MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australia Day began here Tuesday with anticipation for the quarterfinal match between rivals Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. It ended with fireworks and perhaps greater anticipation for the upcoming semifinal match between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Chances are that Thursday's semifinal is going to be a whole lot closer. The Djokovic-Federer rivalry is a wee bit different and more entertaining than Serena and Maria.
Oh, there are similarities. One, they have the same age range -- Williams and Federer are both 34 while Sharapova and Djokovic are both 28. There also is similar discrepancy in off-court earnings. According to Forbes, Federer and Sharapova each earned around 80 percent more in sponsorship deals than the No. 1-ranked Djokovic and Williams.
But the on-court rivalries? That's a whole other story.
While Serena continued her ownership of Maria by extending her winning streak to 18 consecutive matches with a straight-sets victory Tuesday, Djokovic and Federer are 22-22 against each other. Of course, Djokovic had been playing catch-up for many years and finally caught Federer in 2015. They met in seven finals last year, where Djokovic won five of those championships, including Wimbledon and the US Open.
Djokovic compared his rivalry with Federer to the one he has with Rafael Nadal, whom he has played 47 times and finally taken the edge at 24-23.
"These two guys made me the player I am today," Djokovic said after beating Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. "I think these rivalries have allowed me to grow and to evolve and to get strong and tough and understand what it takes to be on the level that they are on.
"I mean, they were dominating tennis before Andy Murray and myself came along for many years. It took a while to get in the mix, took a lot of matches to actually level the score head-to-head against both guys. It keeps going."
It does keep going. And Thursday, one of the two will gain the edge, at least for a while. And who that will be is a much more challenging question than who would win between Williams and Sharapova.
Federer has played well here, dropping only one set. He beat Tomas Berdych in straight sets Tuesday, playing especially well at the net. "I do feel really good at net since a few years now," Federer said. "It's where it all sort of started for me when I came on tour."
Djokovic, meanwhile, was coming off a miserable fourth-round match against Gilles Simon in which he made a jaw-dropping 100 unforced errors, something not even Sharapova has done against Williams. Having done so -- he even acknowledged a fan who yelled out during his postmatch on-court interview to stop making drop shots -- Djokovic said he took Monday off, not so much as hitting a single ball. "Sometimes it's actually good to rest your mind and rest your body," he said. "Sometimes less is more."
It helped. Djokovic wasn't at his best Tuesday, but he made 73 fewer unforced errors, and got tougher as the match went on, while Nishikori became less confident and consistent.
"I think today it was more due to my game," Nishikori said. "I was missing too much, especially the first couple sets. Lost many easy games. I couldn't make him work hard today."
Not working as hard Thursday might actually help against Federer. While Williams continues to dominate the younger Sharapova, it's a little different in the men's rivalry. With the age difference, the longer a match lasts between Djokovic and Federer, the more of an advantage it should give the younger Serb star. Federer hasn't beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five match since the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2012, which also was the last time Federer won a Grand Slam title.
"Yeah, maybe [that helps]. The longer the match goes, maybe I have slightly bigger chance," Djokovic said while emphasizing Federer's fitness. "I still don't think it's something I can heavily rely on."
Djokovic might have the longer name (by one letter) but Federer has by far the bigger name by many percentage points. The international marketing firm, Marketing Arm, reported last year that fewer than 30 percent of Americans even knew who Djokovic was (apparently, Nike and Rolex have a wider marketing reach than Uniqlo and Jacob's Creek wine in the United States). But if Djokovic can continue his play and keep winning majors, perhaps he will grow in popularity, especially if he can win the Calendar Slam that barely eluded him last year when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open finals.
Federer, meanwhile, is trying to win his record 18th major after going the past four years without a Grand Slam championship.
"Roger is playing really terrific tennis the last two years," Djokovic said. "We played two Grand Slam finals last year. I know very well how good he plays, especially in the later stages of a major event. He always makes you play your best. My best is what is going to be necessary to win against him. Hopefully, I'll be able to deliver."
May the best man win. And may the match be a whole lot closer than Williams and Sharapova.