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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.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

January 16, 2015

2015 Australian Open: Ten to Watch

We may have only two weeks' worth of play in the books this tennis season, but just days before the start of the 2015 Australian Open there's already plenty to talk about.

As always the favorites will be out in full force at the year's first Major, but they're not the only ones who could make an impact Down Under. Some might be under-the-radar seeds, others might be huge underdogs, but a couple have a real shot at making a big statement in Melbourne. These players might not ultimately qualify as Cinderellas -- their campaigns in Australia may just consist of one or two big wins -- but they still could warrant a little extra attention. After all, just one match could upset the entire balance of either draw, and any performance might set the stage for what we see on Tour all year long.

So let's check out the ladies and gents who might just cause a stir at the Happy Slam.


The Women


Lucie Safarova

I know I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating -- Safarova was the only person to take a set off eventual champion Na Li in Melbourne last year, even holding match point in the second set. And rather than fold under the disappointment like others might have, the under-appreciated Czech went on the make the semis in Wimbledon and climbed to a career high #14 ranking after the U.S. Open. Safarova began the New Year in style too -- after stunning then-world #6 Genie Bouchard in Perth, she just barely lost to Serena Williams in her second round robin. This past week in Sydney she notched a somewhat surprising loss to Sam Stosur in the first round -- she had previously held a dominant 9-2 record against the former New York winner -- but might actually benefit from the week off before her next match. She's slated to meet Brisbane champ Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, and could need all the rest she can get for that.

Karolina Pliskova

The 2010 Junior champion in Melbourne has done a little better than her twin since hitting the women's Tour -- sister Krystina took the Girls' title in Wimbledon the same year, but has so far only peaked at #86 in singles. But after claiming her first crown in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, Karolina reached five finals in 2014, picking up titles in Seoul and Linz. More impressive, though, were wins over Angelique Kerber in Nürnberg, Sam Stosur in Wuhan and Ana Ivanovic at the U.S. Open. Pliskova has yet to make much of a dent at the Majors -- her best result so far was that third-round showing in New York last year. But to kick off the new season, she endured a three-plus hour marathon against two-time Aussie champ Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane, saving match points to get the win. And following upsets of Carla Suarez Navarro and Angelique Kerber this week in Sydney, she pushed Petra Kvitova through two tiebreaks in the championship match. She'll carry a middle-of-the-road #22 seed in Melbourne, but could far outperform expectations. With Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep in her quarter, she certainly has the opportunity to punch a huge hole or two in the draw.

Timea Bacsinszky

Melbourne hasn't traditionally been a great place for the Swiss Miss -- she's only won one main draw match in three appearances Down Under -- but something tells me that's about to change. After years of struggling with injury and seeing her ranking fall out of the top two hundred at the start of 2013, she slugged it out on the ITF circuit and endured qualifying rounds for both the French Open and Wimbledon last year. As the season was winding down, she managed to pull off one of the most surprising upsets of the year, stunning Maria Sharapova in straight sets in Wuhan. Now back in the top fifty, she continued her momentum into 2015 -- last week in Shenzhen, she handily defeated Petra Kvitova, reaching her first final in over four years. She'll be challenged from the outset in Melbourne -- her first round opponent is former world #1 Jelena Jankovic -- but the fifteenth seeded Serb has been relatively quiet recently and lost her opener in Brisbane to start the year. If Bacsinszky can take advantage of any weakness on JJ's part there's no reason she can't pull off the win.

Heather Watson

The top British woman has fallen a bit since her breakthrough 2012, the one which brought her maiden WTA title in Osaka -- after a promising start to the next year, illness took her out of the game for a few months and she couldn't win back to back matches for the balance of 2013. Even with some solid wins last year -- she beat Flavia Pennetta in Eastbourne and Dominika Cibulkova in Montréal -- she closed out the season with just one main draw win and began this year ranked just inside the top fifty. Things seem back on track this year though -- after just one win during her Hopman Cup round robins, she scored wins over three seeded players on her way to the Hobart final, which she'll contest against qualifier Madison Brengle on Saturday. She was dealt a tough section in Melbourne, opening against surprise Sydney semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova and slated for a second round against Cibulkova. But these are certainly winnable matches, and in a quarter where plenty of players could wear each other out early, Watson might just be the one able to sneak through.

