James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
MELBOURNE – History was not on the side of Canadian Milos Raonic. In fact when the vast majority of the tour face Federer, statistics and history are not on their side.
No Canadian, not including defectors, had ever made it to a grand slam quarter final. Federer on the other hand has reached the grand slam quarterfinals 34 consecutive times. That is 136 victories, a hefty number to shift, meaning Federer doesn’t lose unless his opponent truly deserves to be there. It also means that Federer is a perfect employee, never taking a day off.
The big Canuck is an interesting specimen, duly if Andy Roddick and Richard Krajicek had a baby, Milos Raonic would be the result, although no speculation exists for that union to ever take place.
Indeed, if you squinted your eyes and used your imagination only slightly, you might well have been watching a Federer Roddick match, and the result of those was usually fail-safe.
This was never going to resemble a clay court match, with Milos going for glory early with big serves or cracking groundstrokes, knowing full well if he tried to out rally he was doomed. Federer meanwhile relished the ball in play, bullying the Raonic backhand every chance he had.
“I think I played tactically well tonight and was able to keep the points short on my own service games, used the 1-2 punch. That was obviously also a good thing tonight.” Federer stated in his post match press conference.
Quickly Federer started to read the massive Raonic serve, although initially he could only muster a block return although instinctively returning the ball from within the baseline.
Raonic was in trouble when 2-3 down in the first set facing a few break points. Calmly he fired two Sampras style aces, causing all worry of a break to simply vanish.
At 4-5 the tension built again, giving Federer a set point. As has so often been the case the computer assistance was switched on, unfairly in Federer’s advantage, prompting Raonic to net a relatively easy volley.
Of considerable interest is Federer’s chameleon approach, feeling the need to better his opponent when it comes to their particular strength. To which Federer stated, “Important obviously was first to focus on my own serve before even thinking about how to return Milos. But I did a good job tonight. As the match went on, I started to feel better. But that’s kind of normal.”
The second set continued much like the first although Raonic held his nerve longer. This time the set wasn’t decided until 3-3 in the tiebreak. Federer took the advantage by delivering a Wawrinka inspired backhand down the line that could only make you wonder if great backhands were given away for free in Swiss cereal boxes.
Federer’s scream of joy directed towards his entourage was heard throughout the arena, whilst Raonic ambled despondently to his chair, with more on mind his than just the overwhelming score line. Raonic told reporters, “well, long story short, until probably 45 minutes to an hour before the match, I wasn’t even sure I’d play. I rushed over to get a quick MRI on my foot. I was having issues walking. I got the clear to play after that. I just had an anaesthesia injection into my foot. I was given the go to play.”
Subsequently Raonic stumbled to open the third set, and kept on stumbling. Federer meanwhile was on autopilot, treating the crowd to a level of on court purity that only a very small amount of players experience, breezing to victory 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
“Most of the times you play good, you know. When you play very good, that’s rare. So just have to try to have as many good days or great days as you can, and that’s why I push hard in practice and keep myself in shape.”
Federer faces Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the next round marking his 35th straight quarterfinal.
A plethora of intriguing encounters awaits audiences as the third round begins at the Australian Open. Foremost among them are two in the women’s draw, which we include in our latest preview.
Kerber vs. Keys (Rod Laver Arena): Long hovering on the horizon, the 17-year-old Madison Keys has soared into the consciousness of the tennis world by winning four main-draw matches in the last two weeks. Moreover, she has won most of them decisively, including routs of top-20 opponent Safarova in Sydney and the 30th-seeded Paszek here. The teenager’s serve could prove a crucial weapon against Kerber, whose superior steadiness and experience should prevail in rallies unless Keys can find a way to unsettle her, which she could with a strong start. Featured on the show court of a major for the first time, she seems more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the weight of the moment.
Li vs. Cirstea (RLA): Familiar with both rising and crumbling in spectacular style, the 2011 Australian Open runner-up split her two meetings with Cirstea at majors last year. Li defeated the heavy-hitting Romanian at Roland Garros but lost to her at Wimbledon before battling past her in a Cincinnati three-setter, so she will know what to expect. While Cirstea defeated Stosur in the first round here last year and can hope to capture that magic again, the moderately paced hard court in Australia would seem to favor Li’s more balanced game.
Sharapova vs. Williams (RLA): Scanning the WTA elite, one might not find two champions more similar in playing style than these two legends of first-strike tennis. Both Sharapova and Venus can hammer lethal missiles from both groundstroke wings, and both compete with the ferocity of women whose lungs illustrate their loathing for losing. Both have the ability to win free points in bunches with their serves, but both also can lose control of that shot beyond repair amidst cascades of double faults. Both have survived significant bouts of adversity, Sharapova by battling back from a career-threatening shoulder surgery and Venus by battling back from a career-threatening illness. While the American has accumulated a richer title haul, the Russian owns the more balanced resume.
