2012 Australian Open

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2013 Australian Open and The Usual Suspects?

Novak Djokovic

by James A. Crabtree

With the Australian open only a jiffy away now seems the opportune moment to make some foolhardy predictions as to who shall claim the spoils first in 2013.

At a glance it doesn’t look like a new grand slam champion will emerge just yet.

With the big 4 being cut down to the big 3 for a second straight major with a certain Spaniard sick one would assume that a new contender could join the party dominated for so long by the remaining Scot, Serb and Swiss.

In truth none look like they are either knocking on the door or even hold an invite to the elusive ‘S club 4’. Berdych and Tsonga have proved they can take down a big gun, but have never followed it up in the following round. This leaves only Del Porto who has at least proved he can hold his nerve in 5 set thrillers. The big Argie’s draw isn’t easy with a possible matchup against Granollers in round three, the inform un-seeded Dennis Istomin by round four and Andy Murray in the quarters. Tsonga’s draw is better with the only major problem being countrymen Gasquet in the fourth round.

With Nadal away so often Federer shall play, as with his Roland Garros victory in 2009 and Wimbledon 2009 and 2012. This time more question marks surround Federer’s destiny.  The seeding format in Australia is an upside down 1 v 4 and 2 v 3 rather than 1v 3 and 2 v 4. This means 2nd seed Federer is slated to meet 3rd seed Murray, a player he would have otherwise avoided, in the semi-finals. That is supposing he makes it. Problems persist for ol’ Roger well before then with possible opponents including Davydenko, an inform Tomic, a dangerous Raonic and a nemesis of sorts with Tsonga in the quarters. The all-time leading grand slam champion has big questions regarding form having not played a competitive match since the ATP Tour Finals in early November 2012.

And what of Murray?  Many tennis enthusiasts have predicted he could go on a tear having got the U.S. crown and shown impressive performances in Australia the past three years, with two finals appearances and one semi-final. His performance in Australia thus far has been the most notable of the big 3, inclusive of reclaiming his second straight Brisbane title. His first round matchup is against Robin Haase, a fellow curly haired baseliner and someone he has split their last two meetings with, although they have not played each other since 2011. Other hurdles for him include Dolgopolov or Simon in the fourth round then an intimidating Del Potro in the quarters.

As well as Murray has performed Djokovic has performed better as he looks for a hat trick in Melbourne and his fourth title in six years. A second round struggle could be with Ryan Harrison who looks to be itching for a big name scalp. This might not happen this year but Harrison can be dangerous and did take a set off Murray in Australia in 2012. The ‘other Swiss’ Wawrinka is expected in the fourth round then possibly an out of sorts Tomas Berdych in the quarters although his name could be replaced by new kid on the block David Goffin.

And what of the semi-finals?

It’s time to go out a limb and say Jo-Wilfred Tsonga will beat Roger Federer and make his first semi-final since 2010, but ultimately lose to Andy Murray who will continue to play for sick friend Ross Hutchins.

On the other side of the draw expect Mr Consistent David Ferrer to meet up with Novak for a repeat of their 2012 quarterfinal match with a similar score line and result.

That leaves Novak Djokovic to do battle again with Andy Murray in their second straight grand slam final with Novak gaining revenge on the Scot.

A “Kvitty” Crossroads For Petra

Petra Kvitova

By David Kane

The new season for players and the New Year for fans are all about fresh starts. Did the end of 2012 leave you feeling unfulfilled? Do you have any goals that you left unrealized? Were you among the few who anticipated the end of the Mayan calendar preventing 2013 from happening at all? Never fear, for the start of a new year is full of promise and potential. With that potential comes a resolution to be better, do better and, most importantly, move forward.

What then can be done for Petra Kvitova, who would sooner turn back time?

At the dawn of 2012, the Czech sensation was the World No. 1 in all but name. With her effortless groundstrokes and a first major title at Wimbledon, “The” Petra established a clear mile between herself and her contemporaries. Having finished 2011 one win from the top spot, Kvitova began the new season as the presumptive best in the world, and as the Australian summer reached its peak, seemingly forgot how to lose. She came to Sydney after an undefeated run at Hopman Cup in Perth and, despite a close loss to former Australian Open finalist, Li Na, looked like a lock to usurp Caroline Wozniacki and spend the next few months (a time when she had few points to defend) as the supposed “rightful Queen” of the often maligned WTA rankings.

Somehow, Kvitova’s coronation never came to be.

A set from the Australian Open final and the No. 1 ranking by extension, Kvitova froze against Maria Sharapova, a familiar opponent whom the Czech had trampled en route to her Wimbledon title a few months earlier. From there, misfortune would follow Petra wherever she went. Never getting close to the top spot again, she would suffer niggling injuries and surprising losses as the season went on. At the Year End Championships in Istanbul, an event which she had dominated a year earlier, Kvitova was out of sorts and out of sync during a quick loss to underpowered Agnieszka Radwanska, and tearfully pulled out of the event with an injury soon after.

Starting the 2013 season closer to No. 11 than No. 1, World No. 8 Kvitova is clearly feeling the pressure to return her once unbeatable form if the early losses she suffered Brisbane and Sydney are any indication. At the latter, the Czech barely had time to do much of anything during a 6-1 6-1 thrashing from Slovak Dominika Cibulkova. To be sure, a loss (even one so lopsided) to the world-beating Cibulkova is nothing of which to be ashamed. However, the 35 unforced errors from Kvitova would imply that such a scoreline was largely her own doing.

Nobody blows “The” Petra off the court…except perhaps herself.

