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.

No comments: