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.

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