Wimbledon women's semis preview: Just embrace the unexpected
WIMBLEDON, England -- What the four Wimbledon women's semifinalists lack in headline value, they more than make up for in variety and personality. Sure, we could (and rights-holders would say "should") have seen Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka into the final week, and that would have been fine and dandy for everyone. But we've seen those matchups before, we know what they look and sound like, and the predictability can breed boredom.
So in this wild and wacky Wimbledon, let's embrace the unknown. Let's celebrate the fact that three of the four semifinalists -- Agnieszka Radwanska, Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki -- have reached the tournament's final four before. And Radwanska and Bartoli are former finalists, too. Radwanska took the seemingly impervious Serena Williams to three sets in last year's final, while Bartoli lost to Venus Williams in the 2007 championship match.
Joining them is Kirsten Flipkens, the feel-good story of the tournament, a junior Wimbledon champion in 2003 who has battled back from potentially career-threatening injuries and illnesses to make her first Grand Slam semifinal. She played a steely, savvy match to defeat 2011 champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals.
"Yeah, if you would have told me in the beginning of the tournament who was going to be with the last four, I would never say the four who are still in actually," Flipkens said. "I mean, yeah, OK, Agnieszka. But the other three are a little bit of a surprise."
To even try to predict what's going to happen when the ladies take the stage on Thursday is a fool's errand. Bartoli and Flipkens are first up on Centre Court (8 a.m. ET, ESPN). Their head-to-head record offers no help; they've never played, despite the fact that both have been on tour for at least 10 years. Radwanska and Lisicki, who will take the court after them, have split their two matches, both on hard courts.
Let's take a closer look at the matchups. (Scheduling note: We'll be live-blogging both matches Thursday in this space, so please join us.)
No. 15 Marion Bartoli vs. No. 20 Kirsten Flipkens (first semifinal): Bartoli is an aggressive, flat hitter off both sides with surprisingly good lateral defense. Flipkens has a fantastic serve -- I've never seen her serve as effectively as she did against Kvitova, topping out at 114 mph. Kvitova, a big hitter off the ground like Bartoli, couldn't break Flipkens in the final two sets, an impressive statistic given the enormity of the match. It speaks volumes about Flipkens' ability to deal with the pressure of the stage. Flipkens also has great variety, with a nice slice backhand that she can use to move Bartoli around the court and dig out balls from down low.
Bartoli is the only semifinalist who hasn't dropped a set, but I give Flipkens a very good chance to pull the upset. Bartoli benefited greatly from Sloane Stephens' atrocious serving in her 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal win. Stephens troubled Bartoli with her slice backhand when used effectively, something Flipkens is very capable of doing.
Unless Flipkens is a complete no-show, I'm expecting this one to go the full three sets. The unknown makes this match exciting.
"I never played Marion, so I really have no idea," Flipkens said. "I only know she has a two‑handed forehand and backhand. That's about it."
Said Bartoli: "Tennis is kind of a crazy game and now I am playing Kirsten Flipkens to be in the final of Wimbledon. So it's also very unexpected, but that's also the magic of it."
Prediction: Flipkens d. Bartoli
Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sabine Lisicki (second semifinal): The distinct contrast in styles will make this match entertaining. Lisicki beat Radwanska 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-2 in Stanford, Calif., in 2011, and Radwanska evened the series with a 6-2, 6-1 victory in Dubai in 2012. By now, everyone has seen how Lisicki earned her "Boom Boom" nickname. She's got the biggest serve left in the tournament, regularly pounding it down in the 120s, and she'll pounce on anything left short with her heavy forehand.
But Radwanska has made a living cutting up precisely these kinds of players. An underpowered but crafty technician, Radwanska's tennis IQ is second to none and she knows how to get players out of their comfort zone. Lisicki's last two wins, over Serena Williams and Kaia Kanepi, were against players who mirror her own style. She matched power for power, and her defense -- which, as Serena pointed out, is very underrated -- was able to force some errors. Radwanska is a different prospect.
The two have known each other for years. Lisicki, who is of Polish descent, played against Radwanska in Polish tournaments when they were younger.
"I remember, and actually we talked about that also not so long ago, that we played some team championships in Poland that I think was under 10 or 12," Radwanska said. "So it was a really long time ago. The time flies, and suddenly we all here playing the semifinal of a Grand Slam. So I think this is great to face someone that you know for so many years, playing all these tournament under 10, 12, 14, then juniors as well."
The big question for Radwanska is her fitness. She's coming into the semifinal on the heels of three straight three-set matches. She had to call the trainer to get her right thigh taped during her quarterfinal victory over Li Na. She admitted that her body is feeling the effects of those matches, and as a player who has to rely on her speed to run down balls, it's a concern.
"It's not really an injury," Radwanska said Tuesday. "My legs are a bit overused. A lot of treatment and massage tomorrow and I will be ready for the semifinal."
Prediction: Lisicki d. Radwanska.
Here are some highlights from Lisicki's and Radwanska's match in Stanford in 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d61KYAZsOIU