January 29, 2012

Melbourne Supremacy

It's hard to pick the word to best describe what went down at the Australian Open men's final on Sunday. Epic? Gutsy? Brilliant? Inspiring? Just plain long?

It was at once all those things, and probably a great deal more.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the two best athletes in the sport over the last twelve months, took the court in their third consecutive Grand Slam final, ironically the first time they'd ever met in Melbourne. The top-ranked Serb came in the defending champion, twice before a winner here, while the Spaniard, himself the titleist here in 2009, had made it past the quarterfinals for the first time since. He was better rested, some would argue, having an extra day's rest after his fairly routine defeat of Roger Federer in the semis -- Novak had just endured a nail-biting five setter against Andy Murray on Friday night, one which took just shy of five hours to complete. But from the get-go neither showed any signs of fatigue.

Nadal started off strong, dropping just one point in his first two service games and earning the first break to go up 2-3. But he struggled to consolidate the next game and ended up allowing Nole to draw back even a few minutes later. He ultimately closed out the set, but Djokovic turned the tables on the world #2 for the next two hours, cleaning up his errors, finding every angle and winning all but two points on serve in the third set. When the fourth began, it looked like all the momentum was squarely in his court, but Nadal remained strong. Neither allowed a break opportunity in that set, and after nearly an hour and a half -- and a ten minute delay during which the roof over Rod Laver Arena was closed for rain -- a reinvigorated Spaniard ran off with the tiebreak and forced the pair's first five setter in thirty meetings.

The decider seemed to be going in his favor too. Rafa was able to run his opponent around the court better early, took advantage of what seemed to be flagging energy from the Serb. On his first break chance since the second set, Nadal watched a Djokovic forehand sail long and looked to be in control again. But after building a lead in the next game, he missed the line on what should have been an easy shot and wasn't able to consolidate. When Djokovic broke again to take a 6-5 lead, Rafa was unable to convert an opportunity to draw back even the next game, and after nearly six hours -- the longest match ever at a Major final -- Nole was finally able to repeat: both as champion and as Nadal's newest, and possibly most irksome, foil.

Now three of Djokovic's five Major titles have come Down Under -- that's just one short of Roger Federer's and Andre Agassi's Open Era record, and playing the best tennis of his life at just twenty-four years of age, you have to think there's more to come. It sure seems like Melbourne has become his home away from home, the place he made his first big breakthrough in 2008, the place he continues to make a stand today.

But his performance here is even more impressive than that -- he's now solidly beaten every man in the top five at the Australian Open, some in convincing form, others after surviving prolonged battles, often with little time to rest between. So far he's been able to translate that into success at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- the trophy at Roland Garros is probably not far away. And by continuing the domination he began here last year, it'll be difficult for almost anyone else to make a dent in his force.

January 28, 2012

"What Happened?"

Those were the words we saw Victoria Azarenka say after she fell to her knees Saturday night in Melbourne. What had happened was that she had just become the 2012 Australian Open champion and the brand new #1 female tennis player in the world.

But despite her disbelief -- "I don't know what's going on," and "I don't understand," were her other reactions -- this was not something that just "happened", but rather something that's been in the works for quite some time. Making her seventh appearance in the main draw here -- the first a year after she won the Juniors' title in 2005 -- Vika has always done well Down Under. For three straight years she lost to Serena Williams, twice after winning the first set. She was my early pick to take this title two years in a row, but some tough draws at the Majors, a few emotional meltdowns, and a couple problems enduring long matches in extreme heat kept her from ever making a real push at the Slams. Despite all her strengths she her first semi came just last June at the All England Club, but she lost a tough three-setter to eventual Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova.

She's finally had her breakthrough, though. Coming to Melbourne only days after winning the title in Sydney, she was in danger of suffering from fatigue, as she has in the past. But a more fit, mentally stable Azarenka seemed no worse for the wear from the get-go. She lost just twelve games in her first four rounds, holding serve straight through the quarters. She dropped a tiebreak to Aggie Radwanska and struggled a bit, but eventually closed out, against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis. In her first Slam final she was the on-paper favorite against three-time Major champion Maria Sharapova, but pundits all wondered if the once-volatile Azarenka would succumb to nerves on the big court.

At first it sure looked like that would be the case. Sharapova opened by breaking the upstart's serve and consolidated for a two-game lead. But the tables turned quickly once Vika finally got on the board. She broke Maria at love in the fourth game and came back from game points down in the eighth to finally get ahead. She faced a couple break points in the second set, but some powerful groundstrokes and a nearly immaculate game never allowed the Russian to get back in the match. From three-all in the opener, Azarenka rattled off nine straight games, delivering the first bagel set in a Major final since Serena Williams did it to Dinara Safina here three years ago. With it came her maiden Grand Slam, the top ranking, and possibly a new era in the women's sport.

It's taken some time for the new guard in tennis to really assert themselves. But now with Azarenka and Wimbledon's Kvitova breaking through, even while the previous generation's stars are still out and fighting, it could very well be their time to shine. For now, though, the spotlight has shifted its focus squarely on the twenty-two year old from Belarus, and something tells me, the way she's playing, it might stay there awhile.

January 27, 2012

A Lot on the Line

The finals are set down in Melbourne, and despite upsets on both sides of the draw throughout the past two weeks, it sure seems like the best players have survived. And it's a good thing, too -- for some reason this year it seems like there's a lot more at stake than just a trophy or two.

For the women one thing's clear -- the winner of Saturday's final will rise to #1 in the sport, and people will finally stop complaining the top-ranked player doesn't hold a Grand Slam title.

Maria Sharapova's been there before, of course, first rising to the top spot back in mid-2005, but it's been a while since she's really seemed on her game. The last of her three Major titles came exactly four years ago when she was just twenty-years old, and after shoulder surgery sidelined her for the back half of that season, she fell out of the top hundred. She's clearly had a good twelve months, though, winning premier titles in Rome and Cincinnati and getting back to the final last year at Wimbledon. But a trophy here would truly cement her comeback, and the way she's been playing -- dropping sets only to up-and-comer Sabine Lisicki and her All England Club vanquisher Petra Kvitova -- it's certainly in her sights.

She'll first have to get through first-time Slam finalist Victoria Azarenka though, and my pick at the start of the year to bring home this trophy has had her own career-making run the last few months. After returning to the winner's circle in Miami -- by beating MaSha, by the way -- she picked up another two titles in 2011, came in second at the year-end finals, and kicked off this season with a trophy in Sydney. Hopefully after dominating her early round opponents and dismissing defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis, she won't suffer a letdown Saturday -- she has the chops to beat Sharapova, as long as she doesn't let her nerves get in the way.

One thing worth noting, though -- if Vika wins the title and breaks the Grand Slam seal, she'll earn enough points to keep her far ahead of next week's #2 Kvitova. If MaSha gets the win, however, she'll have less than two hundred points more than Azarenka. That means it may only take a few tournaments more for the Belorussian to eclipse her -- and with the French Open still four months away, Vika could very well surpass her before she gets another chance to win that maiden Major. So that little respite we get from hearing about the Slam-less #1 may be pretty short-lived, and could soon have another target.

The top spot on the men's side won't be up for grabs this weekend, but there's something just as important at stake in their final -- pride.

Defending champion Novak Djokovic comes back to Melbourne after a whirlwind year brought him ten titles and three Grand Slams along with the #1 ranking. After coming back on Friday from a one-to-two set deficit against Andy Murray, my reluctant pick to win the trophy, he's gone a long way to show that last year was no fluke -- and that he's not quite yet in danger of burning out. He'll have a little less time to recover from his semi, but something tells me he'll put up just as big a fight on Sunday.

His opponent will have something to say about that, of course. The champion here in 2009, Rafael Nadal has lost his last six meetings with Nole -- all in finals, the last two at Slams -- and will want to prove his contemporary doesn't, in fact, have his number. It's another ironic situation, considering how Rafa has dominated his biggest rival Roger Federer over the last eight years, yet continues to regard him as the "Greatest of all Time". It won't be an easy win for the Spaniard -- this is his first trip past the quarters Down Under since that title run -- and Nole seems to be much more comfortable on this particular court. But if he can pull off a win over his newest adversary this time around, it could set the stage for quite the interesting year.

They might not be the match-ups we expected to see come championship weekend in Melbourne, but any of these four players have spent the last fortnight proving they deserve to be here. And after their struggles, their breakthroughs and their triumphs, they should each be proud of what they've accomplished.

Still, getting that one more win will certainly be icing on their 2012 Aussie Open cake.

January 25, 2012

1, 2, 3, 4?

We're down to the final four at this year's Australian Open, and for the fourth time since 2008 it'll be a familiar set of faces battling for the men's crown. It's the top men still left standing as we enter the semis -- their rankings and opponents have been shuffled around a bit, though, and that could lead to a few more sparks than we might otherwise expect.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer kick off semifinal action on Thursday, the first time they've met before the championship round of a Major since 2005. Of course, the Spaniard leads the pair's overall head-to-head, winning nearly two-thirds of their meetings, but Roger holds the slight edge on hard courts and won their last battle at the 2011 year-end finals.

There were some clouds over their heads coming into this tournament -- Nadal struggled with a knee injury and the Swiss withdrew before his semi in Doha -- but both have been dominant in their matches down in Melbourne. Though Rafa lost a set to Tomas Berdych in their quarterfinal on Tuesday, neither have given any of their opponents much of a look so far this fortnight. Then again, neither have been given any challenges quite as tough as each other to date.

That should change on Thursday, though. The last time the two met in Australia -- in that amazing 2009 final -- we were treated to an epic four-hour, twenty-minute, five-set thriller which earned Nadal his first hardcourt Slam. But he hasn't made it back to the semis since, and something tells me we might be in for a different result this time around. Roger ended 2011 with one of the hottest streaks on Tour, and having gone almost two years now without a Major title, you have to think pure hunger will drive him to a win. And if he gets it, there may be no stopping him.

Of course there will be the other semifinal survivor to contend with. On Friday defending champion Novak Djokovic will face last year's runner-up Andy Murray in a rematch of the 2011 final, only one round earlier. It'll be the pair's eleventh career meeting, with the world #1 currently holding a 6-4 edge, but they're dead even on this surface. Somewhat surprisingly, though, this will be only their second battle at a Slam, and these days it's the Serb who has all the experience there.

But the Scot might not be in for a total repeat of last year's thrashing. Murray had the lead on Nole in the Cincinnati finals this past August, and probably would have won the match even if Djokovic hadn't retired. And he's coming off a title in Brisbane -- along with the three Asia trophies he earned to end last season -- so he's arguably riding the other big momentum wave in the sport. Meanwhile, after his amazing run last year, I'm frankly a little surprised Nole has any juice left in him. But both have been equally dominant so far Down Under, and there's no telling what they'll be capable of while playing at their best.

All four of these guys have been at the top of the game for so long, and are so familiar with each other's games, that there's no way to say for sure who'll come out on top. Of course, I grudgingly picked Murray to ultimately walk away with the title, and even with the depth of experience left in the draw, that very well could still happen. And the next few days of play could set the stage for an even bigger shake-up at the top of this sport over the next few months.

January 23, 2012

Where Things Get Interesting...

Well this is hardly the women's quarterfinal we were expecting to see in Melbourne.

If you thought Kim Clijsters would have survived the rematch of last year's final with Na Li, you probably didn't think she'd have to save four match points to do it. If your money was on Maria Sharapova to stage her Grand Slam comeback, you might have given up hope after she lost six games in a row -- and a two-break lead -- against Sabine Lisicki in their first set last night. If you didn't think Serena Williams was going to win the whole thing, you probably at least thought she'd still be standing today, even if she'd had to "upset" seventh seeded Vera Zvonareva in the round of sixteen.

As it stands now only two of those three remain in the draw, and the battles everyone has been through could mean we're in for even more surprises.

Of course, the big surprise in this year's play has been the emergence of twenty-three year old Ekaterina Makarova, once ranked as high as #29 in the world but for now out of the top fifty. After upsetting my black horse Kaia Kanepi in her opener, she went on to take out Zvonareva in the third round and then, to the shock and awe of the tennis world, drubbed Serena on Monday, breaking the American's big serve five times.

