January 20, 2014

Keep on Truckin'

Things have gotten a little crazy on the ladies' side of the draw, with Serena's exit on Sunday quickly followed by Maria Sharapova's squander of a set lead over a dominating Dominika Cibulkova to bow out of her fourth round. But with one major exception, the men have lived up to expectations -- seven of the top eight seeds have advanced to the quarterfinals, setting up what should be some real exciting matches to kick off Week Two of the Australian Open.

World #1 Rafael Nadal is the only favorite blessed with an untested challenger in his next match. Twenty-two year old Grigor Dimitrov has advanced to his first Slam quarter, though with Cinderella Roberto Bautista Agut taking out the biggest giant in his path, he hasn't faced anyone in the top ten this week. The Bulgarian played well in his first week, but has been tested -- he's dropped sets in three of four previous matches and barely eked out more winners than errors against two of his opponents. Nadal, on the other hand, has had an easier on-paper road to the Elite Eight, but he was pushed by Kei Nishikori in Monday's fourth round -- battling a wily challenger, blistered hands and an unruly shoelace, he spent more than three hours on court and was broken four times. He's certainly got experience on his side, though, and if he pounces early there's no reason he shouldn't make it back to the semis in Melbourne.

The battles might be a little more heated in other sections of the draw. Tomas Berdych is looking to improve upon a streak of three straight quarterfinal appearances Down Under and the way he's played so far he might just do it. The tall Czech has been unstoppable on serve, winning a stunning eighty-seven percent of his first serves and more than six in ten of his second attempts. He handily dismissed the only seed he's faced so far, needing less than two hours to overcome an exhausted Kevin Anderson on Saturday. He'll likely face a tougher time against David Ferrer next though -- the third seed leads the pair's head-to-head by a relatively slim 7-4 margin. The Spaniard has proven strong, coming back after losing sets to Florian Mayer and world #71 Adrian Mannarino, and is looking to get to the semis here for a third time. But despite the history, something tells me Berdych might have the edge this time -- he's been so much more dominant in each of his matches, it's hard to see him take his game down at all, even against a veteran champion like Ferrer.

Speaking of veterans, four-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer is hoping to prove he's still a contender at the Majors -- it's been a year since he made the Final Four at a Slam, and at #6 in the world he's become quite a dark horse at this one. After a couple easy early rounds, though, he was relentless against tenth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man who's gotten the better of him at a couple big events recently -- he only allowed a single break opportunity and ceded just one in five points on serve. It's the closest he's looked like his old self in quite some time -- he only won one title in the last eighteen months, and has started losing even to players ranked well out of the top ten. For his rebuilding efforts, though, Roger will take on Andy Murray, a runner-up here three times. The Scot has been challenged along the way, dropping a set to Lucky Loser Stephane Robert on Monday, but he's maintained a winning 11-9 record against the seventeen-time Major winner. Still, it's never too late to turn things around and Roger might just have the motivation to make another stab at the trophy.

But a couple other guys still have a lot to say about that. Three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in on a twenty-five match win streak in Melbourne and a twenty-nine match run since the U.S. Open final. He also hasn't dropped a set yet, but he hasn't really faced any challenge either. He's only been broken twice in his first four matches and has won nearly eighty percent of all his serves. But now he's slated for a rematch against Stanislas Wawrinka, who so nearly beat him in the fourth round here last year, and fell just short again in New York. It's been almost eight years since the Swiss has beaten the second seed, but he puts up a bigger fight every time, and after beating Tommy Robredo -- a man who'd won six of their seven career meetings -- he might have the belief he can turn things around again.

With the world's best athletes still fighting it out for the men's title at the Australian Open, it sure looks like we should expect a big week of play Down Under. I wouldn't expect any of these guys to let up even a little bit over the next few days, and while that doesn't necessarily rule out any more upsets, it might mean we're going to see some of the best the sport has to offer.

And with so much on the line, that's exactly the way it should be.

No comments: