January 15, 2011

Australian Open: First Round Matches to Watch

The first serves of the 2011 Australian Open's main draws will be hit in just a day and, as always, I feel we can expect the fireworks to start right at the get-go.

Now last year I tried to be bold and predict the players who'd get farthest in each of their quarters, but some early upsets and a few stellar Cinderella performances gave me a pretty bad record on the year. So I've decided to set my sights a little closer to kick-off and highlight a couple of opening round matches that could really set the tone for the tournament.

Some might be the site of big upsets, others could lay the foundation for a valiant comeback, while the rest may launch the careers of a couple next-generation stars. Whatever the case, I hope these matches are as fun to watch as those we've seen in the past -- and maybe provide us a bit of a glimpse into the future.

So let's get right to it.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal might have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his section of the draw. The 2009 Melbourne champion shouldn't face any big threats in the early rounds. But elsewhere in his bracket, his colleagues may tell different stories.

World #7 and Auckland champion David Ferrer drew a resurging Jarkko Nieminen for his opener. Though they've both been around more than a decade, they've never met on the pro Tour -- the Finn won their only match at a Challenger event back in 2001. Once a top-fifteen player, Niemenen struggled with a wrist injury in '09 but started climbing out of the hole last year. He beat Gilles Simon in Hamburg and Tomas Berdych in Stockholm, but his year was highlighted by a runner's-up trophy in Bangkok. It wouldn't be out of the question to see an upset here, especially if the Spaniard is all all worn down by his title run this past week.

Elsewhere Feliciano Lopez meets Alejandro Falla, inexplicably ranked out of the top hundred, in his first match. The two are ostensibly clay court specialists, but remember that Falla was up two sets and a break against Roger Federer last year at Wimbledon, so he could be a threat on other surfaces too. He hasn't won a lot recently, but he just might surprise us here. And Michael Llodra, at his highest career ranking at thirty years of age, drew former #15 Juan Ignacio Chela to start -- in the battle of two veterans, I'm not sure I'd pick the seeded Frenchman to win.

But possibly the most intriguing match in this quarter will be between Kooyong exhibition winner Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, who took home the second place trophy in Auckland. The Australian has fallen out of the top fifty, but he's still cuts an intimidating figure in the sport. He leads the pair's head-to-head, but Nalbandian won their only match in the last five years. Given the way the Argentine has played during his comeback, I like his chances to win, but it could be a long couple sets before anything is decided.

The late-round match-to-watch: If seeds progress as they should, John Isner will meet Marin Cilic in the third round, two big men with big serves. I'm not sure either will get there -- Cilic has been struggling recently, while Isner is really only pulling out decisive wins over much-lower ranked players. But the winner of this potential match-up will at least boost his confidence for the rest of the year.

Second Quarter

While Rafa may have been dealt an easy first week, Roger Federer may have been dealt the opposite -- he could face Sydney champion Gilles Simon, in the top ten just about a year ago, or Yen-Hsun Lu, last year a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, in the second round. Then there's the match between Mardy Fish, one of my favorites to shine at the past U.S. Open, and Victor Hanescu. The Romanian can be tricky, and if Fish isn't fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered at the end of last year, he might have some trouble.

One match in which the chance for an upset is pretty high will be the one between Sam Querrey and Lukasz Kubot. Even though he's at an all-time career high ranking, the American has only won one match since the U.S. Open, squandering a top seed in Sydney this past week by falling in his opener. Kubot is ranked lower than anyone Sam's lost to recently, but that doesn't mean he won't set a new precedent. I'm hoping he gets it together to advance here, but I'm cautious on that prediction.

The late-round match-to-watch: Roger and Mardy are set up for a fourth round meeting, and if they both get there it would be fun to see a rematch of the Cincy finals. And if both Federer and Andy Roddick make good on their seedings, they could put forth a spectacular quarter.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic leads this section of the draw and might face his first test in the second round versus big-serving Ivo Karlovic, while sixth seed Tomas Berdych may have received a pass by receiving a qualifier in the first round.

But I'll be watching young American hopeful Ryan Harrison, who received the U.S. wildcard into the tournament. He displayed some promising signs of talent in New York last year, and I'd love to see him continue that momemtum. But the eighteen-year-old drew Auckland quarterfinalist Adrian Mannarino in the first round, and we certainly know he's capable of pulling off some upsets.

