January 23, 2012

Where Things Get Interesting...

Well this is hardly the women's quarterfinal we were expecting to see in Melbourne.

If you thought Kim Clijsters would have survived the rematch of last year's final with Na Li, you probably didn't think she'd have to save four match points to do it. If your money was on Maria Sharapova to stage her Grand Slam comeback, you might have given up hope after she lost six games in a row -- and a two-break lead -- against Sabine Lisicki in their first set last night. If you didn't think Serena Williams was going to win the whole thing, you probably at least thought she'd still be standing today, even if she'd had to "upset" seventh seeded Vera Zvonareva in the round of sixteen.

As it stands now only two of those three remain in the draw, and the battles everyone has been through could mean we're in for even more surprises.

Of course, the big surprise in this year's play has been the emergence of twenty-three year old Ekaterina Makarova, once ranked as high as #29 in the world but for now out of the top fifty. After upsetting my black horse Kaia Kanepi in her opener, she went on to take out Zvonareva in the third round and then, to the shock and awe of the tennis world, drubbed Serena on Monday, breaking the American's big serve five times.

You might think she'd be exhausted by now, that she has to run out of steam eventually, and against veteran countrywoman Sharapova in the next round, she'll surely be done for. But Makarova's only title, Eastbourne in 2010, came when she beat five top-twenty players in a row -- after she'd already battled through the qualifying rounds. So she's certainly capable of pulling off a few more, especially with a day of rest in between. Still, you have to like Sharapova's chances in the next round. Though she was put to the test Monday, ultimately her experience helped pull her past the big-hitting Lisicki, and with the draw now much more open for her, she now has a tremendous opportunity to return to the winner's circle here.

She'll probably have to contend with her Wimbledon vanquisher Petra Kvitova first, though. The Czech, who has the #1 ranking in her sights, has been playing more consistently than anyone this past week, and after a small hiccup against Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round she has never looked back. She'll meet the other Cinderella of this tournament in the quarters, Sara Errani. Though the Italian's only met one seeded player on the way to her first even Major quarterfinal, she staged a huge comeback against Sorana Cirstea in the third round and soundly defeated 2010 semifinalist Jie Zheng early Monday -- she might be able to put up just as big a fight against the heavy favorite.

The other half of the draw has played out much more according to plan. Victoria Azarenka and Aggie Radwanska both efficiently worked through their matches, setting up the only quarter where the expected seeds survived. The Belarusian is the on-paper favorite, and with a 6-3 record against the eighth seed, she has history on her side. But Radwanska did beat her next opponent on the way to her title in Tokyo last year, so anything is possible.

All of that maneuvering, though, may have opened the door widest for current world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, dogged for the better part of the last year for holding the ranking while going noticeably Slam-less. Yes, she next faces defending champion Clijsters in her quarterfinal match, a woman she's never beaten and only taken one set from. But after the veteran's tumble on Sunday, one which nearly lost her the match, Wozniacki is arguably the more fit of the two. And if she can move even slightly better than her far-more-experienced rival when they meet Tuesday, she might very well cause the non-paper upset -- and given the way her half of the draw has unfolded, that could be a ticket right to her second Major final.

So it sure looks like Serena's early exit has really wreaked havoc on the women's draw in Melbourne -- it may let some old hands rise back to the top, or it could give the new guard a chance to shine. But it won't be the only factor which determines this year's champion. If any of these ladies play their cards right, it could mean a big breakthrough.

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