In a surprise for the typically predictable men's tour, either Tomas Berdych or Stan Wawrinka will be playing in the Australian Open final. Berdych, the No. 7 seed, took down No. 3 David Ferrer, 6-1, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. In the nightcap, No. 8 Wawrinka finally conquered No. 2 Novak Djokovic, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7.
Berdych's win wasn't surprising, of course. He took down Ferrer in straight sets during the ATP World Tour Finals, the two had split the last four meetings overall and Ferrer hasn't been playing particularly well of late. Berdych reached his first Aussie semifinal (he now owns the complete set of Slam semis) by hitting 43 winners, dominating his first-serve points and saving nine of 12 break points. It was a sloppy match overall, with a combined 108 unforced errors in 247 total points, but Berdych prevailed, setting the table for another Wawrinka-Djokovic classic.
Djokovic, meanwhile, hadn't lost in Melbourne since the 2010 Aussie quarterfinals in a five-setter against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Wawrinka stretched the three-time defending champion to his limits on hard courts in 2013, however. Their battle in last year's Aussie fourth round -- a 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10 win for Nole -- was perhaps the best match of the year, and their five-setter in the U.S. Open semis (also a Djokovic win) was almost as good.
The match was billed as a classic before it even began, and it lived up to a decent amount of the billing. It was not quite as sharply played as last year's classics, with 120 unforced errors in 314 points. Both players seemed a little bit impatient, as if not wanting to go down the "six-hour epic" road. That Wawinka went for 51 winners and 60 unforced errors was not surprising, but Djokovic was more aggressive than usual at times, and not in a good way, with 45 winners to 60 UEs. With the match on the line, Djokovic stumbled. Serving at 30-30, down 7-8 in the fifth set, he caught up to a Wawinka mishit at the net but sent the response wide. And on Wawrinka's first match point, Djokovic balked on a relatively easy volley.
For Djokovic, winner of 25 straight matches, the loss was both frustrating and surprising. It ends a long streak of Slam semifinal appearances and adds to a series of tough slam losses -- he fell 9-7 in the fifth to Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals, he lost to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon finals, and he fell to Nadal again in four sets in the U.S. Open finals.
For Wawrinka, however, this is a career-defining moment. The 28-year old from Switzerland is on the brink of passing Roger Federer in the ATP tour rankings -- Federer must reach the finals to stay ahead, which would require beating Andy Murray and likely Rafael Nadal -- and he is showing proof of a sustainable higher ceiling. Wawrinka had only twice made a slam quarterfinal before 2013, but after testing Djokovic in Melbourne last year, he reached the French Open quarterfinals and the U.S. Open semis. His forehand is heavy, his one-handed backhand is beyond sexy and each tough loss to Djokovic seemed to make him a little bit stronger. He has cleared the Nole hurdle, and he has beaten Berdych, his semifinal opponent, eight of 13 times in their careers, including four of the last five matchups on hard courts.
The ATP Tour is full of late-bloomers these days, and Wawrinka just pulled off perhaps his greatest victory in his 10th year on tour.