January 31, 2013

A Quest for Redemption

It's been a pretty exciting first month of the season, but the New Year hasn't been happy for everyone. A couple players have struggled to put up the kinds of results we've come to expect from them, but some solid results this week could turn all that around.

It's been a long time since Anastasija Sevastova has done anything big on the tennis court, and the 2010 Estoril champion has fallen well down the rankings over the last few years. After making the fourth round in Melbourne two years ago, she failed to make it past her opener there this time around and had to qualify for the main draw in Pattaya City. She sneaked out a win over rising star Heather Watson on Thursday to make her first quarterfinal since Luxembourg in 2011. She's got nothing but seeds left in her half of the draw, so it won't be easy for her to progress farther, but if the young Latvian can find her game there's no reason to believe she can't get in another win or two.

Elena Vesnina may have something to say about that though -- the decorated doubles star is having quite the season so far. Long a member of the middle tier in this sport, the Russian had lost all six of the finals she'd contested before this year, but changed her luck in Hobart early in the month and then beat Varvara Lepchenko and Roberta Vinci on her way to the Australian Open fourth round. The run helped her climb to #33 in the world, still off a career high, but with some of the most consistent results we've seen from her in a while. Vesnina hasn't faced another seeded player so far in Thailand, but could be tested tomorrow by world #15 Maria Kirilenko in the quarters. Her compatriot has won all three of their previous meetings, but Vesnina has kept things close in the past -- if she can harness her momentum it might bode well for her the rest of this week.

Sabine Lisicki has actually fallen below Vesnina in the rankings -- surprising, considering this time last year we were waiting for her to finally break the top ten. But a string of injuries and disappointing results, including a first round loss in Melbourne, pushed her out of the top fifty. She's still seeded fifth in Pattaya, though, and with fairly routine wins over her first two opponents this week it looks like she might be ready to stage a comeback. It should be smooth sailing for her, too -- the highest ranked player left in her half is world #60 Ayumi Morita -- so if she stays focused and healthy this could be her chance to make a move.

There are plenty players looking to relaunch their careers over in Paris as well. Lucie Safarova is just a hair off her career high ranking, but with her only win of the year coming over a sub-hundred player, it seems she's lost a little of that luster. She's struggled so far this week too, dropping sets to both Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Alize Cornet, but now in the quarters she has a chance to shine. She next faces Lucky Loser Kiki Bertens, one of last year's hottest newcomers who's already beaten a tough Tamira Paszek and fourth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova at the GDF Suez. Bertens actually won the pair's only other meeting last year at Wimbledon, so the Czech is going to have to bring her A-Game if she wants to turn the tables on her opponent. But if she does, it could do wonders for her confidence the rest of the year.

Marion Bartoli hasn't really fallen too far out of the spotlight, but after just missing her chance to qualify for Istanbul last year, she hasn't beaten a player in the top fifty yet this season -- she suffered an easy defeat in the quarters at the hands of Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova to start the year and then lost a struggle to Melbourne Cinderella Ekaterina Makarova a few weeks later. So far in her homeland, the Frenchwoman's been on point -- after a tight first set, she rolled over Christina McHale to set up a third round against Hobart finalist Mona Barthel. The German beat Bartoli last April in Stuttgart, pretty easily in fact, so the on-paper favorite cannot let history get in her way -- if she's able to play her game, there's no reason she can't avenge that loss.

Petra Kvitova may have a bit more to prove. The one-time Wimbledon champion has been a fixture in the top ten for the past eighteen months or so, but last year she had been a stone's throw from grabbing the #1 spot. That goal is a bit further away these days, and after putting together a 2-3 record to start the season, it may have gotten a little more remote. The 2011 winner in Paris could have a tough time reclaiming the title -- she was challenged somewhat in her opener by Stefanie Voegele, and will meet quickly rising Kristina Mladenovic next. The Czech has won the pair's only previous meeting, at this event actually, but that was a full five years ago, and her opponent has posted some solid results herself, besting both Julia Goerges and Yanina Wickmayer on her way to the quarters. If Kvitova is going to make another play for this crown -- and turn her year around -- she'll need to keep her cool in tomorrow's match and play ball like she hasn't played yet this season.

It's not really fair to say Sara Errani hasn't followed up on her breakout season from 2012 -- but despite winning the doubles title in Melbourne she nevertheless dropped a chunk of ranking points after losing in the first round of the Australian Open singles draw. She's the top seed in Paris this week, though, so will want to step up her game and with a quarterfinal match against the woman who ousted her two weeks ago, the pressure will be on. Carla Suarrez Navarro holds a dead-even 3-3 record against the Italian, and after her win Down Under and a victory over Klara Zakopalova here, she might have the confidence to take the lead. But Errani has been a fighter on all surfaces the past year, and if she's on her game should be able to stop the bleeding -- and that win could put her season back on the right track.

All these ladies have a chance to redeem themselves over the next few days -- some get that opportunity against the very same players who stopped them in their tracks. Whether they achieve their goals or not could have a big impact on what the rest of their seasons look like and whether or not momentum stays on their side. Their years may not have gotten off to the start they wanted, but their upcoming performances might just be what it takes to turn all that around.

January 27, 2013

Déjà Vu?

At the start of this year's Australian Open, I asked my readers which pair of recent champions had the best chance to repeat in Melbourne:
  1. The 2008 combination of Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic,
  2. 2010 titleists Serena Williams and Roger Federer, or
  3. Last year's winners Victoria Azarenka and Djokovic again.
Somewhat surprisingly, results indicated most of you expected a replay of 2012's events -- but as play began, there was plenty of reason to believe that wouldn't happen. Sharapova was on fire in early matches, losing just nine games in her first four rounds, while Serena, dominating on serve as always, out-aced everyone in the field and delivered four bagel sets to her opponents as well. For the men, Roger Federer was coming off a year that brought him back to #1 in the world and ended a two-year plus Slam drought. He was tested by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters but, after surviving the challenge, seemed to be up to the task of returning to the crown. All of their dreams were halted, of course, some in dramatic defeat and others in shockingly one-sided losses.

But by the time we entered finals weekend, even though Option #3 was the only possible outcome, their opponents in the championship matches made it far from certain we'd be in for any kind of repeat.

Victoria Azarenka came into her second straight Major final the favorite, but still in questionable shape. She drew harsh criticism during her semifinal against Sloane Stephens for taking a medical time out late in the second set, and the crowd was against her from the start. When 2011 runner-up Na Li, who'd already picked up a title in Shenzhen this season and hadn't dropped a set yet Down Under, came back immediately after losing serve in the first game and built a 5-2 lead for herself, the defending champ seemed a little rattled. Vika eventually lost the set, but seemed to regroup to start the second. Li didn't give up though -- she managed to draw level again and even after taking a tumble and twisting her ankle kept things close. She was relentless, too, in the decider -- after suffering another fall, this time hitting her head on the ground, she still wouldn't give up. But Azarenka had found her game for good this time, and finally closed out the match -- her second Grand Slam victory -- with one more break of serve.

Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic wouldn't have an easy time in his quest to make history, either. He'd had a full two days rest since dismantling David Ferrer in his semi, and faced an opponent who'd gone four hours against four-time champion Roger Federer a round earlier, but he came on court seeming to be the more lethargic one. Andy Murray fought off all five break points in the first set and won an astonishing eighty-one percent of his first serves. He took an early lead in the tiebreak and had all momentum on his side when he won the first set. But Djokovic kept his cool and, though the Scot built a 0-40 lead early in the second and didn't lose one point on first serve until the breaker, this time was able to close out the set. The first break of serve didn't come until the thirty-first game of the match, three hours of play in, with Nole leading 4-3 -- Murray had already saved a couple opportunities, but battling blistered feet and sore hamstrings he finally dropped the game and eventually the set. His game rejuvenated, Djokovic took control in the final set, avenging his loss four months ago in New York and locking down his historic third straight victory Down Under.

It might seem like we've seen this story before -- after two weeks of big shots, huge surprises, gutsy wins and shocking upsets, we've re-crowned the same champions in Melbourne for the first time since 1993. But the campaigns didn't go quite the way they did a year ago, nor were the victories assured at any point during the fortnight.

Things may look the same, but they're different nonetheless, and with these two champions showing they can thrive under vastly dissimilar circumstances, they've ultimately served notice to everyone else in the field of just how hard it will be to derail them.

January 25, 2013

Something Old, Something New

There's a lot at stake as we enter finals weekend at this year's Australian Open -- three of the players left standing are out to prove they're no one Slam wonders, while the fourth is attempting to make history and become the first man ever to win three straight titles in Melbourne. And while they've all become familiar with playing this level of ball in recent years, there is still a feeling that we're on the verge of a new era in this sport, and each of these players could be the one ushering it in.

Defending champion Victoria Azarenka will play her second straight Major final on Saturday, her third in the past twelve months. She got here by the skin of her teeth, though, losing a set during the first week to Jamie Hampton and withstanding a controversial medical time out deep in the second set of her semi against Sloane Stephens. In the championship match she'll take on surprise finalist Na Li, the breakout Down Under two years ago -- nearly thirty-one years of age, the Chinese woman is playing her best ball late in her career, and with dominating wins over red-hot Aggie Radwanska in the quarters and 2008 champ Maria Sharapova a round later, she's shown she's far from her twilight. Li actually beat Vika here during her 2011 run, and during her campaign for the French Open that spring, but the Belorussian turned the table and has won their last four matches in a row. In about twelve hours time one of these ladies will have won her second Major title and, considering the field down in Melbourne, will have done so under some very daunting circumstances. If the world #1 has recovered enough over the last two days, this trophy is hers for the taking -- but something tells me Li's got what it takes to surprise us all.

There's more than a day left before the men's championship is decided, but the anticipation is nevertheless sky-high. Novak Djokovic has reached his sixth Slam final in his last seven tries, while Andy Murray has somehow set up a rematch of the 2011 final -- which he lost -- and the 2012 U.S. Open final -- which he won. Nole's had his scares along the way, barely making it out of the fourth round, but he sailed through his semi against relentless Spaniard David Ferrer in less than ninety minutes time. Meanwhile Murray, who hadn't faced a test at all during his first five matches in Melbourne, finally made his own history against four-time champion Roger Federer in the semis. Though he held a solid 10-9 history against the record-holding former #1, the Scot had only won one set off the Swiss at a Major. But Murray came out of the gates running in Friday's match -- with Fed likely feeling the effects of a long five-setter against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his quarterfinal, Murray pounced early, firing off twenty-one aces and holding tough when his opponent forced another decider by winning a fourth set tiebreak. After four full hours of play, he'd notched his first Slam win over the legend, and set himself up for his sixth Major final. Nole has twice avenged his loss in New York and, having an extra day of rest after his semi, will probably be fresher for the final. But Murray seems to have finally found his game when it counts, and if he keeps his cool on Sunday, he might be the one to derail Djokovic's path to history.

It's probably not the final pairings many were expecting in Melbourne, and as these four athletes march down the aisle toward the first Grand Slam of the year, even with all their combined experience, it does seem we're going to see something special this weekend. It's no one's first time here, but the outcomes could certainly change the landscape of tennis for the rest of the year. Maybe even longer.

January 23, 2013

Shocked and Awed

The semifinal pairings are set Down Under, and it's not entirely the slate you might have expected. Sure, most of the favorites have come through, but there is one glaring exception, and even those who survived have been run through the gauntlet. And the ones who seem freshest might be the ones most under the radar.

Novak Djokovic faced his biggest scare in the round of sixteen, pushed for five hours by fifteenth seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, a man who hadn't given him much if any trouble in their last ten meetings, dating back to 2007. He had a much easier time with Tomas Berdych in the quarters, but his semifinal opponent David Ferrer was stretched to the limit. Against compatriot Nicolas Almagro, against whom he held a spotless 12-0 record, the underrated Spaniard took about an hour to find himself down two sets to love. But Almagro, always more comfortable on clay, has never gotten out of Major quarterfinal -- battling injury late in the decider, he finally succumbed, allowing the more experienced fourth seed through to another semi. Djokovic and Ferrer have a surprisingly tight history, 9-5 favoring the world #1. But only one of David's wins has come off the clay, and he's only managed to win one set at a Major. With Nole now riding a nineteen-match win streak in Melbourne, it'll be tough to unseat the two-time defending champion, but it wouldn't be the strangest thing that's happened this fortnight.

The bottom half of the men's draw has been surprisingly more calm. Andy Murray, hoping to prove he's no one-Slam wonder, is the only man standing who hasn't lost a set yet, but the two-time runner-up here has also only faced one seed in five matches. The stakes will clearly be raised in his next round. Roger Federer, playing his tenth straight semi in Melbourne, knocked out a win late Wednesday night against recent nemesis Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman had Fed's number for most of the match, actually winning more points through the first four sets, holding the recent #1 to just two receiving points in the second. But the four-time champion Down Under was able to regroup when it counted -- Federer got the only break in the decider and the right to a twentieth meeting against Murray. Of course, the Scotsman is one of the few people with a (slight) winning record against the great Fed, and despite recent wins at the Olympics and in Shanghai, he's never made much of a dent at a Major. If that's going to change this week, he's going to play a whole other type of ball.