Kurumi Nara

It's easy to have missed Nara over the last few months -- the teeny, five-foot-one woman from Japan hasn't scored too many high-profile wins, but she's still chugged away on Tour, taking a set off Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Washington final and even picking up her maiden WTA title in Rio last February. This past week in Hobart she rebounded after being bagelled in her opening set by Klara Koukalova, dropping just three games after that, and then took out third seed Camila Giorgi to make the semis. In her first trip to the Australian Open last year, she made her way to the third round, only losing two games in her early matches, and she'll look to improve on that in 2015. She faces a tough task early, though -- to start she'll square off against Aga Radwanska, probably still riding high off her defeat of Serena Williams in Perth -- but if she's able to overcome that hurdle there aren't too many more threats in her immediate path. And while she might not be ready to claim a title here anytime soon, she could certainly clear the way for those who might hope to do just that.


The Men


Kevin Anderson

The big-serving South African has hovered among the lower-seeds at Majors for a while, but his three fourth-round showings last year marked his most successful Slam season to date. It's been a while since he last won a title, but he has made five finals in the last two years. And more impressively he started to gain some traction against the sport's top players in 2014 -- he was 3-0 against Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka -- and climbed to a career high #16 in the world to end the year. This past week in Auckland, at an event marred by the withdrawals of David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo and early losses by Ernests Gulbis and Roberto Bautista Agut, he was the only seed to survive until the semis, and though he eventually lost to rising star Jiri Vesely, he might have an advantage when facing a best-of-five situation. He opens his Melbourne campaign against 2014 Challenger Tour champion Diego Schwartzman, who will certainly put up a fight, but outside that Anderson seems to have a pretty easy draw, and he could just be ready to take advantage of that.

Ivo Karlovic

Also in the power-server camp is the veteran Croat, who has already fired off ninety-seven aces this year, climbing to the #2 spot on the all-time list. He's slashed his ranking over the past twelve months, reaching to his highest position since 2009, and made the final at four events in 2014 while beating players like Grigor Dimitrov at Roland Garros and U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in Shanghai. He started the new season off strong too -- a low seventh seed in Doha last week, he stunned world #1 Novak Djokovic in the quarters, denying the heavy favorite a single break opportunity, and then pushed ultimate champion David Ferrer to three tiebreak sets in the semis. In Australia he's in the same quarter as Roger Federer and Andy Murray, but his first test will likely be in a second round match-up against wunderkind Nick Kyrgios. The two have never faced off before, but I have a feeling their first meeting could be quite a nail-bitter.

Viktor Troicki

About three-and-a-half years ago Troicki was ranked #12 in the world, but after a year-long doping ban kept him off the courts until the middle of last year, he fell into the eight hundreds. He had some nice results last fall, though, and climbed back up the rankings with wins over Mikhail Youzhny in Beijing and David Ferrer in Shenzhen. Though he fell just short of qualifying for Brisbane, he did make the cut in Sydney and opened with a win over Martin Klizan on his way to the final. He'll face off against on-paper favorite Mikhail Kukushkin for the title, but despite the Kazakh's wins over Juan Martin Del Potro and fifth seed Leonardo Mayer and his #66 position -- Troicki is just inside the top hundred right now, but surely going higher -- I might give the Serb the edge. It'll get tougher in Melbourne, of course -- looking for his first win at the Australian Open since 2012, he'll start against Auckland finalist Jiri Vesely, a boy man who's pulled off his own crop of upsets over the past year. With both men coming off a long week, this could be an ugly match, but whoever has the stamina to come out on top might be able to cause even more damage down the road.

Lucas Pouille

I told you guys to look out for the young Frenchman last year, didn't I? Still way under the radar, the qualifier at the Paris Masters got wins over Ivo Karlovic and Fabio Fognini during his run. This week in Auckland he rode a lucky loser's ticket all the way to the semis, taking a set off Adrian Mannarino before ultimately losing the match. Still ranked significantly outside the top hundred, he needed a wildcard entry to make a second trip to Melbourne and drew a pretty tough bracket -- he meets nineteenth seed Gael Monfils in his first round and the winner of a big-serving battle between Juan Martin Del Potro and Jerzy Janowicz in the second. Neither are particularly comforting prospects, but if he can go the distance versus his compatriot he could also take advantage of a tuckered out opponent a match later. Of course a lot of ducks have to fall into a very specific row, but at the very least Pouille has a shot at exhausting some big threats in the draw.

