January 9, 2014

Australian Open: 10 Things I Want to See

Every player comes to a Grand Slam with a couple goals -- whether it's to upset a top seed or to improve on their performance from last year, to make the second week or to win the whole darn thing. Of course not everyone can take home the trophy, especially with the Majors so heavily dominated by a select handful over the last couple years.

But that doesn't mean something short of victory is a failure, and there are plenty of things that could happen over the next two weeks that would make this a very successful and exciting time in Melbourne...even for the players who aren't ultimately crowned champions.

So I've decided to put together a list of things that I'm looking forward to this fortnight. Some are broad, some super specific, many are related, but importantly most of them are well inside the realm of possibility. And with the New Year bringing with it a whole slew of fresh possibilities for the season, there might be no better time to set expectations high.

And so without further adieu, and in no particular order, here's my Wish List for the 2014 Australian Open.

10. Half the seeds lose in the first round

"What a horrible thing to wish for! Seriously, what kind of person are you?"

Okay, calm down. It's not that I wish many any of the favorites harm, but let's face it -- it's kind of fun to watch an underdog come through. Whether you watched seventeen-year-old Victoria Duval stay tough against Sam Stosur at the U.S. Open last year or sat open-jawed as triple-digit-ranked Steve Darcis sent Rafael Nadal packing at Wimbledon, part of you was a little exhilarated by these upsets. No one cares when #98 beats #73 -- but when he beats someone in the top ten, heck someone in the top thirty, you sit up and take notice.

Of course if so many favorites lose early, it isn't all good for the unknowns -- having someone else clear the path for them can make others' ultimate victories less sweet -- but a breakout on such a big stage could really launch the seasons and careers of some next generation stars. The challenge would be for these players to keep up their momentum after the first few days unlike Duval, losing to Daniela Hantuchova in her second round, and Darcis who pulled out right after his historic win. After all if the second week in Melbourne ends up looking like a Challenger event, we should at least see Major-quality play in the back half of the tournament.

9. The Bad Boys make good

It's not unusual for players on the men's Tour -- or the women's for that matter -- to lose their tempers now and then, but usually the ones getting mad have already more than proven themselves on court. Meanwhile the most recent crop of upstarts carry some spotty records at best...some long runs of losses at worst...yet they seem entitled to all sorts of consideration nonetheless. It would be nice for some of them to prove they deserve it this time around.

Ryan Harrison's has long been hailed as the future of American men's tennis, but despite a couple semi showings at lesser tournaments over the years, he's made more headlines for his on court tantrums, receiving fines for racquet abuse and earning the nickname "Mr. Cranky Pants" from Mary Carillo. Bernard Tomic, once a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, has lost in or before the second round in six Majors since and last year lost his driver's license after a series of traffic infractions. And Donald Young's profanity-laced tirade against the USTA in 2011 is only surpassed in arrogance by the seventeen-match losing streak that followed. All of these guys, understandably, have seen their rankings fall -- sometimes precipitously -- from their highs when prospects were greatest.

Whether they are able to turn their luck around in Melbourne remains to be seen. Tomic managed wins over Marcel Granollers and Alexandr Dolgopolov on his way to the Sydney semis -- and may still go further. Harrison gained entry to that event with a win over eighth qualifying seed Alex Bogomolov, a fallen angel himself, but lost immediately after to Nicolas Mahut. And Donald Young, having reached the second round in Auckland, put up a fight but eventually lost there to three-time defending champion David Ferrer. But if any of them can muster the strength for a good showing and keep a positive attitude during it, they might just see their images get a boost along with their careers.

8. Vera Zvonareva wins a match (or more!)

I know I'm not the only one who's missed Bepa.

The former world #2 has only played one match since the 2012 Olympics, when a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery took her out of the game for seventeen months. She's been productive in the meantime, earning a second college degree and all, but her return to the court was less than spectacular -- cursed with an unfortunate opener against top seed and eventual winner Na Li in Shenzhen, she put up a fight in the first set but eventually lost in straights.

