Venus Williams takes on CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday for a place in the final of the 2017 Australian Open.
It’s certainly not the Australian Open semi-final we expected, but that certainly doesn’t diminish it’s star quality, with an all-American duel between 36-year-old Williams and surprise packet Vandeweghe set to determine one of the competitors who will battle for the silverware on Saturday night.
After going five full seasons without reaching a major semi-final, Williams has now made the final four in two of her last three slam appearances, and if not for a red-hot Karolina Pliskova the US Open, we could easily have been talking about three straight. It’s a truly remarkable achievement when you factor in all of the health and injury problems Williams has been forced to contend with over the last few years, including the energy-sapping autoimmune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome. Her genuine love for the game is admirable and she remains one of the great athletes and ball-strikers in the sport.
Williams secured her spot in her first Australian Open semi-final since 2003 when she overcame the talented but erratic Russian 24th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Tuesday. It wasn’t a vintage performance by any means, with Williams struggling significantly on serve, but the veteran was able to step up her return game and break Pavlyuchenkova every time immediately after relinquishing her own serve. Williams, who fired 35 winners throughout the contest, recovered from 3-1 down in the second set tiebreak to reel off six consecutive points to emerge a 6-4 7-6(3) victory - her fifth straight sets win of the tournament.
The win doubled as Williams’ 50th Australian Open victory, while at 36 years of age, she is the oldest player to reach a grand slam semi-final since Martina Navratilova in 1994 at Wimbledon.
"I have a lot to give to the game," Venus said in her post-match press conference.
"I feel like I have a lot of great tennis in me. So any time you feel that way, you continue.
"Why not? I have nothing to lose, literally."
It’s that relaxed mentality that is so vital to Williams right now. She’s playing without pressure and is simply enjoying her tennis. But we also have to be real with her current form. Obviously she’s playing great and fully deserves her spot in the final four, but it hasn’t been the most taxing draw for Williams:
R1: No. 101 Kateryna Kozlova
R2: No. 112 Stefanie Voegele
R3: No. 87 Ying-Ying Duan
R4: No. 181 Mona Barthel
QF: No. 27 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
And when you compare it with that of her semi-final opponent, the contrast becomes even more noticeable.
Coco Vandeweghe (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
CoCo Vandeweghe has come through a pair of former grand slam finalists in Roberta Vinci and Eugenie Bouchard in the first three rounds, while - even more impressively - she’s conquered reigning Australian and US Open champion Angelique Kerber and French Open winner Garbine Muguruza in straight sets in back-to-back matches to secure her spot in her maiden slam semi-final. That is phenomenal when you consider Vandeweghe hadn’t won an official completed match on tour since Cincinnati in August last year.
In fact, Vandeweghe hadn’t won back-to-back matches since a run to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. The 25-year-old has followed in the footsteps of compatriots Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in Americans that have recently landed a grand slam breakthrough at the Australian Open, and now the question is can Vandeweghe keep her stunning run going?
If she plays how she did against Kerber and especially Muguruza then she has every chance in the world. Vandeweghe was almost flawless in ruthlessly picking apart Muguruza in their quarter-final clash on Tuesday, delivering a ‘bagel’ to the Roland Garros champion in a 6-4 6-0 demolition job inside Rod Laver Arena. Vandeweghe blasted 31 winners and limited the equally as aggressive Muguruza to just 14 in an unbelievable display - however the confident American is far from satisfied.
"It's amazing to be in a semifinal," she said in her post-match press conference.
"But, you know, not satisfying. I want to keep going, keep playing. There's more things to do out on a tennis court that I'm hoping to achieve."
Williams and Vandeweghe have only placed once before, with Venus coming away with a straight sets win on the clay of Rome last year, but we can’t really take anything meaningful from that match into this showdown. It’s honestly such a hard match to pick. Williams obviously has all the experience and is playing with nothing to lose, which makes her extremely dangerous. But Vandeweghe has arguably been playing the better tennis against much harder opponents. It could come down to whether Vandeweghe can hold her nerve while playing for a spot in a grand slam final. If she replicates her fourth round and quarter-final performances, she possibly wins. But if she doesn’t, Williams is poised to take advantage. There’s also that small matter of a potential all-Williams final in Melbourne. This is certainly an encounter not to be missed!