Aljaz Bedene

Most casual fans probably have never heard of the twenty-five year old Slovenian who topped out at #71 in the world a few years back. Now ranked in triple digits, he fought through qualifying rounds in Chennai and then stunned second seed Feliciano Lopez in straight sets. He didn't stop there, either -- he scored wins over two more heavily favored Spaniards, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Robert Bautista Agut on the way to his first ever Tour final. He ultimately lost to Stan Wawrinka, but certainly proved he has what it takes to hang out with the top guys. Hopefully he'll get the chance to do that in Melbourne -- he's already won his first two qualifying matches and will meet Michal Przysiezny for a spot in the main draw on Saturday. And if he gets placed in a friendly part of the bracket, he could ride his momentum to the first Major match wins of his career.



Of course I've only started to scrape the surface of players who might grab headlines this year in Melbourne. Be sure to check back this weekend for a full preview of everything you should expect at the 2015 Australian Open -- and maybe some of the things you shouldn't.

January 14, 2015

The Pressure's On

We're counting down the days to the start of the first Grand Slam of the year, and while a couple players are taking every chance they get to make a case for themselves at the Australian Open, a few others haven't quite put up the numbers they'd hoped for. And with so much at stake in Melbourne, they may need to take the next couple days to regroup and get themselves on a better track for the New Year.

The top couple seeds haven't yet seen action in Hobart, but they're going to want top hope for better results than the other favorites have seen so far. Former Aussie semifinalist Sloane Stephens has had some of her best results Down Under, but after a disappointing 2014 season, she's fallen a bit down the rankings. She lost her second round last week in Auckland after a battle with fellow American Lauren Davis, and this week fell just as early, this time to Heather Watson in straight sets. And Klara Koukalova, who at this time last year was having a bit of a career resurgence -- she was defending runner-up points in Hobart this week -- has yet to win a match in 2015. After marking a first set bagel against Kurumi Nara, she only won three more games. She doesn't have too much on the line in Melbourne -- she lost to Sam Stosur in her opener -- but if she wants to reassert herself again this season, she'll want to turn things around pretty quickly.

Over in Auckland, where more than a couple favorites pulled out just before the event started, second seeded Ernests Gulbis took the courts for the first time since October and things got off to a rough start. Last year's semifinalist in Roland Garros has never made it past the second round of the Australian Open broke into the top ten on the heels of his performance, but an injury-hampered summer and fall kept him from accepting an alternate's ticket to the year end finals. And he wasn't dealt a very easy draw at the Heineken Open either -- starting off against 2014 breakout star Jiri Vesely, he managed to force a third set, but ultimately fell 6-1 in the third. And Roberto Bautista-Agut, who had a promising run to the semis last week in Chennai, retired down a set and a break to Adrian Mannarino on Wednesday, becoming the sixth seed to lose in Auckland before the quarterfinals. Hopefully he'll be able to manage whatever's ailing him in time for his Major campaign next week.

Stakes were even higher in Sydney this week where six top ten women were originally entered in the draw, but not everyone lived up to expectations. Ekaterina Makarova, who's traditionally done well Down Under, struggled with injury at the end of last season and had to withdraw from the season-ending Tournament of Champions in Sofia. She had a tough road in her comeback, though -- her first two opponents will both be seeded in Melbourne -- and after taking the first set from Carla Suarez Navarro eventually lost her two-plus hour second round. Far more disappointing, though, was the performance of Dominika Cibulkova, last year's runner-up at the Australian Open. After losing twelve first round matches in 2014, she kicked off the new season with yet another, dropping her opening round in Brisbane to teenager Madison Keys. This week she managed one win before losing to wildcard Jarmila Gajdosova on Tuesday, but she's going to want to do a lot better than that when she heads back to the site of her greatest success.

The men in Sydney may have a little less star power in their ranks, but there are plenty who were still hoping to make a point this week. Nick Kyrgios, another young standout from last season, is often talked about as Australia's next best hope to bring home a Major, and after making the quarters in Wimbledon last year it looked like there was something behind that. He put up a good fight against slightly higher-ranked Jerzy Janowicz in his opener this week, too, rebounding to take the second set after losing the first handily, but ultimately lost, bringing his record since the All England Club to a less-than-stellar 4-5. And top seed Fabio Fognini has been just as mediocre, losing in successively earlier rounds at each of last year's Grand Slams. He finished 2014 with only one win after the U.S. Open, and went oh-for-three in round robin matches in Perth. This week at the Apia International he took the first set off comeback kid Juan Martin Del Porto before finally falling to the one-time U.S. Open champ. It's not a loss he should be ashamed of, to be sure, but it surely isn't the argument he wants to make so close to a Major.

Hopefully all these guys and girls will be able to turn things around in the coming days and weeks -- after all so many other players will be waiting in the wings ready to take advantage of any weaknesses on their parts. And if they're not careful, there's no reason some of the underdogs won't be able to capitalize.

January 11, 2015

What a Way to Start

We didn't waste any time getting down to business, did we? With just a week of action in the books so far this 2015 tennis season, players were out to make some real statements -- and with the Australian Open around the corner there's no better time.

There were lots of surprises at the Hopman Cup, with Lucie Safarova emerging as a silent killer during her round robin matches and once-threatening Fabio Fognini struggling with form and losing all three of his round robin matches, one against world #239 Adam Pavlasek. Ultimately the U.S. and Poland emerged as the top teams of the pack, but even with top-ranked Serena Williams looking a little uneasy earlier in the week, you had to give her and partner John Isner the upper hand in yesterday's final. But Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska had other plans -- the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up hadn't won a set off her opponent since that day at the All England Club, and after coming out on the wrong end of a marathon rematch against of last year's final in Perth Alizé Cornet on Friday, she might have been a little fatigued. But the fifth-ranked woman on the WTA Tour came out swinging in the championship match-up -- she grabbed the first set and even had a shot at serving out the second. Though she was pushed to a decider, she rolled over the Williams in it, going 6-1 for her first ever win over the American. Isner evened the score with a win in his singles rubber, but Aga paired with Jerzy Janowicz for a thrilling doubles victory, sending the Poles to their first Hopman Cup championship, and perhaps the sweetest title of her career.

Things went a little more according to plan in Shenzhen, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for the favorites. Second seeded Petra Kvitova, coming off the best year she's seen in a while, did well early but was stunned in the semis by a resurgent Timea Bacsinszky, who reached her first final since 2010. But the top half of the draw was dominated by world #3 Simona Halep, who seemed eager to continue the breakthrough season she had in 2014. After dropping opening set of her campaign, she didn't look back and won eight straight sets on her way to the final. Against the young Swiss on Saturday she didn't allow a break opportunity and picked up her ninth career title in just over an hour. And her relentless play all week should bode well as she makes the trip down to Melbourne where the stakes are even higher.

Stanislas Wawrinka certainly knows it's possible to parlay momentum from one win into a bigger one -- last year the then-#8 ranked player in the world claimed his second title in Chennai and then then stunned both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on the way to his first Grand Slam in Australia. He went back to India this past week looking to repeat his luck, and though he was the top seed his fate was far from sealed -- he survived a test from upstart teenager Borna Coric in his opener and staved off a threat from comeback kid David Goffin in the semis. Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw qualifier Aljaz Bedene, ranked just #156 in the world, had taken out three favored Spaniards in quick succession, toppling 2014 standout Feliciano Lopez in the second round and then ousting Guillermo Garcia Lopez and Roberto Bautista Agut to make his own first Tour-level final. But Wawrinka was fair warned in Sunday's championship -- the twenty-nine year old Swiss took advantage of the far-less-experienced Slovenian, winning more than seventy percent of his service points and claiming the title in straight sets. If he keeps it up he could make a real play for defending his title Down Under too.

It had been a little longer since former world #1 Venus Williams tasted Major glory, but the thirty-four year old veteran has remained more than relevant, claiming a title in Dubai and a win over sister Serena last year to climb back into the top twenty. The 2014 runner-up in Auckland was not about to rest on those laurels though, and returned to New Zealand on a mission -- in her first four matches, in fact, she delivered two bagel and two breadstick sets to her opponents. Still the third seed was the underdog in Saturday's final -- Caroline Wozniacki had been on fire the last several months and, despite a slight hiccup in the semis, seemed primed to start the new year off the way she finished the last one. But Venus had other ideas -- after dropping the first set she rallied hard in the second and ultimate closed out the match in just under two hours, keeping her record against the Dane a perfect 6-0. It might be a tough ask to call for the champion to make a deep run in Melbourne later this month -- but we should all know better by now than to put it past her.

