January 30, 2015

Who Wants it Most?

That really might be what it eventually comes down to.

With only two matches left before we crown the singles champions at this year's Australian Open, we've really whittled down the bunch to a couple of the sport's most ambitious stars. And with this weekend's title rounds sure to feature some big-hitting, power games, it may be the emotional drive that ultimately gives the winners their edge.

Five-time champion Serena Williams has had a bout of bad luck in Melbourne the last several years. Since winning her last trophy here in 2010, she'd notched surprising losses in early(-ish) rounds and only once made it as far as the quarters. But this year, despite some hiccups early she's back on a mission. It hasn't been easy for her -- she dropped sets to both Elina Svitolina and her Roland Garros vanquisher Garbiñe Muguruza, but even after a tight first set in Thursday's semifinal against upstart Madison Keys, she dug deep to pull out the win. The victory earned Serena her first final Down Under in five years, ending her longest-standing drought at any of the Slams, and put her within spitting distance of Major #19. It would also tie her for the third spot on the all-time Slam title list -- and that's a kind of motivation that few others will ever have a chance to experience.

But Maria Sharapova will have her own motivation pushing her through Saturday's final as well. The 2008 champion had a huge opportunity to double up in Australia a few years back when she met a as yet untested Victoria Azarenka in the final. Playing her sixth Major championship match, experience should have been on her side, but the then-fourth seed was pummeled, picking up just three games in two sets. Since then the Russian has gone on to dominate Roland Garros, an unlikely setting for a woman who once described herself as a cow on ice on clay, but hasn't made a real play for any other Slam. This year, though, she too seems renewed -- since saving match points in a scary second round, she's only lost a handful of games, crushing two U.S. Open semifinalists and 2014 Cinderella Genie Bouchard during her run. She has a discouraging 2-16 record against Serena, and hasn't beaten her since 2004 -- has only taken two sets off her in the last decade, in fact -- but the Brisbane champion has shown just how eager she is to turn things around, and I expect her to finally put up a huge fight for the crown on Saturday.

Four-time champion Novak Djokovic will certainly throw a few punches himself. The man who'd first risen into the spotlight with a title here in 2008 had become almost untouchable in Australia this decade, notching twenty-five straight match wins at the Open through 2014. But he lost his grip last year in a marathon quarterfinal loss, ending a fourteen-match win streak against eventual winner Stan Wawrinka in a four-hour nail-biter -- the third time in a row the two went the distance at a Major. He was on course for a rematch this year too, and with both men surging through their respective quarters, it seemed they were primed for another battle, and they didn't disappoint. For nearly three hours Djokovic would take and cede the lead over his opponent, but finally in yet another deciding set he turned up the heat, blanking the world #4 in just over thirty minutes to make his fifth final Down Under, his fifteenth Slam championship match overall. Once he's gotten this far in Melbourne, he's never lost, and though it hasn't been that long since he last tasted victory on these grounds, he'll be hungry to keep that record standing.

Standing in his way is the only one in this group who hasn't claimed a title here yet, but Andy Murray sure has had plenty of chances. He made his first final in 2010 but lost in straight sets to the great Roger Federer; he returned a year later but was absolutely drubbed by Nole. And in 2013, after he'd finally broken the Grand Slam seal, he squandered an opportunity again against Djokovic and fell in four long sets. Hampered by injury for much of last year, the Scot wasn't really in contention for a title until after the U.S. Open, but he made the trip to Australia a seemingly new man. He's rolled through his matches so far, only losing one set apiece to top-ten seeds Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych, and has broken serve an event-leading thirty-four times. And his two Majors have come at Novak's expense, so perhaps fourth time will be a charm for Murray in Melbourne. After all, how many times can he make it this far and come home with nothing?

Of course, pure desire won't be all it takes to win the trophies this weekend, but you can't ignore the extra little push any of these players could get from their passion to get back on top at the Australian Open. It could inspire some amazing performances over the next few days, and whoever walks away with the crowns may have shown just how much a little bit of motivation can mean.

