AO.10 - 18 Years a Semifinalist
Even at a slam where headlines have been made from the deep end of the tennis spectrum (a string of journeymen and "other" brothers knocking off the best players in the men's game) all the way to its outer reaches (legendary champions rediscovering form in their mid-30's after battling injury, or maintaining their place atop the sport twenty years into their respective careers), with at least one stirring story in between orchestrated by a player with a name fit for a cereal box, the 34-year old Croat occupies her own special corner of inspiration at this year's event in Melbourne.
Bursting onto the scene nearly twenty years ago, reaching a slam semifinal at age 17 in 1999 and then soon after losing more than six years of her career after making a daring escape from a familial circumstance marked by mental and physical abuse, Lucic has come this way before. But it was quite literally a lifetime ago, both in tennis' generational terms, as well through the maelstrom of her own person experience. Few players, if any, could go down to their knees in the middle of Rod Laver Arena court after her biggest victory in nearly two decades, making the sign of the cross over her heart and then burying her face in her hands and bursting into tears and have no one argue that she'd earned the moment, than Lucic. In fact, one could say that that emotional unloading of so many of her burdens, the basking in the brilliant craziness of this moment, STILL wasn't nearly enough to make up for all it took for her to get back to this place.
In Lucic's quarterfinal match-up on Day 10 vs. #5-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the ebb-and-flow of the action shifted back and forth between the two women. 24-year old Pliskova, like her #79-ranked opponent a one-time slam semifinalist (but looking to make it so deep in the draw in back-to-back majors), found herself battling against her own usually high-flying serve for most of the day. After a quick serving start, she was forced to try to overcome the hard-hitting Croat without her biggest weapon being as reliable as she'd like. She'd managed to find a way to win in the 3rd Round vs. Jelena Ostapenko despite being off-form and down 5-2 in the 3rd set, then stamped down crowd favorite Dasha Gavrilova under the lights to get into her second career slam Final 8, but here she was tasked to maintain her calm, make use of her advantage in recent big match experience, and find a way to take out a player who doesn't know the meaning of the word "impossible."
She very nearly did so again, too, battling to take a lead late in the match before her grasp on a possible victory seemed to wash away in a instant.
Pliskova was pressed into action immediately, having to save a break point in her first service game of the day with one ace, get another on an overturned replay challenge, and then put away an overhead from deep in the far corner of the court to get an initial hold of serve. After an exchange of breaks, she fired another ace and deep serve to pull ahead from 30/30 and hold for 4-4. But after having kept herself afloat with a good serving start in an opening set held together by short rallies and one player's big shot trumping that of the other, the Czech suddenly fell off on serve. Serving down 4-5, she quickly fell behind love/40, then flew a forehand on BP #2 to hand Lucic the set at 6-4.
Two games into the 2nd set, Lucic fired a backhand winner to take a 15/40 lead on Pliskova's serve, getting the break to grab an early 2-0 advantage. After breaking back for 2-1, Pliskova took a medical timeout to have a blister on the bottom of her foot treated, then proceeded to dig in and climb back into the set. A deuce hold got things even at 2-2, then her characteristically calm demeanor was cracked with a clenched fist and bent-over yell (think Fed Cup) after grabbing the break lead in the set a game later. Once again, though, the two woman exchanged momentum as two more consecutive breaks followed, the second giving the Czech the lead again when Lucic came in and dumped an overhead into the net. Two games later, the Croat fell behind love/40, and saw Pliskova seize the set at 6-3 with a lunging return of a serve up the middle, putting away a winner on an angled shot that bounced in the short court on Lucic's side of the net.
In the 3rd set, everything seemed to be working against Lucic. On more than one occasion, she'd fire a shot near the line and either "win" the point or sense the momentum of the point going in her favor, only to see it be wrongly overruled and called out by the chair umpire or have a linesperson's mistake revealed after she'd issued a replay challenge, then have the resulting "re-play" of the point go to Pliskova. Still, the momentum changes continued. The two again traded breaks through the first three games of the set, with Lucic seeming to take control with a crushing forehand return winner to go up 2-1. Pliskova performed some "corrective racket surgery" area during the changeover after that game, then saw the Croat hold at love after having rattled off her fourth consecutive winner from the backcourt and holding for 3-1. But the Czech bounced right back, firing an ace to hold, then breaking Lucic and holding again to surge to her first lead in the set at 4-3.
But it was precisely here when Lucic left the court to have her thigh wrapped. What happened when she returned turned the match over on its head. The Croat, bursting out of the break, held at love, while Pliskova came out flat and could never recover her form. A string of errors off her racket resulted in a love break as Lucic stunningly was suddenly serving for the match after winning all eight points since the timeout. Grabbing a necklace from her tennis bag and draping it around her neck, she went to the baseline and attempted to serve her way into her first slam semifinal in nearly two decades.
There was never any question.
Lucic didn't sweep yet another game, as her point streak ended with an error at nine straight, but an ace (her ninth, as many as Pliskova) and back-to-back forehand errors from the Czech brought down the curtain. Winning twelve of the final thirteen points, Lucic, with three-quarters of her legs seemingly wrapped with some sort of tape, claimed the victory 6-4/3-6/6-4.
Afterward, Lucic talked with Rennae Stubbs. After being on the receiving end of the Croat's hug, the former Aussie pro revealed to all that they actually have a history together in Melbourne...
While Pliskova's first loss of the season (9-1) leaves her short of her Melbourne goal, chalk this up as another learning experience, all previous of which have helped the Czech lift her game to a high level that she's maintained since last summer. She'll get another opportunity on this stage.
But his may be Lucic's one remaining BIG tennis opportunity after a life of fighting for additional chances. She'll rise into the Top 50 next week for the first time since 1999 (her career high is #32 in '98, a mark which will likely fall before the spring). She spent the first half of her life falling from "wonder girl" status to that of a cautionary tale, and now the other half transforming from a cautionary tale into a fairytale. A sixteen year span separated her two tour singles titles, and now an eighteen-year stretch (during which time whichever girl wins this AO's junior title will have been born and come of tennis age) is between her two slam semifinal appearances. Her next opponent, Serena Williams, was last on the other side of the net from her in a singles match in 1998 at Wimbledon, the season before Lucic's SW19 Final 4 run, as well as Serena's first of twenty-two (so far) slam titles later that summer.
Lucic's story is already the sort of thing that even Hollywood would turn away, saying it too unrealistic for even fiction to be able to carry off. But she's LIVED it, and now she's finding a way to "love" it, or at least accept the journey as being necessary for THIS moment to be as meaningful as it now is.
Tennis is sometimes a metaphor for real life. In Lucic's case, the sport has been both the origin of heartbreak as well as the final, hard-won happy ending that often only exists in childhood daydreams. This is why tennis, with all its individual successes and failures, offers the promise of offering a competitive environment where anything and everything is indeed possible. It doesn't always happen... but sometimes it does. Lucic has proved that.
This is why we care.
=DAY 10 NOTES=
...the second women's QF match of Day 10 didn't contain the same sort of heartstring-pulling backstory as the one that preceded it, but the match-up between #2-seeded Serena Williams and #9 Johanna Konta DID have the feel of something of a "de facto" final, with the winner ready to be declared the favorite to win the championship on Saturday.
As it turned out, while '16 semifinalist Konta has often looked like a world-beater in 2017, running off eighteen straight sets in recent weeks Down Under, Serena is a world unto herself.
Maybe even an entire universe.
As has felt to be the case from Day 1 of this slam, when the difficulty of Williams' draw set out a potentially rocky path toward slam win #23, Serena came to Melbourne KNOWING that she if she was going to have a chance to win AO crown #7 she was going to have to be focused and in-form from the opening round until the final weekend. Otherwise, her chances of being tripped up weren't just possible, but likely.
And who loves a challenge better than Serena?
While she's had a few hiccups through this event's earlier stages, and did again today with a spotty First Serve percentage, Williams has never looked on the verge of falling into the sort of rut that might foreshadow defeat. And against Konta today, that didn't change. While they'd never played before, Konta HAS beaten Venus, so Serena was surely familiar with the Brit's abilities, which she's been putting on display the last two weeks on Australian courts. That Serena arrived on Laver on Wednesday knowing that she couldn't allow her into the match for fear that she might ACTUALLY be able to take it is, actually, quite the compliment to Konta.
Unfortunately, for her, Johanna had to pay the price for having earned Serena's respect.
Williams sent her intended message in the opening game, blasting a 123-mph ace to wrap up a hold of serve. Konta would respond with a quick hold of her own, but nothing would be so easy for her the rest of the day. With Williams missing on eleven of her first sixteen First Serves, Konta managed to reach BP in game #3, but Serena pulled her game close and fired another ace to hold for 2-1, then broke the Brit a game later. With Konta hitting out on all her shots, but often just missing lines and ticking balls of the top of the net and out of play, Williams picked up steam. More big serving extended the lead to 4-1, then she whacked an inside-out forehand return winner to deny Konta on a game point in game #8. Moments later, the pressure put on Konta by Williams' groundstrokes delivered the set to her at 6-2.
