Rarely does it actually work out like this, but we've got ourselves a three-match series of elimination matches to determine not only the 2012 Australian Open, but also the next No. 1 women's player in the world. It begins with the seventh match of all-time between Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters.
The stakes for Wednesday night''s first Australian Open 2012 semifinal match are simple: Clijsters is aiming for her fifth slam title, and her fourth in the last seven slams in which she has actually competed. She is still perhaps the best women's player in the game when healthy, but she is rarely actually healthy. Meanwhile, a win would not only advance Azarenka to her first slam final (this is her second semi-final after Wimbledon 2011), but bring her within one win of the No. 1 ranking.
The scenarios, as I understand them:
- Azarenka wins the Australian Open: Azarenka is No. 1.
- Maria Sharapova wins the Australian Open: Sharapova is No. 1.
- Petra Kvitova wins the Australian Open: Kvitova is No. 1.
- Clijsters wins the Australian Open: the Sharapova-Kvitova winner is No. 1.
In terms of both stakes and the head-to-head series it is all-or-nothing for Azarenka. She has played Clijsters six times, and the matches have rarely been close.
Match No. 1: Toronto 2009 Round of 32: Clijsters wins, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1.
Match No. 2: Miami 2010 Round of 16: Clijsters wins, 6-4, 6-0.
Match No. 3: Eastbourne 2010 Quarterfinals: Azarenka wins, 7-6, 6-4.
Match No. 4: Tour Championships 2010 Quarterfinals: Clijsters wins, 6-4, 5-7, 6-1.
Match No. 5: Sydney 2011 Quarterfinals: Clijsters wins, 6-3, 6-2.
Match No. 6: Miami 2011 Quarterfinals: Azarenka wins, 6-3, 6-3.
None of the last five sets have been as close as even 6-4, and the combatants have split the last four meetings overall. This is going to be a physical, bruising contest, and typically a slight advantage turns into a big advantage pretty quickly.
Three questions for this semifinal:
1. How much does Clijsters have in the tank?
She turned her ankle against Li Na in the fourth round (and if you missed it, ESPN2 showed it to you in super slo-mo at least 126 more times while it was getting treated), but after dropping the first set, she rallied to take the final two. Na had match points in the second set but blinked. It seemed the ankle had few lingering issues attached to it, but conditioning will always be a factor in big matches when you've been hurt as much as Clijsters.
Clijsters is quite simply one of the steeliest players on tour. She makes plenty of errors, but they don't tend to linger. She was not incredibly athletic even at her peak, but her anticipation is strong, and her right arm is stronger. If she is at 100 percent health (and she certainly looked it against Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals), she has an excellent chance at winning her second Aussie title.
2. Where's Azarenka's head?
Like quite a few of the women's tour's younger stars, Azarenka gets a bit too fiery at times; she can lose her cool and end up in a pretty negative place. That was not the case in the semifinals against her friend (and No. 8 seed) Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, however. After laying a goose-egg in the first set tie-breaker, she responded with ferocity. She won 12 of the match's final 14 games and coasted to a win, just as she has for much of the tournament. She is smoking hot (10-0 in 2012 after finishing 8-2 in 2011), and she has given herself a shot at the No. 1 ranking because of it, but with the extra pressure involved, will she keep her cool or fall apart? The winner of the first set has won all six matches in this series, often going away; if Clijsters gets hot early, will Azarenka recover?
3. How many more opportunities do we have to watch Clijsters?
She has suggested that this will be her last Australian Open, and that her career could quite possibly be over by the end of this year. She is so strong and so gutty that losing her to retirement (for approximately the 16th time) will be a damn shame. With a gaggle of younger women attempting to establish themselves, Clijsters has continued to provide a strong baseline against which they can compare themselves. Azarenka is one of many players who have shown a high level of upside with iffy consistency. Knocking off Clijsters today would prove quite a bit, but few would complain if Clijsters had one more run of elite play over the coming months.
Tour Championships 2010