The match-up between Fabio Fognini and Kei Nishikori could also set off some sparks. Fognini has been slowly climbing the ranks, while Nishikori is trying to recapture the momentum he had before an elbow injury ended his run in 2009. They've both been pushed to fifth sets, and know how to hang in when needed, but if the man from Japan can get the win, I like the tone it would set for his year.

A bigger potential for a spoiler, though, might come from Davis Cup champ Viktor Troicki and Dmitry Tursunov, another rebuilding story. Sparse action from the Russian last year pushed him out of the top five hundred, but he's capable of doing damage at his best. He played some nice matches during his Asia circuit in 2010, and if Troicki's final run in Sydney this past week left him burnt out, it could present an opportunity for Tursunov to pounce.

The late-round match-to-watch: Nikolay Davydenko is seeded well below his talent level and, when playing at his best, he's far better than most of the men in his part of the draw. He might set up a quarterfinal with Djokovic that could hold a few surprises.

Fourth Quarter

Robin Soderling and Andy Murray have been trading off the #4 and #5 ranking the in sport for the past few months, so it's only fitting they end up in the same quarter in Melbourne. Though they both may get a few challenges from their early round opponents, neither should have too much trouble advancing.

I'm not sure the same can be said for thirteenth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who'll face an under-ranked Phillipp Petzschner for the second round. Another pair who've only met once in the Challengers, they could spend a long first day on the court. Tsonga made a nice run to the semis in Doha, so he seems to be back in playing shape, but the German has been known to take advantage of his opponents in the past and may not let the on-paper favorite get that far.

And Ernests Gulbis, who played well against Nadal in Doha and made the semis in Sydney, is one of those feisty up-and-comers who is just begging for a chance to impress at a Major. He'll first have to get through Benjamin Becker, a tricky player who has beaten higher ranks -- Nikolay Davydenko in Halle, Fernando Verdasco in Brisbane -- so it might not be the easiest walk in Melbourne Park. I'm not entirely encouraged by the Latvian's display of frustration at losing the lead against Gilles Simon this past week, but I'd like to see him really show what he's got on a big stage.

The late-round match-to-watch: 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro may have his comeback attempt thwarted early, as he has a second round date with Marcos Baghdatis. But the 2006 runner-up from Cyprus pulled out of Sydney with a groin injury, and if he's not up to snuff, it may work in the Argentine's favor.

The Women

First Quarter

If you're looking for first round upsets, this might be the quarter for them. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki drew top-ranked doubles player Gisela Dulko for her opener, while Hobart champion Jarmila Groth gets Auckland runner-up and twenty-first seed Yanina Wickmayer. I'm not sure the on-paper favorites will get out of either of those matches, though I'd love at least Caroline to prove me wrong.

I'll also be watching for follow-through from Dominika Cibulkova, who pulled off the upset of her young career when she beat Wozniacki handily in the second round of Sydney. She drew Angelique Kerber, who she's beaten in their only previous meeting. But the German defeated higher-ranked players throughout the back half of last year -- Shahar Peer at Wimbledon, Aggie Radwanska in Beijing, Daniela Hantuchova in Luxembourg -- so she might be able to handle the diminutive Slovak, who can be spotty if she loses focus.

The late-round match-to-watch: I don't know that we'd reach this point, but if the scores follow the seedings, last year's runner-up Justine Henin would face French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone for the quarterfinals. It could be fun to watch a grudge match between the four-time Roland Garros champ and the woman who took her place.

Second Quarter

Vera Zvonareva held on to the second seed -- and ranking -- by the slimmest of margins coming into the Australian Open, and she wasn't rewarded with an easy draw. She could face Sydney stand-out Bojana Jovanovski in the second round and any one of a host of potential threats -- Melanie Oudin, Klara Zakopalova, Lucie Safarova -- in the third.

More immediately, I'll be watching the early progress of top-ranked teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and last year's quarterfinalist Maria Kirilenko, both in this section. Pavs is the youngest seeded player in Melbourne, and though she retired from Hobart, it came on the heels of a semifinal run in Brisbane. And Kirilenko's 2010 performance in Melbourne launched her into the top echelons of the sport for the remainder of the year. Both will want to kick off their Major campaign on a good note and prove recent results were no fluke.

