<
>

Serena's loss is semifinalists' gain

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams will not win this year's Australian Open. So who will?

Williams was such an overwhelming favorite coming into the tournament that not much independent thought had been given to the chances of the other candidates.

Yes, Maria Sharapova was looking sharp -- but how was she going to beat Serena in the final? Yes, Victoria Azarenka's chances were back on track after she survived Jamie Hampton -- at least until her scheduled meeting against Serena in the semis. Go through the field, and each player's potential path always ended with the question: What would it take to stop Serena?

As it turns out, an ankle injury, a back injury and a capable performance from American teen Sloane Stephens.

Suddenly, the tournament was blown wide-open, and it remains to be seen who steps through the gaping hole of Williams' absence.

Not that those left are slouches: Semifinalists Azarenka, Sharapova and Li Na have six Grand Slam titles between them. But their chances of adding another major to their totals have undeniably improved. Azarenka is 1-10 against Williams, Sharapova is 2-9 (and the last win was eight years ago) and Li is 2-5.

Stephens may not have the experience of the others, but at least she can boast a 1-1 record against Williams after their quarterfinal tilt.

This quartet also represents a range of generations. The first match pits 30-year-old Li, a late-blooming veteran, against 25-year-old Sharapova, who's at a midcareer stage after a precocious start. The other has 23-year-old Azarenka, a year after her entrance into the elite, against 19-year-old Stephens, who has just made a great leap forward to her first Grand Slam semifinal.

Victoria Azarenka (1) versus Sloane Stephens (25): Not the opponent Azarenka would have expected, but she'll take it. After she tamed Svetlana Kuznetsova in her quarterfinal match, the focus shifted to Azarenka's presumed meeting with Williams in the semifinals. But instead of the 15-time Grand Slam champ she gets a teenager playing her first Grand Slam semifinal.

Azarenka had good things to say about her younger foe before the match: "Her game has come together. She's an all-around player, very competitive. I think she has good potential. It's just a matter of her getting all those details in place and really wanting to achieve great things."

Stephens has played and fought well during this tournament and, after some initial nervousness, stayed composed to wriggle past an injured Williams in the previous round. That's impressive, but beating a fully fit Azarenka would be another level altogether, and it's not clear she's quite ready to go toe-to-toe with her in a baseline battle. But that's not what Stephens will be telling herself, and she does look ready to at least make an impact against the world No. 1.

Azarenka will also be playing to hold on to her No. 1 ranking. That's one contest Williams is still in: If Azarenka does not defend her title and Sharapova does not reach the final, Williams will return to the top spot next week.

Prediction: Azarenka in two sets

Li Na (6) versus Maria Sharapova (2): Sharapova has already won the first battle of this semifinal -- their shared agent, Max Eisenbud, will reportedly be sitting in her box for this match.

But it could be a bit of a surprise for Li, who had said, "I think Max [will] just eat sugar and be somewhere else."

Still, that's just another episode in the sitcom that appears to be Li's life. She had plenty of punch lines after her quarterfinal win, starting with her courtside interview, when she was asked about a mishit serve that went into the crowd. "I want to have good communication with the fans," she said, jokingly.

"OK, Carlos, we should practice our serve," she added, referring to coach Carlos Rodriguez, who was previously the longtime coach of Justine Henin. He replaces Li's husband in the coaching role.

Li reports her married life has improved. "Now we don't have to fight on court and also off the court," she mused.

Li's husband was also the star of her run to the 2011 final. She got laughs with stories about his snoring and their credit card tug-of-war.

He again had a leading role as Li related her experience with Rodriguez's brutal offseason training regimen. "I call him and say, 'Carlos is crazy,'" Li told reporters. "He was like, 'Why?' I was say[ing] the program to him. He was like, 'Don't make the joke.' I say, 'Hey, listen, I'm not ... I['m] really doing this in the morning.'

"He said, 'OK, OK, I will come to you next day.' So next day he was in Beijing. I was doing some exercise with Carlos. He was sitting in the gym. After halfway, he was like, 'Are you finished?' I said, 'No, only halfway.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'Really, yes. I do this for three days already.'

"He said, 'I'm tired.' I say, 'Don't say that. I'm doing exercises, you're only sitting. Don't say you're tired.'"

Things will be a lot more serious in the semifinal against Sharapova, and Li will need to call on that hard work done during the break. Sharapova has been at full throttle throughout the tournament, dropping only nine games so far.

The Russian also won their three matches last year, though Li won the four in the year before that.

Now, with both in good form, this should be a high-octane shootout.

Prediction: Sharapova in two sets

Novak Djokovic (1) versus David Ferrer (4): Both men got here as scheduled, but their road had some unexpected potholes.

Djokovic was pushed to the brink by Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round, coming from a set and a break down to win 12-10 in five sets and just over five hours. Ferrer came through a gut-wrenching encounter in his previous round against Nicolas Almagro, who won the first two sets and served for the match three times before seemingly succumbing to the pressure. So it's easy to say what's expected of this semifinal but hard to know what will happen.

Djokovic, who showed no signs of his draining encounter in his next match against Tomas Berdych, is supposed to get past Ferrer slowly but surely. But if anyone can make Djokovic feel the effects of that earlier five-setter, it's Ferrer -- at least in the absence of Rafael Nadal, whose fourth seed Ferrer has taken at this tournament -- and whose fourth spot in the rankings he will take next week. And although he has a reputation for struggling against the big four, Ferrer has had some success against Djokovic.

The twist is that it might be the usually indefatigable Ferrer who's tired after his dramatic five-setter. In that case, it could be a repeat of their matches at the Australian and U.S. opens last year -- relatively untroubled wins for Djokovic.

Prediction: Djokovic in four sets