Their record reflects much of the above, neatly balanced at 4-3 in Sharapova’s favor but skewed 4-1 in her favor away from Wimbledon, where Venus has claimed her greatest achievements. Not dropping a single game through her first two matches, Maria can expect a steep elevation in her opponent’s quality and must come as prepared to elevate her own quality as she did five years ago here against Davenport. Like her sister, Venus has produced some of her most dazzling surges when least expected, and she has looked quietly impressive if less overtly overpowering so far.
Ivanovic vs. Jankovic (Hisense): Those who appreciate tennis largely from an aesthetic perspective may wish to cover their eyes in a pairing of two women who sprayed disheveled errors to every corner of the court in their previous matches. Meanwhile, those who fancy their tennis served (or double-faulted) with a dollop of drama should enjoy this battle between two countrywomen who have feuded chronically but bitterly. The superior player by most measures, Ivanovic has dominated their head-to-head as her versatile forehand has hit through Jankovic’s baseline defense. So high do the emotions run in these matches, though, that one never knows what to expect from one point to the next.
Djokovic vs. Stepanek (RLA): In addition to their five-set epic at the 2007 US Open, Stepanek has troubled the Serb on two other occasions. He won a set from him at Wimbledon last year by using his idiosyncratic style to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm. Even as his career has faded, Stepanek continues to revel in the spotlight and ended 2012 on a high note by winning the decisive match in Davis Cup. That momentum probably cannot lift him high enough to disturb Djokovic in Australia, where he looks as dominant as ever in all facets of his game.
Ferrer vs. Baghdatis (RLA): The fourth seed in Nadal’s absence, Ferrer can falter at times with the distractions caused by partisan crowds. Supported vociferously by Melbourne legions of Greeks and Cypriots, Baghdatis hopes to revive the memories of his charge to the 2006 final. At this tournament two years ago, he became the first man ever to win after losing the first two sets to Ferrer at a major, surprising in view of their relative fitness. The fourth seed looked vulnerable in stretches against an overmatched opponent in the last round, while Baghdatis did likewise in another mismatch. His flat, net-skimming groundstrokes should offer an intriguing contrast to Ferrer’s safer topspin.
Anderson vs. Verdasco (Hisense): Reprising their meeting at the Hopman Cup this month, this match pits a rising against a fading star. Like Baghdatis, Verdasco has failed to duplicate his breakthrough performance in Melbourne (a 2009 semifinal), and he should count himself fortunate to escape a five-setter to start the tournament. On the other hand, Anderson followed his strong results in Perth with a final in Sydney, where he showed poise under pressure. Expect plenty of quick holds as each man struggles to crack the other’s serve.
Benneteau vs. Tipsarevic (MCA): Which Tipsarevic will show up here? The man who fired his way past Hewitt with a blizzard of electric shot-making, or the man who barely edged past Lacko in an unimaginative performance? Tipsarevic looked a bit drained after the heroics of his opener, and he may pay the price if he enters this match flat, for Benneteau rolled past trendy dark horse pick Dimitrov in the first round. Although streaky, the Frenchman represents a clear notch upward in quality from Lacko.
Querrey vs. Wawrinka (MCA): The lanky American with the casual power got a little too casual early in each of his first two matches, dropping the opening sets in both. Against Wawrinka, a natural grinder who thrives on long rallies, Querrey should discipline himself to eliminate such gifts. Having lost both of his previous meetings to the Swiss, including a US Open five-setter, he will need to maintain a higher first-serve percentage this time and aim to end points more efficiently.
Almagro vs. Janowicz (Court 3): In the wake of a bizarre five-set comeback against Devvarman, one wondered whether to praise Janowicz for his tenacity in roaring back after losing the first two sets, or to linger on his immaturity for letting his emotions run astray early in the match. Without that costly burst of petulance, the match likely would not have lasted as long as it did. Similarly, Almagro needed much longer than expected to dismiss American neophyte Steve Johnson in another five-setter. Between the Spaniard’s backhand and the Pole’s forehand, fans should see risky, flamboyant shot-making as each man hopes to exploit a weak section of the draw.
Leaving Federer vs. Davydenko for a special, detailed preview by one of our colleagues here, we break down some highlights from the latter half of second-round action on Day 4.