You might think she'd be exhausted by now, that she has to run out of steam eventually, and against veteran countrywoman Sharapova in the next round, she'll surely be done for. But Makarova's only title, Eastbourne in 2010, came when she beat five top-twenty players in a row -- after she'd already battled through the qualifying rounds. So she's certainly capable of pulling off a few more, especially with a day of rest in between. Still, you have to like Sharapova's chances in the next round. Though she was put to the test Monday, ultimately her experience helped pull her past the big-hitting Lisicki, and with the draw now much more open for her, she now has a tremendous opportunity to return to the winner's circle here.

She'll probably have to contend with her Wimbledon vanquisher Petra Kvitova first, though. The Czech, who has the #1 ranking in her sights, has been playing more consistently than anyone this past week, and after a small hiccup against Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round she has never looked back. She'll meet the other Cinderella of this tournament in the quarters, Sara Errani. Though the Italian's only met one seeded player on the way to her first even Major quarterfinal, she staged a huge comeback against Sorana Cirstea in the third round and soundly defeated 2010 semifinalist Jie Zheng early Monday -- she might be able to put up just as big a fight against the heavy favorite.

The other half of the draw has played out much more according to plan. Victoria Azarenka and Aggie Radwanska both efficiently worked through their matches, setting up the only quarter where the expected seeds survived. The Belarusian is the on-paper favorite, and with a 6-3 record against the eighth seed, she has history on her side. But Radwanska did beat her next opponent on the way to her title in Tokyo last year, so anything is possible.

All of that maneuvering, though, may have opened the door widest for current world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, dogged for the better part of the last year for holding the ranking while going noticeably Slam-less. Yes, she next faces defending champion Clijsters in her quarterfinal match, a woman she's never beaten and only taken one set from. But after the veteran's tumble on Sunday, one which nearly lost her the match, Wozniacki is arguably the more fit of the two. And if she can move even slightly better than her far-more-experienced rival when they meet Tuesday, she might very well cause the non-paper upset -- and given the way her half of the draw has unfolded, that could be a ticket right to her second Major final.

So it sure looks like Serena's early exit has really wreaked havoc on the women's draw in Melbourne -- it may let some old hands rise back to the top, or it could give the new guard a chance to shine. But it won't be the only factor which determines this year's champion. If any of these ladies play their cards right, it could mean a big breakthrough.

January 21, 2012

The Quiet Killers

There are a whole lot of headline-grabbing questions flying this year at the Australian Open. Will Novak Djokovic repeat as champion? Can Serena Williams return to the winner's podium? Will Roger Federer win another Slam? Can world #1 Caroline Wozniacki silence her critics and finally win a Major? Will Australian upstart Bernard Tomic continue his win streak in the second week? But while most of our attention has been focused on the glamourous stories of this fortnight, a couple players are quietly grinding through their draws without making any fuss -- and they might just take us for a bigger rise as we head into week two.

Jelena Jankovic made the semifinals in Melbourne back in 2008, but has struggled Down Under since. The former #1 fell out of the top ten last year and went title-less for the first time since 2006. But she's been unstoppable so far here, dropping just two games in each of her first and third rounds and staying aggressive. Although she's made way more errors than winners, JJ has kept her first serve percentage high and won the majority of her net approaches. It'll get tougher here on out, of course -- with a fourth round date with Caroline Wozniacki, who's won their last three meetings, she's going to have to raise her game. But if she can take advantage of her opponent's vulnerabilities, she could ride the momentum a few rounds more.

In the same half of the draw Aggie Radwanska, a player with one of the hottest ends to 2011 on Tour, has also been slowly dismantling her challengers. Though she dropped her opening set to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she did so after digging herself out of a two-break deficit. She's been much more solid since, losing serve only once in her next two matches and eliminating talented Kazakh Galina Voskoboeva in just over an hour. She meets twenty-second seed Julia Goerges for the first time in the fourth round, but the German, much more of a force on clay, shouldn't be too much of a problem. If Aggie is able to make the quarters, it might just give her the confidence she needs to make a real play for the title.

The men's bracket has some similarly under-appreciated forces still in the draw. One-time Wimbledon finalist flew a bit under the radar last year but managed a trip to the semis in London and beat higher-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsgona and Andy Murray at tournaments late into the fall. The seventh seed in Melbourne made the quarters in 2011, and he might be in a good position to improve on that -- after dropping a set to a tricky Albert Ramos in his opener, he hasn't lost serve since. He withstood sixteen aces from mighty Kevin Anderson on Friday and earned the right to meet fellow under-the-radar player Nicolas Almagro in the sweet sixteen. The Czech has a 4-2 record over the tenth seed, but they've only met once on a hard court, and something tells me his serve and return will get the job done.

Two-time Auckland champion David Ferrer has had a few more scares than his colleagues over his first three rounds but, still standing, he might be in better shape now. He survived a three-and-a-half hour slugfest against American Ryan Sweeting in the first round and found himself down 0-4 early to Juan Ignacio Chela on Friday. But he battled out of the hole and ultimately finished off the match in straight sets. Next up for last year's semifinalist will be France's Richard Gasquet, a man he's lost to only once in their six previous meetings. They haven't met since 2009, but the fifth seed should still be the favorite, and if he is able to set up the likely match with Novak Djokovic in the quarters, he has the confidence of a London win over the world #1 to help him go even farther.

For all these guys it might be a bit of a blessing that the Australian Open spotlight has shifted away from them -- with all the attention focused elsewhere, there's much less chance they'll fold under the pressure. Sure, if they keep up their winning ways, they'll inevitably find themselves on center stage eventually. And perhaps when they get there, they'll be able to take everyone by surprise.

January 19, 2012

Holes in the Draws

With four days, two rounds and almost two hundred matches under our belts we've reached that point in a Grand Slam draw where, had everything gone according to plan, the longest shots for the title have been eliminated and we're left just with seeds playing seeds. But things seldom, if ever, work out that way -- and this year's action at the Australian Open has already cleared the path to opportunity. And not just for the favorites who've survived.

