Listen closely to the four players remaining in this year’s Australian Open and the underlying message is perspective.
Iga Swiatek has embraced the step-by-step process. Madison Keys has spoken candidly of not getting too down on herself, and Ashleigh Barty has thrived in taking on new challenges.
For Danielle Collins, her position fairly straightforward: “Every time I step on the tennis court, it’s not life or death.”
Collins was referencing her fear of heights and rock climbing endeavors that she claimed terrified her. No matter what happens on the tennis court, she will survive.
“That was a really big realization for me and something I think helped me grow to kind of step out of my comfort zone and try something I had never done before,” Collins said after last match. “Something that I was really scared of doing. That was a huge moment of growth for me.”
It’s that perspective that could make or break the fates of the remaining players.
How will these matches play out? We make the case for the semifinalists.
No.1 Ashleigh Barty vs. Madison Keys
Case for Barty
At the start of the tournament, I thought Ashleigh Barty was the one to beat, with two potential obstacles, a rejuvenated Naomi Osaka in the fourth round or a recurrence of nerves that were evident in losses to Sofia Kenin and Karolina Muchova from winning positions in 2020 and 2021.
Turns out, Barty did not need to play Osaka, and throughout this year’s Australian Open, she has delivered the superior tennis anyway. And unlike Barty’s quarterfinal run last year in which she got away with several second-set dips, until Muchova made her pay, there's barely been a glimmer of vulnerability. Barty's tennis has been dominant on every level. She has full command of every aspect of the game: a formidable serve that she's dropped only once in her past eight matches, an attacking forehand that racks up winners and a variety of slices, which according to WTA coach Raemon Sluiter, she uses to carve up opponents.
On a macro level, Barty is a master strategist, selecting the best tools from her toolbox for each opponent. On a micro level, from point to point, she adjusts to the flow to bring the match back on her terms, again and again.
The tour has noticed. "I think she's definitely living in everyone's head," Jessica Pegula said after winning only two games from Barty in the quarterfinals.
Madison Keys, back in her first major semifinal since 2018, has made good on her promise that 2022 would be her comeback year. But Barty has the head-to-head advantage. She leads the series 2-1, including two straight-set wins in 2019 that saw her defuse the American's weight of shot. Barty has had plenty of practice this year in blunting her opponent’s power game - Elena Rybakina, Camila Giorgi and Amanda Anisimova have all been swept aside - and it's hard to imagine Keys maintaining the peak level that would be necessary over three sets.
Barty is in her imperial phase. It's been a while since the WTA saw one of those. Sit back and enjoy. – Alex Macpherson
Case for Keys
Certainly, facing World No.1 Barty on her home turf is an unenviable assignment for the 26-year-old American, but … while Barty has a nine-match winning streak to start the year, Keys is already at 10, the best run of her career.
Forget that No.87 ranking coming into 2022. You can be sure Keys has. She has a new attitude -- living (and playing) in the present.
“I think that’s the thing that I’ve been just really focusing on the most,” Keys said after taking out No.4 seed Barbora Krejcikova, “is acknowledging when I’m either not playing the right way, getting ahead of myself, anything – just stopping it once it’s a point or two or a game, versus all of a sudden you look up and it’s been three or four games.”
She has beaten Top 10 players – Paula Badosa and Krejcikova – back-to-back and improved her record against Top 5 players in the majors to 3-6. As a resident of Florida, Keys actually likes this oppressive heat that has taken so many players out of their games.
The way she’s serving and returning gives Keys a fighting chance against Barty. She leads the WTA with 86 aces for the season and 35 through five matches of the Australian Open, five more than Barty. Perhaps more important in this instance, Keys leads all players with 103 first-serve return points won. Barty has 65.
“What can I say?” Badosa said. “Sometimes I was serving 180 [kilometers per hour]. I had to look what the serve said because I didn’t understand how a winner came back that fast. I thought I was serving bad. Then I saw it was her game, that she was playing very, very good.”
Very. And then there’s 157 winners in five matches.