Brands vs. Tomic (Rod Laver Arena): A tall German who once caused a stir at Wimbledon, Brands has won four of his first five matches in 2013 with upsets over Chardy, Monfils, and Martin Klizan among them. As sharp as Tomic looked in his opener, he cannot afford to get caught looking ahead to Federer in the next round. Brands can match him bomb for bomb, so the last legitimate Aussie threat left needs to build an early lead that denies the underdog reason to hope.
Lu vs. Monfils (Hisense Arena): Is La Monf finally back? He somehow survived 16 double faults and numerous service breaks in a messy but entertaining four-set victory over Dolgopolov. Perhaps facilitated by his opponent’s similar quirkiness, the vibrant imagination of Monfils surfaced again with shot-making that few other men can produce. This match should produce an intriguing contrast of personalities and styles with the understated, technically solid Lu, who cannot outshine the Frenchman in flair but could outlast him by exploiting his unpredictable lapses.
Falla vs. Gasquet (Court 3): The Colombian clay specialist has established himself as an occasional upset threat at non-clay majors, intriguingly, for he nearly toppled Federer in the first round of Wimbledon three years ago and bounced Fish from this tournament last year. A strange world #10, Gasquet struggled initially in his first match against a similar clay specialist in Montanes. He recorded a series of steady results at majors last year, benefiting in part from facing opponents less accomplished than Falla. The strength-against-strength collision of his backhand against Falla’s lefty forehand should create some scintillating rallies as Gasquet seeks to extend his momentum from the Doha title two weeks ago.
Mayer vs. Berankis (Court 6): While Berankis comfortably defeated the erratic Sergei Stakhovsky in his debut, Mayer rallied from a two-set abyss to fend off American wildcard Rhyne Williams after saving multiple match points. He must recover quickly from that draining affair to silence the compact Latvian, who punches well above his size. Sometimes touted as a key figure of the ATP’s next generation, Berankis has not plowed forward as impressively as others like Raonic and Harrison, so this unintimidating draw offers him an opportunity for a breakthrough.
Raonic vs. Rosol (Court 13): The cherubic Canadian sprung onto the international scene when he reached the second week in Melbourne two years ago. The lean Czech sprung onto the international scene when he stunned Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last year. Either outstanding or abysmal on any given day, Rosol delivered an ominous message simply by winning his first match. For his part, Raonic looked far from ominous while narrowly avoiding a fifth set against a player outside the top 100. He needs to win more efficiently in early rounds before becoming a genuine contender for major titles.
Robson vs. Kvitova (RLA): Finally starting to string together some solid results, the formerly unreliable Robson took a clear step forward by notching an upset over Clijsters in the second round of the US Open. Having played not only on Arthur Ashe Stadium there but on Centre Court at the All England Club before, she often produces her finest tennis for the grandest stages. If Robson will not lack for inspiration, Kvitova will continue to search for confidence. She found just enough of her familiarly explosive weapons to navigate through an inconsistent three-setter against Schiavone, but she will have little hope of defending her semifinal points if she fails to raise her level significantly. That said, Kvitova will appreciate playing at night rather than during the most scorching day of the week, for the heat has contributed to her struggles in Australia this month.
Peng vs. Kirilenko (Hisense): A pair of women better known in singles than in doubles, they have collaborated on some tightly contested matches. Among them was a Wimbledon three-setter last year, won by Kirilenko en route to the quarterfinals. The “other Maria” has faltered a bit lately with six losses in ten matches before she dispatched Vania King here. But Peng also has regressed since injuries ended her 2011 surge, so each of these two women looks to turn around her fortunes at the other’s expense. The Russian’s all-court style and fine net play should offer a pleasant foil for Peng’s heavy serve and double-fisted groundstrokes, although the latter can find success in the forecourt as well.
Wozniacki vs. Vekic (Hisense): Like Kvitova, Wozniacki seeks to build upon the few rays of optimism that emanated from a nearly unwatchable three-set opener. Gifted that match by Lisicki’s avalanche of grisly errors, the former #1 could take advantage of the opportunity to settle into the tournament. Wozniacki now faces the youngest player in either draw, who may catch her breath as she walks onto a show court at a major for the first time. Or she may not, since the 16-year-old Donna Vekic crushed Hlavackova without a glimpse of nerves to start the tournament and will have nothing to lose here.
Hsieh vs. Kuznetsova (Margaret Court Arena): A surprise quarterfinalist in Sydney, the two-time major champion defeated Goerges and Wozniacki after qualifying for that elite draw. Kuznetsova rarely has produced her best tennis in Melbourne, outside a near-victory over Serena in 2009. But the Sydney revival almost did not materialize at all when she floundered through a three-setter in the qualifying. If that version of Kuznetsova shows up, the quietly steady Hsieh could present a capable foil.
