The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta. Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York. But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles. For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.
Top half: The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20. Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison. The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta. Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions. He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.
Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American. Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise. On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise. Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand. His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles. Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt. A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.
Semifinal: Isner vs. Hewitt
Bottom half: The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months. Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic. Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable. The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion. Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues. Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.
Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude. They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta. Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.
Semifinal: Fish vs. Anderson
Final: Hewitt vs. Anderson
Top half: As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw. Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though. Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week. Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal. But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.
A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title. The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half. Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg. Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.
Semifinal: Federer vs. Monaco
Bottom half: Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol. Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring. But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him. The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true). Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well. The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.
That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez. Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section. Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder. Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
Semifinal: Granollers vs. Wawrinka
Final: Federer vs. Wawrinka
Top half: Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw. He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later. Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises. The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking. Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.
In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad. This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker. An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year. Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Semifinal: Gasquet vs. Fognini
Bottom half: Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon. Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad. A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there. The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.
The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos. While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there. Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi. On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.
Semifinal: Robredo vs. Berlocq
Final: Fognini vs. Robredo
As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests. Let’s start with the women this time.
Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues: Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore. Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals. Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome. She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson: When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round. Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role. (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.) Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.
Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber: The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player. Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts. Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski. Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.
Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro: Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists. Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier. Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals. Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.
Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova: An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces. Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal. Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring. Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.
Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils: Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman. Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week. His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd. The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish. But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.
Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis: In singles, Benneteau is known for two things: never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side. He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent. Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February. It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.
Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner: This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American. Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation. Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches. While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.
Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz: Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman? Maybe you should think again. Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions. For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major. He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.
Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes: The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals. The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable. Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.
Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Ryan and Christian Harrison lead the next generation of ATP players in a Men’s Journal feature entitled “Hit Squad” where they divulge what opponents fear most about their game. Though Twitter followers of Ryan Harrison may recall the photoshoot involving extravagant colors, photographer Theo Wenner opted to bring the shoot to life in black and white. Also featured are David Goffin, Ricardas Berankis and Bernard Tomic.
GRIGOR DIMITROV: “Called ‘little Federer’ for his fluid strokes, he’s a perpetual threat, particularly on hard court, with a dangerous topspin forehand and a creative, some say restless, style of play.”
RYAN HARRISON: “When he was 11, Harrison met his tennis-pro dad in the finals of the Shreveport City Tournament which his father won, and they knew Ryan needed more competition.”
MILOS RAONIC: “The son of engineers, the 6-foot-5 Raonic was college-bound until he persuaded his parents to let him go pro. They gave him a year to crack the top 100, and he did, rising from 150 to 37 in just six weeks.”
DAVID GOFFIN and RICARDAS BERANKIS: Berankis says of what opponents fear about him, “I never give up. I fight till the end.”
CHRISTIAN HARRISON: “When big brother Ryan was battling Dad in the Shreveport City Tournament, nine-year-old Christian was in the stands pouring Coke on his little sister. He’s since learned to pay the game some respect.”
BERNARD TOMIC: On his indulgence, “Cars. A lot of people say I’m being the bad boy, but who doesn’t love a nice car? I just did things that a normal teenager dreams of doing.”
DAVID GOFFIN: On the best compliment he’s received, “I saw John McEnroe in the locker room of the US Open after a match, and he said, ‘Hey, I love your game. Just work on your legs’ — because my legs were too thin.”
(Quotes and photos via ATP World Tour and Men’s Journal)
The only notable player from Lithuania, Ricardas Berankis enjoyed his breakthrough last year by reaching the Los Angeles final after many had wondered whether his small stature and chronic injuries would prevent him from fulfilling his potential. Berankis reminded audiences of his status as one of the next generation’s more intriguing ATP hopes when he reached the third round here with straight-sets victories over Sergei Stakhovsky and Florian Mayer. At that stage, however, he faced US Open champion Andy Murray, who had advanced through the draw in equally impressive fashion and knew all that he needed to know about his opponent’s game from his experience with him as a practice partner. While Berankis acquitted himself well in his debut on a stage of this scale, the Scot ultimately reached the second week with an uneven 6-3 6-4 7-5 victory.
