-30, Li botches a mid-court forehand in horrific fashion to set up double break point.  After she holds a game point following a netted groundstroke from Li, Azarenka grows too passive and later double-faults for the 14th break of the match.  Taking advantage of a lull in her opponent’s consistency, the Chinese star edges ahead just before the Australia Day fireworks start in Melbourne.

Azarenka 4-6 6-4 3*-2:  An excruciating match for Li’s body grows ever more painful as she slips on the baseline during the first point after the fireworks and not only twists her ankle again but bangs her head into the asphalt.  After a timeout to assess a potential concussion, she bounces back with a sparkling inside-out backhand return at 30-30 to earn a break point.  Azarenka then shows off her own two-hander to save the break point with a signature cross-court angle.  An early forehand error in the next game and a double fault on the third point dig a hole for Li.  With double break point ahead, however, Azarenka floats a shot over the baseline.  Or rather not, for Hawkeye reverses the call and forces a replay that the world #1 wins with another magnificent cross-court backhand.

Azarenka 4-6 6-4 4*-3:  Holding comfortably for a rare time, Azarenka moves within two games of defending her title.  For her part, Li regroups sturdily from losing the first point of a crucial service games to take command behind her first serve.  She holds with a booming cross-court forehand to keep the suspense very much in this match.

FINAL:  Azarenka wins 4-6 6-4 6-3:  An inside-in forehand winner followed by penetrating backhands puts Azarenka in an early 0-30 hole as she grows too passive.  Creating an interesting change of pace at 30-30, Li claims a break point with a moonball that draws a forehand error.  Azarenka saves it with a first serve out wide and moves within five points of the title with an inside-out forehand winner.  Another wide serve leaves Li serving to stay in the match.  A fine backhand winner down the line keeps her alive at 15-15, but a forehand winner from Azarenka moves her within two points of the title.  The game soon reaches deuce following a deep forehand and a netted backhand from Li, deciding her own fate to the end.  A wild backhand offers Azarenka her first championship point, which she earns with a backhand sailed over the baseline from Li.

Azarenka showed the resolve of a champion in defending her first major title, but Li also deserves credit for battling so fiercely through injury after injury to extend the world #1 deep into a final set.  Credit to both of them.

Wizards of Oz (XIII): Previewing the Australian Open Women’s Final and Men’s Doubles Final

On the penultimate day of the tournament, the 2013 Australian Open will crown its women’s singles and men’s doubles champions.  Read about what to expect from those matches.

Azarenka vs. Li:  Meeting in a final on Australian soil for the fourth time, these two women of similar styles have battled to a very even record.  Both can hammer magnificent backhands for winners to anywhere on the court, while the forehands of each can falter under pressure despite providing plenty of firepower at times.  Neither wins many free points on serve, although each has improved in that department lately, and both relish pouncing on an opponent’s second serve.  For these reasons, their previous meetings usually hinge on execution rather than tactics, as well as on the ability of Azarenka and Li to shoulder pressure deep in the tight sets and matches that they have played.  After the Roland Garros champion dominated the early stages of their rivalry, winning four of the first five, the defending champion here has reeled off four straight victories.  But two of those have reached final sets, including the Sydney title tilt last year.

The more impressive of the two in fortnight form, Li has echoed her 2011 surge in Paris by defeating two of the top four women simply to reach the final.  Convincing victories over Radwanska and Sharapova, the latter of whom had troubled her lately, left her record immaculate without a single set lost.  In fact, Li has won 14 of her 15 matches this year in yet another display of the brisk start with which she often opens a season.  Also accustomed to starting seasons on hot streaks before her body breaks down, Azarenka has mounted a creditable albeit not overpowering effort in her title defense.  She has not faced anyone ranked higher than 29th seed Sloane Stephens en route to the final, but she defeated the dangerous Kuznetsova with ease in the quarterfinals and has yielded only one set.  What most may remember from her pre-final effort here, unfortunately, happened in the closing sequence of her semifinal victory.  A dubious medical timeout just before Stephens served (unsuccessfully) to stay in the match incited disdain from throughout the tournament and Twitterverse, which may ripple through the response to her on Saturday.

In an ironic twist, any hostility towards Azarenka might well inspire her to produce her most motivated, relentless effort of the tournament.  The world #1, who will remain there with a title, usually thrives on the negativity of others and can excel when barricading herself inside a fortress of “me against the world” attitude.  For her part, Li Na will hope to show greater poise than she did in this final two years ago, letting a mid-match lead slip away to Clijsters.  The coronation that followed at Roland Garros just a few months later and the steadying presence of coach Carlos Rodriguez should help the Chinese superstar channel her energies more effectively this time.  Thus, one can expect a high-quality match with plenty of passion on both sides, a fitting conclusion to the many intriguing WTA narrative threads that unwound at the year’s first major.

Bryan/Bryan vs. Haase/Sijsling:  Finalists here for a fifth straight year, the Bryans hope to emulate women’s doubles champions Errani and Vinci in atoning for their disappointing runner-up finish to an unheralded team in 2012.  Equally unheralded is the duo of Dutchmen across the net, who have not lost a set since tottering on the brink of defeat in their first match.  Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling needed a third-set tiebreak to elude that initial obstacle, but they have compiled an ominously impressive record in tiebreaks here, which bodes well for their chances in a match likely to feature few break points.  Their relative lack of experience would seem a clear disadvantage against the Bryans, superior in chemistry to virtually every imaginable team.

