Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Giant killings aplenty at the Australian Open yet two familiar faces remain

The start-of-season major is at the semi-finals stage and has seen the return to form of Federer, a wounded Nadal soldiering ominously on and shock after shock in the women's draw.

It should have been a procession for Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic. According to the bookies, anyway: both were installed as odds-on favourites before the tournament began. But the mighty fell, and left a chasm in the men's and women's draws. 

Much of the rest of the game's elite failed to capitalise, as if destabilised by the tremors from the top. Maria Sharapova, two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and David Ferrer all exited. For five consecutive matches, the lower ranked player prevailed. Rafael Nadal, the only top three player left in either draw, refused to be the sixth domino.

But then the carnage of the seeds resumed. Roger Federer, looking reborn, claimed the scalp of recovering fourth seed Andy Murray. "When he was serving for the match I raised my level, because I had to," Murray said. It summed him up to a tee. 

Murray, too often and to his detriment, totters along at an unthreatening level, and only hits peak form when forced to by a more ambitious opponent. He has to fall behind to harness his best tennis. The England football team are the same. It is why the so called group of death they have landed themselves in may bring the best out in them.

The seed slaying started with Williams losing to the 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round. Williams was hindered by a back injury. "I almost pulled out. I'm such a competitor, I probably should have," she said. The women's second seed, Sharapova, perhaps still drained from a three and a half hour second round tussle, lost a day later. 

Only Juan Martin Del Potro was missing out of the men's top eight seeds in a fierce quarter-final line-up. But the landscape of the draw changed dramatically once all the matches had been played.

Stanislas Wawrinka's refusal to crack as Djokovic stayed with him until 9-7 in the final set was an outstanding display of determination. Wawrinka kept grinding away at the three-time defending champion, never lost his cool nor looked out of his depth. His reward was to end the world number two's run of 14 consecutive grand slam semi-final appearances.

Nadal battled with a sizeable blister on his left hand, struggled to find his usual impeccable timing, and was second best for the majority of his last eight match. Grigor Dimitrov was killing points off early, especially on serve, by sending Nadal out wide and hitting a winner into an empty court.

Yet the world number one found a way to progress. At one set all, Dimitrov recovered from a break down in the third to force another tie-break. This was where the pendulum swung: Dimitrov stalled at set point on his serve and Nadal romped through the fourth. 

And so here we are. With the women's draw wide open, and two old adversaries preparing to face off at the latter stages of a grand slam once again. Nadal and Federer contested their first grand slam match at the French Open semi-final in 2005. Nearly a decade has passed and they are still ruling the roost.

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