Despite a slightly tense opening service game, Murray lost no time in pouncing on his occasional practice partner’s serve in building a 3-0 lead. Throughout the tournament, he had excelled at lunging ahead early in sets before his opponents could settle into the match. Another area in which Murray had impressed in Brisbane and Melbourne concerned break points, which he had saved in bunches during service games that he eventually held. Four more came and went for Berankis in the fifth game today before the third seed escaped with his lead intact.
Struggling to win points on his own serve, the Lithuanian collected just five of the first fifteen as he dropped serve again to position Murray within range of his second 6-1 set of the tournament. A little like Azarenka earlier, the Scot continued to fall behind on his own service games, where he looked much more vulnerable than on his return games. This time, he could not escape the pressure, handing a break back to Berankis on the sixth opportunity. Suddenly in a dogfight, Murray could not earn the set-ending break but instead needed to save two more break points on his service game before finally closing out a set that he had looked likely to dominate.
As expected, the Lithuanian had dominated the winner totals and the unforced error totals, recording more than twice as many as Murray in both categories. The US Open champion, by contrast, played a generally conservative brand of tennis while waiting for his opponent’s inconsistencies to emerge. But his labored service games continued, forcing him to serve twice as many points as Berankis by early in the second set. Murray turned his challenger’s pace against him brilliantly at times, however, whipping cross-court forehands within inches of the opposite baseline after his opponent had blasted backhands within inches of his baseline or corner. Exhibiting his fancy touch around the net, Berankis responded with delicate drop shots and backhand slices around the net posts.
When the Lithuanian unleashed a series of crisp returns to break for 4-2, Murray mustered a strong return game of his own that culminated with a beautifully placed lob over his short opponent. In the crucial ninth game, Berankis coughed up two routine groundstroke errors that set up a break point, which he saved in spectacular style by converting a smash from behind his own baseline. Murray failed to convert another break point, but the third time proved the charm as the Scot earned a chance to serve out the second set.
Much as he had at the end of the first set, Berankis thrust the third seed into a dangerous position at 0-30, only to watch the score shift to set point as he failed to put three straight returns in play. Keeping the Lithuanian pinned behind the baseline with biting slices, Murray eventually drew a net cord for the two-set lead.
With any hope for an upset effectively extinguished, Berankis faded somewhat in the third set by inflicting less pressure in his return games and dropping an early service game relatively meekly. He did earn a break point in the sixth game, but Murray saved it as the overall lull persisted. One final burst of energy carried Berankis to a break at the eleventh hour that leveled the set at 5-5, profiting from some listless play by his opponent. Regrouping immediately to break once more and hold with conviction, Murray closed out the match for his fifth straight second-week appearance at the Australian Open.
To progress further into the draw, however, he must protect his serve more effectively against returners more dangerous than Berankis. And too much of the old “mopey Murray” resurfaced in his body language for one to feel overly confident of his chances to defeat Federer and Djokovic consecutively. Before then, Murray enjoys an open route to the semifinals following upsets of Del Potro and Cilic today. Perhaps he can use the next round or two to build greater momentum for the last two stages.
Our colleague James Crabtree will tell you everything that you want to know about the looming Federer-Tomic collision in a separate article, while we preview the other matches of note as the first week ends.
Berankis vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena): Recording his best performance to date here, Berankis cruised through his first two matches in straight sets and yielded just six games to the 25th seed, Florian Mayer. The bad news for him is that Murray has looked equally impressive in demolishing his early opponents, and his counterpunching style suits these courts better than the Lithuanian’s high-risk attack. Shorter than the average player, Berankis can pound first serves of formidable pace and crack fine backhands down the line. So far in his career, though, he has not done either with the consistency necessary to overcome an opponent of Murray’s versatility in a best-of-five format.
Simon vs. Monfils (Hisense Arena): Odd things can happen when two Frenchmen play each other, and odd usually equals entertaining in the first week of a major. Monfils should feel lucky to have reached this stage after tossing nearly 40 double faults in a bizarre start to his tournament, where the nine sets that he has played may hamper him against an opponent as fit and durable as Simon. His compatriot has looked fallible as well, meanwhile, dropping first sets to third-tier challengers Volandri and Levine. Against the quirky arsenal of shots that Monfils deploys stands Simon’s monochrome steadiness, which can look unglamorous but has proved superior in three of their four meetings.