All the same, the surprising Australian duo of Barty and Dellacqua posed a severe threat to women’s top seeds Errani and Vinci in the corresponding final, so the Bryans cannot take this team too lightly in their quest for a record-extending 13th major title.  They have earned their most consistent success in Melbourne, where they have reached nine total finals, but the twins looked slightly more vulnerable this year in losing sets to the teams of Chardy/Kubot and Bolelli/Fognini.  Neither of those duos can claim anything remotely comparable to the storied accomplishments of the Americans yet still challenged them.  As with those matches, this final will test the conventional belief that two capable singles player can overcome the most elite doubles squads.  Both inside the top 70, Haase and Sijsling have gained their modest success almost entirely in singles, whereas the specialists across the net know the geometry of doubles as well as any team ever has.  That comfort level should prove the difference in a triumph that extends the stranglehold of the Bryans on history.

Live Blog: Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer

Follow this live blog during the highly anticipated semifinal between Andy Murray and Roger Federer.  The winner will battle two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic for the Australian Open title on Sunday night.

Murray 2*-1:  After two forehand errors, the second ending a 28-shot rally, Federer faces an early break point.  Delivering a timely first serve, he snuffs out the threat with a drive volley.  Some crisper baseline play allows the Swiss to hold and avoid the initial deficit.  Murray’s first service game unfolds more routinely, a positive sign for a player who struggled to hold throughout the tournament.  Federer continues to experience greater difficulty in his service games, not finding his first serve as often as he would prefer.  Following another long rally played mostly on the Scot’s terms, he earns two more break points.  Saving the first by approaching the net aggressively, Federer escapes the second with a meek backhand error from Murray.  Another long rally erases a third on a forehand error from the third seed, but an imposing cross-court forehand on a fourth draws a netted reply and gives the Scot the early lead.

Murray 3*-2:  Able to find many more first serves than his opponent, Murray wins more free points en route to a 40-0 lead.  But Federer draws all the way back to deuce and earns his first break point of the match.  Murray saves it with a pinpoint ace out wide and ultimately holds after multiple deuces.  No chance of an insurance break beckons as Federer closes out his game within moments.

Murray 4*-3:  Murray continues to find Federer’s backhand consistently in the rallies, arranging many of the points from his strength (his two-hander) to Federer’s weakness (his one-hander).  He holds a little more easily this time for 4-2, putting the pressure on the Swiss in a must-win game.  Federer digs an early hole for himself with some wayward forehands.  Racing along the baseline in his best defensive point of the match, Murray cracks a running backhand pass to set up double break point.  On the second of the break points, Federer leaps to his left and exhibits his spectacular reflexes with a backhand smash over his shoulder.  He wins the next two points to stay within range.

Murray 5*-4:  At 15-0, Murray wins a fine cat-and-mouse exchange with Federer at the net that unwinds through several expertly angled volleys.  Having held at love to move a game away from the set, he puts little pressure on the Swiss star’s next service game.

Murray 6-4:  Staying steady with the first set on his racket, Murray plays high-percentage tennis in closing out the crucial hold for the loss of just a single point.  Federer must protect his serve more authoritatively from here to climb back into the match.

Murray 6-4 1*-2:  Attacking the net with greater conviction, Federer opens a promising lead but lets the opening game slip back to deuce with his first double fault of the match.  Having navigated that slight disturbance, he can put no pressure on Murray’s serve.  Nor can the Scot on the Swiss serve in the third game as the second set starts quietly.

Murray 6-4 2*-3:  The tactics are there for Federer, while the execution is there only occasionally.  Winning a 16-stroke rally, he appears to have marooned Murray at the net before missing a routine backhand wide as the Scot holds comfortably again.  Under severe pressure at 2-2, 0-30, Federer fends off the younger man with the help of some overly ambitious groundstrokes that wind up in the error column for Murray.  An ace punctuates another vital hold.

Murray 6-4 3*-4:  A slightly loose game from Murray places him in a spot of bother at 30-30, where a passive point from Federer allows the Scot to finish at the net.  An ace takes Murray to 3-3, and gives him the momentum to mount an early challenge in his return game.  Showing off his touch and court coverage, he outmaneuvers Federer again at the net.  Not deterred by that setback, the Swiss star sweeps four of the next five points to hold wit some more consistent groundstrokes.

Murray 6-4 4*-5:  Facing a bit of scoreboard tension for the first time, Murray shows no sign of discomfort in hammering a sequence of first serves that give Federer no chance to enter the point.    An unwise drop shot allows Murray a flicker of hope when he converts the forehand pass with room to spare.  But the US Open champion gains no further traction in a game that Federer finishes off with a crisply angled forehand.

Murray 6-4 5*-6:  Serving to stay in the second set, Murray responds with a forehand winner down the line on the first point.  An errant backhand moves Federer within three points of the set, but a brilliant backhand winner down the line finishes a rally during which the Swiss had held the upper hand throughout.  The straightforward hold for 5-5 behind him, he can return to heightening the pressure on Federer’s serve.  In that regard, Murray earns no success.  A pair of perfectly placed volleys lead the Swiss to a love hold that moves the set to the brink of a tiebreak.

Sets even 6-4 6-7 (5-7):  Having won the first set 6-4 and lost the second 7-5 in the Wimbledon final last year, Murray takes care not to fall into the same trap again.  He again holds for the loss of just a solitary point, forcing a tiebreak with the chance to take a two-set lead.  An immediate mini-break falls into the Scot’s pocket when a deep cross-court forehand forces Federer to rush his own forehand into the net.  But Murray loses no time in handing both of his first two service points to his opponent.  Quickly down 1-4 following a Federer first serve-drive volley combination, he wins his next two service points to stay within range.  A vital challenge prevents him from surrendering an extra mini-break, and the tiebreak draws level a point later when the Swiss clanks a routine backhand into the net.  With a service winner, Federer still edges within two points of evening the match, as does Murray with a strong forehand approach.  Down to his second serve, the Scot still closes to the net aggressively to put away what seemed like a futile lob, only to see the Swiss position his feet perfectly to rip a winning pass off the smash.  Another forehand error, sprayed over the baseline, evens this match with a very similar scoreline so far to last year’s Wimbledon final.  Federer won that match in four sets after losing the first.