The former world #2 -- a semifinalist in 2011 and a doubles titleist a year later -- makes her return to Grand Slam play with a protected ranking, but with so little match action leading up to the even, is far from a favorite. Still the often-volatile Russian has the kind of talent even those in the top twenty crave -- she stunned three higher-ranked players on her way to the Wimbledon final three-plus years ago, and despite a colossal meltdown in her Major championship debut, pulled herself together and repeated the feat in New York a few months later. She also successfully exacted revenge on her vanquishers, beating that year's U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters at the year-ending event and Serena Williams a few months later in Eastbourne.

Without a seeding it's very possible that Vera gets dealt a difficult, if not impossible, hand in Melbourne, so I'm not holding out a lot of hope. But if anyone's going to be a spoiler in the women's draw, my money's on her. And if she gets her confidence up early, there's no telling where she'd go from there.

7. A qualifier or wildcard reaches the semis

Hey, it's happened before. Then-#86 Alexandra Stevenson won eight matches in a row before losing to Lindsay Davenport in the 1999 Wimbledon semis, and once-unknown John McEnroe did the same twenty-two years earlier, eventually dropping to career rival Jimmy Connors.

More recently we've only had some close calls. David Goffin was ranked #109 in the world when he made the French Open fourth round a few years back, and on-the-rebound Kaia Kanepi was match points shy of the semis at Wimbledon 2010. It would be nice if we saw someone finally make a breakthrough in 2013.

So who are the contenders for this honor? Goffin has another opportunity to make a mark -- he's the third seed in the qualifying bracket -- but perhaps a better chance lies with Martin Klizan. The twenty-four year old Slovak was ranked in the top thirty less than a year ago, and though he failed to defend his title in St. Petersburg, he might be able to mount a comeback now. And British breakthrough Heather Watson has stumbled a bit since making the third round her last year, but the recent top-forty player has scored some big wins in the past and could be a spoiler this time too.

There's also plenty of talent among the wildcards. Jarmila Gajdosova was once ranked in the top twenty-five, but surprisingly has never won a singles match at her home Slam. And teenager Ashleigh Barty (and her partner veteran Casey Dellacqua) played in three Major doubles finals last year -- the rising star might just be ready to launch a career on her own this year. Meanwhile James Duckworth has yet to make a big statement since leaving the junior circuit, but now the twenty-one year old is the right age to do something big. It's not all about the Aussies, though -- American Steve Johnson secured his spot in Melbourne with a U.S. Playoff win. He's already made a third round in New York, and just this week scored a huge win over world #20 Kevin Anderson in Auckland. If he keeps up his game, it could just be his turn to make a statement on a global stage.

6. A Cinderella follows through

It's not enough for a player to have one great performance, of course -- they need to prove it was not a fluke and continue performing in the months and years to come. In the extreme, Rafael Nadal exploded at the 2005 French Open as a relatively unknown #5 seed and went on to become arguably the best clay courter of all time. But even Angelique Kerber, ranked #92 in the world when she made the U.S. Open semis in 2011, has also reached the quarters in Paris and the final four at Wimbledon and has spent the last eighteen months or so in the top ten.

This year more than a few have a chance to show they're no one-hit wonders. Flavia Pennetta, not long ago ranked in single digits, didn't exactly come out of nowhere last year, but the thirty-one year old veteran did reach her first career Slam semi in New York with wins over countrywomen Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. She only won one match the rest of the season, though, and despite having climbed back up into seeding territory for the Australian Open, she still has something to prove. It's a tall order, but I'd like to see her make at least the fourth round, maybe even a quarterfinal, and if she gets a good draw, she might just do it.

Then there's Jerzy Janowicz, the surprise finalist at the Paris Masters in 2012 who made his way to the semis at Wimbledon a few months later. Problem is, his magical run at the All England Club only claimed one top-twenty player as a victim. His biggest win since then was over world #34 Julien Benneteau in Montreal, and he lost his season opener in Sydney to Alexandr Dolgopolov. He's made his way to seeding at the Open this year, so expectations will be high for his second main draw appearance Down Under, but he's got the talent that can easily get him to the quarters or better.