Unable to get on top and handle Serena's deep and powerful shots, more and more uncharacteristic errors began to creep into Konta's game. In game #2 of the 2nd set, she dumped a backhand into the high side of the net while trying to pull off a down-the-line shot, falling behind love/40. But, showing why she was so worthy of Serena's respect, the Brit found a way to win five straight points and held for 1-1. It was here that Williams once again began to miss on her First Serves, allowing Konta to find a foothold in the set, winning a rally ended by a Serena error to take a break lead at 2-1.
But that's when Williams began to pull back on her big serving, cutting down the speed and giving herself more margin for error. It did the trick, and kept Serena's course to the semifinals true. Meanwhile, Konta's own DF on game #6 put her down love/40, and Williams got the break when the Brit didn't take advantage of a chance to end the game's final rally early, as Serena put away a BP with a forehand at the net. After staving off a BP a game later, Williams held with an ace, then picked up more pace toward the finish as she broke Konta for 5-3. Serving, into the sun, for her 34th career slam semifinal, an ace gave her a 40/love lead. On match point, a big serve up the "T" produced a final Konta error, and Williams' berth in her tenth consecutive slam semi was secure with a 6-2/6-3 win
Williams, one of three U.S. women in the same slam semifinals for the first time since the 2002 U.S. Open, will now be in the position to put the final period on Lucic-Baroni's fairytale story at this AO, and then would play in the first all-Bannerette slam final since she faced off with sister Venus at Wimbledon in 2009. And, of course, in yet another of Melbourne's dizzying twists, it's possible that she may not be the only Williams there, either.
Geez... this Australian Open, huh?
...the girls singles final eight are set, and eight different nations are represented.
Today, #1-seeded Swiss Miss Rebeka Masarova, already a junior slam winner last year in Paris, advanced with a win over #13-seeded Carson Branstine (USA), while #4 Emily Appleton (GBR) took out #14 Yuki Naito of Japan. #2-seeded Bannerette Taylor Johnson fell to #16 Elena Rybakina (RUS), and #11 Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine (last week's Traralgon runner-up) upset Britain's #6-seeded Jodi Anna Burrage.
Zeel Desai is through to the QF of the Australian Open Juniors after 5th seed Olga Danilovic from Serbia retires in 1st set— Sports India (@SportsIndia3) January 25, 2017
Well Done ???????? pic.twitter.com/E9KO41Wwjr
We're finally starting to see a bit of the "Daughters of Sania" generation come of age out of India, and Zeel Desai has emerged at this slam. She advanced today past #5-seeded Olga Danilovic when the Serb retired in the 1st set. #7 Bianca Andreescu (my pick for this title, though I probably just jinxed her my mentioning it... she already started the event playing with a big leg wrap) won today over Chinese wild card Yuan Chengyiyi, while #10 Mai Hontama of Japan (def. Ekaterina Vishnevskaya) and Taiwan's En Shuo Liang (def. Sofya Lansere) took out two of the three Russians that had reached the Round of 16, more than any other nation to that point.
...#2-seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Lucie Safarova, the '15 AO winners, will play for their fourth slam title together after their three-set win today over Eri Hozumi & Miyu Kato. The duo only needs a Wimbledon title to complete a Career Doubles Slam together.
Their opponents in the final will be #12-seeds Andrea Hlavackova & Peng Shuai, who defeated #1 Garcia/Mladenovic in straight sets in the other semifinal. The reunited pair are now 9-1 on the season. Hlavackova reached the AO final last year with Lucie Hradecka.
...wheelchair play began on Day 10, with all four quarterfinal matches being quick affairs. Two-time defending AO champ and WC #1 Jiske Griffioen took out doubles partner and Dutch countrywoman Aniek van Koot 6-4/6-3, while #2 Yui Kamiji (JPN) defeated Germany's Katharina Kruger 6-1/6-2, making it into the draw at this slam due to the absence of Jordanne Whiley. The Brit fractured her wrist at last year's Masters event in December.
In the other two matches, 41-year old Sabine Ellerbrook (the German won the AO title in '14) took out Dutch 19-year old Diede de Groot in her slam debut by a 6-4/6-3 score, while Brit Lucy Shuker knocked of Marjolein Buis (NED) 6-2/6-3. Buis will be the defending singles champion at Roland Garros in the spring.
