Jesse Pentecost

Five Comments About Davis Cup

Tennis, at heart, is not the most complicated of human endeavours, and the number of things one can usefully say about it is limited. The trick (though sadly not always the goal) for those determined to talk about it at all is to say the same things in interesting ways.

Even so, there are limits. The most skilful and thoughtful commentators in the world will still inevitably repeat themselves from time to time, and most commentators by definition aren’t the best. This isn’t to say most commentators are wrong – some are, but tennis, broadly speaking, is a hard topic to misread – merely that they are endlessly right in the same way. The average commentator peddles repetition without relent. This is why, whenever Davis Cup comes round, we hear . . .

1. ‘Isn’t it great that doubles matters?’

Saturday was by broad consensus the greatest day of doubles in living memory. The centrepiece was of course the record-shattering match in Geneva between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24-22 in the fifth set. That is the match destined to endure – breaking records tends to cement at least a temporary place in the annals – but there were others that were great in their own way.

Slovenia’s Blaž Kavčič and Grega Žemlja both suffered straightforward singles losses, then somehow backed up to defeat Poland’s mighty duo of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg, 13-11 in the fifth. Marc López and Marcel Granollers kept Spanish hopes from guttering out entirely, defeating Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, again in five sets. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares commenced Brazil’s audacious recovery with a five set victory over the Bryan brothers.

There were others, and taken as a whole they guaranteed that the middle day was the key to a fine weekend. Over and over again, the doubles rubber proved pivotal, stopping momentum or confirming it, inspiring a comeback or clinching the tie. It is ever thus – that’s the beauty of the format – but this weekend showcased it more succinctly than ever. If ever the Davis Cup format is altered, the crucial function of the doubles must surely remain.

2. ‘How about that Davis Cup atmosphere?’

When Pete Sampras defeated Gustavo Kuerten in the final of the Miami Masters in 2000, the day was cloyingly warm, the crowd was rambunctious, and the air was dense with samba. Local players often struggle with the Miami crowd – think of Andy Roddick facing Pablo Cuevas a few of years ago – since the support for South American players is overwhelming. There is close harmony chanting. There are jeers on double-faults. It is, in the parlance of tennis commentary, ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.

For all that some would dearly wish it to be otherwise, tennis has few opportunities for blatant and macho patriotism in the normal run of events, at least beyond the early rounds where the wildcards and local hopefuls are weeded out. Davis Cup is all nationalism, all the time. Of course, local customs still prevail. The crowd in Ariake Stadium that watched Japan see off Indonesia was utterly unlike the one in Buenos Aires that witnessed Argentina dismantling Germany, but it was also more spirited than a usual Japanese audience. I’m not entirely sure why the USA chose to host Brazil in Florida this weekend, thus neatly ceding the crowd support to the visitors. After his loss to Thomaz Bellucci, John Isner professed not to appreciate the Brazilian supporters, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered so much had more than a handful of Americans turned up.

The atmosphere doesn’t merely inspire the players on to greater heroism, it alters the way they go about it. Would Bob Bryan have yelled ‘Come on’ so vehemently at Melo at a normal tournament? According to Bryan, no: ‘Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere . . .There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges. It’s Davis Cup. This sort of stuff happens all the time.’ Would Carlos Berlocq have shredded his shirt so exultantly upon achieving a win via retirement in any other situation?

Part of the function of Davis Cup is to provide a context in which overtly nationalistic behaviour is more or less tolerated, if not encouraged, so that the rest of the sport can relatively remain free of it. When such behaviour seeps across the other events – with exceptions – it tends to feel misplaced and leaden-handed. At best we indulgently chuckle and call it ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.

3. ‘Davis Cup allows lesser players to shine.’

Fabio Fognini clinched the tie for Italy. If he’d lost that crucial fifth rubber, then Ivan Dodig would have clinched it for Croatia. Frank Dancevic played a crucial role in seeing off Spain. Andrey Golubev, among the most gifted underachievers in the sport, won both his singles rubbers, including a four set defeat of Jurgen Melzer to seal the tie for Kazakhstan. Who honestly saw that coming? How many of you had heard of Thiago Alves before he nearly sent the mighty USA crashing out yesterday?

None of these fellows are household names, except perhaps in their own countries, and, one presumes, in their own homes. The point of Davis Cup isn’t that lower-profile players achieve wins. These guys regularly win matches at the levels at which they compete (the exception being Golubev, who’s been known to indulge in losing-sprees that rival Donald Young’s). The Davis Cup enables them to secure meaningful victories in a tournament of global importance. Winning a tie means a great deal. Winning the Cup itself means everything.

Last year the deciding rubber in the final was won by Radek Stepanek over Nicolas Almagro. There is no event in the sport of comparable stature in which that might happen. A reformatted biennial format (the most commonly proposed alternative) surely would work against such an outcome.

4. ‘It’s time to look at tiebreaks in fifth sets.’

Every Davis Cup weekend features at least one match whose heroic proportions compel most onlookers to shake their heads in wonderment, yet oblige others to resume their call for fifth set tiebreaks to be made universal, in order that so arresting a spectacle might never be repeated. This weekend it was the seven hour doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

As far as I can make out, the most heated discussion around this issue occurs in the United States. Discussion elsewhere seems more measured and sporadic, and I can’t imagine the debate reaches any special incandescence in countries where cricket is popular. A test match has barely hit its stride by the seven hour mark. I’m also yet to hear many players vociferously calling for tiebreaks to be introduced in deciding sets, whether it be in Davis Cup, at the Majors (besides the US Open) or the Olympics.

If it all becomes too much, there is always a mechanism whereby any match can be shortened. It’s called losing. As it was, even the longest doubles match in history had little material impact on the tie.

5. ‘Davis Cup matters!’

Anyone who watched Alves huffing and heaving as he failed to contain his disappointment after losing in the live fifth rubber to Sam Querrey in Jacksonville was left in little doubt about what this match, and by extension the Davis Cup means to him. Ditto for Milos Raonic’s exuberant roar as he sealed the tie against Spain. Or Fognini collapsing triumphantly to the dirt in Turin. Or Stan Wawrinka prostrate on the hard Geneva surface. There were uncounted similar moments, twinkling and flaring across the entire weekend, pricks and gashes of light, all joining up to form a long archipelago across the doubting world, proving to us that for unnumbered players and fans, the Davis Cup matters as much as ever.

Novak Djokovic Wins Fourth Australian Open

The last time Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic met at tour level – as opposed to the social level – was at the World Tour Finals in London, while the time before that was the final of the Shanghai Masters, in a terrific match that fell barely shy of being adjudged a classic. The time before that was the US Open final, a match that rearranged history as we know it, even if the raw tennis itself, addled and marred by hurricane-force winds, languished somewhere shy of perfection. Theirs’ is, we’re told often, the defining rivalry of the era. Tonight’s final, in the azure vault of Rod Laver Arena, was therefore anyone’s match.

It is, it must be said, not the most dynamic of rivalries at a point-by-point level. It is very often an example of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object. It is rare for a winner to be struck before every other possible option has been exhausted. Indeed, exhausted is the operative word. Shanghai essentially ended when Murray’s legs gave out. In New York the reverse occurred. It turns out even the sturdiest pins in the game will give way if you pound at them for long enough. So it proved tonight.

All the same, whether it was the absent gale or the fresh locale, the first set of tonight’s final featured plenty of short points. It kicked off with three quick winners. Mercifully, the rallying pace was more Shanghai than New York. Djokovic created more chances – an entire handful of break points – but in failing to take them he did little more than frustrate himself. This bore strange fruit in the tiebreak, which the world No.1 commenced with a double fault, and went downhill from there. Murray, solid, took it 7-2, his first set in an Australian Open final from three attempts.

The Scot maintained his momentum into the second set, and gained three indecisive break points early on, although he looked rather nonplussed, and handed them back. The tiebreak was still another eight games away, but it never felt as though it wouldn’t arrive. It did.

Then, in a moment that will live long in infamy, the match turned. A small seagull feather fluttered past Murray as he prepared to deliver a second serve. He paused, doubtless reflecting on the transience of all things and that we humans are, ultimately, but dust and shadow. Then he double faulted. Djokovic ran away with the breaker, levelling the match.

The feather was a tiny moment of beauty, but definitive contrast arrived when Murray called a medical timeout, so that his wrecked foot might be rebound and anointed (apparently with mustard). The foot was not attractive. Nor, it transpired, was it entirely functional. Murray looked decidedly hobbled as he returned to the court. Djokovic, ostensibly a good friend of the court, was justifiably less than sympathetic.

