Kai-Chen Chang

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Wizards of Oz (I): Australian Open Day 1 Preview

Pack lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack when this man enters Rod Laver Arena.

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.

Jelena Dokic Shows Her Intent to Make it Back

Last week on the challenger circuit, winning streaks continued on both the men’s and women’s sides. Several players have won consecutive challenger titles, making it clear that they’re serious about going into the draw at the French Open, which starts next week.

After limiting herself to just nine events in the last two years, it looks like Jelena Dokic of Australia is serious about making a comeback in 2008. The 25-year-old won her second challenger title in a row at the $25,000 event in Caserta, Italy, rolling over Patricia Mayr of Austria in the final with a 6-3, 6-1 victory. Dokic moves back into the top 300 with this result and was granted a main draw wildcard into the WTA event held this week in Strasbourg, France.

Petra Cetkovska of the Czech Republic is rolling into Roland Garros with as much confidence as a player could hope for. The 23-year-old won her second challenger title in a row at the $50,000 tournament in Saint Gaudens, France, with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Maria-Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain. Cetkovska has enjoyed a fine year on the clay, reaching the quarterfinals at a WTA event in Fes, Morocco, in addition to two main draw wins during the South American swing on the WTA Tour. With the right draw, Cetkovska is definitely a candidate to win a couple of rounds at the French Open next week.

American tennis has a new promising hope to look out for after teenager Chelsey Gullickson won the first challenger title of her career at the $25,000 event in Raleigh, North Carolina. She won the title with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 win over fellow American Lauren Albanese. The 17-year-old is still listed as an amateur player, but may soon be rethinking her decision about whether or not to turn pro. Despite the loss in the finals, Albanese has all but eradicated her nightmare start to 2008, having lost her first ten matches of the year.

In other results on the women’s side, Barbara Zahalova Strycova of the Czech Republic won her third challenger title of the year at the $25,000 event in Szczecin, Poland, while teenager Kai-Chen Chang of Taipei won the first challenger title of her career at the $50,000 event in Kurume, Japan.

On the men’s side, Eduardo Schwank of Argentina is a name which has often come up in this column, which may mean that his time on the challenger circuit will soon be coming to an end. He won his third challenger title in a row at the $100,000 event in Bordeaux, France, overwhelming Igor Kunitsyn of Russia with a 6-2, 6-2 routing in the final. Schwank now moves into Roland Garros as a long-shot candidate to reach the second week.

Gael Monfils of France lived up to his billing as top seed at the $100,000 challenger in Marrakesh, Morocco, winning the title with a 7-6, 7-6 victory over Jeremy Chardy of France. Despite the loss, Chardy has been a consistent performer on the challenger circuit this year and has been granted a main draw wild card into the French Open as a result.

After losing in the finals of his last two challenger events, Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei finally broke the streak at the $50,000 event in New Delhi, India, prevailing over Brendan Evans of the United States with a 5-7, 7-6, 6-3 victory. Lu’s strong performances on the challenger circuit this have helped move him back inside the top 100 this year and into a new career high ranking.

In other results on the men’s side, Jesse Levine of the United States won the $50,000 event in Bradenton, Florida, while Daniel Gimeno of Spain prevailed at the $50,000 tournament in Aarhus, Denmark. Diego Junqueira of Argentina took home the winners trophy at the $30,000 event in San Remo, Italy, while Christophe Rochus of Belgium won the $50,000 tournament in Zagreb, Croatia.

The challenger circuit will remain fairly quiet this week with qualifying for the French Open starting on Tuesday. Yen-Hsun Lu takes top billing at the second $50,000 challenger in New Delhi, India, while Danai Udomchoke is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Fergana, Uzbekistan. On the women’s side, Maria Kondratieva of Russia is top seed at the $25,000 event in Moscow, Russia, while Chin-Wei Chan of Taipei is the top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Nagano, Japan.

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