January 19, 2014

Wide Open...?

Well, there's really only one thing to talk about this morning at the Australian Open.

On a relatively cool Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, Australia, world #14 Ana Ivanovic, who'd never so much as lost a set to five-time champion Serena Williams, took advantage of some weak(-ish) serving and slow(-ish) movement from her opponent, cranked out some powerful winners and charged aggressively to the net -- and scored her first ever win over the heavy favorite Down Under.

It was the third year in a row that Serena was sent home packing and marked Ana's first trip to the quarters here since she made the final in 2008 -- in fact, only her second Elite Eight showing since winning Roland Garros that year.

But with the most dominant player the sport's seen in recent years now out of the mix -- Williams was riding a twenty-five match win streak since Cincinnati last year -- has that virtually locked in a third straight title for second seed Victoria Azarenka, or has it given the slew of other ladies still alive the opportunity to go home with the trophy?

Ivanovic certainly can't be counted out -- she's put together a solid run herself, having beaten the other Williams in the Auckland final earlier this month and is now 9-0 on the season. Her next challenge is ingénue Eugenie Bouchard, who's playing in her first Australian Open main draw and had never won more than two matches at a Major before this. She did beat Ana last year at Wimbledon, but the young Canadian has only faced one player ranked in double digits all week -- #68 Lauren Davis -- and may be a bit overwhelmed in the next round.

The bottom half of her section will clearly hold the bigger threat -- two-time finalist Na Li had a little hiccup in her third round against Lucie Safarova but rolled through Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday, dropping just two games to last year's quarterfinalist. And Flavia Pennetta, who upset ninth seeded Angelique Kerber in their fourth round, is looking to make her second consecutive Slam semi. She actually won her last meeting with Li, though that was over four years ago in Sydney, but if her comeback is real she might just be able to repeat that score.

The ladies in the bottom half of the draw will contest their fourth round matches on Monday, and there are plenty of contenders for the title here as well. Azarenka is clearly the favorite, but 2008 Maria Sharapova rebounded nicely after a tough second round to close out Alize Cornet and could play with more confidence now that her nemesis is out of the field. And dark horses like Simona Halep and super underdog Garbine Muguruza, the only non-seeded player left in this bracket, have scored wins that prove they have the talent to run to the final or better.

But perhaps a couple other ladies are breathing the biggest sigh of relief. Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic, both ranked in the top ten and both flying way under the radar in Melbourne, have each lost a Major final to Serena, and if either make it to a championship here, she could arguably be considered the favorite. Aga, who's made the quarterfinals here three years in a row, may have squandered her best shot at a Wimbledon title when she lost to Sabine Lisicki in the semis last year. She's going to want to take this opportunity seriously. And JJ, who herself stunned Serena here in 2008 to make the Final Four, hasn't lost a set yet through her first three matches. She had a little trouble closing out Kurumi Nara on Saturday, and with Halep standing between her and a spot in the quarters, she'll have her work cut out for her. Still, she's put up the biggest fight against the top five over the last year, even when she's lost. It could finally be her turn to come up on the winning end of things.

Serena's exit certainly opens the door for the rest of the field. And while there are of course a couple players that are more likely to take advantage of the opportunity than others, it doesn't mean the results in Week Two of the Australian Open will be entirely predictable. And for the ladies who're able to take advantage of these holes, the rewards could be better than they'd ever dreamed.

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