Games continued on serve until 3/4 on Murray’s serve, whereupon he collapsed to 0-40. Two break points were saved, but not a third. It ended (at 31) the longest sequence of holds to commence a Major final in history. If Djokovic was impressed he didn’t show it, and served out the set with ease.

The breaking commenced earlier in the third set, with the visibly struggling Scot losing his serve at 1-1, and again at 4-1. Djokovic came around to serve out the championship at 5-2. He was so confident that he began to rush the net behind double-fisted drive volleys, which didn’t work out well. A rather lucky and rare drop-smash righted things however, and he thereafter lost no more points, claiming his fourth Australian Open title when a last weary Murray backhand found the net. The final score was 6-7 (2) 7-6 (3) 6-3 6-2.

Novak Djokovic is now the only man in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Opens. Afterwards he was ecstatic (believe it or not), but unlike last year’s final and this year’s fourth round he opted not to shred his clothes. It hadn’t been that kind of match. Still, his smile was endless, and deserved.

Both players delivered appropriately warm speeches at the trophy presentation, taking special care to endorse Craig Tiley’s stewardship of the event, echoing the broader sentiments of the player-bases. Probed later about the feather that blew open the second set, Djokovic laughed, conceded that momentum had indeed shifted at that moment, but suggested that his opponent might have more to say on the matter.

In all, it was a decent final, even if it won’t go down as a great one. For sheer drama it probably needed a fifth set (plus a roof closure and a fireworks display). But this wasn’t to be, thanks to Djokovic’s sporadic but timely brilliance, Murray’s damaged and weary body, and – if we believe the British journalists – one rogue feather. It is Djokovic’s sixth Major title, and there is almost no chance it will be his last.

Who Will Be the Victor at the Australian Open: Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray?

January 25, 2013 — This year’s Australian Open has seen surprise runs, intense five-set battles involving the top three, and of course, controversy. But with the final stage of the men’s singles draw about to commence, it’s time to take a look at who is most likely to win the season’s first Slam.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is guaranteed to keep his top ranking next week and is further looking for his third-straight Australian Open title, having also previously won it in 2008.  His road to the final included routine wins over Paul-Henri Mathieu, Ryan Harrison, and Radek Stepanek in straight sets in the early rounds, and his quarterfinal encounter against Tomas Berdych was never really in doubt, handing the world No. 8 two 6-1 sets. He made quick work of a (possibly) labored David Ferrer in the semifinals and it was mostly smooth sailing for Djokovic with the exception of his fourth round five-set five-hour encounter with Stanislas Wawrinka who really tested the Serb. In the end, experience prevailed over adrenaline and Djokovic squeezed through the win.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, crept quietly threw the draw, never even having played on Rod Laver Arena until his semifinal match up with Roger Federer. Having just won his first Slam at the US Open last September, some questioned whether he would not only be able to win the Australian Open, but even reach the final. But with his improved mental and physical game, the Scot came out in full force. He dispatched of his first five opponents in straight sets (Robin Haase, Joao Sousa, Ricardas Berankis, Gilles Simon and Jeremy Chardy) before finally outplaying Federer in a five-setter last night. The Scot has been playing more aggressively and it was none more evident than against Federer.

So the question remains: Who will walk away victorious come Sunday night, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray?

Our team gives their insight:

David Kane

Each men’s semifinal result, when looked at individually, would be sufficient to predict its winner would go on to take the title. On one half, Djokovic put on another master class, capping yet another dominating performance Down Under with a decisive victory over David Ferrer. On the other, Murray broke through to beat Roger Federer at a Slam, boasting impeccable numbers in the process. Playing any other man, Djokovic or Murray would be heavy favorites. Playing each other, it’s a clash of the titans. Given Djokovic’s past performances here and longer recovery time, the slight edge goes to the Serb, but Murray is on quite a run at the tournament’s biggest stages, and would like nothing more than to assert himself as the best player on tour, if not the “real number one.”

Prediction: Djokovic in 5

Romi Cvitkovic

Both finalists have shown some of their best tennis in the more recent rounds, so a five-setter would not be without question. In fact, it’s almost expected when these two play each other. Each has battled through their respective “demons” on court in the form of Wawrinka for Djokovic and Federer for Murray, but Murray has looked the stronger player through the entirety of the tournament. He has really emerged from his shell and grown in confidence now that the proverbial gorilla (winning a Slam, finally) is off his back. He may not lead the head-to-head record against the Serb, but he also had never beaten Federer before at a Slam — and looked what happened last night. If Murray comes out swinging freely on his forehand again, while keeping his backhand and first serve percentage up, there’s nothing that could stop him.

Prediction: Murray in 5

Chris Skelton

Djokovic always has played his best tennis in Australia, and his semifinal victory over Ferrer was a masterpiece of the controlled aggression that works so well on this medium-speed surface. That nearly flawless effort suggested that he is peaking at the right time. Meanwhile, Murray is riding his own wave of momentum after defeating Federer. The Scot’s serving in that match was stunning, but he’ll get a sterner test from Djokovic’s return. The two men have similar styles and weapons, so it will come down to execution and confidence. Djokovic’s highs and lows (not Murray’s) have defined most of their meetings so far for better or worse. He’s on a high here.

Prediction: Djokovic in 4

Jesse Pentecost

Experts and betting markets alike were almost unanimous in installing Novak Djokovic as the favorite to win this tournament weeks before the tournament started, and only an inspired Stanislas Wawrinka has given us any reason to doubt that prediction. With only one match remaining, and no Wawrinka in sight, I can’t see any reason to change my initial prediction of a Djokovic title.

Form can, of course, change from match to match, even for the top players, but the Serb’s performance against a decidedly sub-par David Ferrer was overwhelming in its completeness. Andy Murray naturally had a far rougher time in his semifinal, seeing off Roger Federer in five sets. I don’t think that match will inhibit the Scot physically, but nor do I think it will act as useful preparation. I predict Djokovic to win. I’ll resist the strong urge to pick four sets, and say (brazenly) that he’ll do it in three.

Prediction: Djokovic in 3

James Crabtree

So its official, the two fittest players in the men’s draw are playing in the final.  With Rafa away the Novak Murray rivalry could well turn into the sports headline act.  The last 3 times these players met the result went the distance with Novak claiming victory the last two times. Still, there is something about this new Murray in slams, compounded by the Lendl connection and the extra fight for friend Ross Hutchins who is battling cancer that gives Murray an edge that cannot be measured.

Prediction: Murray in 4

Andy Murray Remakes History

Prior to tonight, Roger Federer and Andy Murray had never met before the final stage at Grand Slam level. It’s the kind of statistic that seems revealing until it’s explained away. Really it reflects nothing more sinister than a quirk of the rankings, coupled with that species of coincidence that provides the rich loam in which conspiracy theories take root. In some quarters, the belief flourished rather too well and for rather too long that Federer and Novak Djokovic kept meeting in the semifinals due to the nebulous machinations of the presiding authorities, although an adequate explanation as to why was never proffered. It seemed Murray and Federer were just destined never to meet.

Whatever the outcome of tonight’s match, history was thus on the line. Federer fans inclined to seek succour from precedent were perhaps comforted by the stat that no man had ever backed up winning his first Major by reaching the final of the subsequent one. Similarly-inclined Murray fans could rightfully point out that no one had ever won 18 Majors. Everyone else presumably looked on bemused, and just waited for the players to arrive.

Judging by the respective cheers when the players entered the stadium, a majority of those within Rod Laver Arena supported Federer. Murray, entering first, received a thunderous cheer, but it was immediately eclipsed in volume and duration by the uproar that ushered in his opponent.

Upon winning the toss, Murray, unusually, chose neither to serve nor receive, but picked the end. He chose to begin with the wind at his back, wisely as it turns out. Through the early going Federer’s serve was pummelled, eventually yielding up the break in the third game on the fifth breakpoint. But Murray hardly relented after that, holding his own serve well, while continuing to press on return. At one point the statistic flashed up that the Scot had returned 23 of 24 Federer serves. The pattern was established early whereby Murray would attack Federer’s backhand wing almost without relent, although the times he did relent proved decisive, as he caught the Swiss out repeatedly by going hard into the forehand. He rode his break to the end of the first set, serving it out comfortably.

The patterns grew more varied in the second set, and the players settled into a mounting series of holds, fragmenting the momentum yet escalating the tension. For all that neither player achieved a break point, a tiebreak hardly felt inevitable until it arrived. Momentum continued to lurch drunkenly, with Federer leading by 4-1, before the score returned to parity. The key point came at 5-5, when Murray essayed a foolish slam dunk overhead, leapt too early, framed it and was passed. Federer levelled the match on his first set point.

Fears or hopes that we were thus watching a reprisal of the Wimbledon final proved unfounded. The quality remained stellar from both men in the third, but for a single loose game from the second seed at 2-3. Murray held firm, and once again sealed the set with a strong hold.

The fourth set saw breaks exchanged, though otherwise it cleaved to the patterns of the second. As each hold ticked by, the tension ratcheted up. The key moment came at 5-5, with Federer serving. Three errors brought him to 0-40. A tight rally ensued, with Murray weathering Federer’s assault, and then unloading when he could finally set his feet on a forehand. He served out his first Major victory over Federer with deceptive . . .

Wait, hang on. Actually they fought to 30-30 on Murray’s serve. Federer then constructed a magnificent point to earn the break opportunity, which was converted when Murray overcooked a crosscourt forehand wide. Suddenly it was locked at 6-6, though there was fortunately a mechanism by which this tie could be broken. The subsequent tiebreak belonged to Federer, winning it seven points to two. Murray later confessed that the disappointment of failing to serve out the match had gotten to him. Suddenly a very good tennis match took a bold step towards becoming a classic.

It veered away sharply as Murray shrugged off his disappointment and broke early, leaping to a 3-0 lead. The statistic that Federer had never played back-to-back five setters was ushered out, and duly paraded. He looked weary, while Murray emphatically did not. The persistent story of the night had been Murray’s prowess on serve, and his solidity on return. The most revealing stat was that he won 63% of points on his second serve, while Federer only won 42%. Murray thus earned fistfuls of free points on his own delivery, and guaranteed that his opponent did not. Really, the wonder was that Federer kept it so close. But he couldn’t keep it close in the fifth set, and was eventually broken a second time to lose 6-4 6-7 (5) 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-2.

The handshake afterwards was warm and respectful, and did not reflect the few moments of tension that had punctuated a fine match that was mostly played in tremendous spirits. Federer left the arena to rapturous cheering, his disappointment plain. He must have felt confident after that fourth set fight-back, only to succumb relative quickly. Nevertheless, he was relatively relaxed by the presser, and reiterated several times that he’d been beaten fair and square.

Displaying a confident disdain for historical precedent, Murray thus becomes the first man to progress to a Major final after claiming his first Major title. He has also defeated Federer for the first time in a Major, and for the first time in five sets. If nothing else, the Scot is discovering that no one makes it to the big time with accruing a panoply of obscure statistics.

Try this one: for the first time in approximately 150,000 years, a British man will face an opponent whose nation is experiencing a longer Grand Slam title drought than his. That man is of course Novak Djokovic, and no Serbian man has won a Major in precisely twelve months, although this particular Serb will also be attempting to become the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Either way you look at it, history will be made, or unmade.

If that sounds painful, there’s every chance it will be. Foreshadowing the final, Murray remarked with a wry smile: “I’ll have to be ready for the pain. I hope it’s a painful match because that means it will be a good one.”

Who Looked Good, Bad: Wawrinka, Berdych, Seppi

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

We are down to our final 8, and 6 of them are the main contenders for the title. With Djokovic being tired after his marathon match, it has really opened the door for Tomas Berdych. And, all of a sudden, we could be looking at Berdych or David Ferrer in the final. On the other side of the draw, it looks like it will be the winner of Federer/Tsonga against Andy Murray. This feels like the most wide-open Slam we’ve had in quite a while on the men’s side. It actually feels like there are six contenders with near-equal chances of winning it all. The only possible not-compelling matchup in the final is Federer/Ferrer, as Federer leads their head-to-head series 14-0.

Who Looked Good

Stanislas Wawrinka: I will talk about this match more in depth later on, but I really must stress that Wawrinka played at or near the level of a Grand Slam champion for almost the entirety of his match. Aside from a blip in the second set, Wawrinka was really playing at an incredible level throughout and showed signs of mental toughness that we don’t often see from him. Even though he lost in heartbreaking fashion, Wawrinka should be encouraged. If he can play at this level for an entire tournament there really is no reason (aside from a massive mental block against Federer) that he can’t be competitive in the later rounds of Slams as his career continues.

Tomas Berdych: Berdych didn’t do anything special in his fourth-round match. In fact, he didn’t do anything more than what we’ve seen him do before. What he did do, though, was execute on a high level for the entire match. His movement was superb, putting him in position to hit all of his shots with lethal efficiency. Anderson is a tricky opponent with a massive serve, and for much of the match Berdych just dismantled him from the baseline. If he can keep that consistency up when he meets a tired Djokovic in the quarters, then he should make his first Australian Open semifinal without too much trouble.

Who Looked Bad

Andreas Seppi: Honestly, Seppi didn’t play that poorly. He could have played much better but he didn’t really compete below expectations, especially with how fatigued he was. I just couldn’t really leave this spot blank. Seppi is better on clay courts and was up against a big hitter in Jeremy Chardy. Seppi missed a lot of shots and could have extended a lot of rallies, but he would have been very hard-pressed to win this match anyway. Still, compared to everyone else who played this round, Seppi really underachieved the most.

Match of the Round

Is there really any other choice? Forget match of the round, this was probably the match of the tournament. I am, of course, talking about the epic battle between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. Djokovic played a very good match but not quite at his peak level, while Stan actually played the match of this life. It is not possible to understate how good of a match Wawrinka played. He fought and played incredible points, pulling out ways to win them that most people just can’t do against Djokovic. The match was right throughout and the crowd thoroughly enjoyed this epic five-hour thriller. An unfortunate mistaken line call at 4-4 in the fifth cost Wawrinka a chance to serve out the match, and Djokovic capitalized over an hour later to win it 12-10 in the fifth. Most fans, watching both in the crowd and on television, felt gutted for Wawrinka, who had fought so hard and was so close to pulling off the biggest win of his career. The fact that a mistaken call might have changed the outcome in no way detracts from the epicness of this match. Saying that this match wasn’t fair or that Wawrinka got robbed is just as much an insult to the effort that Warinka put forth as it is to Djokovic’s.

Australian Open Grounds Pass: The Spectator Experience in the Second Week

By Jesse Pentecost

Being essentially a radioactive substance, a tournament draw at a tennis event conforms to a fixed and exponential rate of decay. At Grand Slam level, each event discards precisely half its mass as charged particles every two days, although inevitably some of the particles are more charged than others. Some are less so: Gilles Simon was an almost-inert particle. Janko Tipsarevic discarded himself. Four half-life cycles are complete, and the original 128 participants have been reduced to just eight. Nuclear scientists usually refer to this point as the ‘quarterfinals’, which has recently passed over into the common vernacular, whereupon it was adopted by tennis. To those watching on television, the ‘quarterfinals’ represents the point at which a Major really slides into gear. For those still roaming the grounds, the opposite is true.

To attend a Major tournament in its first few days is to be immersed utterly in tennis. You learn to breath it or you suffocate. There are singles matches happening on every court, even those so remote from the center that they boast radically different atmospheric conditions. However, the rate at which tournament draws decay means that by the first weekend even the showcourts are hosting farcical ‘Legends’ doubles matches featuring Mansour Bahrami or Henri Leconte slipping racquets down their trousers, in the probably justified hope that the capacity crowd will watch anything. It certainly doesn’t hurt attendance. (At the US Open they were so worried that top-class tennis would bore the crowd that they finagled in Adam Sandler and Kevin James to contest a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.)

Even by the second round, the remote courts are repurposed for doubles, then after that to mixed doubles, and then to the juniors. By the second week they’re exclusively the province of wind and ghosts. Today, out by Court 15, I idled with the charmless phantasms and listened to the faint roar of human voices emanating from Rod Laver Arena. But then, what do you expect? That’s the way it works.

Some clearly expect more. Judging from those I talked to, no few of the grounds pass holders were suffering acute disappointment at the discovery that they wouldn’t be able to see Roger Federer or Serena Williams play, except on the big screen in Garden Square – which is like paying to watch television in the sun – or on the practice court, which is about as perilous as venturing into a mosh pit. Still, many do venture in, willingly. Regardless of age, an elbow to the face is a small price to pay for the chance to stare at Maria Sharapova as she confers with her coach.

One of the fans I spoke to must have been in her fifties. I’d earlier encountered her as she waved her flag at Sara Tomic, and she proudly showed me her autograph haul. Her pride was later surpassed by disappointment when the announcement came through that Federer’s practice session had been moved indoors, away from adoring eyes. She clearly had a mental check-list of players she simply had to see – perhaps she had a real list secreted about her person – and now at least one name would have to remain unchecked. Alas, she didn’t have tickets to Rod Laver Arena – no one told her they’d be necessary – but resolved to watch Federer play the ‘Canadian boy’ tonight from Garden Square, which is actually circular.

