The women’s event at the 2013 Australian Open veered in a totally new direction Wednesday when Serena Williams was upset 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 by American teenager Sloane Stephens.
Five-time champion Williams was the overwhelming favourite and her exit opens the door wide for the semi-final quartet of Li Na, 30, Stephens, 19, Azarenka, 23 and Sharapova, 25.
The oldest, Li has been married to husband Shan Jiang for more than six years, and doesn’t have a glamorous off-court life like Azarenka and her “No. 1 fan,” the Afro-haired American singer/rapper Redfoo, who is 38. Or like Sharapova, who has been linked to boyish Bulgarian rising tennis star Grigor Dimitrov, 21.
The only recent change in Li’s relationship status came last August when she hired Carlos Rodriguez, ex-coach of Justine Henin, to take charge of her professional life.
That meant relegating former coach Shan to a more husbandly support role.
At times, when he was her coach, things could appear stormy. “The funny thing is I think two years ago in China, someone say I was divorced,” Li joked this week. “They was asking me because they thinking we always like shouting, maybe we divorced.”
Li’s candour in openly discussing their relationship – his snoring and her shopping sprees with their credit cards – have amused crowds all over the world.
She got laughs Tuesday in Rod Laver Arena when she explained about a badly mis-hit serve that sailed into the crowd, “I want to have good communication with the fans.”
A fine athlete, Li possesses the wide spectrum of shots, foremost a glorious cross-court backhand that is money in the bank.
On that subject, Forbes magazine ranks her as the world’s second-highest earning female athlete behind Sharapova, with estimated 2012 earnings of $18 million (US).
In Thursday’s first semi-final, Li plays Sharapova, trailing 8-4 in their head-to-head, with the Russian winning all three encounters in 2012.
While much has been made of Sharapova’s lack of tough matches at Melbourne Park – nine games lost in five matches – she retorts, “should I just give away a few games? It’s not really the mentality of a winner.”
The second women’s semi-final matches the effervescent Stephens against Azarenka in a first-time meeting.
Stephens, whose mother was long separated from her father John Stephens, a running back with the New England Patriots who died in a pick-up truck accident in 2009, is a breath of fresh air. She impressively kept her cool against an injured 31-year-old Williams, becoming the first American younger than the 15-time Grand Slam champion to beat her.
After an ESPN post-match interview, Stephens’ twitter account exploded from 17,000 to 35,000 followers in an hour.
Speaking Wednesday about her interests outside tennis, she mentioned several and then casually summed up, “I just keep updated on life, really.”
In Thursday’s semi-finals, she will get a further update on her tennis status against world No. 1 Azarenka.
At night in Rod Laver Arena, top seed Novak Djokovic faces No. 4 David Ferrer. As a kind of surrogate for the absent Rafael Nadal, fellow-Spaniard Ferrer has done well to make the semi-finals but will be hard-pressed against the Serb who leads their rivalry 9-5 and won all three meetings in 2012.
Sharapova sees male pros like Djokovic, Ferrer and others as suckers for her new Sugarpova candy line. “ATP players are taking them,” she said about handing out samples. “It doesn’t seem like they have any diet restrictions. I think the girls are very cautious with the sugar. The guys, they don’t care.”
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Li def. Sharapova in three: Li plays her best tennis at the Aussie Open and faces a Sharapova in imperious form. Still, the Chinese pulls off the upset.
Azarenka def. Stephens in two: It’s the morning after for the 19-year-old American, and Azarenka takes full advantage.
Djokovic def. Ferrer in three: David got help from Nicolas Almagro’s ‘yips’ in the quarters. But there will be no flinching from Nole in the semis.