The seeds on the women's side didn't work out quite as neatly, as they did for the men, but until the last few hours of quarterfinal play we were expecting to see some very familiar faces contesting the ladies' title at the Australian Open. Last year's runner-up and 2008 champion Maria Sharapova has been nothing short of spectacular -- in five matches she's dropped serve just two times and has delivered five bagel sets to three different opponents. In total, she's lost only nine games. Her semifinal opponent, 2011 finalist Na Li, has been on point herself, getting revenge over for a Sydney loss to previously undefeated Agnieszka Radwanska in Tuesday's quarterfinal. But though this has been a good time of year for the Chinese woman in the past, MaSha put a definitive stop to a four-match losing streak to Li last year, and with the strong numbers she's putting up on serve, it's hard to see her giving up the advantage in the next round.

And while the performances by these ladies has been top notch, it's the results from the top half that have held the biggest surprises. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka was the first of the favorites to be tested -- she dropped her middle set to young American Jamie Hampton in the third round -- and though she found herself down an early break against resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova in Wednesday's quarter, eventually ran off with the second to make her way back to the final four. But the drama was nothing compared to what would follow -- five-time champion Serena Williams, sporting a super-solid 40-1 record since the French Open, was widely considered the favorite here, too, despite her #3 seed. But Sloane Stephens, the youngest player in the top fifty, had different plans -- carrying her best ever ranking into the event, she hadn't met a single seed in her first four matches in Melbourne, and with a 0-5 record against top ten players her chances weren't good against her childhood idol. But after dropping the first set to Serena, she rallied in a way that no one expected -- after Williams strained her back up a break in the second, Stephens took advantage, breaking serve on three of four chances and ending a streak of twenty-eight straight set wins for Serena. When she held tough in the decider, scoring what's by far the biggest win of her nascent career, she made history as the youngest American in over a decade to make a Slam semi. Vika's gotta like this match-up a whole lot better than the one she would have faced -- she's only taken one set off Serena since her lone win in Miami four years ago -- but the way Sloane played on Thursday, she won't be an easy mark by any means.

Things are far from over, of course, and if recent results have shown us anything, you can't assume you know what's going to happen next.Just about everyone left still has a chance to take home the title in Australia, and while experience may help, it's clearly not the only thing that matters.

And as we watch all the action awestruck, we can't help but feel the best is yet to come.

January 20, 2013

Aussie Open, One Week In: Where We Stand

A week ago I made the very foolish decision to predict what Cinderellas would emerge at this year's Australian Open, and while some forecasts were way off the mark, a couple others have kept up their play even after the early rounds were through. And while some certainly have a better shot than others to stay alive, it might actually be some other fairy tales appear.

Frankly, none of my predictions for the top half of the ladies' draw made it through, but that doesn't mean only the strong have survived. Sure Serena Williams has been as dominant as she was in the back half of last year, and defending champion Victoria Azarenka has come through largely unscathed. But unseeded Svetlana Kuznetsova has played at the level we've come to expect from her, setting up a fourth round against former #1 Caroline Wozniacki. And young American Sloane Stephens, who dismissed my pick for the third quarter, has so far lived up to the expectations long set on her.

But the real surprises have come from players well off the radar. Doubles star Elena Vesnina seems to be breaking out on the singles circuit the last few weeks -- after losing the first six finals she played, the twenty-six year old Russian finally took a title in Hobart about a week ago. Already in Melbourne she's beaten rising American star Varvara Lepchenko and always tough Italian Roberta Vinci. This is the first time since her 2006 debut Down Under she's reached the fourth round here, and though she might very well be stopped short by Azarenka in the next round, she might be able to pounce if the top seed is at all off her game. And Bojana Jovanovski, who made her first Major round of sixteen with a win over seventeenth seed Lucie Safarova, set herself up for a clash with Stephens to make the quarters. The two young stars haven't met before, but the Serb's had some of her best results this time of year and might just be able to parlay that into some big results in the second week.

I did a little better with my picks in the bottom half of the bracket. Yes, Maria Sharapova has been relentless in her quest to reclaim the title she won in 2008 -- she's lost just five games in the first week -- and Aggie Radwanska has extended her 2013 win streak to thirteen matches, twenty-six sets. But last year's Cinderella, nineteenth seeded Ekaterina Makarova, has made her third straight dream run in Melbourne. The twenty-four year old stunned Marion Bartoli in the third round and then rolled over Angelique Kerber a match later. With a quarterfinal date against Sharapova, she'll have to raise her game of course, but she's beaten tougher top ten players in the past and there's no reason to believe she won't be able to do it again.

I got one pick right in the top half of the men's draw as well -- Nicolas Almagro was up a set and a few breaks when Janko Tipsarevic, coming off his second straight five-set match, was forced to retire. But though the other players remaining were all slated to advance this far, something tells me there's an upset coming. Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic was unexpectedly pushed to the limit on Sunday night -- in a five-plus hour match against largely unheralded Stanislas Wawrinka, the world #1 barely survived a 12-10 deciding set which ended just before two in the morning. He'll next meet Tomas Berdych, a man who's given him trouble in the past, and if the Czech is well rested -- and with a fairly "routine" sub-three hour fourth round himself, he should be -- we could be in for a big shock in a few days.

As for the bottom half of the men's draw, I got one pick right there as well -- Richard Gasquet hasn't had to pull off any major upsets to make his fifth straight Slam fourth round, but he'll have a tough time going farther with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as his next opponent. But unseeded Gael Monfils put up quite a fight in his first three rounds -- unseeded at a Slam for the first time in almost five years, he battled through fourteen sets, ultimately losing to countryman Gilles Simon, 8-6 in the fifth on Saturday. He might not have gotten too far in Melbourne, but something tells me it won't be long before he is a force here again.

The real story here might be world #36 Jeremy Chardy, who only made one Major fourth round in his career. The twenty-five year old Frenchman was tested early, dropping sets to both Adrian Menendez-Maceiras and often-erratic Marcel Granollers. But his coup came in Saturday's third round against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. After taking the first two sets from the sixth seed, the tide seemed to shift in favor of the tall Argentine. But after three hours of play, Chardy had forced only his eighth career fifth set, and with the only break of serve in that decider he came out the winner. He'll take on low-seed Andreas Seppi for a spot in the quarters -- the two have never met before, and are both treading in uncharted territory. If Chardy keeps his cool he might be about to make real history in the second half of this event.

So the favorites have been tested, Cinderella runs have commenced, and some players have created chances for themselves they've never had before. With the second week of play in Melbourne just about to get underway the stakes are getting higher and the pressure will be going up. But there are plenty of opportunities left for everyone still standing, and whoever pounces first might just be able to reap the biggest rewards.

January 18, 2013

Down to Business

The second week of the year's first Grand Slam is quickly approaching, and the stakes are getting higher for the players still remaining in the Australian Open draws. Some have been here before -- some many times -- but this is new territory for others, and the pressure will be on for them to really be at the top of their game.

