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.

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