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.

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