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.

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