Then again, another man I spoke to said he preferred to watch the matches on the big screen. According to him, you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the main arenas; you’d be shushed by snooty patrons for opening a packet of crisps, or sipping your beer. There was always the possibility that I’d discovered the world’s noisiest eater, but it’s unlikely. Somehow he’d confused Rod Laver Arena with an art-house cinema in a Cistercian monastery. For the record, eating is permitted, not to say encouraged. The lines of RLA ticket-holders bearing trays of Heinekens and nachos provided overwhelming visual evidence of this. Still, he too would watch Serena and Roger from Garden Square. At least it was a gorgeous evening.

Anyway, my point is that plenty of people don’t quite realise what they’re getting themselves in for when they buy a grounds pass in the second week. They expect to see big name players plying their trade. I suspect this partly reflects the distortion inherent in televised sports. On television the second week of a Major appears to have as much tennis as the first, except it is better quality and more exciting. After four rounds of build-up, suddenly the top players are playing each other.

An astute fan might notice that the coverage is increasingly confined to the main court, but to the casual viewer all the courts look the same anyway, and they have no interest in knowing where anything is occurring. Hisense Arena, Rod Laver Arena – on television they’re all just confusing names for an identical swatch of cobalt across which exceedingly fit young men and women scamper. But when you’re on the grounds, and all you have is a grounds pass, they’re impenetrable zones of privilege from which the unwashed masses are excluded. I should stress that this isn’t true for everyone. There were plenty of people watching doubles on Showcourt Two because it was preferable to watching Andy Murray and Simon on Hisense.

In any case, the broadcaster works hard to convey the impression that the grounds remain frenziedly active, even as the last weekend draws near. But anyone visiting the grounds on the second Monday will encounter a strikingly different event than they would have on the first Monday (and I can barely imagine what it’s like at the US Open, where there’s a third Monday). So, while the Australian Open gathers pace and surges towards the finals, spare a thought for those still flooding the grounds, who might feel like the tournament is already over, and that they missed it.

Australian Open Grounds Pass: Adventures in Spacetime with Radwanska, Ivanovic and Janowicz

By Jesse Pentecost

There was a strange, capricious energy to Melbourne this morning. Yesterday’s cruel heat had hardly lost its serrated edge during the night – it was still 35C at 11pm when Petra Kvitova and Laura Robson really got down to hacking at each other in earnest – and it wasn’t until breakfast this morning that the blade was truly dulled. A fitful breeze arrived, ostensibly a cool southerly but really coming at you from everywhere, often with baleful intent.

The first thing I saw upon arriving at Melbourne Park was a sudden gust pluck up a courtside umbrella, leaving the others untouched, and launch it into the back of a nearby man’s head. As far as I could see he hadn’t done anything to offend any nearby deities: he was simply watching Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty hit up. (It could be that he wasn’t demonstrating sufficiently patriotic awe, or had been indulging in impure thoughts of Jason Stoltenberg.) It was a heavy umbrella, and he seemed disappointed that there was no one upon whom to focus his ire. The skyscrapers of downtown Melbourne loomed silent in the middle distance. The clouds tumbled in.

The real answer, I hazard, is that Gael Monfils last night finally ruptured the space-time continuum. (Long-time readers will know that this is my favorite continuum.) Even at the best of times reality struggles to stay with Monfils when he opens the throttle, but as he commenced that inspired sequence of aces to bring up match points and double faults to lose them, the threadbare fabric of the universe finally wore through. Nothing made sense anymore.

This is also my explanation for how I found myself sitting in Hisense Arena watching Agnieszka Radwańska. Certainly no rational decision led me there. As she commenced her warm-up the scoreboard still displayed Monfils’ winning score from last night. As ever Poland’s highest-ranked player set about comprehensively demonstrating the old adage that the person who hits the ball in last is the person who wins the point. Heather Watson, in a recalcitrant mood, was intent on disproving this well-understood rule, but to no avail. History will show that Radwańska’s approach worked better, assuming the goal was to win the match. She won the match.

I toddled out for a turn around the grounds. Serena Williams was launching balls at an improbably handsome young fellow whose identity I never ascertained. I tried but failed to quell the ungenerous thought that Williams, being tennis royalty, will only hit up with tennis players who look like models, if not models who play tennis. A large audience had assembled to watch this unfold. By the time I’d completed a circuit of the complex they’d relocated to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s court, otherwise known as Court 23. The Frenchman was fending off groundstrokes from Thanasi Kokkinakis, and inspiring slogans from Roger Rasheed. Nearby Milos Raonic was nodding his head to serving advice from Galo Blanco. Like I said, it was all a bit strange.

I re-entered Hisense, mainly because it was there, beating Ana Ivanović and Jelena Janković by mere seconds. Their match was probably the best thing I saw all day, conducted in fine spirits, although stray patches of Monfils Madness danced in the air. If you turned your head quickly, you could just about glimpse them, sparkling gaily. As she lead 5/2 30-0 in the first set, Ivanović was enmeshed in one, and lost fifteen consecutive points to trail 5/5 40-0. Then she won another handful of points to break, and eventually serve out the set. The second set was steadier, as the innate lethality of her forehand was matched by steadiness (and occasional virtuosity) on the other wing. Janković, on the other hand, only looked dangerous when she could launch a backhand up the line, which is a perilous shot to live by.

Out in the grounds the nationalist frenzy of the first two days had largely died away, mostly because the Australian players had all lost, although the start of the mixed doubles competition had inspired the flag-wavers to a resurgence of hope. Chris Guccione and Bojana Bousic saved four match points to push Anabel Medina Garrigues and Bruno Soares to a match tiebreak, before falling meekly. The flags fell limp, and the green and gold sombreros drooped in disappointment. Over on Court 6 the mood was morose, as two local doubles teams fell to superior European doubles exponents, including a reunited pairing of Sergiy Stakhovsky and Mikhail Youzhny.

A swelling roar issued from Margaret Court Arena as Julien Benneteau secured the early break from Janko Tipsarević, but I opted instead for Showcourt 3, which was due to host the fiercely anticipated dust-up between Nicolas Almagro and Jerzy Janowicz. Through a tight first set we learned that the Spaniard can more or less match the giant Pole on serve, even in the fitfully prankish breeze, and that what the Polish fans lack in vocal prowess and breadth of repertoire they make up for in devotion and volume. Sadly, it was noise that saw a number of them removed by the police, as they failed fully to heed an official warning to stop rattling the hoardings quite so enthusiastically. It would be wrong to point to this as the moment that Janowicz proved unable to stay with his more loftily-ranked opponent, since he was already trailing by two sets and break. Nonetheless, until that point Janowicz had played Almagro quite close. After that he spiraled away. At least by reaching the third round he has played to his seeding. Almagro will next face Tipsarević, who soon after sealed his second straight five-set win. Expect another long one.

There was nothing more to be done. I’d put it off for long enough. It was time to return to the scene of Monfils’ crime. Hisense Arena beckoned, which is a fairly difficult gesture for a large sports stadium to make. Perhaps I imagined it. It had been a long day. Within, Fernando Verdasco and Kevin Anderson were commencing their fifth set. As I took my seat, both enervated and anxious, I glanced to my left. For a moment, I thought perhaps I glimpsed sparkles, one last pocket of madness in the air. Then I looked at the court, and I knew that madness was precisely what I’d seen.

Australian Open Grounds Pass: Beatlemania with Federer and “Team” Dimitrov

Jesse Pentecost is on the grounds of the Australian Open, covering matches and practice sessions and giving you an intimate behind-the-scenes look of the tennis season’s first Slam.

By Jesse Pentecost

I would be overstating the case to say that more than a minority believed Grigor Dimitrov to defeat Julien Benneteau. Even among those of us who predicted it, the prediction was for an upset, which by definition entails a lesser player beating his or her ostensible superior. But it was widely felt Dimitrov had a chance. After all, the two men are only ranked six places apart, and it was only by the grace of Rafael Nadal and John Isner’s knees that the Frenchman is actually seeded. Either way, it was sure to be a close match, and well-worth the meager effort of loitering next it.

Following an hour’s flânerie around the practice courts – I can declare with some authority that Dominika Cibulkova is shorter than Ana Ivanovic – I ensconced myself courtside for the match. The court was Court 13, and there was no camera, meaning I had one of the best views in the entire world of the famous upset destined to unfold at some unspecified time after 11am. I found myself seated next to Dimitrov’s coach and fitness trainer. I asked his trainer what ‘Come on’ was in Bulgarian. He didn’t know, but did concede he was nervous.

