February 4, 2015

Up and at 'Em!

You may relish what seems like a short break after the Australian Open, but there's really no time to relax for the players, is there? And especially for those who didn't make it quite as far as they would have liked in Melbourne, this first week of action is a huge opportunity to redeem themselves. So it's no surprise so many got right back to work even after all the excitement we saw Down Under.

A slew of clay court specialists made their way to the inaugural Ecuador Open in Quito with Feliciano Lopez, who slunk his way through the early rounds at the Aussie, taking the top seed. But a couple others didn't have quite as much luck as the Spaniard the last few weeks and will want to rebound -- Martin Klizan fell one match short of his mini-Cinderella run from last year and retired in the fourth set of his second round. He'll open today against Daniel Gimeno-Traver, a man who's coming off a Challenger's title in Colombia. The Slovakian lost the pair's only previous meeting, but they've never faced off at the ATP level so things could be much different this time. And last year's young standout Dusan Lajovic came so close to a first round win in Melbourne this year but ultimately lost to one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky in their three and a half hour match. The Serb opened his South American campaign with a win over little-known Italian Luca Vanni and gets a slight pass next facing qualifier Nicolas Jarry, #219 in the world. While his road will certainly get tougher after that, the twenty-four year old might just seize the chance to make a deep run here.

The field is a little more stacked over in Zagreb where so far Andreas Seppi has successfully followed up with his monster Melbourne upset, surviving a squeaker versus Robin Haase in his opener, and comeback kid Viktor Troicki, who fell short of my expectations for him in Australia, toughed out a challenge from qualifier Illya Marchenko in his first round. But perhaps a bit more interesting will be the fortunes of former world #8 Mikhail Youzhny, who didn't put up much of a fight at all against Rafael Nadal Down Under. But he's finally won his first two matches of the year this week, earlier today trouncing Stakhovsky in straight sets to make the quarters. And Marcos Baghdatis, who proved he's not out of the mix yet, getting to the final in Happy Valley and stunning David Goffin at the Open, took Grigor Dimitrov to five sets in their third round. He'll face off against one of my Aussie dark horses, Ivo Karlovic, this afternoon and if he can manage an upset over the top seed, there's no reason he can't go even farther.

The stars are shining even brighter in Montpellier where homegrown Gael Monfils, a shocker last year both in the Davis Cup final and the U.S. Open quarters, is looking to redeem himself from a second-round exit in Melbourne at the hands of Jerzy Janowicz. The Pole on the other hand, who lost immediately after beating the Frenchman, survived six match points in his opener this week, just eking out the win over a talented Dustin Brown. The fifth seed at the Open Sud sets up a meeting against another man looking for resurrection, Benoit Paire, but if he can pass the test he might be back on the right track. But the most intriguing match might just be a battle between the generations. Two-time Major semifinalist Richard Gasquet got two easy wins in Australia before receiving a similar drubbing from big-serving Kevin Anderson in the first round, while twenty-year-old Lucas Pouille lost a squeaker to Monfils in his opener. Still looking to crack the top hundred, he is the clear underdog, but if he puts up a fight we could see more than a few sparks fly here.

All of these guys got a pretty early wake up call at the Australian Open, and it didn't take them long to get right back to work. Hopefully a quick turnaround will keep them wide awake for the rest of the year -- after all, it's still so early in the season that anything can happen.

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