January 14, 2015

The Pressure's On

We're counting down the days to the start of the first Grand Slam of the year, and while a couple players are taking every chance they get to make a case for themselves at the Australian Open, a few others haven't quite put up the numbers they'd hoped for. And with so much at stake in Melbourne, they may need to take the next couple days to regroup and get themselves on a better track for the New Year.

The top couple seeds haven't yet seen action in Hobart, but they're going to want top hope for better results than the other favorites have seen so far. Former Aussie semifinalist Sloane Stephens has had some of her best results Down Under, but after a disappointing 2014 season, she's fallen a bit down the rankings. She lost her second round last week in Auckland after a battle with fellow American Lauren Davis, and this week fell just as early, this time to Heather Watson in straight sets. And Klara Koukalova, who at this time last year was having a bit of a career resurgence -- she was defending runner-up points in Hobart this week -- has yet to win a match in 2015. After marking a first set bagel against Kurumi Nara, she only won three more games. She doesn't have too much on the line in Melbourne -- she lost to Sam Stosur in her opener -- but if she wants to reassert herself again this season, she'll want to turn things around pretty quickly.

Over in Auckland, where more than a couple favorites pulled out just before the event started, second seeded Ernests Gulbis took the courts for the first time since October and things got off to a rough start. Last year's semifinalist in Roland Garros has never made it past the second round of the Australian Open broke into the top ten on the heels of his performance, but an injury-hampered summer and fall kept him from accepting an alternate's ticket to the year end finals. And he wasn't dealt a very easy draw at the Heineken Open either -- starting off against 2014 breakout star Jiri Vesely, he managed to force a third set, but ultimately fell 6-1 in the third. And Roberto Bautista-Agut, who had a promising run to the semis last week in Chennai, retired down a set and a break to Adrian Mannarino on Wednesday, becoming the sixth seed to lose in Auckland before the quarterfinals. Hopefully he'll be able to manage whatever's ailing him in time for his Major campaign next week.

Stakes were even higher in Sydney this week where six top ten women were originally entered in the draw, but not everyone lived up to expectations. Ekaterina Makarova, who's traditionally done well Down Under, struggled with injury at the end of last season and had to withdraw from the season-ending Tournament of Champions in Sofia. She had a tough road in her comeback, though -- her first two opponents will both be seeded in Melbourne -- and after taking the first set from Carla Suarez Navarro eventually lost her two-plus hour second round. Far more disappointing, though, was the performance of Dominika Cibulkova, last year's runner-up at the Australian Open. After losing twelve first round matches in 2014, she kicked off the new season with yet another, dropping her opening round in Brisbane to teenager Madison Keys. This week she managed one win before losing to wildcard Jarmila Gajdosova on Tuesday, but she's going to want to do a lot better than that when she heads back to the site of her greatest success.

The men in Sydney may have a little less star power in their ranks, but there are plenty who were still hoping to make a point this week. Nick Kyrgios, another young standout from last season, is often talked about as Australia's next best hope to bring home a Major, and after making the quarters in Wimbledon last year it looked like there was something behind that. He put up a good fight against slightly higher-ranked Jerzy Janowicz in his opener this week, too, rebounding to take the second set after losing the first handily, but ultimately lost, bringing his record since the All England Club to a less-than-stellar 4-5. And top seed Fabio Fognini has been just as mediocre, losing in successively earlier rounds at each of last year's Grand Slams. He finished 2014 with only one win after the U.S. Open, and went oh-for-three in round robin matches in Perth. This week at the Apia International he took the first set off comeback kid Juan Martin Del Porto before finally falling to the one-time U.S. Open champ. It's not a loss he should be ashamed of, to be sure, but it surely isn't the argument he wants to make so close to a Major.

Hopefully all these guys and girls will be able to turn things around in the coming days and weeks -- after all so many other players will be waiting in the wings ready to take advantage of any weaknesses on their parts. And if they're not careful, there's no reason some of the underdogs won't be able to capitalize.

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