Somewhat surprisingly, the top section of the women's draw remains relatively unharmed -- Caroline Wozniacki battled through wrist injury to make the third round, and former #1 Jelena Jankovic has so far been solid. The only non-seed to battle through their immediate section of the bracket is American Chrstina McHale, currently ranked #42 in the world. She's certainly the underdog, but could very well take advantage of JJ's spottiness in their next match, and after her win over Wozniacki in Cincinnati last year, she should have the confidence to beat her again if that meeting comes to pass.

Galina Voskoboeva may have found herself a similar opportunity. The veteran Kazakh has never gotten past the third round of a Major, but after trouncing Hobart runner-up Yanina Wickmayer in her opener and edging out former #31 Tsvetana Pironkova a match later, she might be in the position to do that now. On Friday she'll meet Aggie Radwanska, a tough and improving player, but one that is certainly capable of being upset. And with either recently-quiet Julia Goerges or world #80 Romina Oprandi waiting for her in the round of sixteen, the door might be open for the twenty-seven year old to pull through.

Of course, upsets and breakthroughs have thinned out the draws for some ladies. Marion Bartoli is the only seed remaining in her section of the draw, and with U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur summarily ousted in the first round, she's the heavy on-paper favorite. But one-time world #15 Jie Zheng is playing well above her ranking and, coming off a title in Auckland, has shown she's capable of beating the top players. The twenty-eight year old beat Bartoli on her way to the semifinals here in 2010, so she has experience on her side. And with the potential of a fourth round meeting against Sorana Cirstea or Sara Errani, I wouldn't be surprised to see her go farther.

It's not all bad news for the favorites, though. My pick to win the title, Victoria Azarenka, may have the most thinned out draw of the bunch. Her fiercest competition could come in the third round from Mona Barthel, a twenty-one year old who had never been ranked in the top fifty before her surprise run to the Hobart title last week. But with Iveta Benesova and Nina Bratchikova taking out the other two seeds in her week-one path, you have to like her chances to keep her streak going at least a few rounds longer.

Things have opened up on the men's side too. Kei Nishikori, seeded for the first-time at a Major, should have met Gilles Simon in his third round, but after the twelfth seed lost a late-night battle on Thursday, he'll instead get a less formidable opponent in Julien Benneteau. The veteran Frenchman shouldn't be ignored, of course -- he beat four higher-ranked opponents on his way to the Sydney final last week -- but for a man still getting his bearings as part of the sport's elite, Nishikori might be breathing a little lighter.

After the loss of Mardy Fish on Wednesday took the last seed out of his section of the bracket, Juan Martin Del Potro also could benefit from a slightly depleted draw. The 2009 U.S. Open champion, who fell in the second round here last year, next faces world #79 Yen-Hsun Lu, who's never made it past the third round here. His biggest threat will likely come a round later from veteran Phillipp Kohlschreiber, but if the Argentine is playing at even close to his best, he has more than a good shot of getting back to the quarters.

But, like with the women, a couple underdogs are seeing less treacherous paths too. Bernard Tomic cleared much of the way himself, stunning Fernando Verdasco in a four-hour first round, then ousting former top-twenty player Sam Querrey two days later. He'll meet last year's Cinderella quarterfinalist Alexandr Dolgopolov on Friday, a man he's never beaten before. But the Australian will have the crowd on his side during this match and, playing better ball than he has in the past, might just cause the upset. His reward would most likely be a fourth-round match against Roger Federer, so Tomic shouldn't get his hopes up too high, but if he keeps improving his play, it won't be long before he's getting wins over these top guys.

Of course everything's far from certain -- even for the players who should win their next few rounds in Melbourne. But with opportunities opening up all over the place this year, there may never have been a better chance to make a real statement.

January 17, 2012

Trying to Squeak By

The first round of this year's Australian Open is in the books and, as should be expected, it's not been without its surprises, its upsets and its close calls. And while some players might be breathing a sigh of relief today, others haven't been so lucky.

The Close Calls

Donald Young isn't seeded in Melbourne, but he comes to the fourth Australian Open of his career with a lot of expectations. After his deep run in New York, he's risen to the #4 U.S. player and could hold the mantle for the next generation of the country's stars. He didn't get off to the best start, though, against German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, ranked #248 in the world. After taking the first two sets in less than an hour, Young started to struggle -- he dropped serve three times in the third set and only won thirteen points in the fourth. He was finally able to right the ship in the decider, winning just the second five-set match of his career in a relatively quick two and half hours.

Marcel Granollers may not have a ton of expectations on him, but the twenty-sixth seed -- only the second time he's earned the "safety net" at a Major -- will want to prove he deserves the distinction. He ended 2011 on a high note, beating four top-twenty players to take the title in Valencia, but lost his first match of the year in Sydney. Against wildcard Jesse Levine in his opener, he seemed to be off to a good start, serving a first-set bagel to the American in just eighteen minutes. But Levine raised his game after that and after another three hours of play was able to force a fifth set. It might have been a bit too much for him at that point, though -- the Spaniard only dropped six points on serve in the last set, surviving a four hour slugfest and earning his way back into the second round.

Things got a little hairy for thirteenth seed Alexandr Dolgopolov during his opener. The surprise quarterfinalist here last year has a ton of points at stake in Melbourne and, despite a final run in Brisbane, has been less than stellar in his recent matches. He found himself in a hole early against Australia's own Greg Jones, losing the first two sets in just over an hour. But he cleaned up his game once the third started, winning more than ninety percent of his first serves in the back half. He didn't cede a single point on serve in the fifth and, after a rocky start, closed out the match with forty-six winners to his opponent's twenty-nine.

Veteran Gilles Simon was also taken to task by a qualifier. Thailand's Dabau Udomchoke lost the first set, but capitalized on a slew of errors from the Frenchman to take a 2-1 set lead. But the world #201 eventually succumbed to the pressure of his more-experienced opponent. Simon kept the qualifier to less than fifty percent on his serve, converted on all five of his break opportunities, and after three hours and twenty minutes was finally the victor.

It wasn't just the men who struggled in their early matches, of course. Sabine Lisicki was the comeback story of 2011, but she struggled with injury again this year, retiring in Auckland with an ab strain. She looked to be in trouble against qualifier Stefanie Voegele Tuesday, too, dropping the second set and getting down a break in the third. In the hot Melbourne sun, she called for a trainer after the fifth game and was treated for what turned out to be a headache. After losing the next game, she powered back in style to take the next four, winning the set and the match after more than two hours.

