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.

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