...LIKE ON DAY 10: Mirjana X 2
...Hmmm... ON DAY 10:
#AusOpen SFists:— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 25, 2017
35-yr-old Serena Williams
35-yrs-old-last year Venus Williams
35-yrs-old-in-March Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
#35 CoCo Vandeweghe
...and, finally... sometimes, silence says more than words ever could.
my man pic.twitter.com/YzNzdiVmvA— carvell (@carvellwallace) January 23, 2017
*WOMEN'S SINGLES SF*
CoCo Vandeweghe/USA vs. #13 Venus Williams/USA
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO vs. #2 Serena Williams/USA
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#12 Hlavackova/Peng (CZE/CHN) vs. #2 Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE)
*MIXED DOUBLES QF*
#1 Mattek-Sands/M.Bryan (USA/USA) vs. Svitolina/Guccione (UKR/AUS)
Spears/Cabal (USA/COL) def. Krajicek/Klaasen (NED/RSA)
(WC) Hingis/Paes (SUI/IND) vs.(WC) Stosur/Groth (AUS/AUS)
#2 Mirza/Dodig (IND/CRO) def. Dabrowski/Bopanna (CAN/IND)
*GIRLS SINGLES QF*
#1 Rebeka Masarova/SUI vs. #10 Mai Hontama/JPN
#4 Emily Appleton/GBR vs. #7 Bianca Andreescu/CAN
#11 Marta Kostyuk/UKR vs. En Shuo Liang/TPE
Zeel Desai/IND vs. #16 Elena Rybakina/RUS
*GIRLS DOUBLES QF*
#5 McNally/Subhash (USA/USA) def. #1 Appleton/Burrage (GBR/GBR)
#3 Andreescu/Branstine (CAN/USA) def. Collins/Niemeier (GBR/GER)
Chwalinska/Swiatek (POL/POL) def. Johnson/Mossmer (USA/USA)
Nagata/Naklo (JPN/THA) def. Brune Olsen/Helgo (NOR/NOR)
*WC WOMEN'S SINGLES QF*
#1 Jiske Griffioen/NED def. Aniek van Koot/NED
Sabine Ellerbrock/GER def. Diede de Groot/NED
Lucy Shuker/GBR def. Marjolein Buis/NED
#2 Yui Kamiji/JPN def. Katharina Kruger/GER
*WC WOMEN'S DOUBLES SF*
#1 Griffioen/Van Koot (NED/NED) vs. Buis/Shuker (NED/GBR)
Ellerbrock/Kruger (GER/GER) vs. #2 de Groot/Kamiji (NED/JPN)
So cute! Look at those cheeks ? https://t.co/GKWarMJx7v— victoria azarenka (@vika7) January 24, 2017
*2017 AO SEMIFINALISTS*
[by career slam SF]
34...Serena Williams, USA
21...Venus Williams, USA
2...Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, CRO
1...CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
[by career AO SF]
8...Serena Williams, USA
3...Venus Williams, USA
1...Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, CRO
1...CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
34...SERENA WILLIAMS (28-5)*
21...VENUS WILLIAMS (14-6)*
20...Maria Sharapova (10-10)
7...Victoria Azarenka (4-3)
6...Caroline Wozniacki (2-4)
6...Jelena Jankovic (1-5)
5...Svetlana Kuznetsova (4-1)
5...Angelique Kerber (3-2)
5...Petra Kvitova (2-3)
5...Samantha Stosur (2-3)
5...Aga Radwanska (1-4)
[WTA in the 2010's]
16...SERENA WILLIAMS (14-2)*
10...Maria Sharapova (6-4)
7...Victoria Azarenka (4-3)
6...Li Na (4-2) - retired
5...Angelique Kerber (3-2)
5...Petra Kvitova (2-3)
5...Aga Radwanska (1-4)
5...Caroline Wozniacki (1-4)
4...Samantha Stosur (2-2)
[Career SF Slam - active]
Azarenka - 2013 RG (30th appearance)
Sharapova - 2007 RG (18th)
S.Williams - 2003 AO (18th)
V.Williams - 2001 AO (15th)
ALSO: Hingis - 1997 WI (11th)
*LOWEST-SEEDED WOMEN IN AO SF, since 2000*
Unseeded - 2000 Jennifer Capriati, USA
Unseeded - 2007 Serena Williams, USA (W)
Unseeded - 2010 Zheng Jie, CHN
Unseeded - 2015 Madison Keys, USA
Unseeded - 2016 Johanna Konta, GBR
Unseeded - 2017 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, CRO
Unseeded - 2017 CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
Wild Card - 2010 Justine Henin, BEL (RU)
#32 - 2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
#30 - 2014 Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
#29 - 2013 Sloane Stephens, USA
#22 - 2004 Patty Schnyder, SUI
#20 - 2014 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK (RU)
#19 - 2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
#16 - 2010 Li Na, CHN
#13 - 2017 Venus Williams, USA
#12 - 2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA (W)
#11 - 2012 Kim Clijsters, BEL
#10 - 2000 Conchita Martinez, ESP
