January 27, 2020

I'm Back!...And So Are These Guys

Hey all! You may have noticed I've been gone for a few days, and wow, did a lot happen at the Australian Open while I was away. From Serena getting ousted in the third round by Qiang Wang, ranked 29th in the world and a winner of just one game in the pair's previous meeting, to Coco Gauff avenging her U.S. Open loss to defending champion Naomi Osaka but then losing to an underrated Sofia Kenin a match later. From Roger Federer almost losing again to Australian John Millman -- their 2018 clash in New York's fourth round probably shocked us all -- to the rise of the appropriately named Tennys Sandgren, who's somehow the last American man standing at the event. And of course, I can't forget the end of Caroline Wozniacki's decorated career.

But we've also seen some players, far from their best days, storm back onto the scene with some impressive and inspiring results. Once top-tier stars, these guys have fallen a bit off the radar -- some even dropping out of seeding territory. But we've all seen what they're capable of, and judging from their early results in Melbourne, they could be causing some real damage again.

Let's start on the men's side, where Sandgren's run isn't the only surprise we've seen. Former world #3 Milos Raonic has always been a dominating server and saw his talent finally rewarded with an appearance in the 2016 Wimbledon final. But an injury-rattled 2017 season kept him off the courts and pushed him down the rankings. And though he started to climb back up last season, missing the U.S. Open set him back again. He began this year with a first round loss to 81st-ranked Corentin Moutet in Doha and came to Melbourne just barely seeded. But he seems to be righting the ship so far -- he dispatched sixth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round in straight sets and followed up with another win over an always-dangerous Marin Cilic, who he hadn't beaten since 2013. Raonic hasn't lost a set yet, and though that will likely change against his next opponent, defending champion Novak Djokovic, he could surprise us again. And if not, there's no reason he can't ride this wave to bigger things this year.

Also on the comeback trail is 2014 Aussie champion Stan Wawrikna, who has also dealt with his fair share of physical ailments over the years. Knee surgery and back injuries forced him out of many tournaments in 2017 and 2018 and pushed his ranking out of the top two hundred that year. But he's been turning things around over the last year or so, reaching the quarters at both the French and U.S. Opens in 2019 and making the finals in Rotterdam and Antwerp. He earned himself a 15th seed in Melbourne, but has so far surpassed expectations. After dropping a set in his opener to Bosnia's Damir Dzumhur and getting tested by veteran Andreas Seppi in the second round, he stunned a red-hot (and my personal pick, Daniil Medvedev in the fourth. He'll next face off against seventh seed Alexander Zverev, who has won both their previous matches but had struggled for much of the year. It won't be an easy last, but certainly one that is winnable for the Swiss heavyweight.

Things are getting interesting on the ladies' side as well. Of course there's Tunisia's Ons Jabeur, who defeated Wozniacki in the third round, and Anett Kontaveit, who rolled over sixth-seeded Belinda Bencic in less than 50 minutes. But I've got my eye on former world #11 Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, who's spent much of the last couple years ranked between 25 and 40. She's had some strong moments recently, though, beating Aryna Sabalenka at Rogers Cup and taking out Kiki Bertens for the second time last year in Tokyo. She's also scored sets off Ashleigh Barty and Petra Kvitova this year and held on for a #30 seed here. With wins over second seed Karolina Pliskova and 2016 champ Angelique Kerber, she's already defended her quarterfinal points from last year and she's got a solid chance of going even one better.

But standing in her way most immediately is two-time Major champion and one-time top-ranked Garbiñe Muguruza, who didn't get a seed this year at the Open. She's been struggling since 2018, working with a series of different coaches -- including Pavs' current one, Sam Sumyk -- after reaching the semis in Paris that year, she failed spectacularly to defend her Wimbledon crown with a second round loss, and last year won just one match after the French Open. She seemed to be getting things back in order this year, with a run to the semis in Shenzhen before pulling out of the Hobart quarters. In this year's first Slam, she survived a very lop-sided first round against American qualifier Shelby Rogers, before dismantling both Elina Svitolina, my pick for the quarter, and ninth-seeded Kiki Bertens. She's got a solid 4-1 record against the Russian -- her only loss coming in a retirement at Stuttgart -- and if she can channel that talent we know she has, I wouldn't be surprised to see her improve on that now.

Of course, now that we're down to the final eight in both draws, all these guys will see their opportunities -- and challenges -- only get bigger. After all, many of the top seeds are still alive and kicking and will have something to say before these potential spoilers can ruin their runs. But if they can reclaim the game that once brought them so far in this sport, there's no reason they won't be able to push past the odds and shake things up even more.

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