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.

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