January 16, 2015

2015 Australian Open: Ten to Watch

We may have only two weeks' worth of play in the books this tennis season, but just days before the start of the 2015 Australian Open there's already plenty to talk about.

As always the favorites will be out in full force at the year's first Major, but they're not the only ones who could make an impact Down Under. Some might be under-the-radar seeds, others might be huge underdogs, but a couple have a real shot at making a big statement in Melbourne. These players might not ultimately qualify as Cinderellas -- their campaigns in Australia may just consist of one or two big wins -- but they still could warrant a little extra attention. After all, just one match could upset the entire balance of either draw, and any performance might set the stage for what we see on Tour all year long.

So let's check out the ladies and gents who might just cause a stir at the Happy Slam.

The Women

Lucie Safarova

I know I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating -- Safarova was the only person to take a set off eventual champion Na Li in Melbourne last year, even holding match point in the second set. And rather than fold under the disappointment like others might have, the under-appreciated Czech went on the make the semis in Wimbledon and climbed to a career high #14 ranking after the U.S. Open. Safarova began the New Year in style too -- after stunning then-world #6 Genie Bouchard in Perth, she just barely lost to Serena Williams in her second round robin. This past week in Sydney she notched a somewhat surprising loss to Sam Stosur in the first round -- she had previously held a dominant 9-2 record against the former New York winner -- but might actually benefit from the week off before her next match. She's slated to meet Brisbane champ Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, and could need all the rest she can get for that.

Karolina Pliskova

The 2010 Junior champion in Melbourne has done a little better than her twin since hitting the women's Tour -- sister Krystina took the Girls' title in Wimbledon the same year, but has so far only peaked at #86 in singles. But after claiming her first crown in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, Karolina reached five finals in 2014, picking up titles in Seoul and Linz. More impressive, though, were wins over Angelique Kerber in Nürnberg, Sam Stosur in Wuhan and Ana Ivanovic at the U.S. Open. Pliskova has yet to make much of a dent at the Majors -- her best result so far was that third-round showing in New York last year. But to kick off the new season, she endured a three-plus hour marathon against two-time Aussie champ Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane, saving match points to get the win. And following upsets of Carla Suarez Navarro and Angelique Kerber this week in Sydney, she pushed Petra Kvitova through two tiebreaks in the championship match. She'll carry a middle-of-the-road #22 seed in Melbourne, but could far outperform expectations. With Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep in her quarter, she certainly has the opportunity to punch a huge hole or two in the draw.

Timea Bacsinszky

Melbourne hasn't traditionally been a great place for the Swiss Miss -- she's only won one main draw match in three appearances Down Under -- but something tells me that's about to change. After years of struggling with injury and seeing her ranking fall out of the top two hundred at the start of 2013, she slugged it out on the ITF circuit and endured qualifying rounds for both the French Open and Wimbledon last year. As the season was winding down, she managed to pull off one of the most surprising upsets of the year, stunning Maria Sharapova in straight sets in Wuhan. Now back in the top fifty, she continued her momentum into 2015 -- last week in Shenzhen, she handily defeated Petra Kvitova, reaching her first final in over four years. She'll be challenged from the outset in Melbourne -- her first round opponent is former world #1 Jelena Jankovic -- but the fifteenth seeded Serb has been relatively quiet recently and lost her opener in Brisbane to start the year. If Bacsinszky can take advantage of any weakness on JJ's part there's no reason she can't pull off the win.

Heather Watson

The top British woman has fallen a bit since her breakthrough 2012, the one which brought her maiden WTA title in Osaka -- after a promising start to the next year, illness took her out of the game for a few months and she couldn't win back to back matches for the balance of 2013. Even with some solid wins last year -- she beat Flavia Pennetta in Eastbourne and Dominika Cibulkova in Montréal -- she closed out the season with just one main draw win and began this year ranked just inside the top fifty. Things seem back on track this year though -- after just one win during her Hopman Cup round robins, she scored wins over three seeded players on her way to the Hobart final, which she'll contest against qualifier Madison Brengle on Saturday. She was dealt a tough section in Melbourne, opening against surprise Sydney semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova and slated for a second round against Cibulkova. But these are certainly winnable matches, and in a quarter where plenty of players could wear each other out early, Watson might just be the one able to sneak through.

Kurumi Nara

It's easy to have missed Nara over the last few months -- the teeny, five-foot-one woman from Japan hasn't scored too many high-profile wins, but she's still chugged away on Tour, taking a set off Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Washington final and even picking up her maiden WTA title in Rio last February. This past week in Hobart she rebounded after being bagelled in her opening set by Klara Koukalova, dropping just three games after that, and then took out third seed Camila Giorgi to make the semis. In her first trip to the Australian Open last year, she made her way to the third round, only losing two games in her early matches, and she'll look to improve on that in 2015. She faces a tough task early, though -- to start she'll square off against Aga Radwanska, probably still riding high off her defeat of Serena Williams in Perth -- but if she's able to overcome that hurdle there aren't too many more threats in her immediate path. And while she might not be ready to claim a title here anytime soon, she could certainly clear the way for those who might hope to do just that.