It’s been seven years since Keys broke through with her first Grand Slam semifinal here. No longer a tentative teenager, Keys is ready to embrace this moment. – Greg Garber
No.7 Iga Swiatek vs. No.27 Danielle Collins
Case for Swiatek
Iga Swiatek's three title runs have been characteristically dominant. She failed to drop a set in her runs to the 2020 Roland Garros and 2021 Adelaide titles. In Rome last season, she took out Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 … in the final. Swiatek, 20, has sent a clear message in her young career: When she is on, she is nearly unstoppable.
Yet in Melbourne, Swiatek is proving her fight is just as formidable as her forehand. For the first time in her career, she has won back-to-back matches from a set down, first against Sorana Cirstea in the fourth round, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, and again against Kaia Kanepi, 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-3, to advance to her second major semifinal. While Swiatek is now 10-24 in her career after losing the first set, she is now 5-0 at the Slams when she loses the first set and forces a decider.
Swiatek: “These 2 matches showed me that even in tough moments I can come back & I have skills to win matches even when they're really hard.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 26, 2022
“It's gonna be hard, and [Collins] is in great shape, really confident. But I also feel that way. I just hope it's gonna be a good match." pic.twitter.com/UlEJrQOORg
"Right now I have more belief even when I don't start the match well," Swiatek said. "I'm proud of myself that I'm still able to find solutions and actually think more on court on what to change, because before it wasn't that clear for me. I feel like it's part of the work that we have been doing with Daria [Abramowicz, Swiatek's sports psychologist] to control my emotions and just actually focus on finding solutions."
Against Collins, Swiatek will need to serve well out of the gate. Against Kanepi, Swiatek served at 56% in the opening set before dramatically improving through the final two sets to finish at 64%. She will also need to do better in protecting her second serve. Against Cirstea, Swiatek won just 24% behind her second serve and didn't fare much better against Kanepi, winning 37%. Collins is a big returner, so Swiatek will need to keep her first serve percentage high.
Collins comes into the semifinals off two victories against counterpunchers (Mertens, Cornet). In contrast, Swiatek has faced an onslaught of power in her past two matches. That will prepare her well for Collins' speed and aggressive first-strike tennis. Their only previous meeting ended in a Collins retirement, 6-3, 3-0 nearly a year ago in Adelaide. – Courtney Nguyen
Case for Collins
Collins has mastered rolling with the punches. With a game that thrived in the hectic university atmosphere, the two-time NCAA singles champion from the University of Virginia has proved she can adapt to any situation and battle her way past any opponent.
“She's like a lion,” Alizé Cornet said before their quarterfinal matchup. “She impresses me a little bit because she's so intense. I'm intense, too, but I think she's next-level intense.”
Collins rarely lets a match go without exhausting every possible option, including the times when she had to push through intense physical pain as far as she could go. Last April, she took charge off the court as well, searching for different opinions about her afflictions before receiving a proper diagnosis and having emergency surgery for endometriosis.
Nine months post-surgery, Collins has leveled up, posting a 31-7 win-loss record since July. She captured her first WTA singles title last year on the clay courts in Palermo, Italy, where she told WTA Insider she reclaimed “full confidence in my body.” She then immediately won her second title two weeks later, on the hard courts in San Jose, California.
With her grit bolstered by well-timed groundstrokes, Collins has averaged nearly 10 more winners than her opponents at this year’s Australian Open. She has also showed fight. In the third and fourth rounds, Collins came back from a set down, against Clara Tauson (2 hours and 35 minutes) and Elise Mertens (2 hours and 51 minutes).
“I think to do well in these events, you kind of have to ride out the storm,” Collins said Monday. “I love watching professional surfing, and I really admire what they do, how they get up on the board, how they deal with all the elements, so I use that as an analogy in my head a lot.”
Collins told WTA Insider that her last match against Iga Swiatek -- where she retired in Adelaide a season ago because of pain -- was a turning point in seeking new treatment. Now, with increased physical confidence and her adaptable, tenacious nature, Collins could fight to turn that result in her favor. – Jason Juzwiak