By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Not every sport needs a feel-good story, but they really help bring in fans that might otherwise not be so interested. Unfortunately for tennis, its feel-good story—especially the American ones—have fallen flat recently.
Mardy Fish lost 30 pounds and made fitness more a part of his life instead of just his tennis game a few years ago. He finally began to consistently compete in the deeper rounds of Masters and Slams. Then, just over a year ago, he discovered a heart condition and has barely competed since.
Brian Baker was everyone’s heartwarming story last year. He was a top junior player but missed almost seven years after a long string of injuries that necessitated five surgeries. He came back last year to reach the final in Nice (after coming through the qualifying) and was competitive at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He tore his meniscus in the second round of this year’s Australian Open and hasn’t competed since.
This is why Tommy Haas is such a breath of fresh air. Haas is not a traditional feel-good story. There is no massive life change. There is no adversity that has been overcome in extreme and immediate fashion. Haas is just pure grit, determination, and hard work.
Haas first debuted in the ATP rankings in October 1993, almost 20 years ago. After 10 years of play (the first few on the lower tours, like everyone does), Haas reached a career high of World No. 2 in May of 2002. There is no telling how high he could have gone had tragic circumstances, including his father being in a coma and a severe injury, taken him out of tennis for an extended period of time. During Haas’s leave, Roger Federer arose as the dominant player and Haas lost his next nine matches against the Swiss, until finally beating him in the Halle final last year.
Haas returned to the game in 2004, competing and winning titles before reaching the top 10 again in 2007. 2008, however, was marred by injuries and aside from a great run Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2009, Haas’s career was once again derailed.
This is the story of Tommy Haas’s career. He plays well, works his way into form, competes with just about anyone on tour, and then seems to be knocked off track by injuries at the worst time. If you look at a graph of his career ranking, it almost looks like a repeating curve. His ranking rises to the top of the game and then falls drastically when injury forces him to miss extended periods of time—twice missing more than 12 months and falling out of the rankings completely.
Now, at the age of 35, Haas is back once again. He beat Novak Djokovic in Miami en route to reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal since Paris back in 2006. He is on the verge of the top 10 and has no points to defend from now until Halle. He has all but guaranteed himself a top 16 seed in Roland Garros and will most likely be able to get a favorable draw both there and in Wimbledon. A few wins at Roland Garros could very easily put Haas back in the top 10 for the first time since 2007, which would be an incredible feat.
Haas is competing at a high level past an age where most players have retired. He hasn’t done it with flash or shocking one-time runs. He has been consistently getting better after each return from injury. His feel-good story is not one of fan-rallying epic proportions. It’s the story of a player who has been dealt poor cards in his career and has made the absolute best of them time and time again. It’s the story of a man who has been on the brink of the top of the game but never quite made it—and he has still never let that get him down. Let’s hope that his current stint on tour lasts until he can leave on his own terms this time.
By Maud Watson
Change in the Air
It’s still early in the clay court season, but already there’s an increase in the chatter regarding Novak Djokovic’s chances of completing not only a career Grand Slam, but possibly the calendar-year Grand Slam. The reason behind the increased chatter is that he did something that nobody has been able to do for the last eight years – defeat Rafael Nadal in the final of TMS Monte-Carlo. Even when accounting for Nadal’s lengthy layoff, when you consider Djokovic’s ankle injury coming in and the success Nadal had already enjoyed this season, it was still a significant victory for the Serb. He proved once again that his game matches up well against Nadal’s, and even on clay, he doesn’t have to play outside of his comfort zone to get the W. Defeating Nadal in Paris with a best-of-five format is another animal altogether, but Djokovic’s win last weekend certainly added another element of intrigue to the clay court season.
As Roland Garros draws near, the question of how to seed Rafael Nadal at the year’s second major has become one of the hottest topics in the sport. Nadal is currently ranked No. 5. Should his ranking remain there at the conclusion of TMS Rome, Nadal could easily end up seeded fifth at Roland Garros, which means he could meet any of the other members of the Big 4 in the quarterfinals – something which few, if any, want to see happen. Nadal may yet make everyone’s life a little easier by rising to No. 4, but it won’t be easy. Outside of Madrid, he can at best only defend points from last season. Ferrer, currently ranked No. 4, has done his part to help his countryman’s cause, withdrawing from Monte-Carlo and crashing out in his opening match in Barcelona. But it’s still going to be a tight race against time for the two to flip-flop in the rankings. Should Nadal remain at No. 5, John McEnroe favors giving Nadal the top seed. Others argue that Roland Garros has traditionally stuck to the rankings and shouldn’t make a special exception in this case. It’s a compromise of the two that is needed. Though he’s never won the French Open, as the clear No. 1 who has on more than one occasion proven he can defeat Nadal on clay, Djokovic deserves the top seed. Still, seeding Nadal outside of the top four is ludicrous (and Ferrer would likely be the first to agree). The real debate should be whether to seed Nadal at No. 2 or simply within the top four. Many are apt to want another Djokovic vs. Nadal final. With that in mind, do you seed Nadal so that the two can’t meet before the championship match or do you seed him fourth and leave it to fate as to which half of the draw he lands? It’s a hard call, though for what it’s worth, the man at the center of the debate would probably appreciate the seeding that will deflect the most pressure off of his shoulders.
In the same vein as the other three majors, Wimbledon is opening its wallet and has announced there will be a 40% overall increase in prize money for the 2013 Championships. Total prize money will be approximately $34.4 million, which is up nearly $10 million from last year. Also similar to the other majors, it will be the early-round losers who reap the most rewards, with some taking home a little over 60% more than they did in 2012. But Wimbledon isn’t just gearing money towards players’ paychecks. It’s also going to be investing in a new roof. Should all go according to plan, Wimbledon’s second show court, Court 1, will have a retractable roof by 2019. These are all exciting and necessary changes, and with particular regards to the second roof, Wimbledon should continue to enjoy its status as the crown jewel in the tennis calendar.
Earlier this week, Mardy Fish’s attempt to get his game back on track suffered a relatively big setback. Playing in his first Challenger since 2006, Fish was bounced in his opening match against 103-ranked Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in three sets. Yes, the loss came on Fish’s worst surface against a guy who is probably most at home on the dirt, but for a player struggling with confidence and anxiety issues, this loss must cut deep. Hopefully the American can turn it around next week in Tallahassee, because at age 31, more setbacks will likely have Fish calling it a career sooner rather than later.
At least one American got some good news this week, as Brian Baker, who suffered a meniscus tear in January, was given the all-clear by doctors to resume practicing at full speed in the next two to three weeks. After overcoming multiple surgeries to mount such an impressive return in 2012, it seemed an even crueler stroke of bad luck that Baker was forced to retire from his second-round match at the Australian Open with this injury, making his recent announcement all the more welcomed. Baker has also proven to be such a fighter in the past, that even though no return date has yet been set, if his return to competition is anything like what he accomplished last season, we may yet see great things from him in 2013. Here’s to hoping he once again proves to be one of the best feel-good stories in tennis, and indeed, in all of sports.
It sometimes feels like there is a long-standing tradition of Americans skipping the European clay court season. Oh, everyone will play Roland Garros because even a first-round loss at a Slam is too much money to pass up and the Slams are prestigious enough to merit playing on an uncomfortable surface. But no American since Agassi really seems to expect to win more than a few matches in Paris. The evidence is in the fact that no American ever really seems to take the clay preludes to Roland Garros seriously.
John Isner looks like he wants to buck the trend. Even though it ended disastrously for him, he took a late wild card to play Monte Carlo and really looked like he wanted to get more match play in on the dirt. Of all the Americans, he has the best chance to do well on clay and appears to have finally decided to try and pick up his results in Europe—which have not been good in his career, to say the least. Isner will also play Nice the week before Roland Garros. And while it is often debated whether or not playing the week before a Slam is a good idea, it clearly shows that Isner is in the right frame of mind here.
Sam Querrey seems to have gone the standard American route and will only play Madrid and Rome before the French Open. And, while we should not conjecture anything bad here, Americans since Andy Roddick have often found ways to avoid playing one or two of those Masters events each year.
After those two, it’s not only in Europe where Americans can’t be found. It’s really anywhere. Mardy Fish is still in the top 50 on the back of a good summer last year, but he has only played 1 tournament in the last 6 months and a heart condition isn’t always something that you can heal or fix. He is playing in the Savannah Challenger this week, but you have to begin to wonder how much longer he can physically play tennis.
Brian Baker, last year’s amazing comeback story, is still out with a torn meniscus suffered at the Australian Open. Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, both of whom have been in the top 50 within the past year, have dropped considerably. James Blake and Mike Russell are consistently in the tail end of the top 100, which seems to have been their constant place in the last 5 years.
The most spirited American tennis during the clay season always seems to come on the Challenger tour. This is because the USTA gives their wild card for the French Open to the player who earns the most total points in the Sarasota, Savannah, and Tallahassee Challengers. These players mostly know that their chances of getting through qualifiers and actually playing in a Slam, especially on clay, aren’t so high. Thus, we often see these 100+ ranked players giving everything they can and more in these tournaments.
Of the Americans outside the top 100, Rhyne Williams is rising. He began really improve last season and this looks to be his breakout year. He gained over 300 rankings spots in 2012, from 510 up to 191 and is currently ranked #119 in the world. Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, two talented youngsters, are still looking for their first breakthroughs on the professional tour. And Alex Kuznetsov, a once-hyped player who hasn’t been able to do that much with his career won the Sarasota Challenger and has the inside track for that wild card and his first-ever French Open Main Draw.
by James A. Crabtree
What a disappointment the American men currently are.
For a country that is so rich in tennis history it is heart breaking to see a power house such as the United States limp through the season.
True, some players have been playing well. Sam Querrey has displayed a mild resurgence, James Blake is attempting one last hurrah, Jack Sock could well be a diamond in the rough and Mardy Fish is back at Indian Wells but hasn’t played since the 2012 U.S. Open. Outside of the top 100 Tim Smyczek looks to be a hustling player making waves. The players hanging in the bottom half of the top 100 such as Brian Baker and Michael Russell, are those with heart whilst the majority of the new batch, thus far, are all hype.
The real disappointment lies with the supposed new generation of stars. Granted, they do all talk a good game, profess their commitment to hard work and assure us that they are just that one big win from joining the elite. At this point none look like worthy candidates to propel the stars and stripes forward during the teenage years of this decade and for the most part lack true grit.
Ryan Harrison is still only twenty years old, and players tend to show their potential at around twenty two these days. Impressively Harrison has the skills to battle with the elite, just not the temperament to outclass anybody notable so far.
In 2011 Donald Young reached a career high ranking of 38, the fourth round of the U.S. Open and made the final of a 250 event in Thailand. The John McEnroe prophecies were starting to ring true until 2012, when Young pressed the self-destruct button and lost seventeen matches in a row. 2013 hasn’t been so bad, but Young is way off in the rankings.
Back in the early eighties many players from the eastern bloc looked to defect their homeland for the American dream. These days the reverse is happening. After some financial disputes with the USTA, Russian born Alex Bogolmov Jnr decided he was more Russian than American in 2012. Jesse Levine is another with eyes on being part of a Davis Cup team, having aligned with Canada, the country of his birth. Reportedly both players still live in Florida.
None of the current crop look poised to make a leap.
For those who can remember, rewind ten years prior and it was a much different story.
Pete Sampras was sailing off into the distance after his fourteenth slam. Andre Agassi had recently collected his fourth Australian title, and Andy Roddick was only months away from cracking the big time.
In many people’s eyes Roddick didn’t win enough, mainly because he failed to win a second slam. It must be remembered that his second chance was always going to be a lot tougher thanks to a certain Mr Federer who spoilt many careers. Now with the oft-criticised Roddick gone, and enjoying retirement, the torch as America’s best player hasn’t been passed onto a worthy candidate.
Now before the stomach acid of the Isner fans starts churning let’s remember that big John does very little outside of the U.S. or Davis Cup duties and has been looking rather out of sorts this year. Is it too soon to count him out?
And when was the U.S. this unsubstantial? Certainly not twenty years ago when the Americans were surely the majority in any draw.
So what has happened in the years since? Is the college system watered down, do the Academies need a revamp, is American tennis stuck in the past or just stuck in a lull?
As much as champions are formed at the grass root level, the formative years are spent idolising a hero. Naturally, an idol a young player can relate to will only help to cultivate progression.
With so many tournaments stateside, roughly 18% of the total tour, it is bad for tennis to have a weak America. And with so few American contenders a sense of complacent mediocrity can set in quickly.
By Maud Watson
Week one of the Aussie Open is not yet in the books, but already fans have been treated to some dramatic tennis. One of the most thrilling matches was Brit Laura Robson’s victory over No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova. Yes, Robson had already notched some big wins in her young career at the 2012 US Open, and Kvitova hadn’t yet found her form this season. But the manner in which Robson won her second round encounter against the Czech under the lights of Laver Arena represents yet another stepping stone in her journey as a professional. Down 3-0 in the decider, she stormed back and found herself in a position to serve for the match at 6-5 only to falter see the score line set at 6-all. Lesser players would have crumbled at the missed opportunity, but Robson kept it together, broke in the 19th game, and didn’t blink at the second time of asking. These types of wins build character, and she’s going to need to draw on that experience in her third round against the impressive young American Sloane Stephens, who has been playing the better ball in 2013.
That’s the adjective many of Kimiko Date-Krumm’s past rivals use to describe her as she strives to compete in today’s modern game. But rather than crazy, the Japanese veteran represents living proof that sometimes age is just a number. In her opening match, she not only beat seeded Russian Nadia Petrova, she embarrassed her with a 6-2, 6-0 drubbing. She then battled Peer and the sweltering heat on Thursday to advance to the third round, making her the second-oldest woman to reach that stage behind Renee Richards. She has an excellent chance to keep the magic alive as she takes on Jovanovski in the third round. Though the Serb is half her age, Date-Krumm has won their only meeting. Perhaps she can continue to inspire by booking a place in the second week.
Why me? Why this? Why now? All questions that Brian Baker might have understandably been asking himself as he hobbled to his seat in his second round match. The 27-year-old, who lost years of his career to various injuries and surgeries, was competing in his first Australian Open. He’d reached the second round where he was a set to the good against his compatriot and No. 20 seed, Sam Querrey. But then, on a routine play, he came up lame. After a brief evaluation, the inevitable retirement came, and he was wheeled off the court in a wheelchair. Despite never having knee issues before, it was discovered that he’d torn his meniscus and will be out for at least four months. You don’t like to see this sort of injury happen to any player, but Querrey said it best when he noted that Baker, given all he’s been through, was the last guy who deserved this. Hopefully he still has enough fight in him to overcome this latest setback and come back stronger than ever.
On the heels of Hutchins’ announcement that he’d been diagnosed with the Hodgkin’s lymphoma came the sad news that current Executive Chairman and President of the ATP, Brad Drewett, has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig ’s disease. The disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a progressively debilitating disease that affects voluntary muscle activity, such as walking, talking, breathing, and other general movements of the body. Understandably, Drewett will need all his energies to focus on his uphill health battle, and so he will be stepping down from his post as soon as a suitable successor can be found. Though he’s only been in charge of the ATP for a little over a year, he’s already helped usher in great improvements, such as increased prize money overall, more compensation for the Grand Slam early-round losers, and has put measures in place to try and speed up the game. He will be greatly missed, but everyone in the tennis community wishes him well as he prepares to take on his biggest challenge to-date.
Seize the Clay
While at this point fans could be forgiven for thinking they’ll believe it when they see it, fingers crossed it seems that Nadal will be returning to the game in a matter of weeks. After pulling out of Oz, it at first appeared the Spaniard would stick to his plan of only playing the 500 event in Acapulco. But then earlier this week, he announced that he would be playing in Brazil and has since confirmed that he will also be competing in Chile in the opening week of February. That’s three tournaments in four weeks, but with latest reports being that his knee is doing extremely well, he should hopefully be up to the challenge. Additionally, provided he’s able to quickly wipe away the cobwebs and settle the nerves that come with a lengthy layoff, it could be an opportunity for him to build confidence and repair his aura has he fully dives into the 2013 season.
With all of the American men gone by the third round of the Australian Open, we look back on how each of them fared. Interestingly, the greatest accomplishments came from some of the least expected names, while the more familiar figures often fizzled.
Ryan Harrison: Avenging his Olympics loss to Giraldo with a four-set victory, he relied on defensive tennis to a startling degree and could not trouble Djokovic at all in the second round. Harrison’s serve looked sharp, but he appears to have improved his game little over the last year or so.
Sam Querrey: The last man to fall fulfilled the expectations for the 20th seed, falling only to the higher-ranked Wawrinka. That straight-sets loss ended a reasonably good week for Querrey, although he benefited from Baker’s retirement and did not defeat anyone of note.
Brian Baker: Perhaps the saddest story of the tournament, he injured his knee in the second round against Querrey and may miss the next four months. That said, Baker impressed by battling through a tight five-setter against former American Bogomolov, and he had won the first set from Querrey in a match that looked like an upset before his injury.