Both these athletes have a little time however, to deliver -- it'll be months before their Cinderella points come off their rankings. Meanwhile Elena Vesnina, then fresh off her first career title in Hobart, matched her deepest Major run with a fourth round showing last year. She scored a couple other big wins during the season -- Na Li in Eastbourne, Kerber in New Haven -- but could lose a bunch of ground if she doesn't repeat. And Jeremy Chardy, the only unseeded man to make the quarters, has more to defend here than he picked up at all of last year's Masters events combined. He did make the semi in Brisbane though, even taking a set off Roger Federer, but the pressure's only going to build from here. And of course there's Sloane Stephens, the stunner in Australia last year. She's a stone's throw away from the top ten, but a wrist injury forced her out of Sydney this week, so her prospects are questionable. Still, she might just be the U.S.'s best hope for a NextGen star.

Which brings me to my next wish...

5. A young American steps up

This has been a dream of (U.S.-based) pundits for a long time. Yes, we have Serena and Venus Williams, but since Andy Roddick retired a few years back, we have no active American man holding a Grand Slam title. Maybe this is the year that happens.

The best hopes lie with John Isner and Sam Querrey, of course, as they have for several years. But while both have done a fair amount of legwork in the top twenty, with two-time Masters finalist Isner even peaking in the single-digits, they only have one Major quarterfinal between them. And neither is all that young anymore -- at twenty-six, Querrey is older than any man who's won his first Slam since Albert Costa in 2002. I hate to say it, but even with so many top-hundred players in their thirties, these men's best shot may be behind them.

That's not to say all is lost for the Americans. Eyes will be on the likes of Donald Young, Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson, of course, but let's not forget some others. Tim Smyczek is just off his career high ranking and a third round run at the U.S. Open; he's also scored wins over Jurgen Melzer, Fernando Verdasco and Kei Nishikori in his short career. And Jack Sock, a Junior champion in New York, has already captured a mixed doubles championship as an adult. This would be his first main draw in Melbourne and it would be great to see him take advantage of that.

Perhaps the better shot for the U.S., though, lies with the ladies. Sloane Stephens made a case for herself as the new face of American women's tennis, but others have just a good a shot at carrying the flag. Twenty-four year old Jamie Hampton worked her way to the fourth round at Roland Garros, easily the worst venue for her compatriots in recent years, beat Aga Radwanska on the way to the Eastbourne final and opened 2014 with a quarterfinal win in Auckland. And Madison Keys hasn't reached the same heights quite yet, but she did reach third rounds in two Majors last season and notched wins over top players like Dominika Cibulkova and Na Li. Even more off the radar, Alison Riske put up quite a fight against eventual Auckland champion Ana Ivanovic in the first round last week and beat former world #13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to the Hobart quarters. Any of them could cement their careers this fortnight.

4. A Junior becomes an adult

Many of the youngsters discussed in the last section could be re-classified here, but there is a more global lack of success among teenagers these days. Remember when Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis were setting one "youngest ever" record after another? Well, we don't see much of that these days. In fact, fourteen women and thirty men ranked in the top hundred of their respective circuits are in their thirties, and none of the ATP's athletes are in their teens. But there are a couple "kids" out there who could make an impact.

Grigor Dimitrov, dubbed "Baby Fed" years ago, won the Boys' Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2008, but didn't break into double digits until three years later. He did start to gain traction last season, though, stunning Novak Djokovic in Madrid and claiming his first Tour title in Stockholm by taking down world #3 David Ferrer in the final. The Bulgarian hasn't ever put up a big fight at a Major -- his best result yet was a third round at last year's French Open -- but this could be his chance to really break through. With three wins over top ten players in the last twelve months, he's proven he can hit with the best in the sport -- now he just needs to do it on a big stage.

Simona Halep, the 2008 Girls' champion at Roland Garros, has had a little more luck at the Majors, beating then-French Open champ Na Li in New York in 2011 and reaching the fourth round there last year. The young Romanian made the semis in Rome in May and then won three straight non-Slam titles over the summer -- she tacked on number four in New Haven. She's now #11 in the world and poised to go even higher -- a run deep into the second week would vault her straight into that realm.