Putintseva vs. Suarez Navarro (Court 7) / Gavrilova vs. Tsurenko (Court 8): Two of the WTA’s most promising juniors, Putintseva and Gavrilova face women who delivered two of the draw’s most notable first-round surprises. After Suarez Navarro dismissed world #7 Errani, Tsurenko halted the surge of Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova in a tense three-setter. Momentum thus carries all four of these women into matches likely to feature plenty of emotion despite the relatively low stakes.
After she had lost a painful three-setter to Zheng Jie in Sydney last week, Sam Stosur must have entered Rod Laver Arena with thoughts of revenge as well as some trepidation. The only Aussie women left in the singles draw, she had compiled a history of underachievement on home soil. Moreover, Stosur recently had recovered from surgery for a bone spur near her ankle, so she had looked rusty in her first few matches of 2013. What awaited was a stunning collapse at her home major that rivaled any of her disasters there before, although a different outcome looked likely if not nearly certain at more than one juncture.
Her confidence perhaps boosted by the first-round victory, the home hope started more solidly on serve than she had in Sydney. An errant forehand from Zheng produced an early break point for Stosur, but a netted backhand let the opportunity escape. The former US Open champion earned success by stretching the tenacious Chinese star wide along the baseline from the outset of the rallies, and by exploiting her physical limitations with kick serves and topspin-heavy groundstrokes. For her part, Zheng did what most of Stosur’s opponents try to do in finding her backhand wing, much less imposing than her forehand. But her second serve was a liability on which the Aussie tried to pounce, connecting on some return winners while spraying others well wide.
Through the first several games, Stosur held serve more comfortably than did Zheng, reversing a trend from their previous meeting. That pattern ended in the fifth game, when a horrifically shanked second serve that landed over the baseline set up two break points. Remarkably unruffled by the embarrassment, Stosur bounced back to hold with more accurate groundstrokes. She found herself in trouble again at 3-3, however, following a brilliantly angled backhand pass from Zheng that negated a strong approach. Watching a forehand return winner dart past her cross-court, Stosur faced triple break point. An entertaining cat-and-mouse exchange ensured with Zheng at the net and Stosur at the baseline, but the Chinese secured the last word with a deft volley.
Having claimed the first break of the match, Zheng opened her attempt to consolidate with a double fault. Emboldened by that ominous start, Stosur swung more confidently on her returns and soon drew level with consecutive forehand winners. She began to dictate the rallies more regularly as she ran around her backhand more often. That effort went wasted after a dreadful service game in which she yielded three double faults and an unforced error on break point, allowing Zheng to serve for the set.
This time, the Chinese moved quickly to triple set point, only to let all three slip away. A double fault erased a fourth, an unforced error a fifth, and a spectacular defensive lob from Stosur contributed to erasing a sixth just when Zheng looked on the verge of ended a rally that she had controlled. As she continue to struggle with her backhand, Stosur watched a seventh set point slip away and threatened to save an eighth as well. But she shanked a routine drive volley well long to end the epic game and sink into a one-set hole.
As Zheng’s steady defense continued to chip away, Stosur wobbled through another treacherous service game. Six deuces and two break points later, she ended a two-game stretch that had lasted 34 points. Stosur began to venture towards the net more often, sometimes succeeding in taking time away from Zheng and sometimes punished by her opponent’s crisp passing shots. Two explosive forehand returns enabled her to record the first break of the second set, in the fourth game. As her confidence rose, Stosur began to prey upon Zheng’s serve more ruthlessly. An insurance break sealed by a sequence of penetrating forehands allowed her to cruise through the second set. To this stage, the match had resembled their Sydney encounter, although that second set had reached a tiebreak.
More self-assured in her body language now, Stosur began to show the poise that she needed to sustain her momentum in the third. In the first game of the final set, she won a long backhand-to-backhand exchange with the sort of patience that had eluded her in the first set. Now more in control of her weapons, the Aussie earned an immediate break from the fading Zheng. Another brief momentum shift awaited when she dropped her serve at love with a double fault, but her opponent dropped her own serve for the fourth straight time without much resistance. A key turning point came in the next game, when Sam again fell behind 0-40 before climbing out of the deficit with penetrating groundstrokes. Saving two more break points before the game ended, she established a 3-1 lead more through perseverance than brilliance.