Murray 6-4 6-7 2-1*:  Trying to build upon his momentum, the second seed slashes a forehand return winner on the first point and plows toward the net two points later, only to net a volley from a strong Murray backhand.  A stinging cross-court backhand expels some of the Scot’s frustrations and allows him to start the set positively.  Losing the rhythm on his first serve, Federer slips into defensive mode and opens a door for Murray to snatch the momentum back directly.  After an extended exchange, Murray gradually exploits the shallow balls from across the net and slips into the forecourt to rush the Swiss into an errant pass.  Quickly seizing command behind his first serve, Federer approaches the net with an inside-in forehand that the Scot cannot answer.  He then thumps down an ace en route to the arduous hold.  Less arduous is Murray’s next service game, which ends at love amid some flustered shots from both men.

Murray 6-4 6-7 3-2*:  More at ease in his next service game, Federer plays superb defense to win the first point from Murray on the next.  Although benefited by a Hawkeye challenge, the Scot now suffers a more taxing service game, complicated by missing a relatively makeable backhand sitter.  That said, Federer lets him off the hook with a wild forehand as he continues to play from behind in this set.

Murray 6-4 6-7 5-2*:  A double fault and a loose forehand provide Murray with another window of opportunity early in the sixth game.  As Federer floats a backhand just long, three break points emerge.  On the second of them, Murray pokes a second-serve return deep enough to assert himself early in the rally, which the Swiss soon ends with a backhand wide.  Two games from retaking the lead, the third seed protects his serve more confidently and strikes consecutive aces (one confirmed by Hawkeye).

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3:  Rocketing a second-serve return winner on the first point, Murray attempts to create even further pressure.  He overruns a ball at 15-15, though, assisting Federer in surviving the game.  The third set on his racket, Murray recovers from losing the first point to outlast Federer on the second.  From there, an ace, a baseline-clipping forehand winner, and another ace close out the set.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 1*-2:  A little flat at the outset, Federer falls behind break point almost immediately, but he wrong-foots Murray brilliantly to extricate himself.    Despite twisting his ankle while reversing direction, Murray covers the court well enough on the next few points.  A pair of inside-out forehand winners allow him to keep pace early in the fourth set.  Behind a series of wide serves that open the court, Federer holds easily to move ahead again.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 1*-4:  Plunging himself into early trouble, Murray nets a backhand and slices another into the alley to start his next service game.  A sloppy approach error produces three break points, the first two of which vanish behind perfectly placed serves to the Federer forehand.  On the third, though, a second-serve return near the baseline sets up the Swiss on neutral terms in the rally, which ends on a forehand error from Murray.  Surging to 40-0 with one ruthless groundstroke after another, Federer marches within two service holds of a final set.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 3*-4:  Steadier first serves from Murray earn him an easy hold as he rebounds impressively from losing serve for the first time in the match.  Continuing to exploit the Scot’s vulnerability on wide serves to his forehand, Federer allows Murray back into the game with a poor drop shot.  A fine reflex pass by Murray catches him just a hair out of position and creates a break-point chance.  Unable to find his first serve, Federer falls behind from the outset of the rally and cannot recover as his opponent rushes to the net and finishes the point emphatically.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 4*-5:  The two men open the eighth game by trading groundstroke errors, followed by a Murray ace.  Saving a break point that arose from a scintillating Federer backhand down the line, the Scot battles through deuce after deuce while wasting his final challenge on a ball that barely tweaked the baseline.  Finally Murray survives after four deuces, opening up the court with a wide serve and then pummeling his backhand into his opponent’s backhand corner before a forehand error from the Swiss levels the set at 4-4.  A spectacular lob from well behind the baseline opens the next return game for Murray, but Federer closes to 30-30 with formidable first serves.  Straightforward errors take the game to deuce, from where a Swiss forehand barely cleans the line.  Liberated from danger for the moment, Federer holds with a service winner.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6*-5:  Recalling his excellent efforts when serving to stay in the second set, Murray holds at love to keep the fourth set alive.  A pair of netted groundstrokes from Federer again open the door for him to collect a break that would allow him to serve for the match.  After a backhand floats over the baseline, Murray holds three break points.  Missing his first serve consistently, Federer drops his serve at love  when he fails to retrieve an explosive forehand.

Sets even 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 (2-7):  Leading 30-15 after a service winner, Murray drops three straight points to send the fourth set into a tiebreak despite having served for the match, the last on a horrific forehand lashed into the doubles alley.  Federer survives the first point when the Scot tamely nets a backhand, and a vicious return of serve earns him a quick minibreak.  Nevertheless, the minibreak moves back to Murray with a forehand error from the Swiss.  Serving at 2-3, the third seed falls behind from the outset of the point and cannot prevent Federer from finishing at the net in vintage fashion.  An extra minibreak moves the Swiss within two points of a final set, which he collects routinely following two deflated errors from Murray.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 3-0*:  Impressively managing to collect himself, the third seed held serve to start the final set without undue adversity.  To the contrary, Murray plays steady baseline tennis that earns a break point on Federer’s first service game.  Unable to land his first serve, the Swiss shanks a backhand to concede the early lead.  A disastrous return game allows Murray to hold serve at love and race halfway to victory in an impressive reversal from his fortunes late in the fourth set.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 4-1*:  The coup de grace would seem to loom when Federer stands vulnerable at the net with 30-30 on his serve.  Netting the pass, Murray continues to allow hope to linger for the Swiss, although a love hold moves him within two games of the final.