Andreas Seppi had something of a coming-out party in 2012 -- pro for a decade, the twenty-eight year old had spent most of his career ranked in the forties or fifties, but reached a career high in October after winning titles in Moscow and Belgrade. He also gave the world a mini heart attack at Roland Garros when he took a two-set lead over Novak Djokovic. It was the first Major fourth round he'd ever played, though, so you can understand the nerves he might have felt. The Italian will have a chance to get back to the final sixteen when he plays a wholly beatable Marin Cilic in Melbourne tomorrow. The Croat won't go easily though -- he's won at least three rounds here the last four times he's come Down Under -- so Seppi will have to dig deep if he wants to improve his 3-5 record. But if he's playing the kind of ball we've seen from him the last twelve months, it wouldn't surprise me to see the win.

South Africa's Kevin Anderson has already had a bit of a fairy tale run in Australia -- a place where he'd only gotten out of the first round once before. Though he reached the final in Sydney a week ago, he wasn't seeded at the Open and so lurked as a hidden threat to the favorites. On Friday he took the chance to pounce -- coming back from two-sets-to-one down to 2009 semifinalist Fernando Verdasco, the big-serving collegiate star took a long fourth set to force a decider and ultimately sailed through the fifth. He'll have a tough time from here -- Anderson next faces a rematch of last year's third round against Tomas Berdych, a man who's won all four of their previous matches, all during 2012. The Czech hasn't been tested much yet in Melbourne, either, so if Anderson is going to make a play, he's going to have to play big.

Sloane Stephens hasn't yet reached the fourth round of Melbourne, but with a win over Dominika Cibulkova in Brisbane and a run to the semis in Hobart, expectations are high for the young American. She had her breakout last year in Paris, of course, but now that she's reached Major seeding territory, she'll not want to disappoint -- and with solid wins over Kristina Mladenovic and one-time upstart Simona Halep, so far she hasn't. She'll be tested by fellow Cinderella Laura Robson in the next round though. With a win over one-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on Thursday, the young Brit seems to be making a career out of defeating Grand Slam winners. But Sloane beat her contemporary about a week ago in Hobart, so she should have momentum on her side -- and if she makes another round of sixteen at a Major, she'll do quite a lot to silence critics who say the future of U.S. tennis is so weak.

Kirsten Flipkens has already landed the first punch in her quest to make this her breakthrough Slam -- the twenty-seven year old also reached career highs in 2012, , making the semis in 's-Hertogenbosch and taking the title in Quebec City. But she'd never done well at the Majors, and didn't even qualify for the main draw here last year. Now ranked #43 in the world, though -- her highest ever career ranking -- she decimated Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova and, though she struggled a bit in Friday's third round, ultimately scored the win over qualifier Valeria Savinykh. Flipkens might have the toughest route of the lot -- the Belgian next faces 2008 Australian champion Maria Sharapova, a woman she's lost to twice, dating all the way back to 2003. But even if she doesn't win, she might have gained the confidence she needs to really shine the rest of the year. And it might not be long before we see her really taking it to the stars in this sport.

The task ahead for any of these players is not an easy one -- they might have shown some of their best results over the last week, but with so many of the favorites still in the mix, it's only going to get harder from here. But we all know that anything can happen at the Majors, and if they keep their focus when the pressure is highest, there's no reason to believe their best is behind them.

January 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Seedings

It's been an interesting couple days down in Melbourne -- with just a round and a half of play in the books at the Australian Open, a full quarter of seeded players have already been eliminated. And while some of those remaining have sailed through early matches, others have been struggling just to survive. And that could create some big opportunities for everyone who's left.

The Good

Things have been fairly easy for the top seeds, though that's not to say there hasn't been any drama. Maria Sharapova, winner here in 2008, hasn't dropped a game yet in her first two rounds; neither has Serena Williams, but the top American in either draw did take quite a tumble in her Tuesday match. She'll test that ankle in Day four against young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza who needed more than three hours to reach her first Major second round -- but considering Williams won eight straight games after her injury, it might be more of a pop quiz than a final exam. Other ladies have been just as strong -- Victoria Azarenka kept her record against potentially tough Monica Niculescu a perfect 5-0 and fourth seeded Aggie Radwanska, after trading breaks throughout her first set with wildcard Bojana Bobusic, eventually went on to win that set and the next three.

The favorites on the men's side have been similarly dominant. Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic was pushed a bit in his first round by veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu, but came back strong to take out Ryan Harrison easily on Wednesday. The three other former Major winners in the draw have only played one match each so far, and none has lost a set. U.S. Open champion Andy Murray takes on little-known Joao Sousa in his second round while Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 titleist in New York, meets an always-feisty Benjamin Becker. They both should be able to get through these obstacles, though, but Roger Federer -- by far the most decorated of the group -- will likely face the biggest challenge when he faces former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko. The veteran Russian has been trying to stage a comeback the last several months, and while he could very well lose the match anyway, he's the most likely to put up a fight.

We've also seen some inspiring performances from those outside the top ten early on. Seven-time Major champion Venus Williams lost just one game in her opener and was similarly strong against one-time top-fifteen player Alize Cornet a round later. And Fernando Verdasco, a semifinalist here in 2009 and my Cinderella pick for his quarter, was tested early by French Open standout David Goffin, but rebounded quickly to take out veteran Xavier Malisse earlier today. They're both seeded on the low side, but it wouldn't be the biggest stretch to see either extend their runs a few rounds longer.

The Bad

It hasn't been all good news for the more favored, however. Eleventh seed Juan Monaco crashed out in the first round, last year's Cinderella Sara Errani fell in straight sets on Tuesday, and Nadia Petrova, one of the biggest surprises of last year, was summarily dismissed by uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, barely notching a game on the scoreboard before making her exit. Others seemed to survive early challenges, though, only to crumble just when you thought they were safe.

Tamira Paszek was both one of the most promising and one of the most disappointing players of 2012. After making the quarters at Wimbledon, she faded quickly and was riding a four match losing streak as she headed to Melbourne. She'd horded away enough points to keep a seed here, but I was frankly and pleasantly surprised when she made it through her opener against Stefanie Voegele, a woman who had won three matches in Shenzhen. But Paszek's run wouldn't last -- it took less than an hour for seventeen-year-old Madison Keys to notch a win on Wednesday. The American upstart fired off twenty-three winners to her opponent's six, won three quarters of her net points, and dropped just three points on first serve. Paszek didn't have any points to defend in Australia -- the only Slam she'd had any impact on was at the All England Club -- but her quick exit doesn't bode well for her the rest of the season, so she'll want to turn her luck around as soon as she can.

Sam Stosur probably still has a lot more game left in her, but you might be questioning that, given her performances so far in 2013. The world #9 was oh-and-two coming into her home Slam, and struggled early against easily-overlooked Kai-Chen Chang in her opener. The woman from Taipei kept pace with Stosur early on Monday -- incidentally her twenty-second birthday -- serving for and to stay in the first set a few times. Eventually the favorite prevailed, but she'd be challenged again Wednesday by one-time Aussie semifinalist Jie Zheng, ironically, the same woman who beat her last week in Sydney. After dominating the second set to force a decider, Stosur was caught on the losing side of an hour-long third and was sent home early, yet again. This has certainly never been her best Slam, but I'm sure the Australian #1 was hoping to put in a slightly better showing Down Under this year. Hopefully she'll be able to right the ship before long -- it'd be a shame to lose such a strong talent so soon after she peaked.

