Thursday’s two women’s semifinals at the Australian Open could hardly be more different. The first match of the day will feature the first and fourth seeds, with the defending champion Serena Williams going up against former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska. In contrast, following them onto Rod Laver Arena will be a contest offering two surprise aspirants a golden chance to make their first Grand Slam final.
No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber reaching the last four of a Major isn’t in itself a huge shock, after a semifinals appearance at the U.S. Open in 2011 and Wimbledon in 2012. Yet few will have banked on her matching her best result in a Grand Slam at this year’s Australian Open. Last year, she failed to make it beyond the third round at any of tennis’ four showpiece events. And as well as having to survive a match point in her opening round, her draw put her into direct opposition with the woman many had already penciled into the final.
Victoria Azarenka may only be seeded 14, but the fact that she is a two-time Australian Open champion, had started 2016 in terrific form and won all six of her previous meetings with Kerber meant she began their quarterfinal as a sizable favorite. However, it was the German 28-year-old who prevailed thanks to a new commitment to playing the match on her terms.
“I won against her for the first time,” she said. “[It] does feel really good. Before I went on court I was practicing in to be more aggressive. I played very well. I mean, I was playing my game from the first point. Also when I was down 2-5, I was actually playing more aggressive. I think that was the key. I served very well and was moving good. I think the key from this match was that I was playing and I won the match. She doesn't lose it; I actually won it.”
As the only member of the top 10 yet to make a Grand Slam final, opportunity is knocking once again for Kerber. But that is even more evident for her opponent on Thursday. Just a year ago, Johanna Konta was ranked 147th in the world and her Australian Open hopes were ended in the first round of qualifying. Now, after a stunning upturn in her career that began last summer she is, at the age of 24, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, having become the first British woman to reach this stage of a Major since 1983.
A run that started with a victory over seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams in the opening round continued with a steady win over the tournament’s other surprise package, Zhang Shuai, in the quarterfinals. Her success has been particularly special, given that she spent the first 11 years of life in Australia, before moving to train in Spain and then to England at 14. With Konta also having Hungarian parents, she has enjoyed plenty of fun in Melbourne explaining her heritage.
“Actually I am a tri-citizen,” she joked in her press conference after beating Zhang 6-4 6-1. “I've got a Hungarian passport as well. Just add that into the mix, guys. I mean, I'm pretty much the female version of Jason Bourne.”
While Konta and Kerber have never previously met, Thursday’s first semifinal has plenty of history attached. Williams has beaten Radwanska in all eight of their previous contests, only dropping one set, which came in Radwanska’s only previous trip to a Grand Slam final, at Wimbledon in 2012.
And Williams has been in supreme form through to the last four of the Australian Open. Despite doubts over her fitness, having not completed a tour match since last September’s agonizing U.S. Open semifinal loss, the 34-year-old has yet to even come close to losing a set. In the quarterfinals, she continued another dominant head-to-head record, when beating Maria Sharapova for an 18th straight time.
While she just missed out on a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015, Williams again has the chance to equal Steffi Graf’s Open-Era record of 22 Grand Slam titles. Yet the American insists, having already achieved so much, that she no longer feels under pressure to succeed.
“I told myself that I'm here to have fun now,” she said after beating Sharapova 6-4 6-1. “I've done everything that I didn't want to do, you know. I didn't think I would have done as well as I have.
“Everything from here on out, every match, is a bonus for me. I don't have to win this tournament or any other tournament for as long as I live. I really want to enjoy being a professional tennis player and playing on Grand Slam courts, moments like this.”
Not before 9:30 p.m. EST (following the completion of a men’s doubles semifinal):
Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska
Angelique Kerber vs. Johanna Konta
TV channel: ESPN2
Live stream: ESPN3, Watch ESPN