Sloane Stephens can move into the top 15 if she makes the Australian Open final. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Icon SMI)
Day 11 at the Australian Open brings both women's semifinals and the first men's semifinal. Here’s a look at Thursday’s three marquee matches (click here for the order of play).
• No. 2 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 6 Li Na (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): How do two of the highest-paid female athletes go through a Grand Slam draw without much fanfare? Convincingly. Dominance doesn't always make great drama, which means Sharapova's and Li's straightforward path to the semifinals has been met with a bit of a shrug.
Neither Sharapova nor Li has lost a set through five matches, though Sharapova has looked the more dominant. The Russian has dropped a mere nine games, the fewest on the way to the Australian Open semifinals since it went to 128 players in 1988. Sharapova isn't worried about the lack of competition.
"Going into the match, my goal is not really to be tested," she said with a laugh. "If I do come into a situation where I feel like I have to pull through or I'm not playing my best tennis or she's up and I have to find a way to win, then that's what you have on that given day. Do I want to be in that position? Absolutely not."
Li has faced stiffer opposition, defeating three seeds including an impressive straight-set win over No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska (previously unbeaten in 2013) in the quarterfinals. With new coach Carlos Rodriguez by her side, Li, 30, has a renewed sense of purpose and belief and seems to be relishing the challenge of making one final push in the late stage of her career. This is a winnable match for Li, who is assured of the No. 5 ranking after the tournament.
Sharapova leads their head-to-head 8-4, and while Li won four in a row from 2009 through 2011, she's never won a set off Sharapova on outdoor hard courts. Sharapova won their three matches last year, which included two bagel sets. The way Sharapova has been hitting the ball makes her the favorite. Li needs to return well, and her backhand needs to be clicking early so she can take the ball down the line to open up the court as well as yank it flat cross court for winners. She's done a good job putting her subpar 2012 behind her. She said it's time to turn the page on her history with Sharapova.
"Last year already passed," she said when asked about her recent losses. "She's more aggressive player on the court. Also, she's tough. She's fighting a lot. Should be a tough match."
PREDICTION: Sharapova in two sets.
Victoria Azarenka is aiming for her second straight Australian Open title. (Virginie Bouyer/Icon SMI)
• No. 1 Victoria Azarenka vs. No. 29 Sloane Stephens (follows first semifinal, ESPN2): Sharapova and Azarenka must have been pleased to see Serena Williams ousted. Had Williams won, Azarenka would have been guaranteed to lose the No. 1 ranking, but now she can keep it if she wins the tournament. All the questions in the defending champion's post-quarterfinal press conference were about the possibility of facing Williams in the semifinals, a rematch of their memorable U.S. Open final last year, which Serena won 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. But now Azarenka will take on an entirely different style of opponent in Stephens.
WERTHEIM: Stephens seizes her moment against Williams
The two have never met, but they have similar styles, built on a foundation of counterpunching with enough pop on their shots to control rallies. Azarenka is the more refined version. Coach Sam Sumyk has taught her how to use placement and speed to open up the court and finish. Her ability to build and construct points is underrated. Her rallying ability is more akin to a death by a thousand cuts as opposed to walloping haymaker after haymaker.
Stephens, 19, is still a raw talent. We've seen that in her five matches here, where she vacillates from wanting to be offensive to being content running around the back of the court defending. The clarity will come with time and experience, but it won't be enough to topple the game's elite right now (yes, she beat Williams, but Williams was clearly hampered by injury). Tactics aside, Stephens still has the speed and defense to frustrate opponents. She's the more explosive of the two, hitting well above her weight class. She has the bigger serve and the bigger forehand, both of which can get her out of jams if she's willing to load up and hit them. Azarenka won't give her as many free points as Williams, so it will up to Stephens to serve well and hang with her in the rally until she can pull the trigger.
PREDICTION: Azarenka in two sets.
• No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 4 David Ferrer (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN): Ferrer has never beaten Djokovic on outdoor hard courts. That's not going to change Thursday night. They played each other in Melbourne last year, and Djokovic rolled 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-1. Eight months later, they faced off at the U.S. Open, where Ferrer was able to snag the first set thanks to some help from swirling winds before Djokovic routined him the next day when it resumed under calmer conditions. Already this tournament we've seen Djokovic withstand valiant challenges from Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, two men who have more firepower than Ferrer yet still couldn't hit through Djokovic's defense. Ferrer may be able to work Djokovic in the rallies, but his sub-standard serve will always keep him vulnerable.
PREDICTION: Djokovic in three sets.
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