January 26, 2015

Down to Business

As we get into the final days of a Grand Slam, you often expect the top contenders to turn up their games and for the cream of the tennis crop to rise. And while we all may be a little surprised to see who's still standing at the Australian Open, you can't help but agree that the sixteen singles players remaining have pulled out their best in the last few days. After all with the stakes so high, it's exactly the right time for these champions to put their nose to the grindstone and really show us what they've got.

The top half of the men's draw has probably, understandably, seen the least damage. World #1 Novak Djokovic hasn't dropped a set yet and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, though challenged slightly by Guillermo Garcia Lopez in the last round, was able to push forward again, reaching the quarters of his third straight Major. Even U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori, who'd lost opening sets to both Ivan Dodig and rising American star Steve Johnson, trounced an in-form David Ferrer on Monday, taking out the Doha titleist in a quick three sets. He sets up another meeting with Wawrinka, the man he shocked in a four-plus hour match in New York to make the semis, and while Stan may be eager for revenge, the young man from Japan could be even hungrier to make another play for a big title. Milos Raonic was the only man really tested in his fourth round -- Feliciano Lopez, who'd already survived two squeakers early during his run in Melbourne, fell just short of mounting another comeback in this fifth set. The top-ranked Canadian will have to rally big time for his next match-up -- he's only managed one set off Djokovic in their four previous meetings and he's never beaten a top ten player at a Slam. But we keep waiting for the big server to make a real statement and he might just be able to catch the heavy favorite a little off guard this time.

Save for one big exception, the bottom half of the bracket has also remained intact. Second seed Roger Federer, fresh off a dominating performance in Brisbane and one of the best seasons of anyone on Tour, was stunned a few days ago by a underappreciated Andreas Seppi, a man who'd only made one fourth round here in his decade-long career. But the Italian couldn't keep his luck going against 2014 breakout star Nick Kyrgios -- the Australian teenager lost the first two sets but dug deep, saving match point in the fourth and rebounding after squandering a 4-1 lead in the decider. Now in his second Major quarterfinal, he'll meet a resurgent Andy Murray, a man who beat him in two quick sets last year in Toronto. It'll be a tough task, no doubt -- the three-time finalist in Melbourne has dominated his opponents so far, losing just one set to Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday -- but I expect the young gun to bring out the heavy artillery and make a real play for a semifinal spot. The last men's quarter could probably hold the most drama -- Rafael Nadal hasn't lost to Tomas Berdych since way back in 2006, but he had a huge question mark hanging over his head the last few months while the Czech has been unstoppable through his first four matches. A win for Rafa could really cement his chances for a run at this title, but something tells me the Doha runner-up won't be so easy to brush aside.

The ladies' draw, of course, has had a few more ups and downs. But after early rounds decimated the bottom half of the bracket, top players seemed to get their games back in order. Since saving match points last week, second seed Maria Sharapova has only lost five games and looks in good shape to reclaim the crown she last won seven years ago. But 2014 Cinderella Genie Bouchard might have something to say about that -- the young Canadian really backed up her performance Down Under last year, and while she had a little hiccup on Sunday against Irina-Camelia Begu, she's mostly rolled through sets in the first week. She also pushed MaSha to a third in Paris last year and scored her first big win over Serena Williams in Perth -- while she's had trouble in the past against the very elite, she might finally be ready to turn her luck around. Simona Halep is also making quite a case for her first Major -- the 2014 Roland Garros finalist pulled off her own win over Serena in Singapore to finish off the year and has crushed each of her opponents so far. She only faces her first seeded player in the quarters though -- U.S. Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova got a bit of a pass with Ana Ivanovic's ouster in the first round, but really has proven herself in the first week, even taking out my favorite dark horse Karolina Pliskova in straight sets. It should be Halep's match to lose, but the Russian has always thrived in Melbourne and could surprise us once more.