Vera Zvonareva, a semifinalist here last year, drew a tough opening round opponent in Alexandra Dulgheru. The twenty-two year old Romanian was once ranked #26 in the world, but hasn't gotten past the second round of a Major since 2010. She brought her A-game against Zvonareva, though, trading breaks in a seventy-minute first set before losing the tiebreak, and forcing the Russian to go the distance when she won the second breaker after another hour-plus of play. But Bepa finally took control in the third set, winning all but three of her first serves and holding herself to just seven unforced errors, eking out the win after more than three hours.

Eighth seeded Aggie Radwanska was on court almost as long. Finding herself down two breaks against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first round, she fought her way to a tiebreak, one that lasted twenty-two points and ultimately secured a lead for the American. But the Pole, a semifinalist in Sydney earlier this month and a three-time titleist late last year, turned the tables on the former top-thirty player. She played immaculately the last two sets, committing only five unforced errors, compared to thirty-two from Mattek-Sands, to keep her title hopes alive.

The Upsets

It's not good news for everyone, of course. And while all these guys snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, others couldn't quite hold onto their life buoys.

Fernando Verdasco put up one of the best fights in Australian Open history three years back, and just last year survived a near-four hour battle with Janko Tipsarevic in the second round here. He would not be so successful this year. Against barely unseeded Bernard Tomic, Australia's greatest hope for their next big star, the Spaniard got off on the right foot, taking a two set lead. But the rising star turned the tables in the third, converting on his only break chance. About a half hour later Tomic had successfully forced a fifth set, and though both players kept their serving solid, the Australian never allowed Verdasco to make a dent when returning. With a margin of just five points in his favor that set, Tomic eventually stood as winner.

The scales were much more unbalanced in the biggest upset on the women's side so far. U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur is the hometown favorite in Australia, and had the slimmest of chances of being ranked #1 in the world at the end of this fortnight. All those hopes were shattered on Tuesday, however, when the #6 seed ran into Romanian Sorana Cirstea. The two first met in the 2009 French Open quarterfinal, and their careers have taken decidedly different paths -- though Cirstea seems to have peaked shortly thereafter and fallen since, Stosur has produced some of her best tennis in the years that followed -- but that didn't seem to matter much in their first round match. Cirstea toughed out a long first set, finally taking the lead after winning the tiebreak. She did even better in the second, committing fewer errors and taking heavy advantage of mediocre serving from the favorite. With the loss, Stosur falls to a 1-3 record on the year, not exactly what you'd expect from the woman who seemed unstoppable just a few months back in New York.

We've just seen two days worth of action in Melbourne, so there's sure to be more surprises in store. Whether the guys and gals who just edged out their early opponents will see their roads get easier or more rocky is still unknown, but it sure looks like there's potential for a couple more fireworks these next two weeks.

And for those who've had an easy time of things so far, they might take note that these players will be out fighting to make sure their efforts so far were not in vain.

January 14, 2012

Australian Open: Draw Analysis

It's that time of year again -- just a day or so away from the first Grand Slam of the year, and we're all scouring the drawsheets to see how easy, or how hard, our favorite players will have it over the next two weeks. There will of course be many challenges along the way, but there may be a couple opportunities too. And this year, I'm going to try to give you a heads up as to where the biggest surprises are likely to come from -- quarter by quarter.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Defending champion Novak Djokovic returns to Melbourne as the on-paper favorite, and if your votes are any indication, he's the sentimental favorite as well. He didn't exactly end 2011 the way he started it, though, going one-for-three in London, failing even to get out of the round robins. But the two-time winner in Australia should have an easy first couple rounds this year -- he kicks off against world #108 Paolo Lorenzi, and the highest ranked opponent in his immediate section of the draw is only twenty-ninth seed Radek Stepanek.

That's not to say things will be easy in Nole's quarter. David Ferrer leads the bottom half of this bracket -- straight off his second title in Auckland, the Spaniard looks to improve on his semifinal showing from last year. He had a strong end to 2011 too, beating both Djokovic and Andy Murray at the year-end championships and surviving a nail-biting five-setter against Juan Martin Del Potro in the Davis Cup final. His biggest challenge early in Melbourne may come from Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round, but still look for Ferrer to live up to his fifth seeding, at least in the first week

One of the most interesting potential matches ups lies in this quarter too. Andy Roddick should play wildcard Lleyton Hewitt in the second round -- neither veteran is playing at the top of his game, though the American is holding onto the fifteenth seed. In the decade-plus they've played each other, they've had some classic matches, but after losing their first seven meetings, Roddick has won the last six. It would be interesting to see what time has done to their rivalry.

There could be some other surprises lurking here. Janko Tipsarevic, coming off the best year of his career, is pitted against tough-as-nails Dmitry Tursunov. The Russian's on the comeback trail, but seemed to be getting back in the swing of things when last season ended. And Mikhail Youzhny, just out of seeding territory, could cause some upsets the first week, while Milos Raonic, last year's standout here, is back in form and could easily outperform his ranking.

Who'll survive? Odds are on Djokovic battling through the challenges, but watch for Raonic giving him a hard time in the fourth round.

Second Quarter

It's weird that I never really give the 2009 champion in Melbourne much consideration at the start of the year, but Rafael Nadal looks healthy enough to cause some damage here, and he has a pretty good draw with which to do it. First up is qualifier Alex Kuznetsov, and then the possibility of a fun second round against gorgeous Tommy Haas. Tomas Berdych, in the top half of this part of the bracket, hasn't been as impressive as he was a few years back, so at least the technical threats for Rafa are pretty low.

That doesn't mean we won't be in for some fireworks, though. Donald Young, who beat a couple seeds at his last Major in New York, is one of those guys likely to take his anger at losing the first round in Auckland and transform it into big things here. He faces another qualifier Peter Gogowcyzk, and potentially Ivan Ljubicic, but very well could be the Cinderella third round opponent for Nadal.