Murray 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 5-2*:  Rather clearly conceding a Federer service game in which he fell behind initially, the Scot saves energy for the first of the two service holds that he needs.  Murray loses only one point as he prepares to serve for this match yet again.

FINAL:  Murray wins 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2:  A pair of weary groundstroke errors suggest that the third seed might not need to serve out the match after all.  At 15-30, a smooth second-serve return winner from Murray leads him to double match point.  Although Federer saves the first, a forehand jerked well long on the second thrusts Murray into his second Australian Open and third straight final at a major.


Wizards of Oz (XII): Previewing Murray vs. Federer and the Women’s Doubles Final

Read about what to expect from the marquee match in the second men’s semifinal and the intriguing clash of storylines in the women’s doubles final.

Murray vs. Federer:  Preparing for their 20th career meeting, these two familiar foes have battled nearly neck and neck through their first nineteen with Murray holding a slim 10-9 edge.  Perhaps more relevant, however, is the advantage that Federer claims at majors, where he has won three finals from the Scot for the loss of one total set.  On the other hand, one could argue that this trend derives from Murray’s initial futility in major finals, where the pressure of snapping Great Britain’s drought unnerved him repeatedly until his breakthrough last fall.  Among the key turning points that spurred him to that US Open title was his victory over Federer in the gold-medal match at the Olympics, attributable in part to the Swiss star’s fatigue but still a vital confidence surge for Murray.

Claiming his revenge over his Olympics nemesis at the year-end championships in November, Federer recaptured the momentum in their rivalry on a relatively fast surface that suits his game better than Murray’s style.  Still a natural counterpuncher despite his improved aggression, the US Open champion may find the faster court on Rod Laver Arena a disadvantage in this matchup with a man who prefers to shorten the points and force the issue.  (Less consequential, one suspects, is the somewhat contrived issue of his night matches, or lack of them, which he addressed by practicing on Hisense in the evening.)  But Murray encountered no difficulty on the faster outer courts here while winning all of his first five matches in straight sets.  He enters this semifinal fully rested, essential to execute his grinding game plan of wearing down Federer.  He also enters this semifinal largely untested by an opponent worthy of his steel and will need to adjust quickly to the steep spike upward in competitive quality across the net.

Handed a much more challenging draw than Murray, Federer needed five sets to thwart an inspired challenge from Tsonga that forced him to unleash his full array of artistry.  Before then, the formidable serves of twin giants Tomic and Raonic could not trouble the Swiss, who held serve relentlessly until the Frenchman cracked him four times in the quarterfinals.  Likely to lose at least a few service games to Murray, an outstanding returner, Federer will need to convert more of his own break points.  An anemic 4 for 18 against Tsonga, he let several opportunities slip away early in sets that would have eased his progress.  While they did not cost him in that match or in those that preceded it, when he also struggled in that category, Federer cannot offer Murray additional lives and expect to escape.

Another question of note concerns his backhand, which has looked sharp this tournament but has not always shone when tested by the Scot’s superior two-hander.  If Federer can dominate on serve and step inside the baseline to finish points, his groundstroke consistency may not matter.  And Murray has looked uneasy for much of the fortnight with his timing from the baseline as well as his serve, under threat more often than one would expect from his outclassed opponents so far.  All the same, this battle for the right to challenge the defending champion promises greater suspense than Djokovic’s demolition of Ferrer.

Errani/Vinci vs. Barty/Dellacqua:  Champions at Roland Garros and the US Open last year, the Italians who long have dazzled in Fed Cup duty ended 2012 as the best doubles duo in the WTA.  Errani and Vinci also reached the final here last year, falling to Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in a minor upset, so they will aim to reverse that result.  Littered with obstacles, their route so far has required all of their teamwork, ingenuity, and veteran experience to survive.  After they came within three points of defeat against Hsieh and Peng in the quarterfinals, the Italians trailed Venus and Serena by a set and a break in the semifinals.  One would think that deficit insurmountable, but Errani and Vinci pounced on a late second-set lull to turn around the match despite their disadvantage in overall power.

Their lengthy annals of experience together offer them a crucial edge over the Australian hopes of Barty and Dellacqua, who surely stunned even their most ardent fans by reaching this final without losing a set.  Defeating Schiavone and her partner in their opener, the Aussies delivered their most significant upset over third seeds Kirilenko and Raymond.  Nor have Barty and Dellacqua looked back from there as they plowed through a section of the draw riddled with upsets.  For the 16-year-old novice and the injury-troubled lefty, Friday presents a golden opportunity to earn the most significant accomplishment of their careers so far, a great leap forward for Barty in particular.  For the Australian fans, meanwhile, the chance to support their players in doubles after most of their singles threats exited early should not go unnoticed.


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

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.

Live Blog: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Roger Federer

Welcome to this live blog of the Australian Open quarterfinal between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer.  We will update about once for every two or three games as the match unfolds, possibly more often at tense moments.  Keep refreshing the page and scrolling down to see updates.

Federer 1*-0:  A double fault contributes to a weak start for Tsonga, who finds himself down double break point directly after a Federer smash.  Although he saves the first, a lazy volley surrenders the second to give the Swiss an early lead.

Federer 2*-1:  Always an excellent front-runner, Federer keeps his momentum racing ahead with a love hold.  A staggering Tsonga nearly lets a 40-0 lead on serve get away amid some loose backhands from both men, but a service winner at 40-30 keeps him somewhat in the set.

Federer 3*-2:  Two break points go begging for Tsonga, one on a Federer forehand winner and one on a forehand error of his own.  Despite the pressure that he created in that game, he still doesn’t look settled into the match mentally yet.  Federer has little trouble moving him out of position.  His forehand continues to look erratic, however, allow Tsonga to hold easily.

