January 16, 2014

Surviving and Thriving

We've gotten to that point of the Australian Open where all the players remaining in the draws should be seeded, but it wouldn't be a Grand Slam if everything went according to plan. And while the extreme weather conditions certainly took a toll on the players over the last few days, a couple stalwarts not only battled through the heat, but may have done better in it -- and it wasn't always who you'd expect.

Yes, most of the favorites are still alive -- Serena Williams has dropped just six games so far while Victoria Azarenka rebounded from a tougher-than-expected first round and advanced with less drama over a tricky Barbora Zahlavova Strycova yesterday. On the men's side Rafael Nadal got a relative pass in the first round when Bernard Tomic retired a set in, but still didn't seem phased in the second round. And three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic has only been broken once in his first two matches. But some have been a little battered -- Maria Sharapova barely survived a scorcher on Day Four, holding and losing leads against a relentless Karin Knapp before finally eking out win, 10-8 in the third. And the biggest (literally) casualty on the men's side, Juan Martin Del Potro, battled until one in the morning, finally bowing out to rising Spanish star Roberto Bautista Agut after nearly four hours on court.

Other players may have flown a bit more under the radar during the last few days, but their passage into the third round creates a big opportunity for them.

It wasn't long ago that Sam Querrey was a top twenty player, so we know he's got the talent to play at this level. Still even at his best he hasn't made it out of the fourth round of a Major. The American won his last title over a year ago in Los Angeles and lost to two lower ranked players at warm-up events this year. He opened his eighth straight Melbourne campaign with a relatively quick win over Santiago Giraldo, though, and took just over ninety minutes to defeat twenty-third seed Ernests Gulbis on Wednesday. His next opponent, an on-the-rise Fabio Fognini, hasn't spent a lot of time on court either, benefiting from Alex Bogomolov's retirement in their opener, but he's also never made many strides at this event -- this is only the second year he's won a match Down Under. If Querrey's on his game, he might just be able to make a case to climb back into the elite.

The top half of the men's draw has seen a few more players sneak through. Former top-thirty player Martin Klizan and world #119 Stephane Robert set up the only all-Lucky Loser third round in either field -- maybe the only one ever. Both lost their final qualifying matches (incidentally, both to players who were ousted from the main draw in the last round), but they gained entry when Nicolas Almagro and Phillipp Kohlschreiber respectively pulled out of the event. This is the best showing France's Robert has put up at a Major, but he hasn't faced a seeded player yet. Klizan, on the other had, was up two sets on John Isner before the top-ranked American retired from their opener -- a win over his next opponent would match his 2012 U.S. Open performance. Of course, whoever wins would come under more pressure down the road -- three-time finalist Andy Murray will likely be waiting for them next -- but there's no reason to expect they won't put up a big fight when they get there.

The ladies also have put together a non-seeded third round, though perhaps these contenders are a little more accustomed to the big stage. Jie Zheng was a semifinalist in Melbourne four years ago and has wins over the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur and Maria Sharapova under her belt. She's been hampered by injury on and off, though, so has fallen a bit down the rankings, but she pounced back this week, duly taking out twelfth seed Roberta Vinci and following up with a three-setter against up-and-comer Madison Keys. And veteran Casey Dellacqua, who's well off her career high ranking of #38 in the world, has really made a name for herself in the doubles circuit. She and partner Ashleigh Barty played in three Grand Slam finals last year, including this one, and she's even claimed a mixed French Open crown. She opened strong against one-time #2 Vera Zvonareva, admittedly in a rebuilding phase, but then backed it up by serving Kirsten Flipkens a bagel set a round later. The Aussie will have the crowd behind her against Zheng, but with either little-known Lauren Davis or untested Eugenie Bouchard as a fourth round opponent, the winner could have a great shot at making the second week.

But perhaps it's a seeded player that's put up the most unexpected fight so far in Melbourne. Dominika Cibulkova has been known for her roller coaster-like play, more than once accumulating huge leads and then squandering them. But she is a solid player -- she stunned Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros a few years back and Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon the previous season, both times when her opponent was ranked #1 in the world -- still with six first round losses in the back half of 2013, her star had fallen a bit. But diminutive Domi came out swinging this week -- she never trailed one-time Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in her opener and in the blazing Thursday heat finished of Stefanie Voegele in the time it took Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp to get halfway through their third set. Up next she has Carla Suarez Navarro, one of my dark horses of this tournament, but the Spaniard spent a lot more time on court in her second round and might not be up for the challenge. And while temperatures are expected to drop off considerably in time for their face-off, Cibulkova's relatively easier early matches might give her the edge.

The players left standing at the Australian Open have certainly already been put through the wringer, either by their opponents or by the heat. But all these guys have stayed strong, no matter how brutal the conditions were out there, and if they can continue to keep themselves together, any one of them could cause a big stir as we get closer and closer to that title.

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