And this year I've decided to preview each tournament with my predictions for the player in each quarter most likely to reach the semifinals. But the draws are interesting this year, and some bets that might have been easy to make a few weeks ago aren't quite sure things anymore. And we know that the top four seeds seldom all make it as far as they should -- I doubt this year will be any different. And, after all, isn't it more fun when there are big upsets?
So let's dive right in.
|The Men||The Women|
Well of course top-seeded Roger Federer will make it through his quarter unscathed, right? Right? I mean, can you remember the last time he didn't make the Final Four of a Major?*
It's funny, though -- the same year that brought him a career Grand Slam and put his name in the record books also proved just how vulnerable Roger is. In the last few months he's lost twice in a row to Juan Martin Del Potro, and ended a twelve-match win streak against Robin Soderling at an Abu Dhabi exhibition. He also hasn't won a title since Cincinnati.
Sure, he always brings his A-game to the Majors, and when you're talking about a best-of-five match, there aren't many to whom you'd give the edge. But Roger also has to contend with a big bracket -- he'll face #36 Igor Andreev in the first round and could get Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth.
Most intimidating has to be Nikolay Davydenko, who looms large in the quarters. The Russian notched his first victory over Federer in the London semis, and then shocked him again a week ago in Doha. More importantly, Nikolay is playing better than he has in a long time. He regrouped after being bagelled by Rafael Nadal in the first set last Sunday and ultimately won the title after almost three hours of play.
The biggest on-paper threat in the early part of Davydenko's bracket would be Juan Carlos Ferrero who withdrew from Auckland this past week after rolling his ankle. After that it's clear sailing until he presumably meets Fernando Verdasco early in the second week. While I can't discount last year's semifinalist, Davydenko has been on too strong a roll to falter here.
Predicted Semifinalist: I'm going to go out on a limb here and actually send Roger home early -- well, early for him. Davydenko is making the semis this year.
Second seed Rafael Nadal is the lucky contestant to draw Andy Murray as a potential quarterfinal opponent, so this section could get interesting.
Nadal has been doing well in the weeks leading up to the Australian Open. While I began the year worried that the defending champion wouldn't be up to snuff so soon, a trophy at the Capitala exhibition in Abu Dhabi and the runner-up prize in Doha have somewhat allayed my fears.
Hard courts aren't necessarily Nadal's strongest surface, though, and he does face a spirited Peter Luczak in the first round. There's also the possibility of a third round against John Isner, who picked a good time to win his first title in Auckland this past week -- let's not forget how John stunned Andy Roddick back in New York. The American just missed being seeded for the Slam, so he shouldn't be overlooked.
On the other side Andy Murray benefits from early rounds full of qualifiers. The potential fourth round versus Gael Monfils could pose a bit of an obstacle, as the Frenchman faced and passed a few challenges in Brisbane before losing in the semis, and he's actually won the pair's only five-set match at Roland Garros in 2006. But Murray will be determined to prove he deserved a higher seed, and should set up the quarters with Rafa.
And that round should be as exciting as we'd expect -- the Brit had begun to get momentum against Nadal early last year before losing to him twice in a row, once on a hard court. But they haven't met since the Spaniard's knee injury took him out of Wimbledon, so I'll be curious to see what dynamic develops between them now.
Predicted Semifinalist: Bad luck of the draw notwithstanding, Rafa's no slouch. I have a feeling he'll pull it out, even if he has to face Murray in the quarters.
Novak Djokovic might have learned something since his last trip Down Under. In 2008 he came to Melbourne fresh and rested and ended up defeating Federer in straight sets before claiming his first Grand Slam with a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Last year he tried to get an early start but lost in the first round at Brisbane and the semis in Sydney. Needless to say, he did not repeat. The twenty-two year old Serb hasn't competed yet in 2010, but you can bet his new coach has been getting him more than ready during the off-season. He's got a relatively easy first few rounds, with his biggest threat coming from 2008 quarterfinalist Mikhail Youzhny -- Nole should advance without too much ado.
The other half of the section is a little more interesting and could result in a pretty good quarterfinal match. Robin Soderling had a great finish to last year and began this one with his first career win over Federer. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been quietly plodding away on his own -- after staging a huge comeback to beat Roger in Montreal last year, he's put together some impressive wins in the Kooyong exhibition in Melbourne. These days I might pick him to meet Nole in the Elite Eight, a rematch of the 2008 championship game.
Predicted Semifinalist: Novak easily has the most experience of anyone in this part of the draw -- he may lose a set or two, but this semi is his to lose.
Juan Martin Del Potro silenced nay-sayers last September when the tall, lanky Argentine proved he was fit enough to survive the heat of a tough five-setter, and he comes to Australia with a newly minted #4 ranking, his highest ever. But DelPo retired from the semifinals at the Kooyong exhibition with a wrist injury, the third time he's withdrawn from a tournament in the last two months -- that doesn't exactly bode well for him in the early rounds.
Plus he's got some big competition for that last semifinal spot -- spunky Viktor Troicki is a possible third round opponent, and Marin Cilic, who repeated his championship run Chennai earlier this month, looms in the fourth. Cilic, you might remember, cleared the way for DelPo at the U.S. Open by taking care of Andy Murray for him, so he could pose a bit of a threat.
As could Andy Roddick, a man who has somewhat surprisingly lost all three of his meetings with Del Potro. He started off the year on the right foot, though, defeating defending Brisbane champ Radek Stepanek for that title. Unfortunately it looks like the knee injury that kept him out of the year-end championships is still bugging him, as he's chosen not to play for the U.S. Davis Cup to avoid further stress, but hopefully he can advance through the early rounds with little trouble.