Tsonga 4-3*:  Starting to cover the court more alertly, the Frenchman continues to dog the Swiss in another tight service game.  From deuce, Tsonga rips a cross-court return winner off his forehand and then manages to work his way into a rally off a Federer first serve.  A groundstroke error puts the set back on serve, compensating for the Frenchman’s early lapse.  Suddenly into a groove on his first serve, Tsonga races to 40-0 and survives a late wobble in the game to finish it authoritatively with a smash.

Tsonga 5-4*:  Neither man looks formidable in the eighth game, which features backhand shanks from Tsonga and a double fault from Federer.  At 4-4, 30-30, the world #2 shows some of his vintage ball control by lofting a lob that draws a less than definitive smash, which then produced another lob towards Tsonga’s backhand that the Frenchman sprays wide for a break point.  After a baseline rally of medium length, Federer nets a forehand to bring the game back to deuce, and the seventh seed uses more aggressive serving to hold.

Tsonga 6-5*:  By varying the placement on his serve, some out wide and some into his opponent’s body, Federer earns the hold that he needed to survive in the set.  Tsonga then shows of his exquisite touch at the net in picking up a drop volley from near his shoelaces, beyond the reach of even the Swiss star’s silky movement.  He follows Federer’s love hold with a love hold of his own.

Federer 7-6 (7-4):  In the shadow of a tiebreak, Federer unleashes a series of inside-out forehands to hold with ease.  An incorrect challenge on his first serve to start the tiebreak seems to fluster Tsonga, who immediately nets a backhand to concede a minibreak.  Federer uses his forehand to open the court and expose his opponent’s ungainly movement over the next two points, claiming a 3-0 lead.  With two virtual must-win points on his racket, Tsonga converts with a deft backhand slice and a crushing cross-court forehand, but Federer still leads 4-2 at the change of ends following a smash.  An ace that barely grazes the outside of the center stripe moves him within two points of the first set.  Responding with a well-angled ace and a surprisingly precise pass when Federer seemed in control of the rally, Tsonga closes to within 4-5.  With the set on his racket, Federer quickly claims double set point and benefits from a netted backhand by his opponent to win a neutral exchange on the first.

Federer 7-6 2-1*:  Both men start the second set with emphatic holds, not allowing the other even a flicker of hope on return.  Tsonga does win two points in the third but has no answer for Federer’s varied placement on serve.

Federer 7-6 3-2*:  Another effortless hold from Tsonga continues his fine service rhythm, quite a contrast to the early stages of the first set.  Attacking the net behind a deep forehand approach, Federer exhibits in touch with a tidy drop volley.  A penetrating backhand down the line from Tsonga looks about to position him at 30-30 on his opponent’s serve, but Federer narrowly retrieves it and draws a wild forehand error.  The Swiss star then curls a forehand of his own around the net to hold.

Federer 7-6 3-4*:  The run of service points from the Frenchman extends to the midpoint of the second set as Federer struggles to put a return in play.  An inside-out forehand bomb by Tsonga precedes a loose forehand from the Swiss that leaves him in a 15-30 hole.  Another opens the door for the underdog with a break point, which he converted by staying in a rally long enough to lure Federer into yet another mistimed forehand.

Federer 7-6 4-5*:  Roaring through another comfortable hold, Tsonga marches within a game of leveling the match.  He also begins to start winning a greater proportion of the longer rallies as errors trickle in greater quantities from Federer.  Darting towards his forehand corner, Tsonga fired a cross-court pass in a display of his familiarly inspired shot-making.  With a confident forehand drive volley, though, Federer rallies from 15-30 to stay alive in the set.

Sets even 7-6 4-6:  In his most important service game of the match so far, Tsonga opens with an ace down the center stripe.  His confidence surfaced when he rifled a backhand down the line with greater authority than he often shows on that stroke.  While Federer saved the first of three set points on the Frenchman’s serve, the second produced a service winner that evened the match at one set apiece.  The second seed had won just two points in his return games that set, recalling his futility in that area when he lost to Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2011.

Federer 7-6 4-6 2-1*:  Federer starts with the type of routine hold that he needed to settle himself after his disappointing performance in the second set.  Still on an emotional peak, perhaps, Tsonga suffers a slight dip in intensity and echoes some of his misses early in the first set.  Two sprayed forehands leave him behind 0-30, but he wins a rollicking rally that stretches both men to all corners of the court.  An acrobatic smash by Federer (on a fine lob) sets up an early break point at this key juncture of the match.  Attempting to force the issue too early in the point, Tsonga hurtled to the net behind only a modestly assertive approach.  A backhand pass into his body forced him to net the volley, which handed Federer a valuable early lead.  After the Swiss badly mistimed an inside-in forehand for 30-30, Tsonga challenges correctly to set up a break point.  That brave gamble of stopping play during the rally reaps rewards when Federer sprays another forehand into the doubles alley for the break back.

Federer 7-6 4-6 3-2*:  A window of opportunity drifts open in Tsonga’s service game when an elegant backhand pass from the Swiss takes it to deuce.  Tsonga hammers a breathtaking inside-in forehand winner off a sideline, only to allow a fortuitous net cord to disrupt his timing on the next point.  Federer’s backhand lets him off the hook, though, negating his opponent’s struggle to find a first serve.  Tsonga saves a break point with an inside-in forehand that cleans another sideline, and an ace signposts his route to a hold in the longest game of the match so far.  More efficient is Federer’s next service game, highlighted by a combination of a punishing forehand into the corner and a delicate drop shot.