Michael Russell: He drew Berdych in the first round and unsurprisingly had no answer for the Czech’s offensive arsenal, unable to match him hold for hold in a straight-sets defeat.
Tim Smyczek: The most pleasant surprise of the tournament among American men, he entered the draw as a lucky loser when Isner withdrew and made the most of his opportunity. Smyczek somehow tamed the towering serve of Ivo Karlovic in the first round, not even losing a set, and he snatched a set from world #5 David Ferrer in the second round before succumbing gallantly. Especially impressive was his comeback from losing the first nine games of that match to make Ferrer earn his victory.
Steve Johnson: Making his main-draw debut at the Australian Open, this former UCLA star qualified for the main draw and then received the unpleasant tidings of an opener against Almagro. But Johnson rose to the occasion with panache, firing first strikes with abandon through five entertaining sets as he stood toe to toe with a top-15 opponent despite his inexperience. His passion captivated and suggested that he can score an occasional surprise if he can refine his game.
Rajeev Ram: More noted for his doubles expertise, this serve-volley specialist surprised by winning his first match over baseliner Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Falling meekly to Cilic in the next round, Ram still probably overachieved by reaching that stage.
Rhyne Williams: The winner of the Australian Open wildcard playoff, he deployed his booming serve and forehand to brilliant effect in claiming a two-set lead over top-30 opponent Florian Mayer. Williams later would hold match points in the fourth-set tiebreak before the German wriggled out of the trap to complete a comeback in five. But the experience should help this promising young star evolve into a fitter, more tenacious competitor, which could prove a dangerous combination with his obvious talents.
All things considered, the American men produced respectable results in view of prominent absences like Fish, Isner, and the retired Roddick. With expectations especially low, they competed with credit and, in some cases, produced results on which they can build.
By David Kane
It may never be too late to be who you might have been, but American Brian Baker could be running out of time.
Baker came up the junior ranks as Andy Roddick was winning his first major title in 2003. With a run to the Roland Garros boy’s final, Baker established himself as an American who could win on clay. At the time, the two looked poised to be this generation’s Sampras/Agassi rivalry, with Roddick’s big serve and preference for faster courts, and Baker’s early return and clay court credentials. Surely the two would contest Slam finals and continue the run of dominance of American men since the early 90s.
But when Roddick retired last year, he did so without ever having played Baker. Baker’s inability, however, to set up an encounter with his would-be rival will go down in his resumé as an “incomplete” rather than a “failure.” Successful as his junior career was, the Nashville native played precious few matches on the senior tour for the last ten years; his one highlight, ironically enough, was a win over senior French Open champion Gaston Gaudio at the US Open in 2005.
From there, Baker would not enter another Grand Slam for the remainder of an injury-filled decade that required five surgeries (two on his left hip, one on his right, hernia and Tommy John elbow surgery). Instead of being one half of a great American rivalry, Baker became a cautionary tale of perceived burnout and chronic injuries. During the time off, he took up a coaching position at Belmont University. Dreams of his own success were officially on the proverbial back burner.
Oddly enough, the desire to return to a world that had caused him such pain and disappointment came when he was furthest away from it. No longer the hotshot junior prodigy, Baker could not rely on a tennis federation that had long since forgotten about him. When he asked for a wildcard into a low level Futures qualifying event, the USTA refused. Faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch, Baker responded with unparallel grace and character. He went on to win that tournament along with several others leading up to the Savannah Challenger, an event that awarded a wildcard into the 2012 French Open.
Baker won there too, but this run of good form would not stay hidden in the minor leagues for long. Days before the French Open was set to begin, Baker caught fire at an ATP event in Nice:
As a qualifier, Baker took out big names like Gael Monfils and Nickolay Davydenko en route to his first ever Tour final at 27 years old. At an age where his contemporaries start looking at the back halves of their careers, Baker played 2012 like Rookie of the Year, with a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (again as a qualifier) the highlight for a man who had only one Grand Slam win to his name for the better part of a decade.
Coming into 2013, Baker was cautiously optimistic for the sophomore year of his second career. Far from lofty in his goals for the new season, the American was mostly concerned with maintaining his clean bill of health: “I want to stay healthy and get fitter, to get into Top 50 by May. I want to get to the second week of a Slam.”
