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January 27, 2009

I Don't Even Know Where to Begin...

So I go away for a few days and when I return, as is usually the case, the whole world is turned upside down!

Now I confess, I wasn't able to keep up with all the matches while on vacation and some of the shocking upsets that happened in the third and fourth rounds occurred without comment -- but there's still plenty to talk about from latter-round action. But let's just rewind for a minute.

Jelena Dokic continued her comeback for as long as she could, beating #11 Caroline Wozniacki and #29 Alisa Kleybanova before finally being stopped in the quarterfinals by Dinara Safina. You can't say she collapsed under the pressure, though -- she did take the middle set from the #3-seeded player. Marcos Baghdatis also followed up his strong start with a straight-set win over American Mardy Fish, but reigning champion Novak Djokovic put an end to the Cypriot's surge in the fourth round. Even Carla Suárez Navarro was able to back up her defeat of Venus Williams with wins over two compatriots for the right to meet Elena Dementieva in the Elite Eight.

There was also the day of retirements, when three matches were suspended early due to injury or sickness. Gael Monfils and Jie Zheng both pulled out of their fourth rounds with wrist injuries while nineteen-year-old Brisbane champ Victoria Azarenka nearly collapsed after taking her first set from Serena Williams.

But then came the real shockers.

I suppose technically Andy Murray's loss to #14 Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round was an upset -- but I can tell you I shed no tears. After winning the Capitala World Championship in Abu Dhabi, an exhibition match in which he beat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on consecutive days, and Qatar's ExxonMobil Open, Murray was considered by most to be the favorite in Melbourne, despite his #4 seed and the fact that he'd never won a major before.

Verdasco had other ideas though.

The score over the first three sets makes them each seem like blow-outs -- Murray took the lead 6-2, 1-6, 6-1. But the Davis Cup winner, who had lost his five previous matches to the Brit/Scot, was not dissuaded. With a shocking 78% first-serve percentage in the last two sets, Fernando didn't allow Murray one break point opportunity. He served six aces in the final set, leading Andy in both winners and errors, and after more than three hours of play came out with the win.

On the women's side Jelena Jankovic looked like she might've had an easy road to her second Grand Slam final with both Williams and red-hot Dementieva in the bottom half of the draw. I'm sure she didn't expect her biggest threat to come from sixteenth-seed Marion Bartoli.

It's easy to have forgotten Bartoli. The Frenchwoman made it to the finals of Wimbledon in 2007 but was demolished by Venus Williams, officially ranked lower but hardly the underdog. Since then Marion has struggled a bit. She barely made it past the third round in any tournament last year -- only making one final -- and saw her ranking drop from #10 to #17. She began 2009 with a second place finish in Brisbane, but I still didn't expect her to be much of a force against the top-ranked woman in the fourth round -- even though she'd won their last two meetings over a year ago. But Jankovic was almost no match for Bartoli. In less than ninety minutes Marion scored twice as many winners, three aces to none, and took 81% of the points on her first serve.

It's a shame that she was handed just as big a defeat at the hands of Vera Zvonareva in the next round. Again, I admit, I didn't have high hopes for the runner-up at last year's Sony Ericsson Championships. Though the seventh-ranked Russian led Bartoli head-to-head and is clearly coming off her best year ever, Vera pulled out of the Sydney warm-up tournament with an intestinal illness (to be fair, Bartoli withdrew as well), and I worried she might not be in top form in Australia's sweltering heat. But Zvonareva did triumph -- in barely over an hour! -- as Marion spewed errors and struggled to hold serve.

And of course the biggest quarterfinal upset so far came in the men's draw. Novak Djokovic was only three matches away from repeating as champion, but he'd suffered some early-round disappointments in the last few weeks. Still, he was the favorite to beat Andy Roddick who, at #9 in the world, is at his lowest ranking since 2006. After a first set with no breaks of serve, Roddick found himself down in the tiebreak and then down in the match. But the newly slimmed-down American showed off his fitness and regrouped in the second set as temperatures on the court rose. Nole couldn't withstand the heat -- from the court or from Andy -- quite as well and fourteen minutes into the fourth set, down two to one, he retired.

So that sets up an interesting second week at the Open.

On the men's side we might finally see that highly-anticipated Nadal-Federer match-up, though it does require a few more wins from both players. Nadal hasn't dropped a set this entire tournament, but next faces a wily Gilles Simon who received a walkover after Monfils retired. And Roger has to get past Roddick, who could power through solely on adrenaline.

For the women Serena is still the betting-man's favorite, but I wouldn't put it past Dementieva to make it through on her half. And Vera might be on a role, but I have to believe Safina's going to make it to her second Major final. That potential match-up, a repeat of the finals at Sydney and last year's Olympics (Elena won both), could usher in a new era for women's tennis.

And I can't wait to see it!

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