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.

No comments: