January 17, 2009

A Rougher Road

The men's draw at Sydney's Medibank International didn't go quite as smoothly as the ladies' did, with the upsets starting from the get go.

Two seeds were eliminated in the first round -- #8 Mardy Fish suffered his second straight defeat in an opening match this year. By the third round, only three seeded players remained, and in the quarters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the runner up at last year's Australian Open, pulled out with a back injury.

Then there were two -- reigning Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian, who eliminated home-country favorite Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets.

Nole didn't have the most glorious return to the Down Under -- he lost in the first round at last week's Brisbane International to Latvia's Ernests Gulbis. In Sydney he fared somewhat better, making it to the semis before Jarkko Nieminen ended his losing to the third-ranked Serb in a stunning two sets. The loss ended Djokovic's hopes of -- gasp! -- overtaking Roger Federer in the ATP rankings before the season's first Grand Slam.

Nalbandian was more successful in his half of the draw, taking out Richard Gasquet in the semis and reaching the finals without dropping a set. The Argentine who ended last year with three final appearances in his last four tournaments -- a championship in Stockholm -- had played Jarkko ten times before Saturday's final with pretty even results. He only held a slight 6-4 advantage.

In the Sydney final Nieminen gave David a bit of a scare. It took three sets and one tiebreak before Nalbandian was able to hoist the trophy over his head. The current world #11 may have slipped slightly in the rankings over the last few years -- he had been as high as #3 once -- but he's certainly making a case for himself to get back up there.

The results in so far this year, though, may cause some concern for Djokovic fans. With two early losses to lesser-ranked players, has he laid a poor groundwork for a repeat in Melbourne? Not necessarily -- he didn't play in any lead-up tournaments to last's years Slam. But you know that he had wanted to make a bolder statement in his return to Australia -- and follow up his ATP Masters Cup title with a little more success. Unfortunately for him now he's really gonna have to bring it Melbourne.

Incidentally, in the other men's tournament being played this week -- the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand -- world #9 Juan Martin Del Potro took his first title of the year, defeating American Sam Querrey in straight sets. Despite the ultimate loss it was a good showing for Sam -- he notched wins over fourth seed Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer, who continues to struggle -- and it could bode well for his performance next week.

Good luck to all!

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