In an Australian Open that has so far seen it’s fair share of upsets and fairy-tales, a battle of the generations and the apparent utilization of a tennis time machine, the prospect of a dream final in both the men’s and women’s draws remains intact.
On Saturday in Melbourne, we could well see an all-Williams sister final to determine the recipient of this year’s Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. Twenty-four hours later, and the winner of the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup could be decided by what one observer has already billed as ‘the most historically significant match in men’s tennis history’.
Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all earned semi final spots at 2017’s first grand slam. Serena lies on the opposite side of the draw to Venus, as does Federer to Nadal. Perhaps the stars are aligned for a brace of fantasy match-ups?
They each have tough obstacles in their path to potential final meetings. But, with the probable exception of Serena, no-one really expected the quartet to get this far.
Serena and Venus have met in eight previous grand slam finals, with the former leading that particular head-to-head 6-2. Their last meeting in a major final was at Wimbledon in 2009, with Serena prevailing in straight sets. Overall, the younger sibling leads their career rivalry 16-11.
At one stage, during a period where they were ranked as the number one and two players in the world, the sisters contested four consecutive grand slam finals, beginning with the 2002 French Open and culminating at Melbourne Park the following January. Serena won all four and would later add the 2003 Wimbledon title with another victory over Venus, cementing her status as the Williams family’s leading player and going on to build a legacy as arguably the greatest female tennis player to ever wield a racket.
Over a decade on however, and the landscape has very much changed.
At 35, Serena is chasing an Open-Era record twenty-third major title, to surpass Steffi Graf’s haul and sit just one behind the great Margaret Court’s tally of 24. But for 36-year-old Venus, who hasn’t reached a major final since falling to Serena at Wimbledon 2009, the last few years have been incredibly tough. She fell to a career-low ranking of 137 in 2012 and currently finds herself ranked 17th on the WTA tour, having experienced many peaks and troughs in-between. So far though, 2017 has been fruitful.
Her ranking will improve regardless of the outcome of her semi-final match-up with CoCo Vandeweghe and given the manner in which she has blown away her opposition in this tournament (Venus has yet to drop a set and been taken to just two tie-breaks) it would be tough to bet against her in that match-up, despite Vandeweghe being a slight favourite with the oddsmakers. Williams also won their only previous meeting in straight sets at last year’s Rome Masters. The young New Yorker has also been in stellar form at Melbourne Park however, losing just one set en route and taking the scalps of defending champion, and world number one, Angelique Kerber as well as the highly-ranked Garbine Muguruza.
Venus is perhaps on her best run at a slam in years, but her 25-year-old opponent is on a roll in what will be a match-up of the generations, a theme that also recurs in the men’s draw.
When Rafael Nadal takes on Grigor Dmitrov on Friday it will effectively be a contest between two different eras, despite the Spaniard being just five years Dmitrov’s senior. Nadal won his first grand slam at 19 and has been at the forefront of the men’s game ever since, whilst Dmitrov is one of a number of players in the next generation that have taken until their mid-twenties to begin to reach their potential.
But the Bulgarian has started 2017 with a perfect 10-0 ledger; winning the title in Brisbane to kick start the year and then storming to the semi-finals here in Melbourne. Nadal boasts a dominating 7-1 head-to-head record over Dmitrov, but the younger man won their last meeting in straight sets and has never looked more prepared to compete on the big stage as he is now.
Though the tennis world dreams of Venus vs Serena and Federer vs Nadal finals, both Vandeweghe and Dmitrov pose a significant threat of tearing up the script and striking a blow for the new generation.
One semi-finalist who has already enjoyed a fairy-tale fortnight regardless of her next result however is Serena’s opponent in the last four; Mirjana Lučić-Baroni.
The 34-year-old Croatian was last in a grand glam semi-final 18 years ago, where as a promising youngster she was beaten by a 22-time major winner named Steffi Graff. With a second opportunity to reach the final of a slam coming against the woman who equaled Graff’s major record, Lučić-Baroni’s career really has come full circle.
At this tournament, the world number 79 had already knocked out number 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska before her quarter-final meeting with Karolina Pliskova – Left Field Sport’s tip for the title – where she was heavily opposed, but overcame the Czech to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. Having suffered troubling personal issues and a three-year hiatus from the sport that robbed Mirjana of her prime in her mid-twenties, to defy the odds and reach a last-four tie of a grand slam against Serena, now in the twilight of her career, is as inspiring a sports comeback as you’ll see. Should she now make Saturday’s final by defeating Serena, despite it denying the dream line-up it would produce an even more romantic achievement.
Speaking of romantic achievements, well they don’t come much heart-warming then the surprising return of the 35-year-old Roger Federer, who, written off before the tournament started, will contest a scarcely-anticipated semi-final match-up with good friend and compatriot Stan Wawrinka on Thursday. 31-year-old Wawrinka, the champion here in 2014, will be a mountainous task for the 17-time major winner and having enjoyed something of an Indian Summer to his own career in the last three years, will have little sentiment for the historic context of his rival.
But, as newly-anointed Hall of Famer Andy Roddick explained this week, should Federer and Nadal both make the final on Sunday then the historical ramifications could be huge.
“If you think of where they are at in terms of Federer being on 17 Slams and Nadal on 14 Slams, a Nadal win puts him back in the game, back in the conversation, narrowing the gap to 17-15 with the French Open just around the corner,” the former US Open winner and Wimbledon finalist said in an interview with the Telegraph.
“A Federer wins puts him on to 18 and I don’t know that there’s enough time left to make up that difference, and he would sit on that record for a long time. If it happens, tennis will just want to give that match a big hug! In-form, playing well, bit of a throwback, it would be amazing.”