Australian Open 2019, women's semi-final preview: Big-hitters take centrestage in absence of the big names

The biggest names in the sport may not have survived to play on the 11th day of the Australian Open, when the coveted blue court of the Rod Laver hosts the women's singles semi-finals. But some of the biggest hitters in the game have made it to this stage.

That’s perhaps the only thread that links Petra Kvitova, Danielle Collins, Karolina Pliskova and Naomi Osaka. They're power-players, aggressive baseliners who don't often get the ball back in play as they thump it with venom. And together they've been responsible for the ousting of the likes of two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza, 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, and 23-time major winner Serena Williams to get to this far in the tournament.

All four of them have a different Grand Slam back story.

 Australian Open 2019, womens semi-final preview: Big-hitters take centrestage in absence of the big names

Petra Kvitova is into the semi-finals of the Australian Open. AP

The world no 4 Naomi Osaka, a bubbly 21-year-old from Japan has been an endearing figure off-court for her wit and honesty, is the highest ranked player in the semi-finals. By getting to this stage in Melbourne, the 2018 US Open champion becomes the first first-time Slam champion to reach the semi-finals of the subsequent major since Kim Clijsters reached the final four of the 2006 Australian Open.

Since the Belgian's feat 13 years ago, the women's game has had 15 first-time winners – which includes Kerber, Muguruza, Caroline Wozniacki and current world no 1 Simona Halep – before Osaka who have failed to reach the final four of the next major.

The route to the semi-final though wasn’t straight forward for Osaka. She had to fight back from a set down against Su-Wei Hsieh and Anastasija Sevastova in the third and fourth rounds respectively, before comfortably beating Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-1 on Wednesday to book only her second Grand Slam semi-final appearance.

On Thursday, she’ll play in the first match in the evening session against world no 8 Karolina Pliskova.

The 26-year-old Czech is no stranger to a semi-final at a major. She had reached the last four of the French Open in 2017, and the farthest she had gone to winning a title was at the final of the 2016 US Open, which she lost to Kerber. Standing at a towering 6-foot-1, Pliskova is one of the quickest servers in the game, but it's her ability to produce immense power on her ground strokes, in spite of her lanky figure, that makes her a potent threat.

In Australia, she's been stretched to three sets in three matches, against American Madison Brengle, Camila Giorgi, and a certain Serena Williams.

Pliskova was a point away from losing that match, until Williams, who was firmly in control, rolled her left-ankle mid-rally on match point. Down 1-5 in the final set, the Czech rallied back against the rattled American to win the next six games to seal a famous 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 win.

"On one hand, I was almost in the locker room," she said. "But now I'm standing here as the winner."

In the other semi-final match, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova will start the slight favourite. The southpaw has hit a good run of form in the tournament, being the only semi-finalist to reach this stage without dropping a set.

On Tuesday, the Czech had beaten local girl Ashleigh Barty to book her first semi-final match since she won the Wimbledon title in 2014. This is also the first time she's won a match at the Australian Open since she was forced to skip the event in 2017.

In December 2016, the 28-year-old had been mugged at her home in Prostejov and had received stab wounds on her playing hand during the altercation. She had to undergo immediate surgery to repair the damage and only started using her left arm three months later. Since then, her best performance has been a quarter-final finish at the US Open last year.

With her game Kvitova is always a threat, but in the semi-final she will come up against a player that has cut reputations down to size throughout the tournament.

Danielle Collins had started out this year’s Australian Open as an unknown quantity. This is the first time, in five attempts, the 25-year-old American has gotten past the first round in the main draw of a Slam – it's also her first appearance in the main draw of the Australian Open.

Brash and bold, Collins is a product of the US collegiate system and won the NCAA title twice. Her education – she has a Bachelor’s degree in media studies and Masters in business — is the reason why she made a late entry in professional tennis.

The world no 35 overcame a close tie against world no 13 Julia Goerges in her first round before winning straight sets matches against Sachia Vickery and Caroline Garcia – the 19th seed. Her biggest upset however came in the fourth round, when she came up with a stunning performance to upset world no 2 Kerber 6-0, 6-2. That match saw the American strike 29 winners against the German's six. And she rode that wave to overcome Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 to make it to her first major semi-final – her biggest ever result till date.

“I may not have won a Grand Slam match before this tournament, but I gotta tell you I think it’s going to keep on happening,” she said after beating Kerber. “I hope to have many more of these.”

When the four semi-finalists, with diverse backgrounds, step on to court on Thursday, they will all compete for a prize neither has ever achieved before – a spot in the final at Melbourne.

Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 22:51:05 IST