The Ugly

Of course not all those who were challenged came out on the losing end of things, but that doesn't mean they weren't left bruised and battered nonetheless. Julia Goerges battled the sun as well as her opponent in Monday's first round against Vera Dushevina, while Jurgen Melzer, struggling over the last several months, held off 2012 Cinderella Mikhail Kukushkin in his opener and lost two tiebreaks to surprise Brisbane finalist Roberto Bautista-Agut before pulling out the win. But a few others kept their fans on the edge of their collective seat throughout their most recent match.

Jerzy Janowicz wasn't even on the radar at this time last year, but the big-serving Pole has cut his ranking from the sub-two hundreds to top-thirty thanks to a Cinderella run at the Paris Masters. Seeded for the first time at a Major -- he's only played in three total -- he comes to Melbourne with a lot to prove. After a fairly routine opener, though, he was really challenged. Near the end of a long first set against long-absent Somdev Devvarman, the young Jerzy began to lose his cool -- a lines call went against him, he yelled at the chair umpire, and was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct. He lost the second set, too, losing serve twice and unable to break in return, but finally started to settle down in the third. After four hours the twenty-fourth seed was finally able to close out the win, but if he's going to stand a chance against Nicolas Almagro in the next round, he'll have to make sure he stays on the ball from the start.

Janko Tipsarevic is famous for dropping the ball on the court -- one of Jerzy's victims in Paris, the Serbian #2 can be a little cranky when things don't go his way. He could have gotten in a lot of trouble early -- he opened against hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt -- but ended up really being tested in the late-night match on Wednesday. He got off to a two-set-to-love lead on world #44 Lukas Lacko, but then seemed to get a bit too comfortable. The Slovakian took charge in the third set, got the lead in the fourth and even saved match points in the decider. But Tipsy pulled himself together just in time, finally breaking again and taking the match -- ultimately finishing with one point less than his opponent, actually. He's never made it out of the third round in Melbourne, though, so he'll have to bring it against Julien Benneteau in the next round, because if he doesn't things might get even uglier.

As should be expected at the Majors, some seeds have lived up to expectations while others have fallen under the pressure. But the way everyone's playing, even those who've been dominating will need to step up their game while those who've just barely survived will feel the heat of more than just the Australian summer sun.

But the Slams are where we separate the men from the boys, so those who've struggled so far will need to shake those jitters fast. Because the favorites aren't ceding any ground in Melbourne, and it'll be up to them to prove they belong.

January 13, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 Australian Open Preview

The world's top tennis players head to Melbourne for the year's first Major, with past champions looking to return to glory and young upstarts hoping to making a splash.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

January 12, 2013

Australian Open Preview: Cinderella Stories

It's probably impossible to get through an entire Grand Slam -- or any sporting event, for that matter -- without a couple underdogs really breaking through. And at this year's Australian Open there's plenty of opportunity to see some lesser-known names get a chance to shine.

A couple players come to Melbourne at career highs, others at recent lows. Some of the favorites may be vulnerable, and a couple just out of seeding territory might just be ready to pounce. And while upsets could happen anywhere, being classified as a real Cinderella will need a combination of luck, timing and talent. So this year I'll be scanning the draws for some potential spoilers and pick a pair of players who, if everything goes their way, might just find themselves fighting for a semifinal spot.

So let's get right to it.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych take the top spots in this section of the draw, and neither face too many immediate threats to their campaigns -- although the two-time defending champion will open against a tough Paul-Henri Mathieu, steadily climbing back up the rankings since a knee injury sidelined him for all of 2011. But there are a couple players used to being seeded at Majors that could have an ever bigger impact on the draw.

Feliciano Lopez and Victor Troicki were both seeded here last year, and with openers against qualifier Arnau Brugues-Davi and Radek Stepanek, who retired just this past week in Sydney, they each have some routes available to them. Players like Brian Baker, a Cinderella at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2012, Sydney finalist Kevin Anderson, and always in-the-mix Xavier Malisse could also pose threats to the favorites.

And largely unknown Roberto Bautista Agut, runner-up in Chennai, could set up a third-round rematch against Tomas Berdych, a man he beat in the quarters a week ago. The twenty-four year old Spaniard retired three games into his first round match in Sydney, but if he's recouped in time for only his second Major main draw match against a wholly beatable Fabio Fognini, he could give the Czech a run for the money.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (22) Fernando Verdasco vs. (20) Sam Querrey

In the end though, this portion of the bracket holds the most potential for a couple guys playing just off their best game. One-time semifinalist Verdasco carries a fairly low seed, but with few hard court hitters in his path early, he could make a decent run here. And Querrey, suddenly the #1 American in the field, made a nice run to the final four in Auckland. To make the quarters he'd likely have to face off against Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, but after the stunning come-from-behind victory he pulled of last fall at the Paris Masters, he should have the confidence to do some big things this year too.

Second Quarter

Poor Benoit Paire -- playing some of the best tennis of his career, just a shade off an all-time high ranking at #43 in the world, and coming off a run to the semis in Chennai and he is rewarded this week by facing off against four-time champion Roger Federer to start. Countryman Michael Llodra might have a better shot against his Olympic doubles co-silver medalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who, despite winning all three of his round robins at the Hopman Cup, suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to withdraw from Sydney.

Nikolay Davydenko could also use this opportunity to return to the spotlight. The former world #3 has struggled to come back from injury for almost two years, even dropping out of the top fifty here and there. Ten times a Major quarterfinalist, he only won one match at a Slam last year. But after a run to the Doha finals, one which included a win over red-hot David Ferrer, he might be ready to play to his level again. And Sydney titleist Bernard Tomic, who went on a six-match losing streak in the middle of last year, has scored wins over Andreas Seppi and Novak Djokovic this year. With a Melbourne opener against recently quiet Leonardo Mayer, he could be poised for another deep Slam run.

But also keep an eye out for Jarkko Nieminen. The veteran Finn upset Julien Benneteau in Brisbane last week and went on the reach the quarters in Sydney, where he ultimately lost to Tomic. He's got a first round against 2012 comeback kid vet Tommy Haas, but the seeded German pulled out of Hopman Cup action with an injured toe and lost early this week to Gael Monfils in Auckland. Nieminen hasn't made it past the third round at a Slam since 2008, but if he kicks off his campaign in Melbourne with a bang, this might be his chance to change that.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (17) Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. (9) Richard Gasquet

Gasquet made the fourth round at every Slam last year, but now in the top ten for the first time since 2008, the Doha champion has got some real momentum on his side. Not a lot has to happen for him to make the quarters -- a loss by Tsonga the biggest surprise needed -- but if he gets there, it would be only the second time he's done so in his decade-long career. Kohlschreiber, in the game even longer, only made his first quarter last year at Wimbledon. And though the Auckland finalist would likely have to get through one-time Cinderella Milos Raonic and Roger Federer to get there again, past underdogs have accomplished feats just as great.

Third Quarter

There could be some sparks for Andy Murray as he sets out to prove his U.S. Open title was no fluke. First round opponent Robin Haase won the first two sets off the third seed in New York back in 2011 and has taken players like Lleyton Hewitt, Nicolas Almagro and Rafael Nadal to five sets at Majors in the past. Meanwhile fellow one-Slammer (so far) Juan Martin Del Potro opens against qualifier Adrian Mannarino and shouldn't face much of a challenge through many of his early rounds.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for upsets in this section of the draw, though. Grega Zemlja was my player to watch at the end of 2012, and with a first match against spotty seed Marcel Granollers there's no reason to think he can't get a few wins in here. And Jesse Levine, sadly playing for Canada these days, very quietly worked his way to a career high ranking last October. He opens against injury-plagued veteran Tommy Robredo who, though well of his high #5 ranking, nevertheless won two Challengers titles last year and upset Andreas Seppi in the first hour of the U.S. Open. Either one of them could be spoilers in Melbourne -- as long as they don't wear each other out early.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Guillermo Garcia Lopez vs. Gael Monfils (both unseeded)

The real upsets in this quarter, though, will likely come from one-time world #7 Gael Monfils. The showy Frenchman made the quarters in Doha and the semis in Auckland, but comes Down Under without a seed. Against 2011 breakthrough Alexandr Dolgopolov in his opener, he's got more than a good chance to get off to a good start, and may just rock that momentum through the first week. GGL on the other hand, hasn't been much of a threat recently, but a win over Andy Murray last year in Indian Wells shows he still has some fight left in him. He'd likely face Marin Cilic in the second round and Andreas Seppi a match later, but if things go his way, he might just surprise us all.

Fourth Quarter

David Ferrer is on a roll, and it's going to be hard to bet against his at this event. Seeded fourth, thanks to a very public withdrawal by compatriot Rafael Nadal, he's coming off his third straight title in Auckland. The last two years he's translated that into a quarter and semifinal showing, so first round opponent Olivier Rochus knows he'll have to bring it. Eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic faces a tougher task -- facing off against hometown hero Lleyton Hewitt first, the Chennai champ will have to step up his game in front of this crowd.

But there are other players more under the radar that could cause damage this fortnight. Carlos Berlocq has fallen a bit down the rankings the last few months, but the Argentine has shown signs he can play in the past. He opens against qualifier Maxime Authom, ranked just #157 in the world, so should be able to win at least his first Slam match in a year. And Simone Bolelli might be able to make a stand himself -- once ranked in the top forty, the pretty Italian opens against Paris fairy tale Jerzy Janowicz, who's playing in only his third career Major. If Bolelli can take advantage of his inexperience, he might just be able to make a run for it.

But the real player to watch in this section might be Brisbane runner-up Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Milos Raonic and Jurgen Melzer on the way to his first career final. He kicks off against just-seeded veteran Julien Benneteau, nearly a finalist himself in Sydney and only a few ranking spots ahead of the Bulgarian. It could be a pretty brutal battle for the second round, but if Dimitrov can make it through there's no real threat for a him for a few matches after.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (28) Marcos Baghdatis vs. (10) Nicolas Almagro

Like with Gasquet a few quarters ago, Almagro doesn't need a lot of luck to make the quarters here. Having lost in the fourth round in Melbourne the last three years, the world #11 might have the motivation to go one further and, if he needs to, could beat Tipsy to do it. More of a stretch is Baghdatis, a long-ago runner-up in Australia. He's kept himself relevant the past half-decade, though, and thanks in part to a semifinal run in Brisbane last week has shown he can still hit with the young guys. He opens against always tricky Albert Ramos, but shouldn't see any real trouble until the third round where he's slated to meet Ferrer. But if the one-time #8 has his game together, he might show us glimpses of the play that got him to the final back in 2006.

The Women

First Quarter

The top quarter of the ladies draw is rife with potential upsets. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka starts her run against an on-the-rebound Monica Niculescu. The world #1 has won all four of their previous matches, but if the Romanian is truly back in form, she could surprise, nevertheless. I'm more worried about seventh seed Sara Errani, the Cinderella here a year ago. She's ranked seventh in the world and spent last year proving she can be a threat on more than just a clay court. She'll kick off her campaign against Carla Suarez Navarro, who's been known to cause upsets here in the past -- the Italian has played well so far this season, but will need to keep it up to prove 2012 was no fluke.

There are deeper threats here too. Christina McHale has struggled a bit recently, but is still the kind of talent that can cause some upsets -- the young American is slated to meet Errani in the second round. And unseeded Sabine Lisicki, ranked a disappointing #37 is pitted against Caroline Wozniacki, herself having trouble playing the kind of ball that kept her at #1 in the world for so long. If she's playing to her potential, there's no reason she won't see some big results this tournament.

But perhaps we should most closely watch Svetlana Kuznetsova, unseeded at a Slam for the first time since 2003. She comes to Melbourne ranked well out of the top fifty, and had to qualify for Sydney this past week. But with wins over Julia Goerges and Wozniacki she made her way to the quarterfinals. She opens against veteran Lourdes Dominguez-Lino and the first seed she'll face is an uninitiated Su-Wei Hsieh. In a section of the draw where no one is really playing her best, it might be the experienced Russian pulling through the first week.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Sofia Arvidsson vs. Donna Vekic (both unseeded)

While Sveta is probably the most likely Cinderella here, I'm going to give the nod to a couple ladies who are far from household names. Sofia Arvidsson has climbed pretty close to seeding territory, but still hasn't cracked the elite. But she has notched some big wins in recent months -- Lucie Safarova in Linz, Marion Bartoli and Maria Kirilenko in Moscow, Sam Stosur in Brisbane -- and with rising star Urszula Radwanska the first seed she's slated to meet, the Swede might come out the victor. And Donna Vekic, still outside the top hundred, somehow made her way to a final in Tashkent last year. This is her first Major main draw, so nothing will be easy, but if she can survive U.S. Open standout Andrea Hlavackova and if Caro and Sabine wear each other out, there might be an opening for the Croatian to sneak through.

Second Quarter

Though there are plenty of great players in this part of the bracket, the top seeds shouldn't have too much trouble early on. Maria Sharapova, who pulled out of Brisbane with a collarbone injury, will begin her quest to reclaim the title here against little known Olga Puchkova. And Angelique Kerber, boasting a fifth seed this year in Melbourne, opens against young Elina Svitolina, the come-from-nowhere winner last year in Pune. Both are the clear favorites and should be able to capitalize on their talent and experience to notch the early wins.

