January 22, 2015

By the Skin of Their Teeth

It's been a warm couple days Down Under, but it wasn't just the rising temperatures that put the heat on players at the Australian Open. More than a couple favorites were given quite the run-around during their second round matches by some very capable opponents. And how the survivors regroup for their next challenges could reveal a lot about their prospects down the road, both here and for the rest of the year.

You might not expect too much out of low-seeded Elina Svitolina -- the twenty-year-old has only won a couple matches in Melbourne during her short career, but she did beat Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati last year and Angelique Kerber earlier this month in Brisbane. The two-time Junior Grand Slam finalist -- she won the French when she was fifteen -- certainly has the potential to make her mark on Tour in the coming years, and on Thursday she showed she can stay tough under pressure. She was pushed through two long sets by U.S. college champion Nicole Gibbs, recovering from a 1-5 deficit in the second and then keeping her opponent from serving out the set. The young Ukrainian's path forward is admittedly the toughest of this group -- she'll face Serena Williams in the next round, and the top seed allowed her just three games in their one previous meeting. But Serena's notched some surprising losses already this year and was down set points against one-time Wimbledon rival Vera Zvonareva in her last match. She's also gone home early in three of the last four Majors, so Svitolina does have a chance. And even if she doesn't ultimately emerge the victor, how she handles the challenge could say more than the eventual scoreline.

Twelfth seed Feliciano Lopez has already been on the wrong side of a couple scorelines this week. The veteran Spaniard is coming off the best year of his career, but he's had to rally big time in his first two matches -- against American wildcard Denis Kudla in his opener, he found himself down two-sets-to-one and fought off match points late in the decider before finally closing out the match 10-8 in the fifth. He understandably seemed tuckered out in Thursday's heat, losing the first two sets to Auckland finalist Adrian Mannarino and facing another match point. But his opponent suffered more late in the match -- after losing the third set tiebreak, the Frenchman lost four games in a row before retiring, and Feli again squeaked through a round he'd come so close to dropping. Next up he'll face big serving Jerzy Janowicz, another man who barely edged out a win Thursday -- he came back from two-sets-to-one down against Gael Monfils to reach his third straight third round in Melbourne. The pair have never met before, and after the long couple matches they've each faced, this one could be a little messy. But Feli will want to make a statement here and prove he's getting by on more than just a little bit of luck.

A couple other champions, though, may use their close calls in the last round to fuel them to even more dominating performances throughout the week.

Coming into the Australian Open, 2008 champ Maria Sharapova had been one of the favorites for the crown -- a solid run to the Brisbane title and a one-sided win over Petra Martic in her first round seemed to underscore the Russian's chances. She began her second round against qualifier Alexandra Panova -- a woman who'd just won her first Major main draw match this week -- in similar fashion, breaking three times and taking the opening set in under half an hour. But the underdog found a way to rally, holding onto an early lead in the second to force a decider, and even running off with a most unlikely two-break advantage in the third. But as she often does, MaSha was able to play her best when she was under the most pressure -- she saved three match points on Panova's serve and won the last three games with a whirlwind of powerful winners. She might not have expected a test so soon in her campaign, but it may have lit a fire under the world #2 -- against thirty-first seed Zarina Diyas on Friday, I expect her to be relentless and wouldn't be surprised if she finished off the match in under an hour.

Hopefully Rafael Nadal can do the same, though it's arguably a much more difficult ask. The 2009 titleist in Melbourne may have retained the #3 seed this fortnight, but after an injury-addled 2014 season and a disappointing start in Doha, he was still a long shot to make even the second week here. He kicked off his run strongly though, needing just over ninety minutes to dispatch former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny in what could have been a tough early test. His bigger challenge came unexpectedly a match later, when qualifier Tim Smyczek threatened to become the fourth sub-#100 player to beat the Grand Slam champion in the past year. The American took a two-set-to-one lead on an ailing Rafa Wednesday, but the Spaniard dug deep himself, grinding to a deciding set and finally converting his fourth match point after more than four hours on court. He was barely spared a rematch against one-time Wimbledon vanquisher Lukas Rosol and will instead meet unseeded Dudi Sela for a ticket into the second week. Hopefully his struggles over the last few months and days haven't taken too much out of him and he'll have enough time to recover.

After all, there's still a lot of action left to be played before the winners are finally crowned at the Australian Open. And the most successful players will be the ones who not only scrape by early challenges, but turn them into even bigger opportunities.

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