THE semi-finals of the first Grand Slam of the year are now upon us, with British No.1 Andy Murray still in the hunt for a maiden Australian Open title, having fallen at the final hurdle on four previous occasions. However, if the Scot wants to exorcise his demons, he will need to defeat either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s showpiece, assuming he gets past the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic.
The opening round of the tournament saw a few surprises. 17th seed Benoit Paire was knocked out by 19-year-old Noah Rubin, who coming into this tournament was ranked outside the top 300, while Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson both retired injured against unseeded opponents. However, the biggest shock of all was Fernando Verdasco’s five-set win over Rafael Nadal, in a match lasting four hours and forty-one minutes. The pair had been engaged in a titanic battle in the 2009 semi-final of the same tournament, when it was Nadal who came out on top in a match lasting over five hours. Later that year, Verdasco reached a career high of No.7 in the world. Despite being No.45 going into this year’s tournament, his big-match mentality was still in evidence, as he notched up 20 aces on the way to a famous victory. Verdasco’s joy was short-lived though, as he was knocked out by Israel’s Dudi Sela in the second round.
All the seeded players made it through their second round encounters, with Gilles Simon and Feliciano Lopez having to grind out five-set victories over Evgeny Donskoy and Guido Pella respectively.
The last-32 is where things traditionally hot up, as the seeded players face each other for the first time. However, the matches were going very much with the form book, with not one recorded upset. Djokovic eased through relatively comfortably against Italian Andreas Seppi, while Federer was tested by the dangerous Grigor Dimitrov, before eventually coming through in four sets. Murray’s match enjoyed a similar pattern, with his Portuguese opponent Joao Sousa winning the second set to level the match, before the World No.2 lifted his game to take the following two sets 6-2.
The fourth round saw two major stories: Djokovic’s fight to the death against Gilles Simon and Stan Wawrinka’s elimination at the hands of Raonic. The Serbian had enjoyed a smooth passage through to this stage, but 13th-seed Simon is always likely to pose a threat. The Frenchman is one of the most consistent players on the men’s tour, and despite falling behind twice, he dug in to force a decider. However, Djokovic’s superior temperament and greater experience proved invaluable as he closed out the match 6-2.
Meanwhile, 2014 Australian Open Champion Wawrinka was unable to repeat the feat of two years ago. The Swiss number two had recently clinched the Chennai Open for the third consecutive year. Spirits were therefore understandably high, but he was about to get a rude awakening from Raonic. The 6’5’’ right-hander hit a massive 82 winners and 24 aces, and although Wawrinka did come from behind to level the match, Raonic kept his composure to set up a quarter-final clash with the enigmatic Gael Monfils.
The quarters again followed a similar trend, with Kei Nishikori proving no obstacle for Djokovic and Federer brushing aside Tomas Berdych. After an initial tussle, Murray overcame feisty Spaniard David Ferrer in four sets, with Raonic seeing off Monfils by the same scoreline.
The semi-finals look fascinatingly poised, with neither player enjoying the upper hand during their head-to-head encounters. Murray and Raonic have each taken the spoils on four occasions against each other, with this being their first face-off at the Australian Open. By contrast, the rivalry between Djokovic and Federer is one of the most frequently-contested of all time, with their head-to-head record tied at 22 apiece. In the three matches played between the two at Melbourne Park, Djokovic has won two. Having lifted the trophy in four of the last five years, the form guide is firmly on the side of the Serb.
The culmination of the competition looks set to be explosive. Few would count against Djokovic extending his dominance of the men’s game at present, but Federer and Murray both have the skills to upset the applecart.
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