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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday January 25, 2017

CoCo Vandeweghe

CoCo Vandeweghe, the youngest of the Australian Open semifinalists, will face 36-year-old Venus Williams for a spot in the final.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

A pair of energized outliers stand between Venus Williams and Serena Williams staging a sisterly showdown in the Australian Open final.

World No. 2 Serena Williams continues her march toward an Open Era-record 23rd Grand Slam title when she takes 79th-ranked Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, whose stirring resilience rebuilding her career after leaving the sport due to her domineering dad has made her a feel-good story of this Melbourne fortnight.

Watch: Inspired Lucic-Baroni Stuns Pliskova

The 34-year-old Lucic-Baroni is a sentimental favorite.

The 35-year-old Serena is an overwhelming favorite stinging second serves with authority in sweeping 2016 semifinalist Johanna Konta advancing to her 34th career Grand Slam semifinal.

It is the 12th time Venus and Serena are contesting semifinals at the same Slam.

No. 13-seeded Venus Williams comes face-to-face with combustible CoCo Vandeweghe, who once led the WTA Tour in smashed racquets and now specializes in destroying seeded champions.

The 35th-ranked Vandeweghe has made Melbourne her major coming out party crushing world No. 1 defending champion Angelique Kerber before routing reigning Roland Garros champion Garbine Muguruza in the quarterfinals.

The 36-year-old Venus is the oldest woman to reach the Australian Open semifinals in the Open Era and has played the all-court brand of tennis that makes her a seven-time Grand Slam champion.

As a kid, CoCo once asked Venus for her autograph at a tournament.

Now, the 25-year-old Vandeweghe will try to write one of her childhood heroes out of the draw denying the prospect of the sisters squaring off in a rematch of the 2003 Australian Open final.

Three of the four semifinalists—the Williams sisters and Lucic-Baroni—are thirty-somethings and former Australian Open champions. The Williams sisters share four Australian Open doubles titles, Lucic-Baroni, a former Australian Open girls champion, partnered Martina Hingis to become the youngest player in history to win an Australian Open doubles title at age 15 years, 10 months, and 21 days.

Three of the four semifinalists share southern California roots—the Williams sisters and Vandeweghe—and three of them are now based in Florida as Lucic-Baroni lives in Florida and frequently trains on the public park courts of Sarasota.

Only two will advance to the final in what has been a tournament of stirring revivals for all four women.

Who are you picking to reach the final?

Here’s our analysis and picks, please share yours in the comments section.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (CRO) vs. (2) Serena Williams (USA)

Head to-head: Serena Williams leads 2-0.

Best Australian Open Results: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 2017 semifinalist. Serena Williams six-time champion (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

Key Stats: 1999 Wimbledon semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni is playing her first Grand Slam semifinal in 18 years. Serena Williams is 28-5 lifetime in Grand Slam semifinals.

Why Lucic-Baroni Will Win: The power of perseverance cannot be quantified in ranking points and results. If you watched Lucic-Baroni’s emotional upset of fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, then you know this is a smart, savvy, tough veteran player empowered by a deep sense of self-belief. The former teen phenom has every reason to be confident: She’s knocked off third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and US Open finalist Pliskova. The rangy Croatian anticipates well and puts a lot of returns back in play—crucial against Serena, who has hit 41 aces in five victories. Most of us don’t realize the most important moments in our lives while they’re happening. Lucic-Baroni made the most of her now or never moment against Pliskova and should be highly-motivated for her semifinal return.

Why Serena Williams Will Win: Tennis’ premier closer is primed to cross a major milestone. Serena is competing for Grand Slams, driven by history and won’t be denied. The 22-time Grand Slam champion has navigated a highly challenging draw with calm and clarity beating three former or current Top 10 players—Belinda Bencic, Lucie Safarova and Konta. Traditionally, Melbourne has been one of Serena’s best majors and she looks comfortable moving on the blue hard court lifting her level to each successive challenge. Williams was ripping her second serve with authority against Konta and will enjoy a major edge in movement against the compromised Croatian.