It’s never a bad idea to embed yourself with the support staff, if only so that when their charge begins glaring beseechingly at his coach, you can pretend he or she is looking at you. It also heightens the vibe. It probably would have heightened it even more had Dimitrov won, or even won a set. Word came through that Maria Sharapova had delivered the tournament’s first double bagel, against the appropriately named Olga Puchkova. Unfortunately this word didn’t reach Dimitrov, who clearly needed more inspiration than his support team and I could collectively muster. What he didn’t need was more backhand errors, although I suspect he’d already cornered the world’s supply. Benneteau, a true professional, was unrelenting in exposing that wing, and the Bulgarian seemed powerless to stop him.

I recommenced my ambling. The toilet block beside Court 14 had malfunctioned, and a noisome musk blanketed the far corner of the grounds. I fled to Court 8, where Sorana Cirstea was seeing off Coco Vanderweghe, the most American-sounding athlete since Misty Hyman. With time to kill before Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo materialised, I loafed over to the practice courts, stopping briefly to see Victor Hanescu break Kei Nishikori back, eliciting a roar of stony silence from the predominantly Japanese crowd. Caroline Wozniacki was practicing nearby, perfecting the technique of scurrying backwards after returning serve, while Alexandr Dolgopolov had was hitting up with Marcel Granollers, for some reason.

I swung by Court 16 – the practice court of champions – in order to observe the purportedly fraught moment when Roger Federer made way for Bernard Tomic, an event that was apparently scheduled and symbolic. Lest you’ve missed the beat-up: Switzerland and Australia’s best male players have allegedly been engaged in a war or words, although from reading the press transcripts it seemed less like a war than an amiable cup of tea. Naturally the media had obtained one of the teacups, and discovered that it contained a storm. The storm was that, when asked about a possible third round encounter, each man pointed out that the other guy would have to get there first. This unremarkable point was immediately apprehended, and duly repurposed as a mortal insult. The only question really was who would throw the first punch.

I arrived to discover 4,700 less disinterested people had gotten there first. Federer was hitting up with Gilles Simon, who’d unfortunately misplaced his coach. Since the Swiss has two, he lent Severin Luthi to the Frenchman, which I thought generous. I did wonder precisely how usefully this would prepare Federer for Benoit Paire. I decided that nothing can usefully prepare one for Paire, so there’s no use even trying.

As ever, Federer’s practice session ended early, so that he could spend time appeasing the adoring masses. And a mass they were. I remarked at the time that it was like Beatlemania. There was a particularly hysterical timbre that female squeals attained whenever the Fab Four took the stage, an exaggerated ululating shriek that had gone unheard since primordial times. Young people were making exactly that noise today whenever Federer strayed within arm’s reach. Federer, working his way along line, took it in his stride as teenage girls swooned and cascaded to the ground in his wake. He knows as well as anyone that their adulation has little to do with his craft, and everything to do with his fame, and it’s to his credit that fame hasn’t overly insulated him from the appropriate human reaction. He hides his bemusement well, but it’s certainly there. Seated across the court, Simon’s bemusement wasn’t hidden at all – it was clear in his sardonic grin. Tomic turned up, but Federer was still being feted elsewhere, and I couldn’t see that they exchanged words, let alone blows. I am confident someone will spin it as an icy dismissal.

Next to me a boy proudly showed his friends the oversized souvenir ball whose value Federer had marginally enhanced by adding some ink to it. He wasn’t a young boy, and I’m not convinced a signature is something genuinely worth craving. But his friends’ awe was genuine enough, and the boy was authentically swept away. Directly behind me Xavier Malisse was easily accounting for Pablo Andujar. In 2002 I recall explaining to anyone who’d listen that Malisse was the next big thing, unlike Federer, whose game I found attractive even as I decried its inconsistency. It has been a long eleven years. Malisse won comfortably, but there was no squealing. Sam Stosur won, and there were merely long, shuddering sighs of relief, rippling across the grounds.

Harrison was by this time marshalling his forces on Court 8. Through a scrappy set and half the disparate components of his outrage were separately rehearsed, although he had yet to combine them all in a full-blown tantrum, as he is contractually obliged to do at least once per match. He dropped the first set to Giraldo – his proto-nemesis – then gradually climbed on top during a second set short on highlights, bar the backhand pass up the line with which the American finally broke and levelled the match. Since he looked to be going on with it, I left him to his toils.

From there I looked in Stan Wawrinka, who as expected was delivering stern lessons to Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Upon losing Stebe tore off his ridiculous yellow headband, and stormed from the court with newfound purpose, knocking elderly spectators flying. Agnieszka Radwanska, after briefly flirting with the possibility of playing the odd tight set – and thus causing concerned journalists to quibble at her recent schedule – thought better of it and went back to dishing out bagels.

Margaret Court Arena was now free, and thither I sauntered, reflecting as I did that I was running dangerously short on similes for walking casually. Luckily the two men walking out onto MCA were Mikhail Youzhny and Matt Ebden, and they were about to commence a five set classic. I wouldn’t be casually walking anywhere for a while.

For the second year in a row, Ebden fell to a seed after holding a two set lead. Last year it was Nishikori, and this year it was heartbreaking, through being closer. Youzhny saved a match point late in the fourth, before forcing the fifth. It was tremendous, although I was quick to note that most of the crowd, extravagantly bunted in Australia’s flag and given to unharmonsied chanting, found the outcome less inspiring than I did. But they were generous in applauding the Colonel as he saluted them. He’d earned it. They’d earned it.

I strolled out, elated, and discovered someone had stolen my bicycle helmet. So it goes.

ATP Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

January 12, 2013 — The Australian Open kicks off main draw play on Monday, January 14th, but what exactly do we have in store in this year’s men’s draw? Your trusty panel of Tennis Grandstand writers delve into the hot topics surrounding the first Slam, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the men’s tour. You won’t have to look anywhere further than our comprehensive coverage!

Check out our women’s Australian Open draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Romi CvitkovicGrigor Dimitrov.The men’s draw this Slam seems to be very forgiving to the top 8, but not so much to the players just under them. Despite that, the 21-year-old has finally been delivering this year, reaching his first ATP final en route taking out three players ranked considerably higher than him. His road to the quarterfinal is fairly open after his first round encounter with No. 32 seed Julien Benneteau, against whom he holds a 2-0 winning record.

Yeshayahu GinsburgJo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dark horse is a relative term, because the fact remains that in men’s tennis today it’s the top 4 and then everybody else. Nadal is out, so the odds of anyone but Murray, Federer, and Djokovic winning are incredibly low. But if I had to take someone from the field, I’d go with Tsonga. The AO is historically his best Slam and Federer is probably the one of the top 4 he’s most comfortable against in a quarterfinal. The fact that his draw is not particularly challenging until then helps too.

David KaneTommy Haas. The German has had more lives than a cat as he enters 2013 in the midst of his third career. With a pretty nice draw that pits him against a tournament’s supply of wild cards and a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Haas could keep things interesting for nostalgic fans that remember the German’s glory days. Should he make the second week, he could get a war-weary Roger Federer, who has more than his fair share of tough opponents early on. It might not be too late to party like it’s 2002.

Andrea LubinskyRichard Gasquet. Perhaps it’s a risky pick, at 26, it’s unlikely the Frenchman will all of the sudden start to consistently maximize his talent. However, after hitting a career high of No. 7 in 2007, Gasquet is back in the Top 10. He’s already 5-0 this season after winning his eighth career title, in Doha. His draw isn’t exactly a cake walk, but that backhand should get him to Week 2.

Chris SkeltonMilos Raonic. His towering serve makes him a threat in any draw on any surface, and he nearly toppled potential fourth-round opponent Federer on three occasions in 2012, losing two final-set tiebreaks and a 6-4 final set. Raonic will need to win his previous matches efficiently, something that has troubled him before but certainly within his abilities considering his accommodating draw.

Evan ValeriRichard Gasquet. Winning a three set match against Davydenko in the Doha final to start the year, had Richard fist pumping left and right. Looking reenergized and in a favorable section of the draw, Gasquet is poised to make a deep run during the first major of the season. Look for a potential quarterfinal match up between the current world number ten player and Roger Federer.

Maud WatsonJuan Martin del Potro. Assuming anyone outside of the Big 4 is a dark horse, Delpo is in with a real shot.  He had two big victories over Federer at the end of last season and gave Djokovic all he could handle at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals.  He’s looking an awful lot like that guy who won the 2009 US Open, and let’s not forget that he is the only one outside of the Big 4 to have won a slam in over half a decade.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

CvitkovicFernando Verdasco. Sadly, “Fer” has become my go-to player for crashing out early in Slams. But this time the strengths of his first round opponent, David Goffin, warrant it. The two have never played each other, and though Goffin’s best Slam result came in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, the young Belgian has had consistent results on the hard courts as well. Fer had a nice showing in Hopman Cup the other week, but we all know those good results come in all too-short bursts for him.