That Kvitova admits to “not feeling very well right now in [her] confidence” is more a statement of the obvious than anything else. Commitment to and, more importantly, successful execution of the Czech’s hyper-aggressive game requires utmost assurance, something which Kvitova appears to have lacked for the better part of a year. Despite runs to the semifinals of Roland Garros and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, the Czech appeared more thankful for soft draws rather than the indomitable play that had become expected. Things only got worse as 2012 drew to a close, when Kvitova was hard-pressed to take advantage of even the kindest of draws with error-strewn performances that turned her into a shadow of her former self.

Last January, Petra Kvitova came to the Australian Open in the hopes of securing the world’s top ranking. This year, she’ll likely be trying to keep her place in the top 10. Yet, Kvitova should look at this sudden regression into relative irrelevance as a blessing instead of a curse. With expectations dwindling, she might find assurance in the notion that the past is behind her, that whatever will be, will be.

With that New Year’s resolution, she may find herself moving forward after all.

We Miss You Robin Soderling

Robin Soderling of Sweden celebrates defeating Lleyton Hewitt of Australia at the Wimbledon tennis championships in London

Robin Soderling used to be one of the most misunderstood players on the the ATP World Tour.  Nowadays, however, he’s just one of the most missed.

Earlier this week Soderling, who has been off of the tour since July fighting mononucleosis, withdrew from the Australian Open.  He tweeted that he was hoping to be able to return to the tour in February.  It was heartbreaking news for myself and the rest of the tennis community.  Though we haven’t always fully embraced and appreciated the shy but unyielding Swede, the thought of a Soderling-less January just seems completely wrong. Something’s missing, and it hurts.

How did we get here? Did absence make our hearts grow fonder?  Did we not know what we had until it was gone? Are we just feeling sympathy for an ailing athlete, or is this group heartache a symptom of something else? Is it possible that, without even realizing it, we all fell a bit in love with Robin Bo Carl Soderling?

 

The Early Years

What did we know about Robin Soderling the morning of May 31, 2009?  Dedicated tennis fans knew him primarily as an indoor-tennis-specialist, a rare breed of player who’s only significant results came when the stadium was closed off from the outside world.  He had been in nine finals and won three titles, all indoors on either hard-court or carpet. Unfortunately outside where the rest of the tennis players lived he was seen as an underachiever, another in the endless parade of players who seem destined to never live up to their potential.

He also had a reputation as a, well, to put it nicely- a brat.  In a 2007 Wimbledon five-set match against Rafael Nadal he made waves by mocking the French Open Champion and playing mind games (seen in the video below).  This ruffled the Spaniard so much that in his post-match interview Nadal made some uncharacteristically harsh comments about his opponent, calling Soderling “strange”, and saying that he had a hard time finding anyone in the locker room with nice things to say about him.  Those comments would follow him around for years to come.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUuVU03lY1c

 

The Breakthrough

I’m not sure that “breakthrough” is a strong enough word for Soderling’s 6–2, 6–7(2), 6–4, 7–6(2) defeat over Rafael Nadal on May 31, 2009 in the fourth round of the French Open.  In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not .  That match is the tennis world’s “Where were you when…” moment.  I’ll never forget the surreal, uncomfortable, queasy feeling I had sitting on my couch that morning watching the upset unfold.  Some things in life were certain- death, taxes, and Rafael Nadal winning the French Open.  Robin Soderling and his monster forehand knocked the entire tennis world off it’s axis that day.  It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

As we all tried to gather our breath and find our footing again in this strange new world, Soderling steamrolled through Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals and survived an epic five-setter against Fernando Gonzales in the semifinals to make it all the way to the French Open final.  The man who had never been past the Third Round of a Major and who had never made a Final outdoors on any surface was now facing Roger Federer in the French Open Finals.

Though Soderling lost rather meekly to Federer that day, he shocked the tennis world again during the trophy presentation.  His speech was one of the most memorable runner-up speeches ever- sincere, funny, and incredibly endearing.  He “yoked” his way into our hearts that afternoon, and showed that his personality was just as complex and surprising as his game had become.  (His speech starts at 7:20 in the clip, everything before that is crying Federer.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Iob14Vp-_8

 

The Aftermath

So many players are defined by their breakthroughs that the word has become rather transparent.  Not Robin Soderling.  After the 2009 French Open he was not intimidated by his new-found fame or astronomically increased expectations.  He finished 2009 ranked number eight in the world, his first Top Ten finish ever, and powered his way to the Top Five in 2010.  He showed no fear going into the 2010 French Open where he had the bulk of his points to defend.  He made it all the way back to the final and he did it in style, defeating a guy named Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.  Rafael Nadal got the best of him in the final that year, but one thing was for sure- Robin Soderling 2.0 was not a fluke.  He was here to stay, and it was time for the rest of us to get used to it.

Things came full circle in he fall of 2010 when he went back to his beloved indoor courts to win the biggest title of his career, the Paris Masters, by defeating hometown favorite Gael Monfils in the Final.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFqjwYzZRK4

Despite only playing for seven months and battling nagging injuries and illness for most of the spring, Soderling still managed to win four titles this year.  Four!

Tennis is a scarier place when Robin Soderling is around.  He has the potential to beat any player on any surface at any time, and he’s proven that he’s not too scared or intimated to do it.  Tennis needs that.  We as fans need that.  This sport is at it’s best when it’s knocked off balance, when it feels like anything is possible, when there are dynamites in the draw.

Let’s face it, we didn’t fall in love with tennis because of the security it provided.  That’s not who tennis fans are.  We love the heart-attacks, the unpredictability, the nauseating knowledge that nothing is a given.  We love the underachievers, the floaters, and especially the villains.

Get well soon, Robin.  We can’t wait to have you back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gWXXSEvg30
(Thanks to my twitter followers for sharing their favorite Soderling moments with me this week, especially @A_Gallivant and @ptenisnet for the links to the videos above.)

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