The section right above them is even more interesting -- John Isner, Feliciano Lopez, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko all headline. Also keep an eye out for Marcos Baghdatis, who defeated Juan Martin Del Potro in Sydney, and under-the-radar tenth seed Nicolas Almagro, who drew a rematch of his Roland Garros first round against Lukasz Kubot, a match which lasted five sets and nearly four hours. All these guys are big talents, capable of putting up long, grueling battles, so if they don't tire each other out early, any of them could pose a threat down the road. Otherwise, we might be in for some long nights.

Who'll survive? Watch the grunts do the dirty work during the first week, allowing Nadal to emerge relatively unscathed this quarter.

Third Quarter

Four-time champion Roger Federer might be breathing a sigh of relief -- after pulling out of Doha, only the second time he's ever withdrawn from a tournament in his career, I was a little worried he might not be able to continue the streak with which he ended 2011. But with a opening round match against Alexander Kudryavtsev and a second round against either world #92 Andreas Beck or #96 Eric Prodon, his first few days in Melbourne should be relatively routine.

There are more interesting early match-ups in this quarter, though. Jurgen Melzer, in the top ten just a year ago, will meet big-serving Ivo Karlovic to start -- he's won all four of their previous matches, but the Croat is certainly one capable of causing upsets. And Fernando Verdasco, one-half of one of the best matches ever played here, drew hometown favorite Bernard Tomic, one of those upstarts primed for a big run at a Slam. It might be a tougher start to his 2012 Melbourne run than the Spaniard wants.

But potentially the biggest spoiler here will be Juan Martin Del Potro, slated to meet Mardy Fish in the fourth round and, should he make it through, Federer in the quarters. The Argentine is the eleventh seed here, but we all know he's capable of much better. After missing much of 2010 with injury, he didn't make much of a dent in the Majors last year, but he's been improving his game quietly and, though he still holds losing records against both these opponents, he might be able to surprise us.

Who'll survive? If I were betting real money, I'd go with Roger, but since I got nothing riding on this, let's have a little fun and help Del Potro pull through.

Fourth Quarter

After his title in Brisbane -- and his end to 2011 -- big things will be expected from last year's runner up Andy Murray. It's a little unfortunate (for Americans, at least) that he drew young up-and-comer Ryan Harrison in the first round. Harrison's had some good showings at the Majors -- he beat then world #17 Ivan Ljubicic in the 2010 U.S. Open -- but has also had some tough luck -- Marin Cilic last year in New York, Robin Soderling in Paris -- and hasn't been able to make another breakthrough. And the way Murray's playing these days, it looks like Ryan will have to wait a few more months to have his next one.

The bigger threat to the world #4 will come later in the tournament. Gael Monfils, who's somehow never made it past the fourth round here, is one of those sleeper threats and has the potential to meet Murray before the first week is out. After beating Rafael Nadal in Doha, he's got confidence on his side, and could push through this time around.

And don't forget Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, clearly a contender for the Greatest Momentum award. After making the finals in Paris and London, he took the title in Doha earlier this month. His early rounds shouldn't present too much trouble, with his most immediate on-paper challenge coming from Marcel Granollers, the twenty-sixth seed in Melbourne. Though the Spaniard did have a nice run to take the Valencia title in November, he's much more a threat on a different surface, so the Frenchman shouldn't be worried.

There's the potential for some fun first rounds here. Viktor Troicki meets veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero to open, and though the Spaniard is probably on the tail-end of his career, he's always capable of surprising us. And Michael Llodra and Ernests Gulbis, neither a seed, both have the potential to do big things. The Latvian, still recovering from injury it seems, has more talent than he's shown recently, and if he's in form could cause his own share of upsets.

Who'll survive? Murray's the favorite, of course, but something tells me this could be Tsonga's year to shine.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki held onto the #1 seed and #1 ranking in Melbourne by the slimmest of margins, and with the wrist injury she sustained in Sydney putting her performance here in question, it'll be a shock if she keeps it by the time February rolls around. Still, she was gifted a bit of a breather early in Melbourne. First round opponent Anastasia Rodionova only won more than two main-draw matches at two events last year, and though Anna Tatishvili, my pick for player to watch this year, could cause some problems as a potential second round, the Dane should be able to get through.

Last year's runner-up Na Li has a slightly tougher opener against Ksenia Pervak, last year's winner in Tashkent. Currently ranked #40 in the world, the Kazakh might be able to pull through in Melbourne. An even bigger challenge looms a few rounds later, with Kim Clijsters, Li's vanquisher last year, her most likely fourth round opponent. Kim retired from her semifinal in Brisbane, but is one of those players that doesn't lie down quietly, so she should outperform her #11 seed.

Kim might face a rematch with Daniela Hantuchova -- the woman who benefited from her injury two weeks back -- in the third round here. Often a spotty player, the Slovak is showing signs of strength already this year, having followed up her Brisbane showing by defeating Roberta Vinci and Francesca Schiavone in Sydney. I don't expect her to cause an upset, but she might be able to put up a much better fight this time.

But also keep an eye out for Christina McHale's, pitted against feisty Lucy Safarova in the first round. This is a tough one for me, since I'm a fan of both ladies, but McHale has proven she's a tough contender at the Majors, and might be able to put some chinks in the Czech's armor if given the chance.

Who'll survive? I'd love to see Caro prove all her detractors wrong, but if it comes down to a battle between her and Clijsters in the quarters, there's little chance Kim will let her get by.

Second Quarter

World #2 Petra Kvitova hasn't lost a lot of matches recently, and though she fell short of claiming the top spot when she fell in the Sydney semis, she's still one of the favorites here. She should have an easy first round against Vera Dushevina, but have a little more trouble against one of 2011's top newcomers, Irina-Camelia Begu a match later. Still, with her first seeded threat coming from Russia's Maria Kirilenko, there isn't much in the Czech's way during the first week.

U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur has an ever-so-slightly tougher road. Opening opponent Sorana Cirstea is well off her best ranking, but still might be capable of causing an upset. And Nadia Petrova, Stosur's potential third round, is somewhat inexplicably still seeded here, but she gave Sam a big test in New York -- she might be out for revenge this time around.