Seppi vs. Cilic (Court 2): A second-week appearance at a hard-court major would mark a fine start to 2013 for Seppi in the wake of his breakthrough 2012, accomplished mostly on his favored clay. For Cilic, the achievement would come as less of a surprise considering his semifinal here three years ago and the ease with which his elongated groundstroke swings suit this surface. Near the middle of last season, he too signaled a revival by winning two small titles and reaching the second week at Wimbledon. Cilic has looked more likely than Seppi this week to build on last season, winning all six of his sets as the Italian narrowly escaped his second round in five.
Raonic vs. Kohlschreiber (Court 3): Seeking his second fourth-round appearance at Melbourne, Raonic passed the ominous test of Lukas Rosol with flying colors. That effort improved greatly upon his uneven effort in the first round, allowing him to conserve energy for his meeting with a flamboyant German. Defying national stereotypes, Kohlschreiber loves to throw caution to the wind by unleashing his cross-court backhand and inside-out forehand at the earliest opportunity, which will test Raonic’s vulnerable two-hander. In this first meeting, he may find the rising star’s serve too great a frustration to keep his composure as he battles to match hold for hold.
Vesnina vs. Vinci (Margaret Court Arena): Fresh from her first career title in Hobart, Vesnina has brought that confidence to the brink of the second week. Solid in most areas but outstanding in none, she faces a crafty Italian who coaxes errors from the unwary with unusual shots like a biting backhand slice. Vinci has become the best women’s doubles player in the world by virtue of an all-court game that compensates in variety for what it lacks in power. Her experience also should earn her a mental edge over the notoriously fragile Vesnina if the match stays close.
Kuznetsova vs. Suarez Navarro (Court 2): This match lies very much on Kuznetsova’s racket, for better or for worse. Armed with one of the WTA’s more picturesque backhands, Suarez Navarro upset top-eight foe Errani and then outlasted a feisty assault from newcomer Yulia Putintseva. But Kuznetsova has cruised through her first two matches with the same brand of controlled aggression that fueled her strong week in Sydney. She lost to the Spaniard on a particularly feckless day at Indian Wells, showing her tendency to cross the line from bold to reckless too easily. Showing that Suarez Navarro has no answers for her best form are the routs that she recorded in their other encounters.
Stephens vs. Robson (Court 2): An encore of a match that Stephens won in Hobart, this battle offers Robson a chance to build upon her epic victory over Kvitova—provided that she can recover in time for another draining match. The Brit showed remarkable resilience despite her youth in that 20-game final set against a Wimbledon champion, although her level fluctuated throughout in a way that Stephens rarely does. Steadily climbing up the rankings, the American also has shown self-belief against even the most elite contenders, so a clash of wills awaits when the serves and forehands of the volatile lefty shot-maker meet the smooth, balanced groundstrokes of the counterpuncher.
Date-Krumm vs. Jovanovski (Court 2): The oldest woman remaining in the draw faces the potential next face of Serbian women’s tennis, young enough to be her daughter. A straightforward power baseliner in the traditional WTA mold, Jovanovski once lost a challenger final to Date-Krumm as she probably struggled to solve the sharp angles of the evergreen Japanese star. Many thought that Date-Krumm would have ended her second career by now, but she has proved them wrong this week with two decisive victories that place her within range of a truly remarkable feat: reaching the second week of a major as a 42-year-old. With much to gain and little to lose, each woman should rise to the occasion in a match of high quality.
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
The favorites and top seeds all got through their second-round matches without much drama. David Ferrer was pushed by a powerful Tim Smyczek, who really began showing his true potential in the match. Still, Ferrer got through in four sets as he was just too solid and consistent for the young American.
Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, Del Potro, and Berdych all took care of overmatched opponents with relative ease as well. None of these seven challengers for the title has begun to show any real cracks in the armor yet, though Tsonga did not play his best match. Then again, he really didn’t need to to beat Go Soeda in straight sets. Del Potro still looked like the most dominant of the group, though, for whatever that’s worth.
