It's going to be an incredible day (or, in America, night) of tennis at Rod Laver Arena. We lead off with two master-versus-pupil matches in the women's quarterfinals (in the first match, the pupil has surpassed the master; in the latter, not so much). Then we get a potential upset bid and a very familiar, often ultra-competitive battle on the men's side. Settle in for some great tennis. Or, if you're like me, DVR it and catch up in the morning. It will be worth it.
Match No. 1: Victoria Azarenka v. Svetlana Kuznetsova
It was pretty easy to forget about Svetlana Kuznetsova. The two-time slam champion (2004 U.S. Open, 2009 French Open) and four-time slam finalist fell off the face of the earth in recent years, right around the time that Victoria Azarenka was beginning her ascent into elite territory. Kuznetsova has battled consistency throughout her career -- she won the U.S. Open in 2004, lost in the first round in 2005, reached the finals in 2007, and lost in the third round in 2008, and a year after winning the 2009 French Open, she lost in the third round -- but in 2012 she actually was rather consistently iffy. She advanced past the third round of just one major and withdrew from the U.S. Open. She has battled injuries here and there, but her biggest obstacle in recent years appears to have been her head.
For just the second time since the 2009 French, however, she is in a slam quarterfinal. She eked out a 7-5, third-set win over Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, and now she faces Azarenka for just the third time since 2009. The lifetime series between the two players is a bit misleading; Kuznetsova owns a 4-3 advantage, but she went 4-1 before her tumble in the rankings and has gone 0-2 since. On the hard court at Indian Wells last year, Azarenka won, 6-1, 6-2.
Kuznetsova's form makes this match impossible to predict. If she plays at a top 10 level, as we know she can, this could be a fantastic battle. The two traded fun, three-set wins on hard court in Miami in 2008-09, and they could very well go the distance here. But Azarenka has to be considered a heavy favorite, simply because of her consistency. We think Kuznetsova could play at an elite level again; we know Azarenka can.
Match No. 2: Serena Williams v. Sloane Stephens
It seemed a pipe dream at first. When the Australian Open draw was announced, it was easy to connect the dots to a Williams-Stephens quarterfinal, but Stephens had quite an uphill climb. She would have to get past Simona Halep, a rising 21-year-old, in the first round. She would have to probably take out either No. 8 Petra Kvitova or smoking hot 18-year-old Laura Robson in the third round. She might have to take out either No. 12 Nadia Petrova or No. 17 Lucie Safarova in the fourth round. No problem. She smoked Halep, kept Robson at bay, and pulled out a tough, three-setter over Bojana Jovanovski (who had conquered Safarova) in the fourth round, and for the first time, Stephens is a slam quarterfinalist. Aside from the second half of the Jovanovski match, she has cruised, looking the part of a true top 10 talent.
Now comes the real test. The future of American tennis now takes on both the present and the past. Stephens must face 15-time slam champion Serena Williams, who at 31 years old appears to be playing as well as, or better than, she ever has. Williams has lost just once since her first-round slip-up at last year's French Open, and she cruised to a relatively pedestrian 6-4, 6-3 win over Stephens in the pair's only official matchup (Brisbane 2013). The two play the typical American style of tennis, full of power from the baseline, but at this stage in the game Williams is easily the stronger of the two. Stephens might have a bit of a speed advantage, and her defense has been outstanding at times, but she will need Serena to commit quite a few errors (as Jovanovski did in the fourth round, with just 14 winners to 49 unforced errors) to reach the semis.
Match No. 3: Andy Murray v. Jeremy Chardy
For the most part, we saw the usual suspects in the quarterfinals of the men's draw. Six of the top eight seeds reached the quarters, and No. 10 Nicolas Almagro's walkover win over No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic was hardly an upset.
There is certainly one major exception, however. No. 6 Juan Martin Del Potro, who looked untouchable in the first two rounds, was derailed in the third by an inspired Jeremy Chardy. The 25-year-old Frenchman, who has played some of the best tennis of his career in recent months, built a two-set lead over Del Potro, then held on for a 6-3 win in the fifth. He took out No. 21 Andreas Seppi in the fourth round and now sits in a slam quarterfinal for the first time. Plus, he gets to take on an opponent he beat the last time out. Could be worse.
The big-serving Chardy faces U.S. Open champion Andy Murray for a spot in the semis; Murray has won four of five lifetime matches between the two, but Chardy won, 6-4, 6-4, in Cincinnati in 2012. The second serve will tell the tale in this one. When Murray beats Chardy, he does it by taking Chardy's second serve apart; in his win over Chardy in Paris in 2011, he won 66 percent of Chardy's second-serve points and 77 percent of his own. But last year in Cincy, Chardy won 45 percent of his and 54 percent of Murray's. Murray is probably too good a defender to fall to Chardy in a best-of-5 match, but there's no questioning how well Chardy has played so far in Melbourne.
Match No. 4: Roger Federer v. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
It only feels (to me, anyway) like these two play in every slam quarterfinal. In fact, Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga haven't actually faced off on the court since 2011. Granted, that year they faced off an incredible eight times. Tsonga briefly took control of the series with full-length wins at both Wimbledon (overcoming a two-set deficit to shock Federer, 6-4, in the fifth) and the ATP Masters in Montreal, but for the most part Federer has handled the Frenchman. Still, familiarity has done great things for the competitiveness of their battles. Federer won 10 of the first 12 sets between the two men, but over the last half of 2011, Federer's advantage was just 12 sets to seven.
Against Tsonga, Federer is forced to go for bigger serves and bigger shots to keep Tsonga from dictating points with his own power. With that approach comes a smaller margin for error. Either Federer looks fantastic and wins, or we see a deadlocked, long match. Viewers win either way.