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.

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