But it may not be long before they face the first challenges. Venus Williams, who climbed her way to a twenty-fifth seeding at the Open, shouldn't have much trouble making her way to a third round meeting with MaSha. And young Kiki Bertens, a quarterfinalist in Auckland after beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Osaka titleist Heather Watson, might be able to give Kerber a run for the money. And while she's certainly not a big underdog, Dominika Cibulkova's performance this past week in Sydney -- wins over three top-ten women -- shows she might be playing well above her fifteenth seed. She was double-bageled in the final, but is clearly able to do some big things on court.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (19) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Kirsten Flipkens

Makarova has pulled off some big wins in Melbourne in the past -- she beat two top-twenty players in 2011 to make the fourth round and stunned Serena Williams last year on her way to the quarters. Now seeded herself, she'll be playing defense rather than offense, but at least she knows how it feels to taste success at a Slam. Meanwhile it might be Flipkens turn to take over the mantle for her native Belgium -- never having won more than two matches at a Slam before, she took a title in Quebec City and followed up by making the quarters in Auckland and the semis in Sydney. She leads off with a match against tricky Nina Bratchikova, and may meet Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova next. But it's wins like these that make a true Cinderella.

Third Quarter

Now this is where things get interesting. Serena Williams is the clear favorite in this quarter, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for some surprises. She'll open her campaign against veteran Edina Gallovits-Hall, wholly beatable but worrisome nonetheless because she strangely reminds me of the last woman who beat Serena at a Major. The other top seed in this section may have a tougher time -- one-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova kicks off against one-time Roland Garros titleist Francesca Schiavone. Neither is playing at her best, but the Czech has only won match this year, and against a player much less threatening than her Melbourne opponent. If any of the favorites is in real danger from the start, it's this one.

Other seeds could also be challenged early. Hobart semifinalist Sloane Stephens -- shockingly the #4 American in the draw -- is seeded at a Slam for the first time, and as a reward opens against feisty Simona Halep. And Kristina Mladenovic, who won her first two Major matches in New York last summer and went on to the semis in Quebec City as a qualifier and a title in Taipei, could meet Stephens a round later. That's kind of a tough draw for a woman trying to make a play for the elite.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (28) Yaroslava Shvedova vs. Laura Robson

Both these ladies have been Cinderellas before, so there's no reason to believe they can't do it again. Shvedova's run during the summer last year made her one of the comeback stories of the season, while Robson rode her momentum to a final in Guangzhou and a career-high ranking. Shvedova is slated for a fairly early meeting with Serena, a rematch of a tough Wimbledon fourth round, while Robson begins against former U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin, a woman so far less successful in following up on her own fairy tale run. Attention will be high on these two ladies, so it won't be easy to sneak by, but if a few chips fall in their favor, who knows what they can do.

Fourth Quarter

It's a little fitting that Agnieszka Radwanska and Na Li are in the same quarter this year -- the two have faced off five times over the last six months, with the slightly lower-ranked Li holding a slightly better record. But Aga won the battle of undefeateds last week in Sydney when the Auckland champ took out the Shenzhen winner on her way to another title. But they both have a few matches to win before getting there -- the fourth seeded Pole opens against wildcard Bojana Bobusic, while Li will have to get past Sesil Karatantcheva. But their roads only get tougher from there.

Arantxa Rus has made a habit in recent years of causing upsets at Majors, and while a win over Irina-Camelia Begu wouldn't be a coup, she could give Radwanska a tough time one match later. And Tsvetana Pironkova, who made her breakthrough here in 2006 with a win over Venus Williams, might cause trouble for Julia Goerges in the second round, and maybe even for hometown champion Sam Stosur -- who lost both matches she's played so far this year -- a bit down the road. But players even further off the radar like up-and-comer Coco Vandeweghe and Osaka champion Heather Watson might take their opportunity to shine.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (27) Sorana Cirstea vs. (32) Mona Barthel

If either Coco or Watson make good on their potential, this quarterfinal will be precluded from the start, but I'm still rooting for these two to confirm their comeback. Cirstea is still a hair off her career-high ranking, but after the tumble she took the last couple seasons it's nice to see her making the semis in Stanford and Guangzhou in 2012. Meanwhile Barthel, an early breakout last year, had trouble keeping the momentum up. She returned to the final in Hobart this past weekend, though, so there's hope for her yet. They're both on the lower end of the seedings, but if they can find the talent they once displayed so strongly, they might outperform expectations and maybe even ride it to greater heights than they've ever seen before.

Of course some of these "predicted" quarterfinals are worse than even long shots, but you never know what can happen when the magic of a Major is at play. The best Cinderellas are the ones you never see coming, and there are sure to be plenty of those too in Melbourne.

The favorites are still the favorites, but no one's run to the trophy is set in stone. And if just a couple players are able to cause some waves, we could be in for a very exciting two weeks.

And perhaps one Cinderella will be able to keep his or her dream run going all the way to the end.

January 9, 2013

Not to Be Forgotten

Last year was one which saw plenty of stars rise, but just as many fall, as a couple of rising stars seemed to hit a roadblock in 2012. But while this season may have just begun, it seems that more than a few of them have made a point of turning things around this week.

Dominika Cibulkova didn't have a precipitous fall from the top -- since winning her breakthrough title in 2011, she's only "fallen" to #15 in the world -- but her results last season still feel somewhat less-than-stellar. She lost to three players ranked close to triple-digits to start the year and, after stunning Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros, only beat one top ten player through the rest of the year. She didn't quite live up to my expectations for her, but with her performance this week in Sydney, she might be making a case for herself this year. She opened with a drubbing of one-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and earlier on Wednesday delivered a similar blow to 2012 stand-out Sara Errani. She faces one more top-ten player in the semis, Angelique Kerber, but she's won bigger matches before and she might just be able to do it again.

The ladies' draw in Hobart featured a lot of new rising talent, but last year's most improved player Su-Wei Hsieh and last week's surprise Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova both dropped matches early. Instead Monica Niculescu, in the top thirty less than a year ago, has taken the opportunity to battle back -- after a straight-set win in her opener, the Romanian fought back from a set down to defeat Shuai Peng and make the quarters. It'll get harder from here, with Kirsten Flipkens waiting in the wings, but now's as good a time as any to prove what she can do. But even more impressive this week has been the comeback of Jarmila Gajdosova, whose 1-11 record since last May pushed her well into the triple digit rankings. She did beat Roberta Vinci in Brisbane and with two straight-set wins this week, she's put herself in her first quarterfinal since this time last year -- and if she can get past Elena Vesnina on Thursday, there's no reason she can't make a play for the title in her homeland.

