January 20, 2011

A Chance to Break Through

We've reached that point in the Australian Open where, had there been no upsets, we'd see seeds play seeds across the board. But what fun would it be if there were no upsets? With so many of the sports top players dropping from the start, it's not only wreaked havoc with the draws, but given a couple lesser-known players a real chance to continue their early runs.

Twenty-three year old Monica Niculescu had only won one match in Melbourne before this year, but she downed a tough Timea Bacsinszky in the first round and followed it up by beating Wimbledon standout Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday. They might not have been the highest-ranked players, but with a third round match against a wholly beatable Francesca Schiavone, the Romanian might be able to make a big statement. It'll only get harder, of course, as one of two other Grand Slam champions -- Justine Henin or Svetlana Kuznetsova -- will be waiting in the wings, but for someone who's never won more than two matches at a Major, we're sure seeing some signs of progress.

World #46 Alexandr Dolgopolov is making his Australian Open debut, but he's been playing a lot of tennis recently. After making the quarters in Moscow and St. Petersburg to round out 2010, he romped Sam Querrey in Sydney. The Ukranian hasn't faced a seeded player yet -- his previous opponent took care of that for him -- but with a third round date with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man he took to five sets last year at Wimbledon, he's in a similar position to show his strength and potential. Like Niculescu, though, he could meet an even tougher opponent after that -- Robin Soderling should have no trouble advancing -- but if Dolgopolov is going to continue climbing the rankings, he'll have to face the best players.

Julia Goerges is ranked just outside of seeding territory, so it's not the biggest surprise that she's made it this far. But though she's riding a wave of momentum that scored her wins over Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic and Sam Stosur since the U.S. Open and even earned her first Tour trophy in Bad Gastein, she's never had much success at the big events. That could change though, as her next opponent, 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, is not looking quite as sharp as she once was. And with Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic likely to wear each other out to make the fourth round, it might be Julia's turn to pounce.

Japan's Kei Nishikori has been building himself back up, having dropped clear off the rankings when an elbow injury took him out of contention in 2009. He survived a feisty Fabio Fognini in his first round and withstood a bagel in the third set against Florian Mayer on Wednesday to lock in his best performance yet in Melbourne. And though he's got two top-ten players coming up -- Fernando Verdasco followed potentially by Tomas Berdych -- neither is playing his best tennis these days, and might be surprised in their runs.

The biggest on-paper upset so far this tournament has come from twenty-five year old Shuai Peng who withstood several comeback attempts from seventh-seeded Jelena Jankovic yesterday to make the third round Down Under. And for her efforts, she's rewarded with what could be the best prospects of the underdogs -- she owns a solid two-to-one career record over Ayumi Morita, who she'll face next, and could face either an ailing Aggie Radwanska or former Juniors champ Simona Halep after that. Despite her ten-plus years on Tour, Peng's never made the quarterfinals at a Slam, and I've got to like her chances now.

It's always nice -- and sometimes commonplace -- to see some new faces emerge at the Majors, but these guys in particular have the added fortune of a fairly clear path for at least the next few rounds. I'm not saying they'll win the whole thing, but it sure is a great way to start the year.

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

I probably should have included the amazing Milos Raonic in this list. The 20-year-old qualifier was solid against Llodra on Thursday and has served more aces than any player still alive in the draw. He's more than capable against Mikhail Youzhny, who was pushed to five in his second round, and could even take the Ferrer/Berankis winner.