The most interesting contender in this quarter, though, might be unseeded Jie Zheng, a winner in Auckland last week and a semifinalist here two years ago. She faces off against young American Madison Keys to start, and has a couple easy early rounds. I wouldn't be surprised if she gave Stosur a big run for the money in their potential fourth round.

Who'll survive? Petra's got the #1 ranking in her sights, and a trip through this quarter would do a lot for her to get there.

Third Quarter

This is a tough quarter, with a lot of tricky players in the mix. Victoria Azarenka, fresh off a win in Sydney, has been playing some solid ball the last few months and should have a ton of confidence at this, her best Slam. She faces off against England's Heather Watson to start, but has a potential third round against upstart Mona Barthel, the surprise champion in Hobart, where she beat the fifth, fourth, second, and first seeds as a qualifier. The twenty-one year old jumped twenty spots up the rankings to #44, and if she hasn't exhausted herself, might be up for a few more upsets in Melbourne.

Aggie Radwanska could also cause some trouble. The winner of three titles in the back half of last year, she also made the semis in Sydney, after coming back from a deficit to defeat Wozniacki in the quarters. She's got a potentially tough opener against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and a second round versus young Simona Halep, who's been known to cause a few upsets in her day.

Again, there could be some surprises early here. Hobart finalist Yanina Wickmayer faces Galina Voskoboeva, a woman who beat Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova in Toronto and made the final in Seoul last year. And Julia Goerges, down a few ranking spots from her peak last year, could have some trouble against spunky Polona Hercog in her opener. And Shaui Peng, the Cinderella story here last year, faces off against wildcard Aravane Rezai, once ranked #15 in the world. I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of these matches resulted in an underdog run this year.

Who'll survive? I picked Vika to win this thing from the start, so she's got to at least win the quarter to do that.

Fourth Quarter

Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champion and top seed in this quarter, had a great rebound in 2011, but quiet since even before she withdrew from the year-end championships in Istanbul, I'm not sure anyone picks her as a favorite for this title. And with a first round match against Argentina's Gisela Dulko, who actually beat her two years back in the Wimbledon second round, things will be tough from the start. And Vera Zvonareva, the second seed here a year ago, has fallen a few spots since. She's matched with Alexandra Dulgheru, who upset Petra Kvitova last year in New York -- it's not the easiest start to Bepa's Melbourne run.

It only gets harder from there. Kaia Kanepi, the surprise winner in Brisbane, has had momentum on her side for a couple months now. She should pose a big threat to Bepa in the third round. And five-time champion Serena Williams, who is only seeded twelfth here, should have no trouble creating a rematch of their Wimbledon final from two years back.

But this quarter wouldn't be complete without a couple spoilers. Shahar Peer isn't seeded in Melbourne, and might be able to take advantage of an injured Sabine Lisicki in her second round or spotty Svetlana Kuznetsova a match later. The Russian, for her part, could face a challenge from late-bloomer Chanelle Scheepers in their opener -- the South African is just out of seeding territory and after winning her maiden title last year in Guangzhou at the age of twenty-seven, she might be ready to do some bigger damage here.

Who'll survive? I'd love to give it to one of the sleepers, but experience and strength is on Serena's side, and I can't imagine her letting this one go.

So it certainly looks like it's going to be a tough road for whoever ends up winning this crown -- it is, after all a Grand Slam, and you want your champions to earn it. But with potential for more than a few surprises throughout the draws, nothing is yet certain, and if any of these matches live up to their potential, it sure looks like we're in for an exciting two weeks.

January 12, 2012

Blogcast: 2012 Australian Open Preview

The world's top tennis players head to Melbourne for the first Grand Slam of the year. But with injuries plaguing the field and some young guns out to make a name for themselves, we could see a couple surprises Down Under.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

And check out the man and woman I thought were most likely to bring home their very first Major trophies in Melbourne to see if anything's changed.

January 10, 2012

Locked and Loaded

It's a tale of two draws in Sydney, with nine of the top ten women in the sport showing up for one more week of match play while the top seed on the men's side is ranked just out of single digits. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of talent all over the courts, and after their time off, it sure looks like everyone out there is primed to fire off a few shots before heading down to Melbourne.

Juan Martin Del Potro leads the men's field, his first match play since losing both his rubbers in the Davis Cup finals. Still, back at #11 in the world and looking once again like the champion we know he is, a couple wins here could be all he needs to prep for Melbourne. DelPo opens tomorrow against world #58 Lukasz Kubot, a man who has given top players some trouble here and there, but should be able to notch the win. And if he stays healthy, that momentum could go a long way further.

Fellow big-server John Isner is in the mix too. After his headline-driven 2010, he quietly worked himself to his current career-high ranking on the heels of a semifinal run last November in Paris. He'll have a bit of a tough run in Sydney though -- assuming he gets by compatriot qualifier Bobby Reynolds, he should face feisty Radek Stepanek in the quarters. The Czech leads their sparse head-to-head, and could deal Isner a tough match. But if he survives, I like the American's chances here.

But either favorite could face a challenge from Alex Bogomolov, who barely snuck his way into the seeds in Melbourne. He pulled out of his second round match last week in Doha, but fought his way to a win over Robin Haase earlier today. With wins over Feliciano Lopez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray all in the last twelve months, he's proven he can outplay his ranking, and might just parlay his strengths into deep runs here and beyond.

The ladies' field is a little more stacked, and may have a little more on the line: if Petra Kvitova extends her win streak -- she hasn't lost a match since October -- and takes the title, she'll be the #1 player in the world when play starts next week. Both she and current #1 Caroline Wozniacki fought through their openers in Sydney, but they're not the only ones to watch this week -- and the spotlight's falling on more than just the favorites.

Daniela Hantuchova made her way to the Brisbane final, largely thanks to withdrawals by higher-ranked opponents. So it's nice to see her put up a fight here. She took out my most-improved player of 2011 in convincing style, and followed through by upsetting 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on Tuesday. She'll next be the one trying to break Kvitova's momentum, so it's only getting tougher from here, but it's nice to see her proving she deserved that runner's-up trophy last week.