Predicted Semifinalist: With the top two players in the section dealing with injuries, it's a tough call, but I'm giving Andy the slight edge, with Cilic coming in a close second.
Defending champion Serena Williams has a habit of winning the Australian Open in odd-numbered years -- she's done so since 2003 when, as the top seed, she beat her second-ranked sister in three sets -- so this being 2010, some might say it's not her year. Then again, she's never lost the tournament while ranked #1. And, like Roger, she seems to play her best at the Majors -- though she hasn't won a non-Slam in almost two years, she's contested four championship matches in the last eighteen months and won her first Tour championship since 2001 last November.
But she was handily beaten by Elena Dementieva in the Sydney finals on Friday, her fifth loss in her last eight meetings with the Russian. In fact, she lost her serve five times during that match, a statistic unusual for her. Serena has a couple of challenges in her bracket, too. Victoria Azarenka, who challenged Williams in the fourth round last year and avenged that ultimate loss, is playing well again, and even Ana Ivanovic is showing traces of her championship self. And the hometown crowd is likely going to be cheering Sam Stosur through as well.
Predicted Semifinalist: Obstacles aside there are few serious threats to Serena's run. She should be able to make it through again.
Dinara Safina headlines this portion of the bracket, but her chances of making the Final Four, I'm afraid to say, might be worst of all the top players. She won her first match back in Sydney, but after being broken five times in the quarters by Elena Dementieva, I stand by my statement that her first round performance in Melbourne will be a crucial gauge of her viability. There she'll face last year's Birmingham champ Magdalena Rybarikova, who she beat in the French Open a few years back. She should be able to do so again, but that's only the start of her problems.
Both Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko are in this quarter, the elder of whom just won her first Tour title in Hobart, and Dominika Cibulkova has been putting together a couple of wins of her own. Then there's Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champ who never got a chance to defend her title last year. Since returning to the game last May, she hasn't had a lot of early exits, and after taking the title in Tokyo thanks to a retirement by Jelena Jankovic, she's going to want to prove she can win based on her own merits.
Predicted Semifinalist: While there are a couple players in this quarter who have the ability to put together a string of wins, I think Maria's got the talent and the motivation to get to the semis. And it will be good o see her back!
This might be the quarter where we see the most fireworks this year -- Grand Slam titlists, former #1's, momentum players, and an inordinate number of contenders in the top-twenty, this section has it all.
At the top is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has a couple of hard court titles to her name, including the 2004 U.S. Open, but she didn't quite seem to be at her best in Sydney. After a first round scare from a feisty Alisa Kleybanova, she lost her next match to Dominika Cibulkova, which isn't the most promising sign. Of course she's a strong player, so she'll pose a threat to anyone she faces.
But she's got early dates with Aravane Rezai, who took Serena to three sets this past week, and Kim Clijsters, who already won her first battle with long-time rival Justine Henin in Brisbane. And then there's Elena Dementieva, who was nearly flawless in defense of her Sydney title. She beat three seeded players in straight sets, and took just seventy-five minutes to dismiss Serena in the finals. In Melbourne, though, she'll have little breathing room, as 2004 champ Henin will probably be waiting in the second round for her.
And let's talk for just a minute about Yanina Wickmayer, the Auckland champ who had to play the qualifying rounds in Melbourne because her WADA ban was lifted too late for her to enter the main draw. She got Alexandra Dulgheru for her first match, but the world #16 could face #12 Flavia Pennetta in the second round and Dementieva in the fourth.
It's one thing that this quarter has so many good players, but another altogether that they're all doing so well. I wouldn't be surprised if the eventual winner came out of this bracket -- and if we're still talking about some of these matches as the defining moments of the year come December.
Predicted Semifinalist: I'm so conflicted here -- my heart says Elena, but my head is going with Kim.
This is probably the hardest quarter to call, not because it's as stacked as the previous one, but because no one really stands out.
U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki comes to Melbourne with her highest seed at a Major. But she retired from her last two tournaments of 2009 and was upset in the first round at Sydney. I'm not saying she's peaked yet, but it might be asking too much for the nineteen year old to make two consecutive Grand Slam semis. And Venus Williams has been spotty in recent months, despite a second straight appearance at the year-end finals. She hasn't won a hard court Major since 2001.
That leaves this section wide open, creating opportunities for players like Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone, both of whom have gotten in some action in the preseason. Melanie Oudin is also in this part of the bracket, and we now know better than to count her out of any match.
There are also plenty of players who've fallen by the wayside, and can really use the next two weeks to get their tennis careers back on track. Remember when Sybille Bammer downed Serena Williams last August in Cincinnati? Or when Alize Cornet was ranked eleventh in the world? That was less than a year ago! Any of these ladies have a chance to get through, and I would love to see this be the quarter where an unknown finally makes a stand.
Predicted Semifinalist: I actually think Shahar Peer is playing some of the most impressive tennis in this part of the bracket -- the semis in Auckland and a runner-up trophy in Hobart could help propel her to her best ever showing at a Major.
So with the first serves of the 2010 Australian Open just a few hours away, I have high hopes for this season. It will be exciting to see who emerges as the new face of tennis and who captures our hearts as the breakthrough of the tournament. It certainly looks like we're on the verge of some big changes in the sport -- and it sure will be fun to watch!
* At the 2004 French Open, King Roger was eliminated in the third round by Gustavo Kuerten.