Everything seemed to be going to plan as the first Slam of the year got under way. Unseeded, Baker won a grueling five set match to set up a second round battle with compatriot Sam Querrey. Another American who has struggled with injury, Querrey is the highest ranked US man in the draw after John Isner’s withdrawal.
Finally faced with an opportunity to play a big name American, Baker was game for the challenge and took the first set in a tiebreaker. Barely two games into the second, Baker felt a pop as he moved for a backhand and knew something was wrong. Hopping off the court, the trainer suspected a torn ACL, a diagnosis that could have meant another year off the court. Thankfully (if one could ever be thankful for an injury), an MRI revealed only a torn lateral meniscus, an injury similar to the one from which Andrea Petkovic currently suffers.
Like the German, Baker will likely be sidelined until the end of the clay court season, where all his success began a year ago. Like the German, Baker’s career, already defined by traumatic injuries, continues to be marked by bad luck and tragic circumstance.
The first day of the second round looks rather sparse in general, but we picked out a few potential diamonds in the rough. Let’s start with the ladies for a change.
Zheng vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena): When they met a week ago in Sydney, the Aussie suffered from a slow start, rallied to reach a final set, and then let a late lead slip away in a match of unpredictable twists and turns. Although Stosur improved on last year’s performance here by escaping the first round, her first victory of 2013 did not come without a series of wobbles such as donating an early break and failing to serve out the first set. She won fewer free points from her serve than she usually does, which could spell trouble against Zheng again. Despite her limitations on return, due to her short wingspan, the Chinese doubles specialist competes ferociously and should outlast Stosur from the baseline with her more balanced weapons. But she struggled even more to survive her opener and had stumbled through a string of losses before that upset of the Aussie in Sydney.
Venus vs. Cornet (RLA): At the 2009 Australian Open, Cornet stood within a point of the quarterfinals and a signature victory over then-#1 Safina. Match point upon match point slipped away, confidence evaporated, shoulder trouble sidelined her soon afterwards, and the petite Frenchwoman remained too mentally and physically dubious to fulfill her promise as a junior. The relatively slow court might suit her game more than the volatile, inconsistent style of Venus, but the American raised her level dramatically from the Hopman Cup while dropping just one game in the first round. By contrast, the Frenchwoman struggled to hold throughout that match, especially under pressure, so only an implosion by Venus could repeat the Suarez Navarro upset from the same Australian Open in which Cornet faced Safina.
Sharapova vs. Doi (Hisense Arena): On a late afternoon without many marquee matches, the Sharapova Show offers a decent way to end the day session. The 2008 champion has blitzed almost all first-week opponents at majors since the start of 2012, but the caliber of those opponents often has prevented one from accurately judging her form. Doi, who defeated Schiavone last year, may surpass expectations after defeating the more familiar Petra Martic in the first round. In general, though, the value of this match comes from juxtaposing Maria’s form here against what Venus shows in the night session, two days ahead of their highly anticipated third-round collision.
Pervak vs. Watson (Court 8): While Murray and Robson attract most of the attention currently circulating around British tennis, and justly so, Heather Watson may develop into a meaningful talent in her own right. The Bolletieri-trained baseliner twice has taken sets from Sharapova and defeated fellow rising star Sloane Stephens last year before finishing her season with a title in Osaka. Not lacking for durability, she won one of the season’s longest finals there and will attempt to grind down Pervak with a combination of depth and court coverage. Teenagers have excelled in the women’s draw so far, eleven reaching the second round, so this youth movement might bode well for the 20-year-old Watson.
Djokovic vs. Harrison (RLA): The Serb has won all five of their sets and looked his usual imposing self in the first round against Paul-Henri Mathieu, showing off his elastic movement and transition game at the major that most rewards it. For Harrison, who avenged his Olympics loss to Giraldo in four sets, an upset bid will require greater focus and competitive stamina than he has shown so far in his career. Typical of his stop-and-start results was a week in Brisbane when he defeated Isner and lost meekly to Benneteau in the next round. Harrison will need to take more chances earlier in the rallies than he did against Giraldo, especially on his forehand, to take Djokovic outside his comfort zone against an opponent who does nothing better than he does. As with his match against Murray last year, this meeting offers a useful measuring stick to test Harrison’s progress.