But the biggest shake-ups may have occurred in the top half of the women's bracket, where even the favorite has struggled a bit. Five-time champion Serena Williams, who'd been a little shaky early on in 2015, dropped her opening set to relatively unknown Elina Svitolina in her third round and risked a second straight loss to Garbiñe Muguruza on Monday. Still she's the only top ten player alive in this quarter, but the threats are far from over. Last year's runner-up in Australia, Dominika Cibulkova, seems to have found her game again after a weak twelve months -- she's handled some early challenges in surprising form and last night halted Victoria Azarenka's comeback dead in its tracks. She's given Serena a run for the money in the past, and though she's a huge underdog in this match, she's pulled off some big upsets before. But the players with the most opportunity are those in the last quarter. Young American Madison Keys has parlayed a new partnership with coach Lindsay Davenport into a huge win over Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova in the third round and kept her run going with a win over Hobart finalist Madison Brengle. And veteran champion Venus Williams, straight off a title in Auckland to start the year, kept her win streak going coming back from a set down against Camila Giorgi on Saturday and stunning sixth seed Aga Radwanska in today's fourth round. It's her first Slam quarterfinal since 2010, and the way she's playing she might just go even farther.

With just a few matches left before this year's champions are decided, all these players can see the finish line from where they stand, so it's time for them to show us what they're made of. There's always room for a couple more surprises -- and anyone still alive might just have what it takes to bring it all home.

January 22, 2015

By the Skin of Their Teeth

It's been a warm couple days Down Under, but it wasn't just the rising temperatures that put the heat on players at the Australian Open. More than a couple favorites were given quite the run-around during their second round matches by some very capable opponents. And how the survivors regroup for their next challenges could reveal a lot about their prospects down the road, both here and for the rest of the year.

You might not expect too much out of low-seeded Elina Svitolina -- the twenty-year-old has only won a couple matches in Melbourne during her short career, but she did beat Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati last year and Angelique Kerber earlier this month in Brisbane. The two-time Junior Grand Slam finalist -- she won the French when she was fifteen -- certainly has the potential to make her mark on Tour in the coming years, and on Thursday she showed she can stay tough under pressure. She was pushed through two long sets by U.S. college champion Nicole Gibbs, recovering from a 1-5 deficit in the second and then keeping her opponent from serving out the set. The young Ukrainian's path forward is admittedly the toughest of this group -- she'll face Serena Williams in the next round, and the top seed allowed her just three games in their one previous meeting. But Serena's notched some surprising losses already this year and was down set points against one-time Wimbledon rival Vera Zvonareva in her last match. She's also gone home early in three of the last four Majors, so Svitolina does have a chance. And even if she doesn't ultimately emerge the victor, how she handles the challenge could say more than the eventual scoreline.

Twelfth seed Feliciano Lopez has already been on the wrong side of a couple scorelines this week. The veteran Spaniard is coming off the best year of his career, but he's had to rally big time in his first two matches -- against American wildcard Denis Kudla in his opener, he found himself down two-sets-to-one and fought off match points late in the decider before finally closing out the match 10-8 in the fifth. He understandably seemed tuckered out in Thursday's heat, losing the first two sets to Auckland finalist Adrian Mannarino and facing another match point. But his opponent suffered more late in the match -- after losing the third set tiebreak, the Frenchman lost four games in a row before retiring, and Feli again squeaked through a round he'd come so close to dropping. Next up he'll face big serving Jerzy Janowicz, another man who barely edged out a win Thursday -- he came back from two-sets-to-one down against Gael Monfils to reach his third straight third round in Melbourne. The pair have never met before, and after the long couple matches they've each faced, this one could be a little messy. But Feli will want to make a statement here and prove he's getting by on more than just a little bit of luck.

A couple other champions, though, may use their close calls in the last round to fuel them to even more dominating performances throughout the week.

