January 26, 2015

Down to Business

As we get into the final days of a Grand Slam, you often expect the top contenders to turn up their games and for the cream of the tennis crop to rise. And while we all may be a little surprised to see who's still standing at the Australian Open, you can't help but agree that the sixteen singles players remaining have pulled out their best in the last few days. After all with the stakes so high, it's exactly the right time for these champions to put their nose to the grindstone and really show us what they've got.

The top half of the men's draw has probably, understandably, seen the least damage. World #1 Novak Djokovic hasn't dropped a set yet and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, though challenged slightly by Guillermo Garcia Lopez in the last round, was able to push forward again, reaching the quarters of his third straight Major. Even U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori, who'd lost opening sets to both Ivan Dodig and rising American star Steve Johnson, trounced an in-form David Ferrer on Monday, taking out the Doha titleist in a quick three sets. He sets up another meeting with Wawrinka, the man he shocked in a four-plus hour match in New York to make the semis, and while Stan may be eager for revenge, the young man from Japan could be even hungrier to make another play for a big title. Milos Raonic was the only man really tested in his fourth round -- Feliciano Lopez, who'd already survived two squeakers early during his run in Melbourne, fell just short of mounting another comeback in this fifth set. The top-ranked Canadian will have to rally big time for his next match-up -- he's only managed one set off Djokovic in their four previous meetings and he's never beaten a top ten player at a Slam. But we keep waiting for the big server to make a real statement and he might just be able to catch the heavy favorite a little off guard this time.

Save for one big exception, the bottom half of the bracket has also remained intact. Second seed Roger Federer, fresh off a dominating performance in Brisbane and one of the best seasons of anyone on Tour, was stunned a few days ago by a underappreciated Andreas Seppi, a man who'd only made one fourth round here in his decade-long career. But the Italian couldn't keep his luck going against 2014 breakout star Nick Kyrgios -- the Australian teenager lost the first two sets but dug deep, saving match point in the fourth and rebounding after squandering a 4-1 lead in the decider. Now in his second Major quarterfinal, he'll meet a resurgent Andy Murray, a man who beat him in two quick sets last year in Toronto. It'll be a tough task, no doubt -- the three-time finalist in Melbourne has dominated his opponents so far, losing just one set to Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday -- but I expect the young gun to bring out the heavy artillery and make a real play for a semifinal spot. The last men's quarter could probably hold the most drama -- Rafael Nadal hasn't lost to Tomas Berdych since way back in 2006, but he had a huge question mark hanging over his head the last few months while the Czech has been unstoppable through his first four matches. A win for Rafa could really cement his chances for a run at this title, but something tells me the Doha runner-up won't be so easy to brush aside.

The ladies' draw, of course, has had a few more ups and downs. But after early rounds decimated the bottom half of the bracket, top players seemed to get their games back in order. Since saving match points last week, second seed Maria Sharapova has only lost five games and looks in good shape to reclaim the crown she last won seven years ago. But 2014 Cinderella Genie Bouchard might have something to say about that -- the young Canadian really backed up her performance Down Under last year, and while she had a little hiccup on Sunday against Irina-Camelia Begu, she's mostly rolled through sets in the first week. She also pushed MaSha to a third in Paris last year and scored her first big win over Serena Williams in Perth -- while she's had trouble in the past against the very elite, she might finally be ready to turn her luck around. Simona Halep is also making quite a case for her first Major -- the 2014 Roland Garros finalist pulled off her own win over Serena in Singapore to finish off the year and has crushed each of her opponents so far. She only faces her first seeded player in the quarters though -- U.S. Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova got a bit of a pass with Ana Ivanovic's ouster in the first round, but really has proven herself in the first week, even taking out my favorite dark horse Karolina Pliskova in straight sets. It should be Halep's match to lose, but the Russian has always thrived in Melbourne and could surprise us once more.

But the biggest shake-ups may have occurred in the top half of the women's bracket, where even the favorite has struggled a bit. Five-time champion Serena Williams, who'd been a little shaky early on in 2015, dropped her opening set to relatively unknown Elina Svitolina in her third round and risked a second straight loss to Garbiñe Muguruza on Monday. Still she's the only top ten player alive in this quarter, but the threats are far from over. Last year's runner-up in Australia, Dominika Cibulkova, seems to have found her game again after a weak twelve months -- she's handled some early challenges in surprising form and last night halted Victoria Azarenka's comeback dead in its tracks. She's given Serena a run for the money in the past, and though she's a huge underdog in this match, she's pulled off some big upsets before. But the players with the most opportunity are those in the last quarter. Young American Madison Keys has parlayed a new partnership with coach Lindsay Davenport into a huge win over Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova in the third round and kept her run going with a win over Hobart finalist Madison Brengle. And veteran champion Venus Williams, straight off a title in Auckland to start the year, kept her win streak going coming back from a set down against Camila Giorgi on Saturday and stunning sixth seed Aga Radwanska in today's fourth round. It's her first Slam quarterfinal since 2010, and the way she's playing she might just go even farther.

With just a few matches left before this year's champions are decided, all these players can see the finish line from where they stand, so it's time for them to show us what they're made of. There's always room for a couple more surprises -- and anyone still alive might just have what it takes to bring it all home.

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