January 25, 2010

Time-Out: Aussie Open Reassessment

You might remember that before the start of this year's Australian Open, I made a few predictions for who would make the semis. I made some mistakes, of course -- apparently I gave Maria Sharapova way more credit than I should have, as the 2008 champ went down in the first round. And while there were a few more surprises, I'd say overall I still have a chance to come out with a good score -- if only my March Madness brackets worked out so well!

But with the quarterfinal matches being held over the next two days ultimately determining just how right -- or wrong -- I'll be, I feel it's a good time to regroup and, not change, but alter some of my calls.

That big match-up between Roger Federer and Nikolay Davydenko has manifested in the quarters, and still could create the sparks I was anticipating. Roger has been playing extremely well and looked like a machine against Lleyton Hewitt on Monday, while Davydenko did struggle a bit against Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round. Even still, the Russian is playing great offense, serving well and, for the most part, not making a lot of errors. I'm still picking him for the upset, mostly because I'm aching for some excitement, though I admit I like my chances a little less now.

The other highly-anticipated duel between defending champ Rafael Nadal and fifth seed Andy Murray will be contested on Tuesday, and this one makes me a little nervous. They haven't met at a Major since the two-day ordeal of the 2008 U.S. Open, so it'll be interesting to see what each brings. Though Rafa still has the fight that we've always known him to possess, Murray hasn't dropped a set this whole tournament. And talk about a strong service game -- the Scot's only double faulted seven times in four matches. Nadal's doing well too, playing solid against the guns of Ivo Karlovic in the last round, so I'm hoping that the fact he's been challenged and survived will pull him through to the semis.

In the third quarter Novak Djokovic will reprise his '08 final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who on Monday played his first ever five set match to advance over Nicolas Almagro. The Frenchman actually has the winning record, having beaten the Serb four times after losing back in Melbourne. But Nole's been just as impressive as Murray in the past week, winning more than seventy percent of his first serves and only losing seventeen games in his last nine sets. I think he's also learned a thing or two since his championship run here two years ago, so I'm still in his corner.

The match-up between Andy Roddick and Marin Cilic could be the most interesting of the men's quarters. You might remember that I gave the American a slight edge over Cilic a week ago, and I stand by that. But both men endured monster fourth rounds -- Roddick came back from two sets down against Fernando Gonzalez before the Chilean fell apart at the end of the fourth, while the Croat battle for four hours and thirty-eight minutes before getting past a persistent Juan Martin Del Potro. They've both had a day to rest, but I'm sure both will want to make this a quick day on the courts. But Cilic has been challenged a few times in Melbourne, while Roddick has been sailing relatively smoothly -- my bet's on the American to regroup faster.

When I look at the ladies my score, but not necessarily my logic, drops dramatically.

Serena Williams remains the clear favorite in this part of the bracket. Besides being the defending champion, she's the only woman who hasn't been broken this tournament. Her quarterfinal opponent, Victoria Azarenka, could prove to be a little difficult, though. This will be the third straight time the two have met in Melbourne, and the Belarusian actually took a set from Serena in last year's fourth round. Though she eventually retired from that match, Azarenka bounced back with a decisive win in Miami. She's also looked good this year, storming through her first four matches before losing her cool for a set against Vera Zvonareva on Monday. But as much as I'd like to switch my vote, I still have to give Williams the advantage. She's just too tough at these big events.

As I suspected Dinara Safina's back problems weren't completely off the table, and though she did advance farther than I expected, she retired from her fourth round match while trailing 4-5 in the first set. This was the portion of the draw I'd given to Sharapova, and as I already mentioned that dream died early. But her vanquisher, Maria Kirilenko, is still alive, and she'll face a much less intimidating Jie Zheng in the quarters. Kirilenko has only won one of the pair's previous five meetings, but she's been decisive in her play this week. I'll count it as a technical victory if the other twenty-two year old blonde Russian named Maria makes the semis!

The extremely competitive third quarter did not disappoint. The quality of tennis we saw coming out of the Belgian trio and top seeds Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva couldn't help but make you smile. Justine Henin has looked good after a tough second round match, facing and dismissing challenges from her opponents to make her sixth career quarterfinal here. The surprising winner of the section, though, would have to be Nadia Petrova who defeated the reigning U.S. and French Open champs in successive matches. Though she did oust my pick for this bracket, I'm not sure she'll be able to pull off three big upsets in a row. Petrova's only made the semis of a Major once -- in 2005 in Paris -- and she didn't have a particularly strong 2009. I'm thinking the sentimental and on-paper favorite will be Henin.

The last section, I'd said, would be the one in which someone we never expected would emerge. I'd picked Shahar Peer as the spoiler, and even though that didn't work out, my theory still could. I've been surprised with how well Venus Williams is playing -- she hasn't really been a contender at Majors other than Wimbledon for years, but she's barely even blinked this week, only losing one set to Francesca Schiavone before dominating the next two. She'll meet Na Li, who dismantled the top seed in the quarter, Caroline Wozniacki, for a spot in the semis. Venus should be the favorite, but Na's actually won their only meeting at the Beijing Olympics. I'd love to see her pull off the win again and make the semis for the first time at a Slam.

So I'll give myself a grade of B+ for now. Of course Federer, Murray and even Tsonga to an extent could cause me to earn some pretty quick demerits, but I'll keep up hope. In any case we certainly are seeing some of the best tennis we have in a while, in both the men's and women's brackets. And even if all my picks fall in the next few days, I can't really complain -- well, I probably will, but I'll try not to!

Incidentally, you guys called it right. In my poll, sixty percent of you said DelPo was the man least likely to make the semis while Kuznetsova received forty percent of your votes, highest of the women. It sure will be interesting to see if the remaining top seeds are able to pull through!

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