Federer 7-4 4-6 4-3*:  Pummeling forehands down the line and cross court at will, Tsonga keeps Federer off balance more effectively in his next service game.  The Swiss creates no chances, but neither does he allow any in the seventh game.  From behind his own baseline, Federer strikes a clean backhand winner off the opposite baseline that demonstrates how delicious that shot can look when at its vintage best.

Federer 7-6 4-6 5-4*:  Normal service resumes with full force for Tsonga, who holds at love while needing to hit hardly a single groundstroke.  A double fault suggests a slight tremor of unease on Federer’s serve, but he drops no other points en route to advancing within a game of the set.

Federer 7-6 4-6 6-5*:  Showing no signs of nerves as he served to stay in the set, Tsonga even unleashes a backhand cross-court winner on the third point of his love hold.  Two groundstroke errors from Federer, one on his backhand and one on his forehand, create a glimmer of a chance for Tsonga at 0-30.  At that pivotal crossroads, Federer finds a sideline with his backhand, inspiring his first celebratory roar of the night.  Tsonga continues to struggle with approaches to his backhand, routinely dropping the passes into the net.  A careless return sets the stage for Federer to escape.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 (7-4):  A body serve by Tsonga backfires when the Swiss punches a body return at an angle that leaves the Frenchman no option but to hit into an open court.  He wins the next three points, however, as Federer starts to look a bit rattled.  The former champion does open the tiebreak with a service winner, to which Tsonga responds with an inside-out forehand rocket.  At 1-1, a routine backhand volley error from him gives Federer the early minibreak, handed straight back with a ghastly miss by the Swiss at the net.  The men change sides at 3-3 following a Federer inside-out forehand winner and a Tsonga unreturnable serve.  The second seed’s return barely crawls over the net on the seventh point, drawing a meek slice approach from Tsonga that Federer punished with a pass.  Undeterred, he closes to the net on the ninth point to regain the minibreak.  A smart challenge from Federer erases a service winner and forces a second serve from Tsonga.  When the Swiss puts it back into play, the Frenchman unwisely runs around to hit a forehand from his backhand corner, leaving the court entirely open for Federer’s backhand down the line.  Handed two set points, Federer converts the first with a crafty pass towards Tsonga’s backhand.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 1*-2:  Two delicious drop volleys by Tsonga start the fourth set positively for him, necessary in a match that he trails by two sets to one.  Federer does not slip into a lull as he had early in the second set, meanwhile, holding serve comfortably and opening a 0-30 lead on the Frenchman’s serve with a fine forehand pass.  Tsonga begins to look a bit deflated, directing a backhand volley into the alley as his shoulders sag.  But, impressively, he saves all three break points–the last with an ace.  A fourth chance vanishes with a titanic forehand down the line, and another ace concludes the gritty hold.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 2*-3:  With a new spring in his step after that miracle, Tsonga rockets a cross-court forehand return and a stunning backhand off the baseline to position himself at double break point.  Federer angles a forehand elegantly to wrong-foot his opponent on the first, and the second vanishes when the Frenchman slips behind the baseline.  Like his opponent, he avoids falling behind an early break in the fourth set.  Tsonga then misses a backhand slice just long on the second point of the next game, continuing an errant passage from him.  Federer attempts to exploit that trend by extending the next few rallies, but to no avail.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3*-4:  A tepid stretch of returning from Tsonga aids the start of Federer’s next effort to hold, with the exception of one bullet forehand return that thrusts the Swiss star onto his back foot.  When a wild forehand from the Swiss takes the game to deuce, he strikes back with a solid first serve.  The next two points swing into Tsonga’s column with fearlessly aggressive tennis, first  forehand bombed off the sideline, then a cross-court backhand that opens the court.  Federer crucially misses his first serve on the next point before losing an extended baseline exchange with a forehand error that surrenders a break to the Frenchman.  But the Swiss spares no effort in mounting his threat to break back, helped by a forehand error from Tsonga on a routine ball.  An ace precedes another forehand error, this time slapped into the net.  Two break points loom for Federer, who converts the second with a backhand miss from his opponent as his hopes of a fifth set recede for the moment.

Even sets 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6:  Spared the specter of that deciding stanza, Federer finds his first serve more frequently in the next game.  Tsonga lashes a cross-court backhand for a rare clean winner from that wing, and he keeps his cool in reeling off a triple set of passing shots to set up a break point.  Revealing his confidence, another ferocious two-hander offers him an opportunity to close out the point at the net, which he does with a stylish volley.  The set now rests on the Frenchman’s racket, and a backhand down the line from Federer subjects him to immediate pressure at 15-30.  That pressure does not discomfit Tsonga, who again passes the Swiss at the net with his backhand and outlasts him in a long rally to reach set point.  There, he crushes an ace out wide to force a final set.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 2-1*:  A strong service game from Federer opened the final set, halting his opponent’s momentum in its tracks.  He quickly leaps ahead 15-30 on his first return game, only to see the next two points slip away quickly.  But Federer does bring the score back to deuce before consecutive aces stifle his threat.  The Swiss then holds own serve at love to keep his nose ahead.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 4-1*:  Continuing to plow further into Tsonga’s serve than the seventh seed can on his, Federer moves to 0-30 in the fourth game.  Two break points soon follow on a careless backhand error, and Federer needs just one when another backhand error came his way.  A beautifully angled smash extricates him from a difficult situation on the first point.  Despite a botched volley, Federer hangs onto his serve without facing serious pressure.

Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 5-2*:  Fatigue seems to drain Tsonga’s energy by this stage, and he tosses in two routine errors to start the next game. Federer receives a bit of assistance from the net cord on a point after which Tsonga, now on his side of the net, playfully brandishes his racket on him.  The Frenchman erases both the break points, in part because of generosity from the Swiss.  To his credit, Tsonga continues to bludgeon groundstrokes on both wings.  He feathers a drop shot that looked on the verge of taking him to 0-30, only to see Federer scoop it up for a perfectly paced winner in a corner before going on to hold.