Coming into the Australian Open, 2008 champ Maria Sharapova had been one of the favorites for the crown -- a solid run to the Brisbane title and a one-sided win over Petra Martic in her first round seemed to underscore the Russian's chances. She began her second round against qualifier Alexandra Panova -- a woman who'd just won her first Major main draw match this week -- in similar fashion, breaking three times and taking the opening set in under half an hour. But the underdog found a way to rally, holding onto an early lead in the second to force a decider, and even running off with a most unlikely two-break advantage in the third. But as she often does, MaSha was able to play her best when she was under the most pressure -- she saved three match points on Panova's serve and won the last three games with a whirlwind of powerful winners. She might not have expected a test so soon in her campaign, but it may have lit a fire under the world #2 -- against thirty-first seed Zarina Diyas on Friday, I expect her to be relentless and wouldn't be surprised if she finished off the match in under an hour.

Hopefully Rafael Nadal can do the same, though it's arguably a much more difficult ask. The 2009 titleist in Melbourne may have retained the #3 seed this fortnight, but after an injury-addled 2014 season and a disappointing start in Doha, he was still a long shot to make even the second week here. He kicked off his run strongly though, needing just over ninety minutes to dispatch former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny in what could have been a tough early test. His bigger challenge came unexpectedly a match later, when qualifier Tim Smyczek threatened to become the fourth sub-#100 player to beat the Grand Slam champion in the past year. The American took a two-set-to-one lead on an ailing Rafa Wednesday, but the Spaniard dug deep himself, grinding to a deciding set and finally converting his fourth match point after more than four hours on court. He was barely spared a rematch against one-time Wimbledon vanquisher Lukas Rosol and will instead meet unseeded Dudi Sela for a ticket into the second week. Hopefully his struggles over the last few months and days haven't taken too much out of him and he'll have enough time to recover.

After all, there's still a lot of action left to be played before the winners are finally crowned at the Australian Open. And the most successful players will be the ones who not only scrape by early challenges, but turn them into even bigger opportunities.

January 20, 2015

The Upcoming Upsets

Okay, okay -- I know we only have one full round of action in the books at the Australian Open, but, man, did things get interesting in the first couple days in Melbourne! Seventeen seeds have already been knocked out of the draws and it's all but certain that more will follow.

So I'm going to take a look at a few second round matches that could easily go to the underdog. After all, with so many holes already drilled through the brackets, the only thing for sure is that nothing is predictable. And anyone could seize the opportunity right in front of them.

The WomenThe Men

The Women

First Quarter

The most obviously pick here is two-time champion Victoria Azarenka over eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki, either of whom could be a contender for the ultimate title. But even though the Belorussian is unseeded, it would be tough to consider her win a true upset -- so let's look elsewhere.

Tsvetana Pironkova has never gotten past the second round Down Under, but that might change this year. Last year's champion in Sydney opened her campaign with a one-sided win over Hobart champion Heather Watson and set up a meeting Thursday with 2014 runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, a woman who's been famously ineffective over the last several months. Domi did come back against a tough Kirsten Flipkens in her first round and has a solid 7-1 record against the Bulgarian -- still, she's proven herself more than vulnerable and Pironkova could take advantage. I'd also keep an eye on Daniela Hantuchova. The one-time world #4 struggled with a knee injury for much of last year and fell a bit down the rankings. But she notched a solid win over Sara Errani to start the season in Auckland and opened here by defeating Shenzhen semifinalist Saisai Zheng in straight sets. She'll face 2014 breakout star Garbiñe Muguruza next, and while that's certainly no easy task -- the young Spaniard drubbed an in-form Aga Radwanska in Sydney last week -- the veteran Slovak might just be able to get the upper hand. And with the other seed in this immediate section already eliminated, she might have a clear road for a few rounds more.

Second Quarter

Many of the favorites in this section have already been ousted -- unknown German Carina Witthoeft trounced Carla Suarez Narvarro, ninth seed Angelique Kerber lost a roller coaster match to Irina-Camelia Begu and and my spoiler Lucie Safarova came out on the wrong end of no-tiebreak third set. And while all that might help the top seeds breathe a little easier, others are still holding their breath.