Malisse vs. Verdasco (MCA): Even in the twilight of his career, the Belgian defeated the Spaniard on the latter’s weakest surface at Wimbledon last summer. Malisse still can unleash blistering backhands when he times his short swings effectively, and Verdasco looked thoroughly human in a five-set rollercoaster against David Goffin. Both men have shown a tendency to alternate the sublime with the ridiculous, often finding the latter at the least opportune moments, but a comedy of errors could provide its own form of entertainment.
Lacko vs. Tipsarevic (Court 2): The eighth seed played his best tennis in months when he battled past Hewitt in a straight-setter closer than it looked. Ripping winner after winner down the sidelines, Tipsarevic looked every inch the elite player that he has become and could charge deep into a draw where he inhabits the least formidable quarter. He has struggled for much of his career with sustaining a high performance level from match to match, though, which makes a letdown a plausible possibility. If he does, Lacko might have just enough talent to punish him for it.
Lopez vs. Stepanek (Court 3): Aligned opposite each other are two net-rushers from opposite sides, the Spaniard from the left and the Czech from the right. As a result, the tennis might trigger memories of decades past before baseline tennis established its stranglehold over the ATP. Stepanek rallied from a two-set deficit in the first round to ambush Troicki, but a comeback would prove more difficult against a server like Lopez, who has won sets from Federer before. While the Czech has dominated most of their rivalry, the Spaniard did win their last meeting on a similar speed of court in Montreal.
Querrey vs. Baker (Court 6): The man who mounted a long-term comeback meets a man who mounted a more ordinary comeback that culminated last year when he rejoined the top 30. Querrey typically has struggled at majors other than the US Open, however, and he lost a set to an anonymous, underpowered Spaniard in his opener. If he can bomb a high percentage of first serves, Baker may not match him hold for hold. On the other hand, a sloppy effort from Querrey would open the door for his compatriot to expose his meager backhand, one-dimensional tactics, and unsteady footwork.
While some of the stars opening play in Melbourne should encounter little resistance, others might want to tread carefully. We look at some of the most notable matches on Day 1 from Rod Laver Arena to the outer courts.
Chang vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena): A flustered bundle of nerves on home soil, Stosur has lost six of her last seven matches in Australia and exited in the first round here last year to Sorana Cirstea. Despite her smooth game, Chang lacks Cirstea’s intimidating weapons and thus should pose a less severe test. But an 0-2 start to 2013 with losses to unheralded opponents in Brisbane and Sydney inspire little confidence in Stosur as she rebounds from an ankle injury.
Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic (RLA): Quite the contrast to Stosur, the greatest Aussie champion in recent memory typically thrives under the adoring gaze of his compatriots. In his 17th Australian Open appearance, Hewitt thoroughly deserves this showcase setting in the first night session on Rod Laver Arena. Recent years have seen him deliver upsets over opponents like Baghdatis, Safin, and Raonic on this court, so Tipsarevic cannot take this match lightly. The second-ranked Serb looked solid but mortal while winning Chennai, and he won’t overpower Hewitt like many opponents near his ranking.
Ivanovic vs. Czink (RLA): This match may start very late indeed in the aftermath of Hewitt-Tipsarevic, possibly a bad sign for Ivanovic. A morning person, the Serb can grow weary quickly when she plays late at night, and she has struggled against lefties sporadically in her career. That said, Czink has declined since she upset Ivanovic on the much faster court of Cincinnati in 2009, and the former finalist built confidence with three decisive wins at the Hopman Cup before Medina Garrigues outlasted her in the final. She should aim to avoid a third set whenever possible, and probably will here.
Goffin vs. Verdasco (Hisense Arena): Four years after he reached the semifinals (and nearly the final) here, Verdasco has regressed back to his former incarnation in which he can win or lose to anyone on any given day. Startlingly boyish in appearance, Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year and recorded fall upsets over Troicki and Isner, among others. The 22-year-old must refine his game, especially his shot selection, to rise further into the top 50, although Verdasco can teach him little in that area.
Cibulkova vs. Barty (Hisense): The Slovak pocket rocket unleashes impressive power when on a hot streak and can collapse completely when she loses her range even a little. Last week in Sydney, Cibulkova showed her best and worst in defeating three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel from Radwanska. Which memory lingers longer in her mind may define how far she goes here, while Aussie prodigy Barty will try to gain confidence from the Hopman Cup memory of upsetting Schiavone.