FINAL:  Federer wins 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3:  Some superb cat-and-mouse tennis from all over the court defines the next game, in which Tsonga saves three match points despite shot-making from a Federer at the peak of his powers.  Five deuces later, and another match point saved, Tsonga holds in a remarkable display of resilience.  But the match now shifts to Federer’s racket, where he exploits Tsonga’s vulnerability on low balls to his backhand.  Tsonga continues to challenge by crushing every groundstroke that he sees, but Federer’s first serve sees him through on his fifth match point in an enthralling five-set thriller under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  The second seed advances to a semifinal against the much more rested Andy Murray on Friday night in Melbourne.

One Star Rises, One Star Falls: Stephens Stuns Serena to Reach Semifinals

In the most shocking result of the 2013 Australian Open to date, the 19-year-old rising star Sloane Stephens capitalized on an ailing Serena Williams to reach the semifinals in just her seventh appearance at a major main draw.  Rallying from losing the first set, Stephens conquered not only her injured but still formidable foe but her own nerves in a 3-6 7-5 6-4 rollercoaster that knocked out the title favorite.

Off to a shaky start on return, Serena allowed Stephens to hold comfortably in her first two service games.  The teenager showed no nerves in her debut on Rod Laver Arena, a smaller venue after all than the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she had played before.  Serena’s early sluggishness thus might have caused concern had she not continued to excel behind her serve, which Stephens could not solve.  The first set thus resembled the first set of their Brisbane meeting, an encounter that stayed on serve until the veteran broke the youngster late.  Not through three service games did Stephens even lose a point on serve, while Serena conceded only two points in her first four.

In the crucial eighth game, that leisurely rhythm changed completely.  Offered an opportunity when the teenager sprayed a careless forehand on the first point, Serena stormed to triple break point with more focused shot-making.  Two of the break points slipped away on a crisp net approach by Stephens and a forehand error by Serena, but a moderately forceful inside-out forehand produced the only break that the elder American needed.  She served out the set despite some uncharacteristically tepid groundstrokes and a wandering first serve, and from there the outcome seemed certain.

While Stephens continued to stand toe to toe with Serena’s athleticism and power in long rallies, the cracks began to appear in her still-raw game.  A wild inside-out forehand handed another break to the 14-time major champion at the start of the second set.  To her credit, the teenager rallied to hold her next service game and place Serena in a spot of bother at deuce.  In reaching that stage, she retrieved a sparkling cross-court forehand from her opponent before transitioning from defense to offense and finishing the point at net.

Remarkably, a dip in Serena’s form restored the set to level terms.  An emboldened Stephens capitalized on the opening and edged ahead with a solid hold before she again took her opponent to deuce in the next game.  Starting to concede pedestrian errors, Serena struggled to deliver the decisive blow in rallies that grew ever longer as the teenager defended ever more doggedly.  The pace on the veteran’s first serve plummeted dramatically, denying her the free points on which she relies.  More willing to play the aggressor than earlier in the match, Stephens struck for a break that allowed her to serve for the set.

In apparent discomfort over the previous few games, Serena looked reluctant to play more than a few strokes on any set point.  She unleashed two vicious second-serve returns to reach 30-30, but Stephens opened the court smoothly to reach set point.  There, a nervous backhand sailed over the baseline, and a double fault completed the swing from set point to break point.  Able to stay in the rally long enough to profit from another Stephens error, Serena moved back on serve and summoned the trainer.

An issue with the superstar’s lower back appeared the culprit, rather than the ankle that she had twisted earlier in the tournament.  Serena returned to gallop through her service game with the assistance of a jaded Stephens, who had sat through the interruption rather than keeping herself in rhythm by practicing swings at the baseline.  Still serving at a greatly reduced pace, she held at love and looked much crisper on return than on serve.  For her part, a clearly (and understandably) rattled Stephens struggled to keep her footwork crisp and sharpen her focus on the game.

Down break point, however, she cracked a smooth inside-out forehand winner to prevent Serena from finishing the match too comfortably.  Trailing 0-30 in turn, two points from a final set, the veteran unleashed a series of dazzling forehands to compensate for her wilting serve.  From deuce, Serena dropped the next two points with routine errors to send this quarterfinal most unexpectedly into a deciding set.

Holding serve despite some adversity, Stephens settled her nerves better at the start of the third than she had at the end of the second.  Her shoulders slumping and head dropping, Serena nevertheless managed to hold serve routinely.  But another series of impotent errors left her infuriated with herself, hammering her racket onto the court with more ferocity than she had shown on her groundstrokes.  While probably ill-advised for her back, that release of angst jolted her with energy.  She saved a break point in the next game with a magnificent first serve down the center stripe, signaling her renewed commitment to the battle.

A badly botched forehand from Stephens brought the third set to 2-2.  Holding for the loss of just a single point, the underdog did not lose heart when the previous opportunity disappeared.  Serena visibly exhorted herself as she climbed out of trouble again, salvaging a game that she trailed 15-30.  To be fair, Stephens contributed to the escape by plunking a routine second-serve return in the net that set up game point and missing another straightforward backhand to end the game.  On the third point at 3-3, Serena covered the court brilliantly as she willed herself past the pain in outlasting her opponent through a long rally.  Two vital break points came and went soon afterwards, the teenager’s retrievals forcing the veteran to hit one shot too many.  With a forehand sent over the baseline, Stephens allowed a third break point, and this time Serena found the net with her backhand.  The fourth time proved the charm as the latter’s defensive scramble left the former with a difficult ball on the baseline that she netted, probably having thought that she had won the point on the previous shot.