Perhaps we can say the same for David Ferrer, who really seemed to have the wind taken out of him after his "Cinderella" run in Paris in 2013 -- the thirty-two year old fell back into a double-digit ranking after failing to qualify outright for last year's World Tour Final in London. And he was tested from the start this week in Doha -- just minutes after Rafael Nadal was ousted in his opener, Ferrer found himself down a set to Dutch qualifier Thiemo De Bakker. And in Friday's semi versus big-serving Ivo Karlovic, the man who'd just trumped Novak Djokovic a day earlier, he fought off thirty aces and more than twice as many winners in the three tiebreak match, reaching his first final at the Qatar Open. In the championship he faced a relatively well-rested Tomas Berdych, who hadn't dropped a set all week and who, at #7 in the world, was the on-paper favorite. But Ferrer battled from the start, nabbing a two break lead in the opening set and barely looking back. It was his first title in five attempts in Doha and, with an uncharacteristic week off before the Australian Open -- he's played in Auckland the last nine years, winning four titles there -- he could be primed to cause some damage there as well.

So too could Maria Sharapova, who kicked off her 2015 with a more-than-solid showing in Brisbane. The champion in Melbourne seven years ago made good on her top seeding this week and lost just nine games in her first three matches. Meanwhile Ana Ivanovic, squarely back in the top ten for the first time since 2008, looked just as threatening herself -- the champion in Auckland this time last year was coming off her most prolific season yet and, though she didn't meet another seed on her way to the final, seemed in control all week long. And with the pair splitting wins in their four matches last year, this one promised to be a good one -- the ladies didn't disappoint. Ana fought back from an early break and ultimately took the opening, hour-long set in a tiebreak, but Sharapova battled back, denying any break opportunity in the second. Momentum went back and forth in the decider but ultimately the Russian prevailed, claiming her thirty-fourth career title and closing in slightly on the #1 ranking. And with the top spot within her sights, she might be even more motivated to continue her run Down Under.

Roger Federer might do the same -- after his stellar 2014 season, he's also a stone's throw from the #1 ranking and his own showing in Brisbane proved he's nowhere near done trying to reclaim the spot. Like many of this weekend's champions, he had to dust off the cobwebs early, dropping his first set to Aussie wildcard John Millman, but he rebounded in style, dropping just one game to James Duckworth and simply thrashing world #11 Grigor Dimitrov in the semis. On Sunday he met a slightly more tested Milos Raonic for the title -- the young Canadian had just squeaked through his last two matches, going the distance against monster server Sam Groth in the quarters and barely surviving a two-and-a-half hour, three tiebreak battle against rival Kei Nishikori a day earlier. He put up a fight in the final, too, forcing Roger to a third set, but ultimately the great Fed came out on top, earning his eighty-third career title and his historic thousandth singles match win, only the third player in history to achieve that milestone. And with the 2015 season just barely underway, there's no telling how many more landmarks he'll hit this year.

January 7, 2015

Picking Up Where They Left Off

It may feel like a while since the final balls of the 2014 tennis season were hit, but it sure looks like a couple players kept busy during their time off. In just the first few days of action in the New Year, we've already been treated to thrilling matches and major upsets. But if we were really paying attention the last few months, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised to see who's shining as bright as they are -- and who may still need to dust off the cobwebs a little.

It might not be too shocking to see Victoria Azarenka struggling a bit on her return to tournament play. The former world #1 has played just a handful of events over the past year and was defending runner-up points in Brisbane -- she was under a lot of pressure this week. And though she held match points against Karolina Pliskova in their opener Monday, she wasn't able to convert and ultimately lost the three-plus hour marathon. Slightly more troublesome was the performance of last year's finalist in Melbourne -- Dominika Cibulkova lost to Madison Keys in her first round in Brisbane, notching her thirteenth event in twelve months without a win. One-time Roland Garros #2 Sara Errani didn't fare any better -- she's only won one match since the U.S. Open and this week in Auckland lost in straight sets to veteran Daniela Hantuchova. Fifth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova put up a bit more of a fight, but after taking the first set off qualifier Lucie Hradecka she ultimately couldn't hold off the underdog.