With a double-break advantage hers, Stosur had two opportunities to serve out the match and clinch her berth in the third round. In a stunning twist of events, she could convert neither of them, never arriving at a match point. The invigorated Zheng fired a series of fierce groundstrokes to reach 5-5 and thrust the pressure squarely back on the favorite’s shoulders. Never a player who surrenders easily, the Chinese forced Stosur to fight for each point that she won, a task that her faltering nerves struggled to handle.
Serving to stay alive now, Stosur quickly fell behind 0-30 with a backhand error. Two points later, Zheng cracked a forehand winner down the line to set up double match point. At that moment, Stosur ended her own misery with a gruesome double fault into the net that completed her stunning collapse, 6-4 1-6 7-5, and left no home hopes in the women’s singles draw here. Before the third day of the 2013 Australian Open ended, only Tomic and Duckworth remained among the legions of Aussies who had arrived in Melbourne.
Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.
Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena): When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead. Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead. This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure. Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.
Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA): Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open. Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer. But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.
Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense): A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline. Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it. Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys. Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.
Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena): Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history. Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings). Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments. Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.
Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA): The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds. Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book. Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power. Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance: not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.
Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3): Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200. Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers. Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.
Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense): The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors. Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety. Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode. Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon. In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.
Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA): A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them. Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year. Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.
Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA): This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January. At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney. Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game. Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.
Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3): Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions. While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early. A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open. Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?
Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6): Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes. As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.
Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7): As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva. The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.
After the mega-preview of the Australian Open men’s draw appeared yesterday, we take the same type of look at the women’s draw.
First quarter: Like fellow defending champion Djokovic, Azarenka cruised through the first week of last year’s tournament. Also like Djokovic, she should do so again this year against an early slate of opponents that features nobody more remarkable than Radwanska’s younger sister. Urszula Radwanska recently lost to Wozniacki, which should tell you all that you need to know about her current form, and her sister can offer her little advice on how to solve Azarenka’s ruthless baseline attack. The world #1 has taken the sensible position that this year’s tournament is a new opportunity for triumph rather than a chunk of territory to defend, an attitude that should help her advance deep into the draw. While the quirky game of Roberta Vinci might bemuse her temporarily, Azarenka probably has less to fear from any opponent in her quarter than from the Australian summer heat, which has proved an Achilles heel for her before.
Among the most plausible first-round upsets in the women’s draw is Lisicki over the reeling, tenth-ranked Wozniacki. The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki continued her 2012 slide by losing two of her first three matches in 2013, while she has failed to solve the German’s mighty serve in two of their three meetings. Lisicki usually lacks the steadiness to string together several victories in a marquee draw away from grass, but Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova might build upon her upward trend if she escapes Lisicki in the third round. Although the seventh-seeded Errani reached the quarterfinals here last year, she fell to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and might exit even before she meets the young Russian to the veteran Kuznetsova. The most intriguing unseeded player in this section, the two-time major champion showed flashes of vintage form in Sydney and eyes an accommodating pre-quarterfinal draw. She could battle Pavlyuchenkova for the honor of facing Azarenka, who would feel intimidated by neither Russian.
Player to watch: Pick your ova between Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova
Second quarter: In a sense, all that you need to know about this section is that it contains Serena. Case closed, or is it? Conventional wisdom would say that a player of Serena’s age cannot possibly sustain the brilliance that she displayed in the second half of 2012 much longer, but she has built a reputation upon defying conventional wisdom. An intriguing third-round rematch with Shvedova beckons just two majors after the Kazakh nearly upset her at Wimbledon, the tournament that turned around Serena’s comeback. Mounting an inspired comeback herself last year, Shvedova has stalled a bit lately while suffering some dispiriting three-set losses. Serena can outserve, outhit, and generally out-compete players like Kirilenko and Wickmayer with their limited range of talents. Last year, though, Makarova delivered the shock of the Australian Open by ambushing her in the fourth round, reminding us that underdogs sometimes can jolt Serena before she settles into a tournament.
By the quarterfinals, the American usually has accumulated a formidable tide of momentum that compensates for the spiking quality of competition. Considering the eighth-seeded Kvitova’s recent struggles, the quality may not spike so dramatically. But Kvitova, who has lost seven of her last ten matches, may not reach that stage and may have her work cut out against Schiavone in the first round or ambitious American teen Sloane Stephens in the third round. Stephens broke through at majors last year by reaching the second week of Roland Garros, just as British teen Laura Robson did by reaching the second week at the US Open. An early upset of Kvitova, perhaps even by Robson in the second round, would result in an intriguing battle between these two rising stars with a berth in the second week at stake. There, they could meet the evergreen veteran Petrova, who becomes dangerous just when one discounts her. Kvitova’s compatriot Safarova also lurks in this area but blows too hot and cold to produce a deep run.