An unfortunate miss from Stephens seemed to give Serena an early foothold in her next service game, but a forehand error and a double fault positioned the younger American at break point.  Although the first vanished, the second ended with a netted groundstroke for 4-4.  Unable to keep the momentum in her corner, Stephens fell behind quickly again.  A smooth backhand drop volley brought her to 30-30, but a forehand down the line brought Serena to deuce, and a massive forehand return earned another break point.  The women traded stunning forehand winners down sidelines as the deuces continued to trickle until Stephens found just enough consistency to eke out a grinding hold.

On the brink of defeat, Serena dropped the key first point with a loose forehand, only to draw level with a smash.  Stephens survived a poor decision on an approach shot when the pass sailed well over the baseline, leading to 15-30.  Two netted backhands later, a drained and aching Serena yielded the battlefield to her young challenger, ending her hope of capturing another Australian Open or another Serena Slam.

Ultimately handling a difficult situation with poise, Stephens won her first career major quarterfinal and improbably has reached the final four in Melbourne.  She will face world #1 Victoria Azarenka in a match that again seems a foregone conclusion on paper.  With the confidence of today’s victory behind her, however, perhaps Stephens can inject intrigue into that semifinal as well.



No Rest For The Defense: Azarenka Battles Into The Semis Past Stern Kuznetsova Challenge

Mortal at moments in her first four matches, defending champion Victoria Azarenka still entered her quarterfinal with two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova as a heavy favorite.  The unseeded Russian had resurrected her career this month and vastly exceeded expectations to reach the quarterfinal stage.  Although she led her overall rivalry with the world #1, Kuznetsova had lost their two 2012 meetings in straight sets.  Azarenka added a third to that ledger today with a 7-5 6-1 victory but not before a titanic battle of a first set during which the underdog showed how much far she has come so quickly in her comeback.

Setting the tone for a match of tightly contested service games was Kuznetsova’s opening hold, which she needed several deuces to survive.  That game also set the tone for her shot-making quality, though, which featured not just the expected fireworks display from her forehand but some startlingly brilliant angled backhands.  Kuznetsova becomes much more dangerous when she can strike aggressive shots with conviction from her weaker wing, and Azarenka looked frustrated as she constructed points to exploit the backhand only to see her opponent respond with winners.

The top seed’s first service game produced the only love hold that viewers would see for a long time.  After a long game resulted in another narrow Kuznetsova hold, one of the tournament’s most protracted service games ensued.  Deuce followed deuce upon deuce, neither player able to convert a game point or break point.  While Azarenka showed off her penetrating down-the-line groundstrokes, Kuznetsova continued to create angles that jerked Vika off the court.  The game became a battle of who could stay focused longer under the searing Australian sun, and, much to one’s surprise, the underdog proved that player.  Breaking the defending champion after 15 minutes, she then endured yet another deuce game on her own serve, saving a break point in the process.

Four games, 40 minutes, and a 4-1 lead for Kuznetsova.  Already the match had produced plenty of intriguing developments.  Among them was the serving quality produced by the two-time major champion, who not only cracked aces well into the triple digits on the radar but struck them on key points and found all corners of the box with them to keep an excellent returner off balance.  That trend illustrated how much Kuznetsova had improved since her period in the tennis wilderness, when her serve became more of a liability than a weapon as it often failed to climb above 90 MPH.

A fierce competitor by any standard, Azarenka held a crucial game and then leaped out to a 0-30 lead on her opponent’s serve, constantly under pressure in this match.  That pressure finally told when a double fault handed the break back and placed the set on even terms.  Having weathered the initial storm from the volatile underdog, the top seed began to look calmer.  For her part, Kuznetsova started to look a bit weary as more netted groundstrokes trickled from her racket.  Nevertheless, she erased a 40-15 lead for Azarenka in the eighth game to keep pressure on the defending champion.  When Sveta held comfortably for the first time, that pressure heightened with Vika serving to stay in the set.

Striking a breathtaking forehand angle behind Azarenka as she covered the open court, Kuznetsova moved within two points of claiming an early lead.  But the defending champion answered with a pinpoint backhand down the line, her signature shot, and thrust the set to 5-5 after another series of deuces with the clock at 66 minutes.  Having averted the potential disaster, Azarenka pounced upon the momentum shift to break Kuznetsova easily with a rare inside-in forehand winner.

Now serving for the set instead of to stay in the set, the top seed showed her heightened confidence.  Azarenka landed more first serves and stepped inside the court more effectively, although Kuznetsova continued to fire her weapons with abandon and ricochet winners off the baseline.  A brutally mistimed second-serve return at deuce handed Vika her second set point, but it disappeared with a ruthless backhand winner from her opponent.  The third time proved the charm, though, when Kuznetsova dumped a tired drop shot into the net to surrender the set after 77 minutes and 121 points.

In the inevitable lull that followed, the players traded three straight breaks to start the second set.  When Azarenka consolidated, another long deuce game developed on the Kuznetsova serve that culminated in a double fault.  That anticlimax essentially sealed the underdog’s fate and handed the defending champion her berth in the semifinals on Thursday, likely opposite Serena Williams.  Sweeping five straight games to end the match, Azarenka finished as efficiently as she could in the circumstances.

Although Azarenka again showed moments of fallibility, she deserves credit for extending her title defense to the penultimate round.  There, however, she must display significantly more convincing form to halt her recent streak of futility against Serena.  For Kuznetsova, the first set revealed that she can test one of the WTA’s leading ladies for extended stretches, while the second set suggested that she cannot do so for an entire match—yet.  In general, the tournament shed a bright ray of optimism on the start of her 2013 campaign.

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

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.