#10 - 2007 Nicole Vaidisova, CZE
#10 - 2015 Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
**AO "Ms. OPPORTUNITY" WINNERS**
2004 Fabiola Zuluaga, COL
2005 Nathalie Dechy, FRA
2006 Martina Hingis, SUI
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
2009 Vera Zvonareva, RUS
2010 Zheng Jie, CHN & Li Na, CHN
2011 Li Na, CHN
2012 Sara Errani, ITA
2013 Sloane Stephens, USA
2014 Dominika Cibulkova, SVK
2015 Ekaterina Makarova, RUS
2016 Johanna Konta, GBR
2017 CoCo Vandeweghe, USA
*AO "COMEBACK PLAYER" WINNERS*
2007 Serena Williams, USA
2008 Zi Yan & Zheng Jie, CHN
2009 Jelena Dokic, AUS
2010 Justine Henin, BEL
2011 Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2012 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2013 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
2014 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2015 Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2016 Andrea Hlavackova & Lucie Hradecka, CZE/CZE
2017 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, CRO
**AO "MIDDLE-ROUND TOP PLAYER" WINNERS**
2007 Serena Williams, USA*
2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS*
2009 Elena Dementieva, RUS
2010 Serena Williams, USA*
2011 Li Na, CHN
2012 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2013 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2014 Li Na, CHN *
2015 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2016 Serena Williams, USA
2017 Serena Williams, USA
* - won title
**RECENT GIRLS SLAM CHAMPIONS**
AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ash Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
RG: Annika Beck, GER
WI: Genie Bouchard, CAN
US: Samantha Crawford, USA
AO: Ana Konjuh, CRO
RG: Belinda Bencic, SUI
WI: Belinda Bencic, SUI
US: Ana Konjuh, CRO
AO: Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS
RG: Daria Kasatkina, RUS
WI: Jelena Ostapenko, LAT
US: Maria Bouzkova, CZE
AO: Tereza Mihalikova, SVK
RG: Paula Badosa, ESP
WI: Sofya Zhuk, RUS
US: Dalma Galfi, HUN
AO: Vera Lapko, BLR
RG: Rebeka Masarova, SUI
WI: Anastasia Potapova, RUS
US: Kayla Day, USA
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #5 Karolina Pliskova/CZE
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Ons Jabeur/TUN def. Dalila Jakupovic/SRB 2-6/7-6(5)/7-5 (comeback from 6-2/4-1 down)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Lucie Safarova/CZE def. Yanina Wickmayer/BEL 3-6/7-6(7)/6-1 (saved 9 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - #8 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS def. Jelena Jankovic/SRB 6-4/5-7/9-7 (3:36; blew 4-1 lead in 2nd, back from 0-3 in 3rd)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): x
TOP LAVER/MCA NIGHT MATCH: 3rd Rd. - Ka.Pliskova d. Ostapenko (double-break down at 5-2 in 3rd set)
FIRST VICTORY: #29 Monica Puig/PUR (def. Tig/ROU)
FIRST SEED OUT: #4 Simona Halep/ROU (lost to Rogers/USA)
UPSET QUEENS: United States
REVELATION LADIES: Australia
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Romania (First Loss, First Seed Out & two players ranked in Top 32 ousted in 1st Rd.)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Mona Barthel/GER & Jennifer Brady/USA (4th Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Ash Barty/AUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Dasha Gavrilova (4th Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: CoCo Vandeweghe/USA
IT (Party): (Ash) "Barty Party"
COMEBACK PLAYER: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni/CRO
CRASH & BURN: #4 Simona Halep/ROU (1st Rd./Rogers; 2 con. AO 1st Rd. exits)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Lucie Safarova/CZE (1st Rd. - saved 9 MP vs. Wickmayer)
KIMIKO VETERAN CUP: Venus Williams/USA
LADY OF THE EVENING: Karolina Pliskova/CZE (back from 5-2 in 3rd vs. Ostapenko on Night 6; cancelled "The Dasha Show" on Night 8)
DOUBLES STAR: x
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: x