Yaroslava Shvedova, twice a Grand Slam doubles champion, has been ranked as high as #25 on the singles circuit and often outplays her current sub-sixty ranking. Her win over Safarova set up a second round against barely favored Monica Puig -- the winner of last year's WTA Rising Stars final will certainly put up a fight, but the Kazakh's won their only previous meeting and could have experience on her side. Also watch out for twenty-year-old Anna Schmiedlova, who stunned Venus Williams in the second round of the French Open last year. She's up against often-overlooked Zarina Diyas next in Melbourne, and while she's again the long-shot, she's beaten tougher opponents in the past.

Third Quarter

The third quarter of the women's draw has arguably suffered the most damage, with Brisbane finalist Ana Ivanovic flaming out to qualifier Lucie Hradecka on Day One and 2013 Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki bowing out to last year's Roland Garros Cinderella Kristina Mladenovic a few hours later. Those won't be the only upsets in this section either.

Former world #15 Julia Goerges had fallen out of the top hundred last year and only won two Grand Slam matches during the season. She did manage to make the quarters in Auckland, even taking out Hradecka down in New Zealand, but she was still way off the radar by the time she reached Melbourne. The German was relatively lucky, getting dealt a low-seeded Belinda Bencic in her opener, but she defeated the young Swiss with surprising ease and set up a second round against world #46 Klara Koukalova. The two have split their previous four matches, but if Goerges can recapture her previous form there's no reason she can't use this opportunity to pull ahead. The same could be said for Roberta Vinci, who's fallen from her own levels of grace over the past year. She also has a 2-2 record against her next opponent Ekaterina Makarova, recently inducted into the sport's top ten, but the Russian has struggled with injury the last few months and Vinci could capitalize on the opportunity.

Fourth Quarter

Like with the top section of the bracket, the bottom has remained largely unscathed so far, with two mid-level seeds the only ones to suffer first round losses -- Andrea Petkovic, who'd gone winless since picking up the title in Sofia last year squandered an early lead to Hobart finalist Madison Brengle, while Flavia Pennetta suffered a second straight loss to Italian Camila Giorgi. Still, no one should rest on her laurels.

Veteran Australian Casey Dellacqua really came into her own here last year, reaching the fourth round with wins over Vera Zvonareva and Kirsten Flipkens. She didn't do a lot with her top seeding in Hobart last week though, needing three sets to get past Lauren Davis before losing in a decider to Karin Knapp a round later. She's up against barely unseeded Madison Keys next, a woman who beat her at her homeland's Major two years ago. The young American has already scored wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Svetlana Kuznetsova this year and picking up one more upset shouldn't be too much to ask. Compatriot Coco Vandeweghe has a similar opportunity -- ranked just two spots below Keys, she opened her run Down Under by taking out former French Open champ Francesca Schiavone. She'll face twentieth seed Sam Stosur on Thursday, and while the 2011 U.S. Open titleist did have a slight resurgence at the end of last year, she can definitely be caught off guard -- Coco did just that last year in Miami. And with the draw already shaking out the way that it has, she might just be able to keep going after that.

The Men

First Quarter

Not surprisingly, there have been fewer casualties on the men's side of the Australian Open, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing. In Novak Djokovic's quarter both Feliciano Lopez and Gael Monfils were pushed to five sets, the former saving three match points before taking out American wildcard Denis Kudla on Tuesday. And the Frenchman, well acquainted with long matches, will be tested again immediately, going up next against big-serving Jerzy Janowicz in the next round. He does have the win in the pair's only meeting, but something tells me the Pole is going to put up a bigger fight this time.