Player to watch: Stephens
Third quarter: The ultra-steady Radwanska finds herself surrounded by an array of stunning talents with a penchant for getting in their own way. Leading the pack is the sixth-seeded Li Na, who has reached the semifinals or better twice at the Australian Open. Although she won a home title in Shenzhen, Li played generally shaky tennis during her week in Sydney before an error-strewn loss to Radwanska that ended her 2012 momentum against the Pole. Close behind Li in ranking and self-destructive potential is Stosur, who already has imploded twice on Australian soil this year. The ninth seed probably deserves some forgiveness for those losses in view of her recent ankle surgery, but the fact remains that she has lost six of her last seven matches at home in an illustration of her frailty under pressure. Stosur narrowly avoided an early date with Cirstea, her nemesis in the first round last year, and may meet Zheng Jie in the second round a week after she lost to her in Sydney. For her part, Li must hope to reverse her loss to Cirstea at Wimbledon last year if that third-round meeting materializes.
Nearer to Radwanska lies another opponent of the same model as fellow one-time major champions Li and Stosur: the charming and charmingly fragile Ivanovic. Five years after her trip to the Melbourne final, she has not reached the quarterfinals there since. The former #1 might face the other former #1 from her own country in the third round, resuming her sometimes bitter rivalry with Jankovic. Although both Serbs accumulated success against Radwanska earlier in their careers, neither has conquered her as they have declined. The fourth seed thus will feel confident of extending her nine-match winning streak from titles in Auckland and Sydney deep into Melbourne. Perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of Sydney champion Azarenka last year, or in those of Sydney champion Li the year before.
Player to watch: Li
Fourth quarter: When Sharapova entered the Melbourne field without any match practice last year, she showed no signs of rust in sweeping to the final. In the same situation, she will aim to produce the same result on a surface where the high bounce suits her playing style. Sharapova could face Venus Williams near the end of the first week, assuming that the American survives the heat and her spells of uneven play to that point. Away from grass, she has accumulated a far better record against the elder than the younger Williams, and one would favor her in that matchup considering the relative conditions of each career. Either of these tall women would hold a significant advantage in power and serve over Dominika Cibulkova, the Sydney finalist who devoured three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel in the final. Rarely at her best in Melbourne, she faces an intriguing opener against local prodigy Ashleigh Barty but otherwise looks likely to enter the second week.
Somewhat more uncertain is the identity of this section’s other quarterfinalist, for Kerber looked only moderately convincing in Brisbane and Sydney. A heavy hitter can outslug the German or frustrate her, a role that second-round opponent Lucia Hradecka could fill with her thunderous serve. Principally a threat on grass, Tamira Paszek remains unpredictable from one week to the next and could meet Sydney sensation Madison Keys in a second round. A 17-year-old with precocious poise, Keys may vie with Stephens for the brightest star in the future of American women’s tennis. The eleventh-seeded Bartoli opens against Medina Garrigues, who played inspired tennis at the Hopman Cup, and will hope to break away from a series of unremarkable efforts in Melbourne. While Kerber defeated Sharapova early last year, the world #2 squashed her in their other three meetings, nor has any of the other players in this section often threatened her.
Player to watch: Venus
Final: Serena vs. Radwanska
Champion: Serena Williams
Excited for the start of the 2013 Australian Open? I will run a live chat during many of the matches at newyorkobservertennis.com. Check it out if you want to chat with me, some of my colleagues, and fellow fans while you watch the action in Melbourne.
Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets? Look no further. We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.
First quarter: Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will. Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes. Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round. The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.
The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco. While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time. His reward lies in a clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych. Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer. But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50. He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches: a Wimbledon semifinal. While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.
Player to watch: Querrey
Second quarter: The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives. In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic. A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him. Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist. While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him. He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.
Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament. Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer. The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result. His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match. Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat. But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him. If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Player to watch: Dimitrov
Third quarter: Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first. Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion. Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two. The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format. Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky. The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round. Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.
Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds. In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there. Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic. The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique. But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment. He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall. If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray. The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.
Player to watch: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year. All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko. (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.) Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year. In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly? The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.
Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013. To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci. Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent. Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year. Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before. But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.
Player to watch: Tomic
Final: Djokovic vs. Murray
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!
After a hectic two weeks of Grand-Slam action from Melbourne, life returns to normal on the ATP World Tour. There are three 250-level tournaments this week and while the pace will be perhaps less enthralling than what we’ve just witnessed in Australia, here are some of the big names we can look forward to watching.
Formerly held in Lyon in October of each year, the Open Sud de France has now relocated to Montpelier at an earlier date within the tennis season.