GinsburgJanko Tipsarevic. Nothing against Janko here, but there is no tougher atmosphere in tennis than playing against Lleyton Hewitt in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt will feed off the crowd and will give Tipsarevic the match of his life. And even if Janko gets through this, it will be physically and emotionally draining, possibly leading to potential problems in his next few matches.

PentecostAlexandr Dolgopolov. His encounter with Gael Monfils may well be the match of the first round, but I suspect it’s one the Dog won’t survive intact. This will of course depend on Monfils’ recovery from Auckland. I also doubt whether Juan Monaco will get past Kevin Anderson in the second round.

SkeltonJanko Tipsarevic.  The second-ranked Serb doesn’t have as many weapons as the rest of the top eight seeds and never has left an impact on Australia other than a first-week epic against Federer in 2008.  He may find himself in trouble against Hewitt in his opener, for the Aussie crowd always galvanizes their champion, but Tipsarevic’s section also includes rising young stars like Janowicz and Dimitrov who look ready to take the next step.

ValeriMarin Cilic. The fourteen seed will lose in the first round to Australian Marinko Matosevic. The two played a tough five setter at the U.S. Open last year where Cilic came out on top but don’t expect the same result this time. Cilic is off to a so so start of the season, losing to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of Chennai. The 2012 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year will beat Cilic and advance to the second round.

WatsonJuan Monaco. Monaco was actually given a decent draw, but a hand injury that took him out of the Kooyong Classic has certainly hurt his chances.  Now even his opening match against Kuznetsov is a tricky proposition, and a possible second round encounter with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson may be all she wrote.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

CvitkovicGael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though a first-rounder, this match has the potential to be a highlight of the tournament. Both players employ vastly unorthodox playing styles and they will run each other down until someone lands in the hospital. Be certain there will be plenty of diving, slicing, acrobatics and “Ooo’s” and “Aaa’s” from both the audience and the players. I recommend this match over any quarterfinal matchup of the top eight, and that’s saying something.

KaneRobin Haase vs. Andy Murray. That this rematch is nigh may only serve to prove that the end of the Mayan calendar was not so much wrong as they were merely a few weeks late. I was in Armstrong Stadium for the last three sets of their US Open 2011 encounter, which has a similar effect to admitting that one was in the eye of Hurricane Sandy. Murray had seemingly righted the ship after falling two sets behind, only to suddenly take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal within feet of the finish line. Buoyed by support from perennial Armstrong courtside ticketholders (who are usually the ones behind the unnerving “What time is it? Break time!” call and response), Haase took advantage and nearly took the match before Murray once again regained composure. Can these two recreate the magic in the crazy bottle? Can you resist finding out?

PentecostJanko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt. This is sure to be a night match, and here in Australia neither effort nor expense will be spared in whipping the nation to a patriotic froth. It’s hard to see this one lasting less than five sets, or finishing before 2am, which history has shown to be Hewitt’s preferred timeframes.

Skelton: For tennis reasons, Julien Benneteau vs. Grigor Dimitrov.  The Sydney semifinalist faces the Brisbane finalist in an match that pits two hot hands at opposite ends of their careers.  Also featured here is an intriguing contrast in styles between the streamlined two-handed backhand of Benneteau and the graceful one-handed flick of Dimitrov, often compared to Federer’s backhand.  For the best atmosphere in a first-round match, though, nothing  will top Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic, which seems destined for a Rod Laver Arena night session.

First Round Upset Special

CvitkovicLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. This may be a bold prediction given Tipsarevic is sitting nicely as the 8th seed and Hewitt is ranked 82nd, but Hewitt can surprise anyone, anywhere, and especially on his home turf. Though Hewitt leads their head-to-head 3-1, the two haven’t played since 2009, so dynamics have completely changed. If Hewitt doesn’t pull off the upset, you can be sure it’ll at least go the distance with five sets.

LubinskyLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. If there’s ever been a player who has played to their maximum potential, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. The 31 year old’s ‘never say die’ attitude makes him a difficult opponent regardless of his health and playing on his home turf seems to give him an extra kick. He’s made the fourth round in three of his last five appearances and has played some excellent tennis at the Kooyong Classic this week, which puts in him a prime position for the upset.

PentecostGrigor Dimitrov d. Julien Benneteau. Dimitrov seems congenitally incapable of playing well for consecutive weeks, but the bad news for Benneteau is that the young Bulgarian got his bad week out of the way in Sydney. Benneteau on the other hand went deep in Sydney, and may balk at a best of five in the Melbourne heat.

Skelton: Gael Monfils d. Alexandr Dolgopolov.  The Frenchman with talent in spades and consistency in spoonfuls moved back into the fringes of relevance with a series of solid victories in Doha and Auckland.  Meanwhile, the mercurial Dolgopolov struggled even against anonymous opponents at every major last year, needing a fifth set to escape the first round here against the world #198.  If Monfils starts well, his opponent may lack the resilience to launch a counterattack.

ValeriGrigor Dimitrov takes down number 32 seed Julien Benneteau. Grigor started the year by taking down seeded players Raonic, Melzer, and Baghdatis to reach his first ATP final in Brisbane, where he lost a tight two setter to Andy Murray,  6-7, 4-6. With new girlfriend Maria Sharapova in his corner, Dimitrov is on a roll to start 2013. This kid has loads of talent and is backing it up by playing smarter than ever, which will prove to be too much to handle for 31 year old Benneteau.

Semifinalists

Cvitkovic: I like to take risks in Slam draws, but with Rafael Nadal out of the loop, the draw gods have been nice to the top eight seeds, and I’m expecting the majority of them to make the semifinals. Djokovic will take on Berdych, while Ferrer will battle compatriot Almagro in the top half. The bottom half will most likely see Del Potro taking on Murray in one semifinal while Tsonga will battle Federer in the other.

Ginsburg: Well, I can’t be that boring with this pick. Then again, in today’s ATP world, not going with the obvious choices at the top is usually just silly. But there are a few potential surprises in the draw. I will take Tsonga, Murray, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori as my semifinalists. Kei has a 2-1 career head-to-head against Ferrer and I think that Tipsarevic loses early. Nishikori also has the power to overpower Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. This would be a perfect draw for Lleyton Hewitt to make one final miracle run through, but he just doesn’t have the legs to play that many matches anymore. I think Nishikori becomes Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist in recent history.

Kane: Djokovic/Ferrer. Despite the loss to Bernard Tomic at Hopman Cup, there’s no reason to believe the No. 1 seed won’t waltz into his third straight Australian Open semifinal (and beyond). That is, assuming he gets past Tomas Berdych. The one major stumbling block to the Big Four, Berdych does not fear the upset, but getting there may prove the bigger challenge for the inconsistent Czech, who lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai (I’m forgiven for not knowing who that is, right?). Murray/Federer. Murray has his work cut out for him after an unconvincing (although successful) display in Brisbane two weeks ago, but aside from a potential run-in with Juan Martin del Potro, the Scot will have few problems en route to defending his semifinal points from one year ago. As for the Swiss Maestro, his draw is something of a minefield, littered with upset fodder like Nickolay Davydenko, Tomic, Milos Raonic. Even Lukas Rosol landed in Fed’s section! Yet, for all the talk about his age, Federer has rarely showed it in the first week, and unless Tsonga strings together a nice run, I can’t seen anyone posing a sufficient threat.

Pentecost: Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer. If anything Ferrer has a cleaner run to the semifinals than Djokovic, although this depends on which version of Berdych shows up. Nonetheless, Djokovic should move through to the final in four sets at most. Roger Federer vs Juan Martin del Potro. I suspect Delpo will push deep here, and upset Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer’s draw is not kind, but he remains the favourite to make it through. I suspect the semifinal will come down to fitness, where the Swiss has the advantage.

Valeri: Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer. I expect the big three to all make the semis, although Federer and Murray will have a harder route than Djokovic, with many potential four and five set hurdles along their way, whereas Novak should cruise. Tipsarevic is set to have a breakthrough and has some momentum coming in with a win in Chennai. He has a tough first rounder against home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt, but should get through it and advance to the quarterfinals where he will defeat the number four seed David Ferrer.

And the Winner is …

CvitkovicNovak Djokovic. I can’t really go against the Serb who is the favorite and defending champion. Hard courts are clearly his expertise, though Berdych can prove his most likely nemesis in the quarterfinals. If Federer prevails over Del Potro in the other half, it will be the first time Djokovic and Federer will have met in the final of a Slam since the 2007 U.S. Open. It’s been a long time coming.

Ginsburg: I have to go with Novak Djokovic to three-peat here. Australia is his best Slam and, while he hasn’t been playing at his seemingly-invincible level in a while, he still is the man to beat here in Melbourne.