Bobusic vs. Radwanska (Margaret Court Arena): For winning the Australian Open wildcard playoff, Bobusic received a berth in the main draw—against the world #4. Radwanska also happens to have won both of her tournaments this year, so the challenge looms very large for the home hope. The Pole sometimes does need time to settle into an event, though, wobbling through uneasy three-setters in the first round here before.
Youzhny vs. Ebden (MCA): Yet another Aussie faces a Russian well into the twilight of his career. Still lovely to watch with its one-handed backhand and crisp volleys, his game matches up well to the net-rushing style of Ebden. Both men feel comfortable all over the court, which should create some variety in the ways that points unfold.
Dellacqua vs. Keys (MCA): After reaching the Sydney quarterfinals, the 17-year-old American should have soared in self-belief by proving that she could compete with much more experience and accomplished opponents. She eyes a winnable match against an Aussie returning from injury, not for the first time, but with a memorable run here five years ago to inspire her.
Medina Garrigues vs. Bartoli (Show Court 3): The Spaniard enters on a somewhat hot streak from winning the Hopman Cup with Verdasco, although she defeated no notable opponent other than Ivanovic. Bartoli has dominated their head-to-head on hard courts but has suffered a series of early upsets at the Australian Open in recent years. The match will rest on her racket, for better or for worse.
Harrison vs. Giraldo (Court 8): From their last meeting at the Olympics came the regrettable temper tantrum that led to Harrison’s equally regrettable apology. He still lets his competitive fire burn too brightly at times, although a victory over Isner in Sydney may bode well for this fortnight. Not averse to emitting some sparks himself, Giraldo will fancy his chances in the best-of-five format if he can claim an early lead.
Bolelli vs. Janowicz (Court 8): The toast of Paris last fall when he reached the Bercy final, Janowicz reverted to ordinary toast this month in a sloppy loss to Brian Baker. The moribund game of Bolelli, an Italian with much more flair than power, should not trouble the huge-serving Pole as long as he stays out of his own way better than he did in Auckland.
Barthel vs. Pervak (Court 11): Reaching the fourth round here last year, Barthel recalled her strong start to 2012 when she finished runner-up in Hobart (becoming the first woman ever to lose a final to Vesnina in the process). The gawky German owns a formidable but fickle serve and can climb into double digits in aces and double faults during the same match. Russian by birth and Kazakh by passport, the lefty gunslinger Pervak upset Wozniacki in Brisbane by showing more fortitude than usual.
Benneteau vs. Dimitrov (Court 13): At Wimbledon last year, the French doubles specialist came within two points of upsetting Federer as he proved again how lethal his game can become when all of its parts coalesce. A strong server with a penetrating two-hander and excellent net skills, Benneteau held match points in the Sydney semifinal last week before his habit of losing close matches resurfaced. The bad news for him is that he faces a man who served for the first set in the Brisbane final the previous week. The good news is that Dimitrov never has brought his best game to any major, nor has he developed a habit of stringing together solid results.
Makarova vs. Larcher de Brito (Court 19): Once at the vortex of the shrieking controversy, Larcher de Brito plunged into the tennis wilderness shortly after her uniquely piercing yodels had alienated fans. She returns to the main draw of a major for the first time in years. Is she ready for her comeback? Perhaps more to the point, are we?
Bogomolov vs. Baker (Court 20): From an American perspective, this match presents a good guy vs. bad guy narrative. Fans around the world warmed to Baker when he completed an odyssey through several injury absences to rejoin the ATP with a bang last year by reaching the final at his first tournament. His results faded a little afterwards, as one would expect, so his confidence probably rose when he defeated Janowicz in Auckland. Whatever one thinks of Bogomolov’s shifting national allegiances, they did nothing to disturb his reputation as one of the players least likely to induce empathy in the ATP.
Hradecka vs. Bertens (Court 22): Half of the world’s second-ranked doubles team, the Czech with an explosive serve faces one of last spring’s most surprising headlines. Bertens became the first Dutchwoman to win a title since 2006 when she took home the hardware from Casablanca as a qualifier who never had played a main-draw match at the WTA level. Summer upsets over Safarova and Petrova consolidated that breakthrough, so she will look to take the next step forward in 2013.
Excited about these matches and others on Day 1? Join our live chat at newyorkobservertennis.com, which extends from the start of play through the Rod Laver Arena night session.