The Men

Kevin Anderson

The big-serving South African has hovered among the lower-seeds at Majors for a while, but his three fourth-round showings last year marked his most successful Slam season to date. It's been a while since he last won a title, but he has made five finals in the last two years. And more impressively he started to gain some traction against the sport's top players in 2014 -- he was 3-0 against Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka -- and climbed to a career high #16 in the world to end the year. This past week in Auckland, at an event marred by the withdrawals of David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo and early losses by Ernests Gulbis and Roberto Bautista Agut, he was the only seed to survive until the semis, and though he eventually lost to rising star Jiri Vesely, he might have an advantage when facing a best-of-five situation. He opens his Melbourne campaign against 2014 Challenger Tour champion Diego Schwartzman, who will certainly put up a fight, but outside that Anderson seems to have a pretty easy draw, and he could just be ready to take advantage of that.

Ivo Karlovic

Also in the power-server camp is the veteran Croat, who has already fired off ninety-seven aces this year, climbing to the #2 spot on the all-time list. He's slashed his ranking over the past twelve months, reaching to his highest position since 2009, and made the final at four events in 2014 while beating players like Grigor Dimitrov at Roland Garros and U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in Shanghai. He started the new season off strong too -- a low seventh seed in Doha last week, he stunned world #1 Novak Djokovic in the quarters, denying the heavy favorite a single break opportunity, and then pushed ultimate champion David Ferrer to three tiebreak sets in the semis. In Australia he's in the same quarter as Roger Federer and Andy Murray, but his first test will likely be in a second round match-up against wunderkind Nick Kyrgios. The two have never faced off before, but I have a feeling their first meeting could be quite a nail-bitter.

Viktor Troicki

About three-and-a-half years ago Troicki was ranked #12 in the world, but after a year-long doping ban kept him off the courts until the middle of last year, he fell into the eight hundreds. He had some nice results last fall, though, and climbed back up the rankings with wins over Mikhail Youzhny in Beijing and David Ferrer in Shenzhen. Though he fell just short of qualifying for Brisbane, he did make the cut in Sydney and opened with a win over Martin Klizan on his way to the final. He'll face off against on-paper favorite Mikhail Kukushkin for the title, but despite the Kazakh's wins over Juan Martin Del Potro and fifth seed Leonardo Mayer and his #66 position -- Troicki is just inside the top hundred right now, but surely going higher -- I might give the Serb the edge. It'll get tougher in Melbourne, of course -- looking for his first win at the Australian Open since 2012, he'll start against Auckland finalist Jiri Vesely, a boy man who's pulled off his own crop of upsets over the past year. With both men coming off a long week, this could be an ugly match, but whoever has the stamina to come out on top might be able to cause even more damage down the road.

Lucas Pouille

I told you guys to look out for the young Frenchman last year, didn't I? Still way under the radar, the qualifier at the Paris Masters got wins over Ivo Karlovic and Fabio Fognini during his run. This week in Auckland he rode a lucky loser's ticket all the way to the semis, taking a set off Adrian Mannarino before ultimately losing the match. Still ranked significantly outside the top hundred, he needed a wildcard entry to make a second trip to Melbourne and drew a pretty tough bracket -- he meets nineteenth seed Gael Monfils in his first round and the winner of a big-serving battle between Juan Martin Del Potro and Jerzy Janowicz in the second. Neither are particularly comforting prospects, but if he can go the distance versus his compatriot he could also take advantage of a tuckered out opponent a match later. Of course a lot of ducks have to fall into a very specific row, but at the very least Pouille has a shot at exhausting some big threats in the draw.

Aljaz Bedene

Most casual fans probably have never heard of the twenty-five year old Slovenian who topped out at #71 in the world a few years back. Now ranked in triple digits, he fought through qualifying rounds in Chennai and then stunned second seed Feliciano Lopez in straight sets. He didn't stop there, either -- he scored wins over two more heavily favored Spaniards, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Robert Bautista Agut on the way to his first ever Tour final. He ultimately lost to Stan Wawrinka, but certainly proved he has what it takes to hang out with the top guys. Hopefully he'll get the chance to do that in Melbourne -- he's already won his first two qualifying matches and will meet Michal Przysiezny for a spot in the main draw on Saturday. And if he gets placed in a friendly part of the bracket, he could ride his momentum to the first Major match wins of his career.

Of course I've only started to scrape the surface of players who might grab headlines this year in Melbourne. Be sure to check back this weekend for a full preview of everything you should expect at the 2015 Australian Open -- and maybe some of the things you shouldn't.


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