January 14, 2014

It's Getting Hot in Here...

We've got a full round's worth of action in the books for this year's Australian Open, and it's not just the athletes claiming victims in Melbourne. We've already had nine retirements in the first two days, an Open Era record for one round -- and while triple-digit temps weren't responsible for all of them, it seems likely they will result in a few more over the days to come. And that could mean the favorites face some tougher-than-expected times on court -- and may just open open the door for some others in the field.

Day One saw two top ten women fall by the wayside. Sara Errani, who began her climb to the top here two years ago, was sent home in her opener for a second straight year, while 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was stunned by unknown Thai Luksika Kumkhum. The men suffered their own losses too -- twelfth seeded Tommy Haas retired with a shoulder injury late in his second set, while Auckland champion John Isner, already pushing his luck with an ankle injury there, got two sets down to qualifier Martin Klizan in Tuesday's heat before pulling the plug. Even those that survived were tested. Two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, historically not great in the heat, already withstood a challenge from world #91 Johanna Larsson -- the little-known Swede served for the first set twice before relenting in the second. And eighteenth-seeded Gilles Simon, who arrived in Melbourne on crutches after rolling his ankle at an exhibition last week, marked more time on court than he wanted in his opener -- he needed four and a half hours and a thirty-game final set to dispatch German Daniel Brands.

So clearly where there are not holes in the draw, the fabric may be worn pretty thin.

Julia Goerges, ranked in the top twenty a year ago, got the better of Errani in dominating form on Monday and won her first match at a Major since reaching the fourth round here in 2013. The next seed she'd face is wholly untested Eugenie Bouchard, who's playing her first Australian Open main draw -- if Goerges keeps playing aggressive, there's no reason she can't match or beat her previous showing here. And American Alison Riske, who upset Elena Vesnina on Monday, would have been in Kvitova's section of the draw. While there are plenty of threats still around -- Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki and U.S. Open Cinderella Flavia Pennetta to name a few -- she might be able to pull off a few more surprises.

But also keep an eye on super-underdog Garbine Muguruza. The young Spaniard sailed through the qualifiers in Hobart and stunned Klara Zakopalova for her maiden title. Now in the top forty, she continued her run with a win over twenty-fourth seed Kaia Kanepi in her first round. Though she's never won more than a match at a Major and while most of the favorites in her quarter are still alive, there's reason to keep believing -- Caroline Wozniacki, her probable third round opponent, went down in straight sets to Muguruza just last year in Miami, so there may be no better time make a breakthrough.

On the men's side, fewer seeds have been sent packing, but plenty have been pushed to the limit. Former top ten player Marin Cilic, Simon's challenger in the next round, was pushed in Tuesday's heat as well, taking more than three hours to get past Spain's Marcel Granollers. It's been several years since he's faced the Frenchman, but as the relatively fresher player, he might be able to end a three-match losing steak. And Donald Young, looking to turn around his career -- and his reputation -- could take advantage of an exhausted Andreas Seppi on Thursday. The veteran Italian squandered a two-set lead to hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt, and might not have it in him to rebound so quickly.

But let's also not count out Guillermo Garcia Lopez, the man who was up a set and a break when Haas retired. The three men he could face over the next two rounds have combined to spend nearly ten hours on court already, with nineteenth seeded Kevin Anderson, arguably the biggest threat among that group, putting in the most time. GGL, pro since 2002, has never made it past the third round of any Major, but he did notch wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Janko Tipsarevic last year -- and he has nine career wins over top ten players -- so he shouldn't be overlooked. If he stays rested and focused, he could be the Cinderella of this Slam.

Of course the favorites in the field -- all of whom are still alive -- will have a lot to say about any of these guys' chances. Though as the temperature and the pressure heats up, it could be out of their control. Still, it's important for everyone in the field to keep their cool -- to stay healthy and play their best. After all, no one wants to have this title decided by the weather.

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