KaneNovak Djokovic. Ok, Nole fans; you can relax now (or at least stop flailing so violently). For the third year in a row, the Serb has started the year looking the fittest and making the strongest case for supremacy. Odds are strong that he will punctuate that assertion with a hat trick of Australian Open crowns. With Murray and Federer to duke it out in the other semifinal, Djokovic will only have to play one of them for the title, and likely relishes the thought of a rematch with Murray, the man who took his US Open title a few months ago. Had Murray shown more authority in Brisbane, it could have been a toss-up, but he still lacks that consistent killer instinct of his peers.

LubinskyNovak Djokovic. Djokovic/Murray may be the new big rivalry in tennis, but when it comes to the Australian Open, Djokovic is on top. He’s won this tournament three of the last five years, and after finishing runner up at the French Open and US Open, he’s likely to be hungry for another trophy to add to his collection.

PentecostNovak Djokovic. By this point one has to come up with good reasons why Djokovic won’t win his fourth Australian Open, and I can’t think of any. He appears supremely fit, calm, driven and in good form. Of course, Federer is still Federer, and he demonstrated amply last year that age has yet to weary him. On his day, he can still ascend to unplayable heights. But I still feel Djokovic, on blue plexicushion, has the decisive edge.

SkeltonNovak Djokovic.  He has won three of his five major titles in Australia and probably has played his most dominant tennis during those runs.  If playing 11 hours in two matches against Murray and Nadal doesn’t stop this man Down Under, it’s hard to think of anything short of an asteroid strike that will.  He also receives the softer side (e.g., the Ferrer side) of the draw, as though he needs any help.

Valeri:  Novak Djokovic. Djoker is in a great section of the draw and should make the final relatively unscathed. I have never seen a player who can will himself to victory as much as Novak. After a well rested off-season the worlds number one will be ready to fight off any challenges to his throne from Murray or Federer. The two time defending champ has great memories and too much support in Melbourne not to be crowned the 2013 Australian Open Champion.

WatsonNovak Djokovic. Murray ended up in Federer’s half.  Djokovic has won it the last two years.  Federer said that the current World No. 1 has been the best hard court player the last couple of seasons.  Is Djokovic a strong favorite to win the title and pull off the three-peat in Melbourne?  You bet!

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And there you have it: 8 of 8 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Djokovic as the heavy favorite. That’s pretty good odds for the Serb.

WTA Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

January 12, 2013 — The tennis is kicking off it’s first Slam at the Australian Open on Monday, and we have your one-stop analysis on the women’s draw. Our dedicated panel of Tennis Grandstand writers have addressed hot topics, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the women’s tour.

Also, make sure to check out our Australian Open men’s draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Melissa BoydAgnieszka Radwanska. I am not sure if a Top 4 seed can be considered a dark horse, but Radwanska is my pick. With all of the title talk focused on the WTA’s big three of Azarenka, Sharapova, and Williams, Radwanska is the forgotten one. She arrives in Melbourne undefeated on the season, winning a pair of titles in Auckland and Sydney without dropping a set. She also finds herself on the opposite half of the draw from Azarenka and Williams. Can Aga be the new Vika of the 2013 Australian Open summer and potentially shock everyone en route to her first Grand Slam title?

Victoria ChiesaMona Barthel. The German won her first career title in Hobart last year coming into Melbourne, and while unseeded, she made the third round before losing to Azarenka. Barthel’s a tricky case because she has all the talent in the world, perhaps the most talent of all the German players, but hasn’t seemed to realize that she has it. She had solid results at the beginning of 2012 before flaming out, and her bandwagon slowed down with her. She’s seeded this year so she’d be set for a showdown with Agniezska Radwanska in the third round. She had match point against Radwanska in Montreal last year and lost, but she might be ready to turn that result around this time. However, I could also see her flaming out to Ksenia Pervak in her opener.

David KaneSvetlana Kuznetsova. That “Can’t bet against her, can’t bet on her either” mentality often attributed to Serena Williams applies double for the Russian, who is not only the last teenager to win a Grand Slam at the 2004 US Open, but also the first defending champion to lose in the first round a year later. Forced to play qualifying in Sydney after a 2012 filled with injuries, Sveta proved she could do some real damage with a couple of winnable matches under her belt. Her draw in Melbourne allows for the same scenario, with Su-Wei Hsieh her first potential seed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the resilient Russian in the second week.

Andrea LubinskySloane Stephens. It’s just a matter of time before the young American has a breakthrough at a Slam, and the Australian is notorious for surprises. The 29th seed should have no troubles in her first two matches, but things could get tricking in Round 3 where she’s slated to meet Petra Kvitova, or possibly Laura Robson if she pulls off the upset. If she makes it through that, she could potentially fight her way into the quarterfinals.

Jesse PentecostAna Ivanovic. Wealthier people than me have gone broke gambling on Ivanovic, but I can’t see that certain penury is any reason to lose faith. It helps that she was in fine form in Perth last week, and has wisely landed in a relatively benign section of the draw.

Chris Skelton:  Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  The Brisbane finalist knocked off two top-eight opponents to start the new year, a dramatic break from her struggles last season.  She cannot face a contender more plausible than Wozniacki or Errani until the quarterfinals, which in itself would mark an overachievement for a 24th seed.  And she has won sets from Azarenka on hard courts before, so who knows how far she can go if her confidence builds through the fortnight?

Maud WatsonVenus Williams. The No. 25 seed seems to be playing with renewed hunger, and after a successful stint in Hopman Cup, she’s primed to make a good run in Melbourne.  The most fearsome opposition in her quarter is a Maria Sharapova who is coming in cold off an injury.  If the American can find a way to sneak through to the semis, her experience as a 7-time major champion might just carry her to her first title Down Under.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

BoydPetra Kvitova. Kvitova’s preparation for Melbourne wasn’t great and she appeared to struggle with the heat in her lead-up tournaments. After playing lights out tennis heading into the U.S. Open last year, it appears that the Czech’s game has deserted her again and the draw gods in Melbourne did her no favours. She is slated to face Francesca Schiavone in the first round in a battle of struggling former Grand Slam champions.

ChiesaCaroline Wozniacki, Samantha Stosur or both. Wozniacki’s got a brutal opening round draw against Sabine Lisicki, but Stosur crashing out early can almost be considered a sure bet at this point. She had surgery to remove a bone spur in her right ankle prior to the start of the year, and dropped both her matches in warmup events to Sofia Arvidsson and Zheng Jie. She’ll open against Kai-Chen Chang which seems harmless enough, but Chang defeated Stosur in a third-set tiebreak in Osaka at the end of 2012. Even if Stosur gets past Chang, she could have Zheng awaiting once again in round two. She hasn’t defeated a top 50 player at the Australian Open since 2006. Also, Angelique Kerber should keep an eye out for a potential looming second round against Lucie Hradecka. If she’s on her game, while that’s a big if, the Czech is capable of cracking the ball harder than anyone on the WTA and can snatch proceedings right out of the German’s hands.

KanePetra Kvitova. No, Francesca Schiavone will probably not beat the struggling Czech in the first round. But talented youngsters Laura Robson or Sloane Stephens are more than capable of pulling off the upset over Kvitova, whose draw only gets tougher with potential fourth round clashes with Nadia Petrova and Serena seeded (and looming) in the quarters. Kvitova could click and run the table as she has done in the past, but a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Dominika Cibulkova in Sydney, one that saw “The” Petra hit 35 errors, leaves the scent of blood in the water for the rest of the competition.

PentecostSamantha Stosur. There are few outcomes more wearyingly certain than Stosur falling early at the Australian Open, done in by a lethal cocktail of overwhelming crowd support and an opponent in rare form. In the second round she’ll likely meet Jie Zhang, to whom she just lost in Sydney.

SkeltonSamantha Stosur.  The Aussie simply can’t handle the pressure of playing on home soil, where she has lost six of her last seven matches and both matches this year.  Her recovery from a bone spur in her ankle may hamper her already indifferent mobility.  I nearly chose Petra Kvitova, though, who has lost seven of her last ten matches overall, tends to wilt in the heat, and struggled to find the court for long stretches in her woeful losses at Brisbane and Sydney.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

BoydSabine Lisicki vs. Caroline Wozniacki. This match up jumped off the page when I was going through the draw. I didn’t think this could be a possible first rounder until I realized that Lisicki isn’t seeded, which is another shocker. These are two players at a crossroads in their career and have a lot to prove to themselves and the tennis faithful. A win for either would be just what the doctor ordered while a loss will sink one of them even further into their slump.

