MELBOURNE, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Stanislas Wawrinka has the opportunity to truly step out of Roger Federer’s immense shadow if he can only overcome a stubborn Tomas Berdych in their Australian Open semi-final on Thursday.
Wawrinka’s match against the Czech is the highlight of three semi-finals at Melbourne Park on Thursday with women’s title favourite Li Na facing exciting teenage prospect Eugenie Boucahrd in one of the women’s last four clashes.
Diminutive Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, who knocked out 2008 champion Maria Sharapova and destroyed 11th seed Simona Halep in the quarter-finals, will be seeking her second top-five victim when she faces fifth-seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the other women’s semi-final.
The eighth-seeded Wawrinka has spent his entire career as ‘the other guy from Switzerland’ as Federer chalked up 17 grand slam titles but he has cemented his credentials as a genuine top-10 player capable of anything over the last 12 months.
That was none more evident than on Wednesday with a thrilling five-set victory over four-time champion Novak Djokovic, the second successive year he and the Serb have battled into a marathon deciding set at Melbourne Park.
Unlike 2013, however, the 28-year-old Wawrinka advanced to the final four to reach his second successive semi-final appearance in grand slams and the quietly spoken Swiss has finally felt like he belongs in the game’s elite.
”I‘m enjoying for sure because I‘m playing great tennis. It’s a different level if I compare to last year,“ he said. ”Now I‘m number eight in the world. I‘m making my second semi-final.
“Beating Novak here for me, for sure it’s great ... but I‘m still far from winning the tournament.”
Wawrinka is well aware of the challenge he faces from Berdych, the man who he beat in the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open before the Swiss lost the semi-final to Djokovic, again in five sets.
“He’s going to be a tough player to beat. He already made one final in one slam,” Wawrinka added of Berdych’s 2010 Wimbledon final loss to Rafa Nadal.
“So he’s there. He’s really close from the top, top guys. It’s going to be a tough battle, you know.”
Berdych has had a relatively comfortable run into the final four and, with Djokovic’s loss and Roger Federer and Andy Murray playing each other on Wednesday, the chance of a maiden grand slam has never been more open.
“I‘m going to give 100 percent into that match and really not looking into the future,” Berdych said.
“So really I will make everything what I have left. If it’s going to be the lucky one, the winning one, I‘m going to try to prepare myself somehow and be ready for the final.”
Fourth seed Li’s title chances have also increased markedly and the 31-year-old Chinese’s recent record at Melbourne - she has made the semi-finals four times and the final twice since 2010 - has made her a title favourite.
That tag has been increased by the early exits of the top three seeds - Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova - though she will face a supremely confident teenager in Bouchard.
“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was five years old and working my whole life for and sacrificing a lot of things for,” said Bouhcard when asked if she could quite believe she had made her first grand slam semi-final.
”So it’s not exactly a surprise. I always expect myself to do well.
“I‘m just happy to have gone through this step. I‘m not done. I have a match on Thursday. I‘m just looking forward to that.”
Li’s biggest challenge could come from fifth seed Radwanksa, who clinically took apart twice defending champion Azarenka in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
The Pole, however, must first beat the dynamic Cibulkova, who knocked out Sharapova then demolished Halep in the quarter-finals.
“A couple (of) seeded (players) are out,” Radwanska said of the unlikely semi-final makeup.
”Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier and you have a title right away, it means that other players are playing great tennis this week.
“That’s why they beat the top seed players.” (Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Patrick Johnston)