Friday, January 27, 2012

Australian Open Report: Finals Preview

Tennis fans were absolutely spoiled the past couple of days at the Australian Open with some highly competitive semifinal showdowns. And even though every match went against what I wanted to happen, they were still good for the sport. The non-winners fought hard making each of the four finalists (three of which are former champions) earn their opportunity to win the tournament.

At the beginning of the tournament, about eight women had a chance to overtake Caroline Wozniacki for the top ranking. So it's only fitting that the two of these women are in the finals and thus not only fighting for the trophy, but for the honor to be world no. 1 on Monday. And so it will be world no. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. world no. 4 Maria Sharapova. This would be Azarenka's first Grand Slam final, while Sharapova will try to get her fourth major win, her first since 2008.

Both ladies had to get through a battle of a semifinal match against proven champions. Azarenka had to face defending champion Kim Clijsters who was supposedly playing in her last Australian Open while Sharapova avenged her Wimbledon loss last year in the hands of Petra Kvitova. Both matches went to three sets with the eventual winner losing the second set and taking charge/being more consistent in the deciding set.

As for the finals, their H2H is tied at 3 a piece. Azarenka has been undefeated so far this year taking the title in Sydney prior to the Australian Open, but Sharapova is more used to the big stage with the stakes as high as they are. I'm thinking it's going to be pretty even and potentially high-quality if Azarenka can keep her nerves in check and if Sharapova's serve is stabilized. Have no real basis for this prediction, but I'm predicting Victoria Azarenka to win in two tight sets.

Sunday's final between no. 1 Novak Djokovic and no. 2 Rafael Nadal will be the third consecutive time these two have met in a Grand Slam final with Djokovic winning the previous two in last year's Wimbledon and US Open. In fact, Djokovic has had Nadal's number of late winning their last six encounters. Winning here will be big either way. For Nadal, it'll be his 11th slam victory and one step closer to reclaiming the top ranking. For Djokovic, not only will he be among just a handful of players to win three or more Australian Open championships, but it'll also signal a continuation of his most dominant last year.

Their road to the final was not made easy especially by the opponents they faced in the semifinals. While Nadal had every confidence he could big Roger Federer, losing that first set was a wake-up call. He did eventually edge Federer in the next three sets, but the 16-time Grand Slam winner hung in there. Andy Murray was even more relentless pushing Djokovic into a fifth set and clawing his way back to 5-5 after being down 1-5. Both Federer and Murray lost to the better player that day, but their skills and grit are unquestionable leaving the rest of the tour outside the top 4 looking from the outside.

Nadal leads the H2H with Djokovic 16-13, but as I said above Djokovic has won their last six, all last year, including in Nadal's precious clay surface. Both have had physical problems during the off-season with Djokovic and his shoulders and Nadal with his knees, but both have seemed more than fit the past few days. Djokovic may have been pushed a bit harder than Nadal in their previous match and has one less day to recuperate, but I don't think that will matter with these two. The question is... has Nadal figured out how to beat Djokovic. I'm going to say yes and predict Rafael Nadal wins in four sets.

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