It wasn't all bad news for the ladies, though. Young Ana Konjuh who reached the quarters in Limoges and the semis in Istanbul last year pulled off an upset of eighth seeded Mona Barthel in Auckland before ultimately losing to Elena Vesnina. Over in Shenzhen Aleksandra Krunic, who very nearly defeated Victoria Azarenka in New York last year, is making the most of her qualifying ticket to the main draw, reaching the quarters with a win over Anna Schmiedlova today. And at the mixed-team, round-robin Hopman Cup, under-appreciated Lucie Safarova continued her success from last year -- the Czech was the only player to hold match point against Aussie champ Na Li in Melbourne, reached her first Slam semi at Wimbledon and scored wins over Sam Stosur, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki during the season. This week in Perth she's already stunned Genie Bouchard and notched an impressive win over Flavia Pennetta to help her team to a perfect 2-0 so far.

A couple guys have been able to carry over their strength into the new year too. Andy Murray, who fell briefly out of the top ten in 2014, cut his ranking in half with three titles to end the season. He hasn't had as tough a draw in Perth, but he did score his third straight win over Jerzy Janowicz, a man who stunned him two years back in Paris. And David Goffin, who won four Challenger and three ATP-level titles all in the back half of last year, hasn't slowed down either. The fourth seed in Chennai survived a challenge in his opener, but with the help of twelve aces ultimately dispatched Ricardas Berankis to make the quarters. Young Borna Coric on the other hand, a man who ended 2014 with one of the biggest wins of his nascent career, may not have been able to get the win over defending champ Stan Wawrinka today, but he did manage an upset over veteran Robin Haase in his first round. And wins like that could be just what he needs to make a real dent in his ranking.

It hasn't all been good news for the men though. American #1 John Isner hasn't done much of note for quite some time -- he'd only scored one win over a top twenty player since Roland Garros before making the trip to Perth. There he battled through three tight sets in his defeat of Fabio Fognini but then fell in straights to a still-uncertain Vasek Pospisil. And former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny has struggled a bit over the years and started this season out of the top forty for the first time since 2009. He showed some promise of a comeback the last few months, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati and Ernest Gulbis in Shanghai, but he also lost to Nick Kyrgios in New York and to #74 Mikhail Kukushkin in his hometown Moscow. This week in Doha he was stunned by little known Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili in straight sets, his sixth loss to a sub-#100 player in the past year. But of course the big shocker came when Rafael Nadal took the court for his first ATP match since undergoing surgery this past fall. But even pre-appendectomy the Spanish star seemed out of form, losing to two teenagers in the past six months, and his troubles continued in the New Year. Against world #127, veteran qualifier Michael Berrer on Tuesday, Rafa squandered a 6-1 first set and couldn't convert any of five break points in the decider. After two hours on court the defending champ in Doha was sent packing, marking his earliest loss in a season since 2004.

Of course, not everyone started the season the way they ended the last. Peter Gojowczyk had become a virtual nonentity on Tour in the back half of 2014 -- after a stunning Cinderella run to the Doha semis last year and a defeat of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup play, the twenty-five year old German couldn't qualify for the last three ATP events of the season and only managed an 8-9 record on the year. He seems to have found his stride again though -- he only lost one game to Alejandro Falla this week in Chennai and could be about to turn his luck back around. And even more surprising was the groggy performance of world #1 Serena Williams in Perth. With a 31-3 record since Wimbledon and four titles to boot, you can understand why she'd be a little tired. But this week she actually called for a coffee during her three-setter against Pennetta and then was wholly drubbed by Eugenie Bouchard yesterday. Whether she can rally to get the U.S. into the Hopman Cup semis remains to be seen, but something tells me she'll figure things out once she hits the big leagues again.

Hopefully the players who've put themselves on the right track to start this year will keep things going deep into the season -- and the rest will take this as an opportunity to right themselves. With just over a week left before things get really serious on Tour there's not a lot of time of everyone to show us exactly what they're made of.