January 6, 2010

The Thrill of (Early) Victory

Okay, my excitement might be a bit premature, but I can't help being enthused by the early results we've seen Down Under. With most of the first and second round matches in the books at the Brisbane International, even the so-called upsets actually seem to set things right.

Let's start on the men's side, where my dear James Blake has posted some of his best results in months. After scoring a technical upset over fifth-seeded compatriot Sam Querrey in the first round -- I say "technical" because Blake led the series against the second best American player 5-1 -- he followed up with a solid victory over Frenchman Marc Gicquel. After splitting the first two sets and facing a break down in the third, Blake saved three match points before finally winning the tiebreak 10-8.

In the quarterfinals -- the first time he's advanced this far in a tournament since Queen's Club last June -- he'll face third seed Gael Monfils, who's fought a couple of hard-won battles himself. James leads their head-to-head history as well, but the pair haven't met in more than two years, and the much-improved six-foot-four, all-muscle man could be a bigger threat now. Of course, I'm hoping Blake can pull off the win and make the semis, and I'm taking the stance that another presumed three-setter will just serve to give him more match practice going forward.

Top-seeded Andy Roddick has had an interesting road to the quarters himself, facing minor threats from his opponents in both first sets before breezing through in the second. He eventually defeated the two Australians Peter Luczak and wildcard Carsten Ball in less than ninety minutes each, though. Next up, he'll meet Richard Gasquet, who should be way over her three-month doping ban by now. They last played a long, tough match at Wimbledon in 2007 which Gasquet won, 8-6 in the fifth, so this could be a fun one.

Interestingly Blake and Roddick also teamed up in the doubles draw, beating specialists Travis Parrott and Jaroslav Levinsky in the first round and fourth-seeded Brazilians Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares to make the semis. You might remember, too, that James made the semis at the All England Club last year with Mardy Fish, where the duo ultimately lost to #2 team Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic after a three and a half hour five-setter. Of course neither American uses his doubles winnings to put food on the table, but it is nice to see top players branching out.

The women's action in Brisbane has been just as exciting. Top seed Kim Clijsters, fresh off her U.S. Open coup has only lost six games in her first two rounds, and could be on course for a meeting in the finals with long-time rival Justine Henin. The wildcard dropped #2 seed Nadia Petrova on Monday and qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva today. Despite this being her first true tournament since coming out of retirement, she's clearly the favorite in the bottom half of the draw.

Kind of makes you wonder if the tournament officials planned all along for an all-Belgian championship match when they sketched out the draw, doesn't it?

In any case, these are important results leading up to the decade's first Grand Slam -- with less than two weeks left before the 2010 Australian Open begins, players have got to make their statements now. Blake is in desperate need of some big wins to resurrect his career, and Justine -- who beat Kim in the Melbourne finals back in 2004 -- could easily make an early play for a top-ten ranking before spring thaw.

We'll see what the next few days hold in store for the Brisbane tournament, but I'm betting there will be a lot of fireworks this week.

Here's hoping these guys and gals can keep up the excitement!

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