Meanwhile in Auckland Gael Monfils, sidelined in the middle part of 2012 with an on-and-off knee injury, continued making strides to climb back into the elite. He made the quarters last week in Doha, but since he was unable to defend runner-up points, he saw his rank drop to just inside the top hundred. Eager to get in more court-time before the first Grand Slam, he's back in action in New Zealand and after surviving a scare early he's back in the quarters here too. He'll next battle third-seeded Tommy Haas, another veteran who's struggled with injury throughout the latter part of his career. The two haven't met in over four years, so there's no telling what will happen here -- but if Monfils makes a stand, it could set him up well for his trip to Melbourne.

The Cinderellas of Sydney may be flying a little further under the radar, but some big wins this week could do a lot to change that perception. Bernard Tomic, who couldn't break even in 2012, saw his ranking drop from top thirty to sub-fifty in just a few months. But he started this season with a huge upset of Novak Djokovic in Perth, and came back to his homeland rejuvenated. After an upset of fifth seeded Feliciano Lopez today, he earned himself a quarterfinal date with more-than-beatable veteran Jarkko Nieminen. But Ryan Harrison, just as disappointing last year, may have pulled off the bigger feat -- after qualifying for the main draw, he notched a win over top-seed and #1 American John Isner in straight sets. It's no easy road from here, but all the top players have been eliminated in his half -- if Harrison wants to make a bid for the title, this could be his chance.

There's still a lot left to play at this week's tournaments -- even more left the rest of the year -- and there's no guarantee that these winners will continue their runs. But after the slumps they've each endured over the last few months, it's nice to see them shaking things up now. And with some solid reminders they're all still in the game, it sure bodes well for the rest of their years.

January 6, 2013

Picking Up Where We Left Off...

It's been more than a couple weeks since we last saw the sport's biggest stars take the court with a trophy on the line. But as the new season kicks off, so many of them were eager to keep the momentum they had late last year, while others were out to recapture the magic they had not so long ago. And with their performances so far, they've each put themselves on track to accomplish even bigger things in 2013.

Janko Tipsarevic had lost a bit of steam at the end of last year -- after claiming two titles
to end 2011, he made few real breakthroughs last season. He did manage one title in Stuttgart, and a couple finals here and there, but after retiring in Paris and losing all three of his London round robins, he looked a little beaten down. He got himself back on track in Chennai this week though, admittedly without ever facing too big a challenge -- top-seeded Tomas Berdych was ousted in his quarterfinal, and the only seed Tipsy faced on the way to his second straight final here was world #60 Go Soeda. But after losing the first set to little-known Roberto Bautista Agut he was able to regroup and win his first championship since July. And with some good results this time of year, he might be able to wash out the stale taste in his mouth from the fall.

Na Li has had some of her best results this time of year, and whatever her results were coming into it the last few seasons she finds a way to shine. She's a shade off her career high ranking these days and only played a handful of events after the U.S. Open, but she has a lot of points to defend the first few months of the year -- a final in Sydney, a fourth round in Melbourne -- so she new she had to perform. This past week in Shenzhen she was dominant in her early rounds, delivering bagels to both Mandy Minella and Shuai Peng to make the final. Meanwhile fellow veteran Klara Zakopalova was making her way through the other end of the draw -- the long-time middle-tier player thumped doubles phenom Andrea Hlavackova and shocked second-seeded Marion Bartoli to make her first championship match in nearly two years. But though she put up a fight, the Czech eventually succumbed to Li's experience, and the hometown favorite set herself up for another strong showing Down Under.

Over in Doha many of the favorites were stunned from the start, but at the end two long-time stars were the ones left standing. One-time world #3 Nikolay Davydenko has struggled for much of the last two years to come back from wrist injury, but this was a first time in a while he looked like the star we once knew. The Russian kicked off his campaign with a solid win over recently resurgent Mikhail Youzhny and then pulled off a huge upset over red-hot David Ferrer to make the last round. In the other half of the draw Richard Gasquet, back in the top ten since 2008, made his own dramatic run to the championship match. Tested early by one of last year's newcomers, he was also pushed to the limit against qualifier Daniel Brands in the semis. He was ultimately too much for Davydenko in the final, though, coming back after losing the first set and taking his eighth career title. The Russian's fight to make another trip into the elite may have been stalled in Saturday's match, but his performance last week sure gives him hope. And Gasquet's continuation of the play that brought him a title in Bangkok at the end of last season promises to serve him well in 2013, if he can keep it up.

Aggie Radwanska's best results came a little earlier last year, and though she seemed to sputter in the fall thanks to a couple injuries, she picked up her game at the season-ender in Istanbul to make her first semi at the WTA finals. She made sure that momentum stuck to start 2013, and made quick work of her draw in Auckland -- though she got some help when Elena Vesnina ousted last year's comeback kid Yaroslava Shvedova and second-seeded Julia Goerges lost in her second round, she didn't face much of a challenge until she was taken to two tiebreaks in the semis against young American Jamie Hampton. But even given her fine start, the result was far from certain when in the final she faced Yanina Wickmayer, playing her third final in New Zealand -- she won back in 2010. Still Aga was relentless Saturday, keeping herself perfect and not dropping a set throughout the week. With one more title to start the year, the eleventh of her career, she seems she might still have what it takes to make a move back to the top.

Maybe more impressive was the performance of a woman looking to make her own move to the top. Serena Williams has only lost one match since last year's French Open, and is now a stone's throw from reclaiming the sport's top spot. She came to Brisbane as only the third seed, but even before Maria Sharapova withdrew from the event and Victoria Azarenka pulled out of their semi with a (weird!) toe injury she was probably still the favorite. Despite a potentially tough first round against rising American star Varvara Lepchenko, she was nevertheless brutal on her way to the final, dropping just fourteen games in three matches. In the bottom half Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was pulling off her own comeback, taking out two top seeds in straight sets. But she didn't have it in her to put up a fight against the relentless Serena who, in another trouncing, claimed her eighth title in less than twelve months. With that kind of performance going into the Australian Open, there's no reason to think she won't keep her play up to take her sixteenth Slam trophy.

But maybe the most pressure was on Andy Murray this week -- after his breakthrough year, it would have been a shame to see him falter so early in 2013. But after being pushed in his opener against Australian qualifier John Millman, he largely sailed through his later rounds. Meanwhile rising star Grigor Dimitrov was having his own stretch of luck in the bottom half of the draw -- he started by stunning second-seed Milos Raonic and followed up with a win over Jurgen Melzer, and after eventually ending Marcos Baghdatis's win streak in the semis made his first career singles final in Brisbane. But the Bulgarian's Cinderella run would come to end in Sunday's championship -- after keeping it close for a set, Murray pulled ahead in the second ultimately closed out his first title of the year. If there was any concern he was about to endure a sophomore slump, he might have silenced them entirely after his performance this week.

It's still early in the season, of course, but it sure looks like this week's winners are well on their way to proving recent successes were no fluke -- or that any slumps they've had may be short-lived. With just a week to go before the first Major of 2013, there may not have been a better time to show us what they've still got.

And it could make for some real excitement when it really heats up in Melbourne.