And Lucie Safarova, the other non-seed left in the women's bracket, has overcome two tough challenges herself. She held serve throughout her first round match against Ana Ivanovic -- a rare occurrence in the ladies' game these days -- and was leading Svetlana Kuznetsova by a wide margin before the Russian retired due to the heat. The young Czech can be spotty, but with a quarterfinal date against similarly suspect Na Li, it's not out of the question to see her advance further.

It's a little surprising to see so many top players -- and even the ones on the edge -- in action just days before the start of a Grand Slam. There's a lot at stake the next few weeks on the tennis courts, and this week's matches will set the stage for what could be a fortnight filled with fireworks.

January 7, 2012

Same Stories, Different Characters

At this time last year, did anyone think Novak Djokovic would dominate the men's Tour quite like he did? Or that Petra Kvitova would rise quite as high as she did? Well, it may be a long shot to hope for headlines quite so dramatic in 2012, but some players are already doing the best they can to make this year the best of their careers -- and we may just see some parallels this season.

The women's draw in Brisbane was plagued from the start -- top seeded Sam Stosur lost her second round in straight sets, and Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, together the winners for the last three years in Melbourne, both pulled out mid-week with injuries.

So it's no real surprise that two unseeded players made their way to the finals. Daniela Hantuchova, the beneficiary of Serena's walkover and Kim's retirement, had first battled through two three-setters in her early rounds, and Kaia Kanepi, a runner-up at last year's final tournament in Moscow, dominated her matches the second half of the week, ousting second-seed Andrea Petkovic and 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in straight sets.

Hantuchova had a perfect record against the Estonian in their last three meetings, but Kanepi has been steadily improving her game since an Achilles injury hampered her play in 2011. Currently ranked #34 in the world, she struck first in Saturday's final, breaking the on-paper favorite in the fifth game of the match and building a nine-game win streak. It took a couple tries to close out the match, but finally on her fourth championship point, Kanepi clinched her victory, the second trophy of her career.

So what's in store for her? Remember that last year's winner in Brisbane was none other than Kvitova herself, also ranked #34 at the time, also the second title of her then-nascent career. Of course it's too early to say Kanepi will go on to win Wimbledon and the year-end championships -- but she is a three-time Major quarterfinalist, and clearly on the rise. At the very least, she should become a much more dominant force on the WTA this year.

As for the men, remember how Djokovic rode his 2010 Davis Cup momentum into a record-setting run in 2011? Well, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga may not have quite the same streak going now, but he did make the finals of his last two tournaments, each time losing to a reinvigorated Roger Federer. This week in Doha, he was slated to meet the world #3 again in semis, but the defending champion withdrew with back pain and gave Tsonga a ticket to the finals.

In the other half of the draw, countryman Gael Monfils had worked his way through a tough draw himself -- after surviving a three-set scare at the hands of Benjamin Becker, he rolled through Viktor Troicki and confounded Rafael Nadal in the semis, only his second ever win over the former #1. It seemed he's be able to capitalize on that victory, breaking Tsonga early, but the slightly higher-ranked player turned the tables, ultimately winning the match in just under two hours. It was his eighth career title -- ten fewer than what Djokovic had going into his banner 2011. Still, heading to the Major where he's had the most success -- a semifinalist in 2010 and runner-up in 2008 -- this could be his best opportunity to really break through.

Of course it's rare to see the dominating performances we were treated to last year, and the chances we're in for anything remotely close to a repeat are slim. But the way these athletes are playing, it sure looks like even bigger things are coming for them.

January 4, 2012

Here We Go, Again!

Well it sure is good to be back, huh? It seems like ages since we last saw some of the sport's big stars -- in some cases it has been ages -- but as players make their way in the general direction of the year's first Grand Slam, it looks as though they didn't miss a beat.

In Chennai, slightly removed from the most immediate action, Janko Tipsarevic looks to capitalize on the momentum that brought him two titles at the end of 2011 and a first trip to the year-end finals in London. He's the top seed and opens Thursday against Indian wildcard Yuki Bhambri, and will want to make a statement quickly to prove his recent good fortune was more than just luck.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Nicolas Almagro -- he'll want to turn around his current streak, one which brought him just a single match win since the U.S. Open. Barely holding on to the #10 ranking, the Spaniard needs to grab some points quickly to keep his spot among the elite. And Milos Raonic, one of the biggest standouts of last year, struggled a bit after an injury he sustained at Wimbledon blunted the back half of his year. If he's in form, he should far out-perform his fourth seed here.

The ladies traveled a little closer to their ultimate destination. Sabine Lisicki, 2011's comeback of the year, takes the top seed in Auckland -- impressive, considering she had to qualify here last year. With many of her contemporaries being upset early, this warm-up might just be hers to lose.

But all obstacles haven't been eliminated quite yet. Flavia Pennetta may not have re-reached her highest ranking, but she ended the year with wins over Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. She had solid wins in her first two rounds in New Zealand, and if she can get past Elena Vesnina in the quarters -- a woman she has traded wins with for the last six years -- she could have to confidence to go even farther.

It's been a little tougher for the top names in Brisbane. Despite ending 2011 with three straight titles, Andy Murray has struggled through two three-set matches in Australia, U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur was ousted by world #54 Iveta Benesova in straight sets, and Serena Williams, just outside the top-ten, withdrew after her second round match with an ankle sprain.

Maybe the troubles of others will bode well for those trying to get their games back on track. Alexandr Dolgopolov is at his highest career ranking, thanks to a breakout last year in Melbourne and his first title in Umag, but he won just one match in his last four of 2011, so he'll need to put up some good numbers here. He survived a close call Wednesday, so he'll have to up his game next if he's going to stay alive.

And former #1 Jelena Jankovic is coming off her first title-less year since 2006. She had some flashes of brilliance last year -- a defeat of Stosur in Dubai and runs to the finals in Monterrey and Cincinnati -- but also saw her ranking drop into the double digits, the lowest in five years. She's been solid so far in Brisbane, but hasn't faced too formidable a foe yet -- if she can bring her A-game against Francesca Schiavone on Thursday, she could turn her streak around.

The start of the year can be such a question mark -- will players lose their momentum or reignite a spark that had been dwindling? So far it's been a bit of a mixed picture, but there's a whole lot of play left this year. And a couple good shots hit the rest of this week could really get these players off on the right foot.