Tomas Berdych is the number one seed and will try to win his first ATP title since his victory in Beijing this past October. That was the only title the Czech won in 2011, but he had an incredibly solid year reaching the semi-finals of eight tournaments and the quarter-finals of seven others. That type of consistency has made Berdych a main-stay in the top-ten in recent years but success at the Masters 1000 and Grand Slam level have still mostly eluded him with the exception of his win at the Paris Masters in 2005 and his Wimbledon final in 2010.
Berdych has a very manageable quarter of the tournament with no major obstacles in his way and a first-round bye to ease him into the draw.
Richard Gasquet is the fourth seed and is also in the top-half of the draw and he will likely face Nikolay Davydenko in the second round. Despite Davydenko’s rapid drop in play these past two years, the Russian will still give Gasquet a good challenge and provide fans with an entertaining early round match.
In the bottom half of the draw, look for two Frenchman to navigate their way through to the semi-finals. Both Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon are the highest two seeds and also the most likely to ride the support of the French fans to a solid showing.
Canadian number-two singles player Vasek Pospisil will undoubtedly be keeping his eye on the French, as Canada is scheduled to host the French in the first round of the Davis Cup on February 10th in Vancouver. Pospisil opens against French wildcard Guillaume Rufin.
It was a moment for Croatian tennis fans to relish a year ago in Zagreb when Ivan Dodig captured his first ATP title against Michael Berrer. While the chances of Dodig repeating are not necessarily favored, he is one of three Croats who could lift the trophy on the final Sunday.
Veteran Ivan Ljubicic holds the top seed and opens against Karol Beck. Ljubicic has won the event before and has the best chance of emerging from his quarter of the draw.
Beneath him can be found monster-server Ivo Karlovic who will also receive plenty of home-country support. Mikhail Youzhny will try to bounce back from a disappointing first round loss in Melbourne as he holds the third seed and is my pick to emerge from the top-half of the draw.
In the bottom half, we have Marcos Baghdatis and the previously mentioned Dodig in one quarter. In the final section of the draw, Alex Bogomolov Jr. is the surprised second seed and leads the weakest section of the tournament. In other words, look for Baghdatis or possibly Dodig to have a good route to the finals.
Providing some contrast to the two hard-court tournaments this week, we have the VTR Open which is played on red clay. Last year’s champion in Vina del Mar is Tommy Robredo but he is not entered in this year’s edition. Meanwhile Fernando Gonzalez holds the most career titles at the event with four. Gonzalez has taken a wildcard into the main draw as he has struggled since returning to the tour last year from hip and knee injuries he sustained in 2010.
Clay court expert Juan Monaco takes the pole position this year and opens with a first round bye. Albert Montanes who is seeded fifth will likely be Monaco’s main source of opposition in the top-half of the draw.
In the bottom section look for Thomaz Bellucci, who won the event in 2010, to challenge once again for the title and for second seeded Juan Ignacio Chela to advance into the draw as well.
Don’t feel bad if you are feeling the effects of a tennis-hangover as these smaller events begin. Nothing can really compare to two weeks of elite level tennis like we have just experienced. There is a lot to look forward to however, with the first round of Davis Cup action just two weeks away and then a month after that we will enjoy back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.
Obviously, Federer is playing quite well and with a tremendous amount of confidence. But it’s been a little while now since he’s had the ultimate success on the Grand Slam stage with Melbourne 2010 being his last major title. And this year, talk seems to be centering more on his younger opponents: Will Novak Djokovic repeat? Is Rafael Nadal healthy? Will Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl win a Slam together off the bat? Is it time for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to break through?
That doesn’t leave much room in the discussion for Federer, especially as how all the talk of any tournament he entered in the past used to start and end with him.
You can’t exactly classify Federer as an “underdog”; he is still, after all, one of the greatest to ever pick up a racquet. With his playing style, he can continue to notch impressive results for a couple of years to come, at least, and be considered one of the favorites to win any major he competes in.
As some of the attention slips away, Federer appears well suited to take advantage of it. The French Open last year could be a prime example as everyone was waiting to see if Nadal could reverse his losing streak against Djokovic in the finals of the year’s second Slam. Federer had something to say about that, though, stopping Djokovic in the semis in finger-wagging fashion.
Federer’s next two Grand Slams didn’t go as planned, losing wrenching five-setters to Tsonga and Djokovic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively. He took a bit of time off after that Open loss and came back physically and mentally refreshed.