3. Someone outside the top ten wins the title

It happens from time to time -- Marion Bartoli did it not that long ago -- but not very often. And with a handful of players combining to win the majority of Majors over the last decade, chances for someone else -- even someone in the high single digits -- to break through the ceiling are slim. Still, it's certainly possible for the draws to open up or for an underdog to find his or her stride. Isner could do it, so may Halep, but so might a few others.

Milos Raonic had his first taste of the big leagues in Melbourne a few years back and has since picked up five titles and climbed to eleventh in the world. The young Canadian still hasn't passed the fourth round of a Major despite a big serve and some serious court smarts, but with twelve wins over top ten players in his short career, he's one of those seeds that not even the favorites want to see in their section of the draw. And 2009 semifinalist Fernando Verdasco was on the verge of playing for the championship that year. He's fallen a bit out of favor since then, but a run to the Wimbledon quarters -- where he took eventual champion Andy Murray to five sets -- proves he's not yet ready to slink away. He's ranked just outside the top thirty, so it certainly won't be easy, but he's the kind of player that might just sneak under the radar.

Ana Ivanovic knows what it likes to play in the final here. The former world #1 reached the championship match in 2008, one Slam before winning the French Open. It's been a long road back for the Serb -- after a handful of titles at the turn of the decade, she struggled to close the deal for two straight years. But she's coming straight off a trophy in Auckland, beating seven-time Major winner for it, and could be ready to play for an even bigger crown. Meanwhile largely unknown Carla Suarrez Navarro is still looking for her first career title -- she's lost all five finals she's played, all on clay -- but she made her first big statement here five years ago with a win over then-#6 Venus. Last year she beat Angelique Kerber in New York and finally cracked the top twenty. Objectively she stands a better shot of winning the French Open as a low seed, but she's surprised us all here before and might just do it again.

2. Juan Martin Del Potro makes the final (or better!)

DelPo was ranked #6 when he stunned Roger Federer -- and, frankly, the whole tennis world -- at the 2009 U.S. he's back in the top five. He won four titles in 2013, reached his first Slam semi since then, and scored wins over every player in the top six. He's already reached the semifinal in Sydney, and as long as he stays healthy he looks primed to take that title too.

That is, of course, always the concern for the big guy. The six-foot-six Argentine has suffered multiple injuries through the years -- his thigh, his wrist, his shoulder -- and with no rest between a likely four match win streak and the first Major of the year, he does risk exhaustion in the coming weeks, especially now that he'll be playing best-of-five. But despite his ground breaking run four years ago, many pundits only consider the big four real contenders at the Slams, and Del Potro, with fourteen career wins against Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer -- eight since making his big comeback in 2011, should be out to prove them wrong. He's made the quarterfinals in Melbourne twice, but this could be the year he surpasses that, and maybe -- hopefully -- goes all the way.

1. Victoria Azarenka beats Serena

Like pretty much every player in the field -- in history, in fact -- Vika has an abysmal on-paper record against the world #1. But there was a time, way back when, that Azarenka nearly beat her here in Melbourne. And her three victories have come on pretty big stages. She's even taken a set off Williams in the last two Slam finals they've played and comes Down Under as a two-time defending champion. Still, the young Belorussian has never managed victory over her rival at a Major, where Serena so often plays at a whole other level.

It's time for her to change that.

Of course, as the top two seeds at the Open, for them to meet, it will have to be in the final and it would mean Vika scores the elusive three-peat -- something no woman has done in Australia for fourteen years -- which kind of goes against my general "new storyline" theme. But it seems she's the one young star out there that has the most potential to really fill up her trophy case. She might as well get a jump on it now.

Wow, is it strange to have gotten through a whole Grand Slam preview piece without spilling digital ink on three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, world #1 Rafael Nadal or 2008 winner Maria Sharapova?

Fear not -- I'll get to the favorites and the rest of the field in my blogcast over the weekend.

In the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's Australian Open. At the start of the year, when anything can still happen, there may be no better time to reach for the stars.

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