Keys to the Match Williams’ serve and movement are always crucial components to her success. Both weapons are magnified here against a hobbled opponent. The good news for Lucic-Baroni is she’s played passionate, energized tennis taking fans on an emotional thrill ride. The bad news is she’s gimpy, likely weary after her longest Grand Slam surge in 18 years and going up against the most explosive champion in women’s tennis history. It’s easy to say Lucic-Baroni can go out and play stress-free tennis since Williams is such an immense favorite, however no one really knows how she will react to the most monumental match of her career. The burdens of chasing history have caused Serena’s right arm to tighten on occasion, but she’s been focused and positive navigating a very challenging draw. Williams has great respect for Lucic-Baroni’s determined comeback, recalls her loss to Pliskova, a player whose style is similar to the Croatian’s aggressive game, in the US Open semifinals last September. She is close to Open Era history and will not suffer a semifinal stumble.

Lucic-Baroni on Semifinals: “It's incredibly special, especially since it's been so long since the last time I've been in semifinals. And the struggle has been so much bigger, and nobody in this world thought I could ever be here again, beside my closest family, my coach, and my brothers, my sisters, my husband, my mom. Beside my little circle, I don't think anybody believed that I could do it. And it's really fun. It's fun to prove everybody wrong, and it's fun to enjoy this for myself and live these incredible moments.”

Williams on Semifinals: “I remember (the last meeting with Lucic-Baroni at the 1998 Wimbledon). It was on Centre Court. That's all I remember. I remember winning. I was so excited because I was so young. She obviously was super young, too. That's all. Honestly, we have totally different games now, the both of us. We both have gone through a lot. We both have survived, and here we are, which I think is a really remarkable story.”

The Pick: Serena Williams d. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in 2 sets.

CoCo Vandeweghe (USA) vs. (13) Venus Williams (USA)

Head to-head: Venus Williams leads 1-0.

Best Australian Open Results: CoCo Vandeweghe 2017 semifinalist. Venus Williams 2003 finalist.

Key Stats: CoCo Vandeweghe has won six of her last seven matches vs. Top 10 opponents. Venus Williams has won all 10 sets she's played reaching her 21st career major semifinal.

Why Vandeweghe Will Win: Confidence can carry even inexperienced players to championships. Vandeweghe is the only semifinal debutante in the final four. She may well be the most powerful. Sounds crazy to suggest in a group that includes the Williams sisters, who revolutionized athletic all-court player. However if you saw Vandweghe scorch a jaw-dropping 90 mph forehand winner down the line against a stunned Muguruza then you know the serve is far from her only weapon. Vandeweghe grew up on California hard courts, the niece of former NBA great Kiki Vandeweghe is a former basketball player herself whose instinct is to push play forward. At 36, Venus is still a better mover, however Vandeweghe plays with more spin on every shot, and is playing with the immense confidence that comes from absolutely annihilating two Grand Slam champions in succession. CoCo looks up to Venus, but won’t be awed by her former teammate.

Why Venus Williams Will Win: Venus has been the queen of fast courts throughout her career. This surface rewards Williams’ athleticism, her thunderous flat strokes and her slice serve which stays low and has sidespin to move away from opponents. Williams is up against a rarity: A woman can serve bigger than she does. However, this is a player who grew up hitting with younger sister Serena and who has a history of coming up with her best tennis in big matches against harder hitters ranging from Lindsay Davenport to Jennifer Capriati to sister Serena. Williams must make Vandeweghe move, create running rallies and deny the powerful younger American the opportunity to command the center of the court as she’s done so ruthlessly.

Keys to Match: The first serve, first strike and second-serve returns should decide the match. These two ladies possess electric serves and can both dominate on serve and crack returns. Williams must make this match about movement and stretch Vandeweghe. Look for Vandeweghe, who has a deceptive slice backhand when she’s controlling it, to use the slice approach at times and force Williams into challenging passes off her flat forehand. When Venus is tight, she can flatline the forehand. Vandeweghe will want to challenge the Williams forehand, while Venus will to try to take the net away before CoCo can get there. This clash could actually feature stretches of throwback tennis as both are very good volleyers who have finished forward effectively throughout this tournament, however it still will come down to the first serve and first strike.

Vandeweghe on Semifinals: “To play an unbelievable player, future Hall of Famer, Venus, to be on the court with her, I've only experienced it one time before. But to do it at this stage of a Grand Slam is kind of crazy … I can’t really put it into words… To definitely have two Americans against each other in the semifinal I think is pretty cool.”

Williams on Semifinals: “Why shouldn't I (believe I can win). I try to believe. Should I look across the net and believe the person across the net deserves it more? This mentality is not how champions are made. I'd like to be a champion, in particular this year. The mentality I walk on court with is: I deserve this.”

The Pick: CoCo Vandeweghe d. Venus Williams in 3 sets.


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