Wednesday January 25th, 2012

Petra Kvitova beat Maria Sharapova in the 2011 Wimbledon final, their first meeting in a Slam. (Icon SMI)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams' absence aside, you couldn't have asked for better matchups in the women's semifinals of the Australian Open.

Two veteran former No. 1s, who hold seven Grand Slam trophies between them, join two youngsters who are widely regarded as the most promising members of their generation. And with Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova vying for the top billing, the talk about a Slam-less No. 1 finally will end. Kvitova can clinch No. 1 on Thursday if she defeats Sharapova and Kim Clijsters knocks off Azarenka, while Sharapova and Azarenka need to win the tournament to take the top spot.

Here's a look at the two evenly matched semifinals. The first match listed will begin no sooner than 9:30 p.m. ET at Rod Laver Arena, followed by the second match. Both will air live on ESPN2.

Victoria Azarenka vs. Kim Clijsters: Clijsters used the word "tough" repeatedly in describing this match against Azarenka, who indeed has tended to play the Belgian that way. Clijsters leads the head-to-head 4-2, with all four victories on hardcourts, but Azarenka notched her first hard-court win in the series in their most recent meeting, a 6-3, 6-3 triumph in Miami last year.

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"She's playing extremely well, playing with a lot of confidence, and she's going to be a completely different match than what I was up against [Tuesday]," Clijsters said after her quarterfinal win over soon-to-be former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. "[Azarenka] takes a lot more initiative, hits a lot down the middle of the court, deep, hard. So it's going to be very important to be dominant."

The key for Azarenka will be to use her forehand down the line to attack Clijsters' backhand. Clijsters movement to that side is slightly compromised because of her left ankle injury, but Wozniacki was unable to take advantage. Azarenka has more confidence in that shot and she can hit it flatter than Wozniacki. If Azarenka can do it consistently, she can open up the court and take control of the rallies.

Azarenka, 22, has never reached a Grand Slam final and is playing her second major semifinal. Clijsters' experience is an important intangible, as the 28-year-old showed in her comeback victory against Li Na and in her ability to steady herself late in the second set against Wozniacki.

"Kim is a great champion," Azarenka said. "She knows how to be in the situation, handle big matches."

Azarenka is in excellent form, riding a 10-match winning streak and having dropped only one set in five matches here. But, given Clijsters' know-how in high-stakes matches, I'm taking the four-time major champion in three sets.

Petra Kvitova vs. Maria Sharapova: It's rare when a Sharapova opponent feels like the match is on her racket, but that's what makes Kvitova so special. Outside of Williams, no other woman can match her power off both sides.

Whether Kvitova can keep it up against Sharapova in a rematch of last year's Wimbledon final is another question. Kvitova, 21, has shown marked maturity throughout the tournament in recovering from mid-match funks, something she has struggled with in the past. Martina Navratilova was impressed with how Kvitova overcame a whiffed overhead and an error-prone stretch during a fourth-round victory against Ana Ivanovic.

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"In years past and even last year, she would lose those matches or lose her concentration," Navratilova said. "But now she gets it back together. She's tough."

If Kvitova plays like she did in her straight-set win over Sharapova at Wimbledon, particularly the clutch serving, then Sharapova will be under pressure very quickly. But the slower Rebound Ace of Melbourne Park could be the neutralizer, and Sharapova's side-to-side movement has been impressive. The 24-year-old Russian covered the court beautifully (well, as beautifully as a gangly 6-2 woman can) in her three-set tussle with another hard-hitting youngster, Sabine Lisicki, in the fourth round, forcing Lisicki to hit the extra ball and rack up errors.

"The conditions are a lot slower than a grasscourt," Sharapova said. "The points are a lot quicker on a grasscourt. I'm sure even if you're playing the same opponent, they're going to be a bit longer here than on grass."

For Kvitova, the key will be her serve and consistency. For Sharapova, her serve and movement.

"I have to play my game as always and be aggressive but not really hectic and be focused on every point and it's easy," Kvitova said. Easier said than done in the late rounds of a major with the No. 1 ranking at stake. I'm going with Sharapova in three sets.

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