And aside from a balky back, nothing seems to be bothering Federer at this early point in the season. His draw in Melbourne offers a few possible matchups early on that could be intriguing: big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the third round; then perhaps Bernard Tomic, Sam Querrey or Alexandr Dolgopolov in the round of 16. Federer could be tested in any of those, but experience—if anything—should carry him through.
From the quarters on, things could get to be a little more difficult as Juan Martin del Potro or Mardy Fish loom, plus he’s drawn to face Nadal in the semifinals.
At that point of the tournament, odds are that the spotlight will still be on Nadal, Murray and Djokovic as Federer continues to sneak in under the radar. Perhaps he’ll emerge from it with a 17th Slam in tow.
by Pey Jung Yeong, Special for Tennis Grandstand
There’s a little known fact about Melbourne: it has a hidden trove of laneways around the city center – featuring whimsical bars, artsy bistros and eateries, and even a famous restaurant in Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. These laneways are funky, cluttered and decorated with colourful graffiti on their walls, and Duckboard Place is the laneway lucky enough to be chosen as a spot for adidas’ second location in its “The Game is The Game” Series. The promotional series features tennis-based games set around the grand slam tournaments, and this edition spotlighted the sport of stické tennis. (Andy Murray helped launch the first series, featuring Road Tennis, in East London in November 2011.)
Stické tennis is described as “lawn tennis in a box”, played with standard tennis racquets, sidewalls, and slightly depressurised tennis balls, aiming to create interesting bounces and angles. Duckboard Place was transformed into a miniature tennis court in preparation for a game of street-inspired stické tennis.
To promote the event, adidas had organised an in-store Q&A competition throughout the week, and the lucky winners had the opportunity to participate and watch a match of stické tennis, as well as a meet and greet with the players involved.
In this adidas-sponsored event, Team Wozniacki was comprised of world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Australian junior Ashleigh Barty and rugby league player Billy Slater, while Team Ivanovic consisted of Ana Ivanovic, Gilles Simon and AFL (Australian Football League) player Dale “Daisy” Thomas.
The players were quickly taught the rules by the MC, local Australian newscaster Hamish McLachlan, before play began: competitors play in pairs at any one time, and the scoring follows the rules of lawn tennis. However, the server must play the ball off the walls when serving in order to make it valid. The match was represented by one normal set of tennis – whichever team reaches 6 games first (with a 2 game advantage) would be deemed the winner.
Slater and Tsonga for Team Wozniacki were up first to serve, against Ivanovic and Thomas, and both teams took a while to figure out how to land an effective serve by playing the ball off the walls. Needless to say there were plenty of “double faults” as the ball bounced off the wall and dribbled back onto the same side of the court. However, the players soon adapted to this brand of tennis and play began flowing more effectively. The Frenchmen then experimented with “power serves”, with Simon hitting one serve so hard that it ricocheted above everyone’s heads! The tennis was exhibition-style tennis, with exaggerated lobs and smashes.
“Playing off the walls was tough at first, but once we got that hang of it we all had a great time,” Wozniacki offered.
In between games, the players not on court were interviewed by the MC, most notably about their first-round opponents in the Australian Open. Tsonga, who will be facing Denis Istomin, anticipated a good match and he will be prepared for it, while Wozniacki hoped it will be an interesting match against Anastasia Rodionova. Barty was clearly excited about her Grand Slam main-draw debut (she won the Australian wild-card playoff) and seemed at ease with the other seasoned stars of tennis.
Team Wozniacki was broken halfway into the match, and Team Ivanovic managed to break their serve again to win the match, 6-3.
There was good camaraderie between the team members , and the atmosphere was informal and light-hearted, accompanied by break-dancing ball boys. The match was never really competitive and neither team was competing to win. It was evident that the players were really enjoying themselves, particularly the tennis players, who perhaps were taking this as an opportunity to loosen up and have a bit of fun before two weeks of competitive Grand Slam tennis that begins Monday.
After the match, the players all posed for photos for the media, and then took the time out to personally meet and greet the winners of the adidas in-store competition. They signed autographs and posed for numerous photos with the fans. There were smiles all around and the fans were clearly excited to meet the tennis stars. The tennis players, on the other hand, were equally happy to oblige fan requests.
The whole event was very well organised, providing an intimate yet casual and funky atmosphere for the players to interact with the small group of fans as well as the media. It was also really refreshing to see the top players – usually so serious and focused on court – smiling and goofing off with each other on a miniature tennis court. It enables the fans to see another side of the players that is perhaps not often visible on a tennis court. Overall, it is indeed an event to remember!
UPDATE: Per adidas, you can watch video of the event here! http://a.did.as/zTFfPC
(All photos courtesy of author.)