When the newly appointed Australian Diamonds coach Stacey Marinkovich called Cara Koenen to let her know that she had been selected in the squad to play New Zealand in the upcoming Constellation Cup, Koenen remembers bursting into tears.
We are down to the final four men and women at this year’s Australian Open, where sadly, the wait for a local champion will drag on for at least another year.
Ashleigh Barty’s hope of becoming our first home-grown champion in over four decades will have to wait, after she suffered a disappointing and controversial semi-final loss to unheralded Czech Karolina Muchova in the third of the women’s quarter-finals.
All was going well for Barty when she took the opening set 6-1 in just 24 minutes, and then went up a break 2-1 when Muchova, who’d defeated sixth seed Karolina Pliskova in the third round, took a ten-minute medical timeout.
After the break in play, Muchova emerged a different player to the one that was badly outclassed in the first set, breaking Barty’s serve and winning five of the next six games to take the second set 6-3 and force a one-set shootout.
Muchova carried over her newfound momentum into the final set, breaking Barty’s serve and then consolidating to take a 2-0 lead.
But the Australian would not go away, pegging back two games before again dropping her serve to fall behind 2-5, leaving Muchova to serve out the match, ending Australian hopes for another year with an ace on match point.
Of course, all the talk was whether there was some gamesmanship involved in the match, given the ease in which Ashleigh Barty was dominating proceedings before Muchova’s injury timeout, which ultimately destroyed the Australian’s momentum.
Quizzed about the contentious break, the Czech replied: “I was a bit lost on the court and my head was spinning so I took a break and it helped me.
“I started feeling a bit lost by the end of the first set. Ash started very good. She played like no mistakes. It was very tough.”
Many will argue that Barty has been cheated out of winning that elusive Australian Open title, but in the aftermath of the defeat, the Queenslander insisted that Muchova was within the rules to take her timeout at any time during the match.
It just happened to be midway through the second set, when the world number one was in cruise control, only for her Open aspirations to completely fall apart thereafter.
It is also the second straight year in which she has suffered an unexpected defeat so close to the title, after falling to eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the semi-final 12 months ago.
But the nature of her latest defeat, which will possibly be shrouded in controversy in the years to come, will surely spur her on to go all the way in 2022.
Some will also suggest that her lack of play last year, mostly due to the coronavirus pandemic which saw her forgo the defence of her 2019 French Open title, played a part as well, as she crumbled from such a winnable position in her first major for over 12 months.
Still, it has been a successful start to 2021 for Barty, who had gone into the Australian Open on the back of winning the Yarra Valley Classic, in which she defeated Garbine Muguruza in the final.
Her defeat will guarantee a first-time Grand Slam finalist, with Muchova to take on American 22nd seed Jennifer Brady for a place in Saturday night’s women’s final.
Brady came from a set down to defeat compatriot Jessica Pegula in three sets to progress to her second straight hard-court major semi-final, after also getting that far at the US Open last year.
Pegula had gone into her first major quarter-final on the back of a giant-killing run that saw her take out two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in the first round, 2011 US Open champ Samantha Stosur in the second and fifth seed Elina Svitolina in the fourth.
She had won the first set, and broke Brady’s serve in the first game of the final set, but then lost the final six games to bow out of the tournament.
The other women’s semi-final will be contested between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in what will be the pair’s first meeting at a major since the controversial 2018 US Open final which was overshadowed by poor behaviour from the American.
While Osaka went on to win her first major title with a composed performance, all the talk sadly focused on Williams’ clashes with umpire Carlos Ramos, amid allegations she was receiving some illegal coaching from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
Back to the present now, and Williams and Osaka could not have been any more dominant in their respective quarter-final clashes, with both players defeating Simona Halep and Hsieh Su-wei respectively.
With top seed and pre-tournament favourite Barty now out of the way, it is expected that whoever wins this match will assume favouritism for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy on Saturday night.
The stakes will be highest in Serena’s case, as her chances of finally capturing that elusive 24th major singles title, which would draw her level with Margaret Court, have suddenly multiplied.
However, Osaka isn’t without her chances, and she is ranked third in the world for good reason. She’s won three major titles, including the Australian Open two years ago, and ascended to top spot in the rankings since her breakthrough in 2018.
After the two women’s semis, the first men’s semi-final pits top seed Novak Djokovic up against Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev, who has become the first man in Open Era history to reach the semi-finals in his Grand Slam debut.
Both men had to come from a set down to win their respective quarter-finals, with Djokovic overcoming German sixth seed Alexander Zverev and Karatsev defeating an injured Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday.
Djokovic will start hot favourite to reach his ninth Australian Open final, but should Karatsev pull off a major upset he would become not just the first man to reach a major final on debut, he’d become the first Russian man to reach the final here since Marat Safin in 2005.
Coincidentally, it was in that year where Safin defeated a 17-year-old Djokovic in the first round on his way to claiming the title at the expense of local favourite Lleyton Hewitt.
It is amazing to think about everything the Djoker, now 33, has achieved in the sport since, winning 17 major titles (including eight at Melbourne Park) and spending over 300 weeks at the top of the rankings.
He is only two weeks away from overtaking Roger Federer in the most weeks at world number one (308 to Federer’s 310), which will only further fuel the GOAT debate when the so-called big three (Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal) eventually retire from the sport.
The other men’s semi-final will be played between Daniil Medvedev, who has won his last eighteen matches, and Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Medvedev defeated compatriot and good friend Andrey Rublev to reach his first semi-final at the Australian Open, while Tsitsipas completed a remarkable comeback to oust 2009 champion Nadal in a five-set thriller last night.
The Greek star advanced to his second semi-final at Melbourne Park after becoming just the second man to ever come from two-sets-to-love down to defeat the Spaniard at a major (after Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open), and the third man overall (after Roger Federer at the 2005 Miami Masters).
The Mallorcan native won the first two sets easily and was within the brink of victory in the third set which went to a tiebreak, only for some crucial errors at the start of the tiebreak to conspire against the 34-year-old as Tsitsipas pulled it out.
The 22-year-old then won the fourth set 6-4 to push the match into a decider, where a break in the eleventh game was enough for him to secure the match.
Nadal’s wait for a 21st major singles title, which would have seen him overtake Federer, will now have to wait until Roland Garros, where he will start hot favourite to land a jaw-dropping 14th French Open title.
Tsitsipas will be up against it in the semi-final, facing a man whose winning streak stretches back to September last year. The Russian has also won five of their six meetings, though Tsitsipas did win their most recent encounter at the 2019 ATP Finals in London.
This match-up will guarantee a first-time Australian Open finalist, though Medvedev will be looking to reach his second Grand Slam decider after losing to Rafael Nadal in a five-set US Open final back in 2019.
So, with the championship showdown between Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal now no longer possible, which two men will be left to fight it out for the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup this Sunday evening?
Day session – not before 2:00pm
 Naomi Osaka (JPN) vs  Serena Williams (USA)
 Karolina Muchova (CZE) vs  Jennifer Brady (USA)
Night session – from 7:30pm
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs Aslan Karatsev (RUS)
Note: The other men’s semi-final (Daniil Medvedev vs Stefanos Tsitsipas) will be played on Friday night.