Meanwhile Roberto Bautista Agut, who had a breakthrough on Tour this time last year, may face a tougher test. The rising Spanish star had a surprising loss to Aljaz Bedene in Chennai and retired during his second round in Auckland last week. He's already spent three hours on court in Melbourne, coming back from a set down to Dominic Thiem on Tuesday, and next faces Sydney semifinalist Gilles Muller, who had a relatively easy time in his own first round match. RBA does have a 2-0 record against the man from Luxembourg, but if he's not at the top of his game might have trouble keeping his record untarnished.

Second Quarter

The favorites in Roger Federer's section of the draw have been similarly strong -- the five time champion didn't drop serve once in his two hours on court, and Andy Murray, though tested by qualifier Yuki Bhambri, nevertheless survived his opener in straight sets. Only Tommy Robredo, who'd just pulled out of Auckland with a leg injury, retired early in the first set, giving veteran Edouard Roger-Vasselin a pass to the second round.

And while the seeds in this quarter may not have yet shown any obvious weaknesses, the overlooked players could still cause some damage. Portugal's Joao Sousa very quietly climbed to #35 in the world last year on the heels of a final run in Metz. He's up against Martin Klizan next, a mini Cinderella here last year -- the Slovak managed a win over Alexandr Dolgopolov this season in Brisbane but also lost to eventual champion Viktor Troicki in his Sydney first round. The two haven't played each other in three years, so it's tough to pick a winner, but Sousa is more than capable of putting up a fight. And Andreas Seppi, who squeaked past Denis Istomin in his opener, once pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit at the French Open. With a second round against low-seed Jeremy Chardy, he might be have an opening to make another play at the big guys.

Third Quarter

The third quarter of the draw is the only one that's so far suffered the biggest blow -- eleventh seed Ernests Gulbis, quiet late in 2014 due to a shoulder injury was stunned by Aussie teenager Thanassi Kokkinakis on Monday, becoming the first notable upset in the men's field. Few other seeds in this section had much trouble at all, though giant-killer Lukas Rosol did take his time against France's Kenny De Schepper -- but again, that could change.

Viktor Troicki continued his climb back up the rankings after taking the title in Sydney this weekend and kept his streak going with a win over Hobart champ Jiri Vesely on Tuesday. Next up for the Serb is underrated Leonardo Mayer, who had an easy time in his first round but should face a bigger challenge from the one-time world #12. Troicki's never gotten past the third round in Melbourne, but this might be the best chance he gets in a while. And Bernard Tomic, once Australia's wunderkind, is well off his career highs, but the possibly reformed Bad Boy could make a case for himself this fortnight. He'll meet Phillipp Kohlschreiber for the second time in two weeks -- he just beat him on his way to the Sydney quarters -- and may get the upper hand again. The favored German has only won one match so far this season and could prove vulnerable again.

Fourth Quarter

The last quarter in the men's draw has also seen a couple of higher-profile exits, but perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that recently struggling Fabio Fognini and on-the-rebound Alexandr Dolgopolov have already bowed out of the Open. Meanwhile favorites like defending champ Stan Wawrinka, U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori and Doha titleist David Ferrer have all seemed on point and should be able to keep their runs going.

The one seed who might still be in danger is Colombia's Santiago Giraldo -- the clay court specialist quieted down significantly in the back half of last year and didn't score a win over anyone in the top thirty after Wimbledon. He beat qualifier Jan Hernych in straight sets on Monday, but will face a bigger challenge from #3 American Steve Johnson in the next round. The twenty-five year old hasn't faced Giraldo before, but after scoring his first ever win Down Under he might have the momentum to pull off an upset this time. And while he'll certainly face greater challenges down the road, a win like this could certainly whet his appetite for even bigger things to come.

After the slew of surprises we saw during the first few days of action at the Australian Open, we can't believe that anyone left standing is particularly safe. But some players certainly have a better opportunity at causing a couple upsets than others. And hopefully a couple of them will be able to take that shot when they get the chance.

January 18, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 Australian Open Preview

The year's first Grand Slam is just around the corner, and it's not just the favorites who have a real shot at the title this year.

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