It should be a great first week of matches on the ladies, especially if the potential Venus Williams – Sharapova and Ivanovic-Jankovic third round encounters materialize. Get out your popcorn, need I say more?

ChiesaYanina Wickmayer vs. Jarmila Gajdosova. I wrote about Gajdosova’s road to redemption after a brutal 2012 last week, and she was dealt a tough opening round test. 20th-seed Wickmayer is in good form in the early season and proclaims herself healthy after dealing with back issues for the past 18 months. These two faced off in a night match in the same round on Rod Laver Arena in 2011 where Wickmayer prevailed, 63 26 64. The Belgian leads 3-1 in the head-to-head, but all three of the pair’s meetings on hard courts have gone three sets; Gajdosova’s lone win was a three-setter in Indian Wells last year.

KaneYulia Putintseva vs. Christina McHale. The two have never played before and the winner would likely play No. 7 seed Sara Errani in the second round, but best believe that this will be a cracking start to the year’s first Slam. Spitfire Putintseva gets the best of both worlds for her main draw debut: facing an American, she will likely get the ESPN treatment (fingers crossed for a courtside Pam Shriver), but facing an unseeded American means an outer court that Putintseva will turn into a Greek amphitheater, complete with special effects and multilingual affirmatives. Regardless of the result, high-octane entertainment is guaranteed.

PentecostCaroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki. Lisicki was the floater the seeds least wanted to encounter. Conversely the German doubtless hoped for a kinder initial opponent than Wozniacki, for that she is now making eager sounds. Let’s just say that neither of them will be truly pleased to see the other, and that their combined outrage should guarantee a first-rate first round match.

Skelton: Melanie Oudin vs. Laura Robson.  A former prodigy from one Slam nation faces a current prodigy from another Slam nation in a battle of Oudin’s counterpunching against Robson’s lefty firepower.  Curiously, both upstarts broke onto the international scene with quarterfinal appearances at the US Open (2009, 2012) highlighted by first-week upsets over a former US Open champion (Sharapova, Clijsters).

First Round Upset Special

BoydKimiko Date-Krumm over Nadia Petrova. It is impossible not to root for Date-Krumm as she continues to defy father time on the tennis court. Even though Petrova finished 2012 playing some of the best tennis of her career, she is always susceptible to an upset and Date-Krumm’s style of play is not the best match up for the Russian. Not to mention that it will be entertaining to watch these two veterans battle it out regardless of the result.

Chiesa: The obvious choice is Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki, but I’ve gone a different route. While everyone’s looking forward to a potential third-round clash between Sharapova and Venus Williams, she could have her hands full with Galina Voskoboeva in the first round. The Kazakh reached the third round last year and her propensity to use the big serve, drop shot combination could pose some difficulties for Venus on a hot day Down Under.

KaneElina Svitolina d. Angelique Kerber. Rumor has it that Kerber is coming down from the dizzying heights she reached in 2012. Her middling results at Brisbane and Sydney would appear to confirm such a rumor. Meanwhile, Svitolina is quick on the ascent, capping her season with a WTA125 title. Another member of Generation Spitfire (one that includes Putintseva and Irina Khromacheva), Svitolina isn’t as undersized as her contemporaries, but matches their heart and determination. Clutch in tight moments, Svitolina was impressive at the US Open, winning three tough qualifying matches and playing Ana Ivanovic tough in her main draw debut. This would be her biggest win to date and Kerber’s consistency is unmatched, but if it gets to a third set, don’t underestimate Svitolina in a shootout.

PentecostFrancesca Schiavone d. Petra Kvitova. Kvitova’s first round loss in Sydney was so comprehensive that no positives emerged intact, and she was barely better in Brisbane. She is notoriously unsteady in the heat, while Schiavone relishes nothing more than an extended set-to in a broiling stadium.

Skelton: Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki.  The former #1 emitted next to no confidence or tactical clarity in early losses at both Brisbane and Sydney that recalled her dismal 2012.  And the pressure of defending quarterfinal points won’t help her cause in a first-round match against Sabine Lisicki, whose booming serves have stifled the Dane’s retrieving before.

Watson: Kimiko Date-Krumm def. Nadia Petrova. The Russian may have had a good end to 2012, but she got dumped out of her opening match in Sydney last week.  She’s always been a head case, so if Date-Krumm can mix it up with some consistency, Petrova might just self-destruct.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Azarenka vs Williams and Na Li vs. Sharapova – I don’t see anyone knocking out the top 3 before the semifinals even though Sharapova comes in nursing collar bone injury and without any match play. Azarenka has a tricky first rounder against Niculescu, but it should be smooth sailing after that until she gets to Serena who has few obstacles in her section. Li is a former Australian Open finalist and a quarter-final against Radwanska would be awesome theatre.

Chiesa: I expect the top half to go with seeding, meaning we’ll get yet another meeting between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Australia. The bottom half is tougher to call. There are question marks surrounding Sharapova coming off of injury. Radwanska’s in hot form, having taken both warmup titles in Auckland and Sydney, but I’m concerned she overplayed coming into Melbourne. I’m going with Li and Kerber on the bottom half.

Kane: Azarenka/Williams. In the last year, the WTA suddenly became able to pair its always-entertaining first week chaos with quality second week match-ups and unsurprising champions. Serena’s draw is tougher than Azarenka’s, but Serena proved in Brisbane that she’s ready to play and unless Azarenka runs into a streaking Kuznetsova, a rematch of the US Open final is looking more than likely. Once there, look for Serena to punctuate her ascendency to the top spot with a decisive win over the Belorussian. Azarenka pushed Serena in Flushing, but the American never looked in danger in any of their other match-ups in 2012. Li/Sharapova. The Russian No. 2 has a potential third round match-up with Venus Williams, but no Serena, Azarenka or Kvitova in sight until the final, which bodes well for her chances. Meanwhile, Radwanska beat Li in Sydney only days ago, but the Chinesewoman has been in fine form with a Shenzhen title and much more experience in the later rounds of a Slam than the Pole. Sharapova still hasn’t played a match in 2013 no thanks to a collarbone injury, but her only matchplay a year ago was an exhibition loss to Elena Vesnina that led to a run to the final.

Watson: Azarenka vs. S. Williams; A. Radwanska vs. V. Williams. It’s hard to envision anyone stopping Azarenka and Serena from colliding in the semis.  The bottom half is harder to predict, but I’ll stick to my dark horse pick, Venus, facing off against Aga, who’s a perfect 9-0 in 2013.

And the Winner is …

BoydSerena Williams. I was going to pick someone else just to be different, but is impossible not to heavily favour Williams as she goes after another ‘Serena Slam’. It is hard to fathom that she has lost just one match since her shocking first round exit at the French Open last spring. Williams is on another one of her dominant runs, and the question should be how many games, not sets, or matches, will her opponents be able to win during this fortnight? Not many would be my guess.

Chiesa: Do you ever bet against a healthy, motivated Serena? Nah. Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

KaneSerena Williams. There was once a time where the younger Williams sister was a volatile stock. Not anymore; after a traumatic loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros, Serena hasn’t looked back and is not only looking to obtain the No. 1 ranking that many believe she already deserves, but is also in hot pursuit of a potential second Serena Slam, which she could clinch at the sight of her emotional nadir. A trio of tricky Russians awaits Williams in the second week (Shvedova, Kirilenko and Petrova) but during Week 1, a time when the American is traditionally the most vulnerable, few look capable of mounting a serious campaign. Such a narrative will likely continue until Serena lands her sixth(!) title Down Under.

LubinskySerena Williams. There’s no more dominant force in women’s tennis. When Serena Williams is healthy, she’s the one to beat, regardless of ranking. Ranked No. 3, she’s got her own section of the draw and a combined 25-3 head to head against the other projected semifinalists, not to mention she’s won this title five times.

PentecostSerena Williams. I admit picking the most accomplished player in the world to win a tournament she’s won several times before does not constitute a bold prediction, but you pick against Serena at your peril, especially if she’s in a vengeful mood. As far as I can see, every time she loses it’s an upset, even to those ranked above her.

SkeltonSerena Williams.  When did she last lose at an important tournament?  Clay aside, one would have to go all the way back to Miami, since when Serena has claimed titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships.  She looked surprisingly hungry in winning Brisbane to start 2013, and she holds massive winning streaks in her rivalries against the other two leading title threats:  Azarenka and Sharapova.

WatsonSerena Williams. She was a virtually unstoppable machine the second half of 2012 and with a win in Brisbane, looks much the same in 2013.  Few players can hang with Serena as it is, and if she’s playing her best, nobody in the field is going to stop her from hoisting that trophy.

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And there you have it, 7 of 7 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Serena Williams as the overwhelming favorite for the 2013 Australian Open.