February 15, 2021

Never Saw Them Coming

We're getting down to the wire at this year's Australian Open, and like at any good Grand Slam, it's not only those you'd expect to be playing for a spot in the semis. Sure, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams have all battled through injury and have come out on the winning side of things -- so far, at least -- but there are a couple names who have faced big opponents and show no sign of slowing down now.

On the ladies side there are a couple standout players still standing. Maybe the least surprising is 25th seed Karolina Muchova, though even she's put in a showing that's worthy of note. A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon back in 2019 -- and a decent challenger to Serena at the U.S. Open that year -- she came into last season with a ton of momentum, but couldn't quite capitalize. This year she pulled out of the Gippsland draw with an injury, raising questions about how strong she'd be when the stakes were higher in Melbourne. But so far she's been on point, downing a resurgent in the first round and going on to beat compatriot Karolina Pliskova and an on-fire Elise Mertens after that. They've been tight straight-setters, though, with those last two going nearly two hours each, so she's going to have to turn things up against top-seeded Ash Barty in the next round, but she might just be able to do it.

Meanwhile, top-ranked doubles star Su-Wei Hsieh may have lost her opener in the paired draw, but she's more than making up for it on the singles scene. After stunning Tsvetana Pironkova, my pick for another Cinderella run, she's continued her dominance with wins over 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu and former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova. On Tuesday she'll take on third seed Naomi Osaka, one of the favorites to win this event, and will be a serious underdog. But even Naomi's admitted how hard it is to predict Hsieh's next move, which could mean an opportunity for the veteran.

And then there's Jessica Pegula, who's really coming into her own at this event. While the 26-year-old did win her lone title to date in 2019 and make the final last year in Auckland, she's never had much success at the Majors, her best showing a third round appearance in New York this past September, where she had two three-set wins over players ranked out of the top forty. But she opened her Australian Open campaign with a crushing win over a momentum-fueled Victoria Azarenka and on Monday stunned fifth seed Elina Svitolina, her first win over a player ranked in the top ten. The win earns her a date with good friend and fellow American Jen Brady, a woman she beat last year in "Cincinnatti", and while she may be the one without the seed next to her name, she could also have the know-how to cause yet another upset.

On the men's side, there have not surprisingly been fewer surprises, as most of the top seeds remain alive, if not kicking. But there's one notable exception to that, and it's all because of Grigor Dimitrov. The one-time world #3 has had his ups and downs over the years, winning the ATP Championship in 2017, dropping out of the top seventy after first round losses during the 2019 hardcourt season, then stunning Roger Federer at the U.S. Open that summer. He took the 18th seed in Melbourne, and faced a tough test off the bat, but beat former Major titleist Marin Cilic in straight sets in his opener. He got a little bit of a pass in the third round, when surprise New York semifinalist Pable Carreño Busta retired after losing the first sevent games, but his big win came in the fourth round against last year's finalist and newest member of the Big Boys' Club, Dominic Thiem. After the Austrian came back from two sets down to beat Nick Kyrgios a round prior, he wasn't able to rebound against Dimitrov, losing in three sets and in about two hours. And while the Bulgarian may be the favorite in his next round, he should know better than to rest too easy.

That's because his quarterfinal opponent is, by far, the biggest surprise of the Australian Open this year. Twenty-seven year old Aslan Karatsev has never made the main draw of a Grand Slam before, but qualified here after wins over Brandon Nakashima and Alexandre Muller in Doha. Then, in his Major debut, the 114th-ranked Russian crushed Egor Gerasimov, losing just one game that match, stunned Diego Schwartzman, and came back from two sets down to young Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the quarterfinals. He's the first person to do that in his first outing on the big stage since 1996. And the fact that he did it at such a "ripe old age" is even more astonishing -- he's already won more tour-level matches here than he has in his entire career. It's hard to say what Karatsev will do with the pressure of a semifinal hanging before him, but it's safe to say it will be difficult for Dimitrov to figure him out too. And it could end up being the match of this tournament.

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