And I continue to root for the return of Anna Chakvetadze, who's pitted against Olga Govortsova in her first round. Anna's been ranked as high as #5 in the world and made the quarters in Australia back in 2007, but she's only won three Grand Slam matches in the last two years. If she's serious about reestablishing herself, she'll need to win at least a couple here.

The late-round match-to-watch: Fifth seed Sam Stosur didn't have the best start to the year, and with a potential third round match against Brisbane titleist Petra Kvitova -- who won their only previous meeting, albeit when neither was playing at her best -- she might be challenged to improve on it here. But I'm confident both will put up a fight for the win, and it could set an impressive stage for the rest of the year.

Third Quarter

In quite possibly the most interesting first round in either draw, two former #1's -- U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters and 2009 Australian runner-up Dinara Safina -- kick off play with their opener. Clijsters, who could have climbed to second in the world had she won her final against Na Li in Sydney, won this pair's most recent meeting last year in Cincinnati and leads their head-to-head by an intimidating 7-2 margin. Safina has the motivation to get back on a winning track, though -- she hasn't won a match since September, though to be fair she's been handed some pretty ugly draws -- and if Kim hasn't gotten over the emotionally frustrating loss on Friday, the Russian could take advantage.

Also in this quarter is another player once ranked at the top of the sport -- Ana Ivanovic has a rematch of her U.S. Open opener with Ekaterina Makarova and should dismiss her easily again. Then there's super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who faces an injured Aggie Radwanska to start, and could win her first main draw match in Melbourne since 1996. On the opposite side of the experience scale is nineteen-year-old former Junior star Simona Halep, a quarterfinalist in Auckland. She faces a qualifier in her Australian Open debut, and that could be a big opportunity for the youngster.

The late-round match-to-watch: One more former #1, Jelena Jankovic, could meet Sydney semifinalist Alisa Kleybanova for a spot in the quarters. The two have met a handful of times over the last twenty-four months and the lower seed actually has the advantage -- if they both make it that far, my money's on Kleybanova to extend her lead.

Fourth Quarter

Venus Williams leads this section of the draw, but battling injury, she might not be the biggest force in Australia. I don't know that she'll have a lot of trouble in her opener versus Sara Errani, but the Italian certainly has a chance. The bigger threat could come a few matches later, where she may run into Brisbane finalist Andrea Petkovic. And 2008 champ Maria Sharapova should have a relatively easy time against veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn, a woman to whom she's never dropped a set, and make it at least a few rounds further than she did last year.

I'm more interested in the outcome of the match between Aravane Rezai and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. The Frenchwoman did pull off an upset of Jelena Jankovic in Sydney, but hasn't made the third round of any tournament since July. Zahlavova, meanwhile, made the quarters in Brisbane and beat Nadia Petrova handily last week. This could be a match that either reestablishes a talent or sets the tone for a new one.

Waiting for the winner of that one could be 2009 quarterfinalist Jelena Dokic, who's been trying to mount a sustained comeback for the better part of two years. But she first has to get through thirty-year-old Zuzana Ondraskova, a been pro for over fifteen years who's never made a real dent on Tour. The winner of twenty ITF titles hasn't played the main draw in Melbourne in four years, and this could be a golden opportunity to finally advance.

The late-round match-to-watch: Victoria Azarenka, my early pick to win the title won't have to face Serena Williams for the fourth straight time in Melbourne, but she could face her sister for that elusive semi spot. But look out one round earlier than that, where Vika is slated to face Sydney champion and last year's surprise semifinalist Na Li. They've had three close matches in their previous meetings, and Li could pose a big obstacle for my prediction to ultimately come through.

With draws like these, it seems clear that almost anything can happen Down Under, and I'm sure we'll see far more surprises over the next two weeks than I've laid out here. Of course for every upset there has to be upsetter, so we shouldn't be too disappointed if our favorites don't make it out of the early rounds -- it only means that someone else has emerged as a new talent, at least for the time being.

And all we can do is cheer them on and hope they keep the excitement going.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I blogcast my full preview of the Australian Open and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's first Grand Slam.

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