Who Looked Good
Evgeny Donskoy: Donskoy is an up-and-coming strong young player. He has mostly stuck to Challengers his entire career and has brought his ranking up into the 80s with a good run to end last year. But he is going to be moving up to the main tour now. In his first ever Grand Slam main draw, he has now reached the third round with his gritty performance to get past Mikhail Youzhny. Donskoy only had one tour-level win before this Australian Open, but he will have plenty more opportunities now as his new ranking will get him into most ATP 250 and 500 level tournaments.
Jerzy Janowicz: How does beating Somdev Devvarman in 5 sets net you a spot in this section? It’s because Janowicz’s comeback win over the former NCAA champion showed us something that we didn’t know about him. Janowicz was only a good young Challenger player with potential until an epic run at last year’s Masters 1000 event in Bercy (which he had to qualify just to get into) vaulted him into the top 30. This comeback win, which took fight and mental fortitude, shows us that Jerzy could be near the top of the rankings for a long time.
Ricardas Berankis: After last round, I said that if Florian Mayer played as poorly against Berankis as he did against Rhyne Williams that he would lose this match. Now, though, it really wouldn’t have mattered. Berankis was absolutely on fire this match. His movement was superb, even in the blazing heat, and his ballstriking was lethal. The 22-year-old qualifier looks to be in the best form of his young career and it will be very interesting to see what he can do against Andy Murray in the next round. No matter what, though, this will be quite a learning experience for him.
Richard Gasquet: Gasquet is nothing short of an enigma. There are times where he actually feels like a top 5 player and there are times where he doesn’t belong in the top 100. He has so much power, not to mention the world’s best backhand, yet plays far too far behind the baseline. Still, his dismantling of Alejandro Falla was impressive. Gasquet is clicking on all cylinders so far early in this tournament. Let’s see if he can keep it up while facing the other top players in the coming rounds.
Who Looked Bad
Janko Tipsarevic: Tipsarevic came to play in his first-round match against Lleyton Hewitt. He hit the ball hard and clean and really never bowed to the pressure. His second-round match was the exact opposite. Lacko played well and fought hard, but Janko just wasn’t the same as he had been in the first round. If he had approached this match with the same intensity as his first, it wouldn’t have been this close. There was just a little bit missing from Tipsarevic’s game that he will need to find again moving forward to go deep in this tournament.
Bernard Tomic: Okay, this paragraph won’t be fair to Tomic. He didn’t play that poorly. This is more of a critique on the expectations we put on him. Yes, he has talent. But he is still not a top player yet. All he has in his career is one great run at Wimbledon. Everyone treats hid like—and expects him to be—one of those guys knocking on the door right outside the Big 4. But he’s not. At least, not yet..
Match of the Round
Though Gael Monfils and Yen-Hsun Lu made me think about putting them here, once again, the most exciting match this round was far from the highest quality. And, once again, it was really the crowd that put this match over the top. Blaz Kavcic and James Duckworth battled for nearly five hours in the blazing heat. Both played well, though Kavcic was clearly the superior player for much of the match. Still, Duckworth fought back with the crowd behind him to take the fourth set. With the crowd making duck sounds and chanting in support of the young Australian, the match felt much more like a Davis Cup rubber than a Grand Slam match. Kavcic served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth but was broken to 30 (he double-faulted twice in a row at 30-30), to massive celebration by Duckworth and the crowd. Eventually, after both players began cramping up, Kavcic took his fifth match point to win the fifth set 10-8, much to the dismay of the crowd. Still, it was a close and exciting match throughout and was an honest joy to watch.
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.
The weather in San Jose may have been unusually cold and wet today – even for February, but that didn’t stop things from proceeding exactly as planned at the HP Pavilion, where the first day of the SAP Open finished up at ten minutes before midnight, when big-serving Kevin Anderson prevailed over Grigor Dimitrov in a third set tiebreak. Dimitrov had come out on fire, but once the tall South African found his serving rhythm in the second set, neither player could manage a break, and when it comes to tiebreaks, being able to rely on a booming serve like Anderson’s can make all the difference.
The highlight of the evening had been earlier, when the legendary John McEnroe took to the court, along with the talented and top-seeded Gael Monfils to play doubles, each paired with a young American. McEnroe partnered with Jack Sock, while Monfils played with NCAA champion Steve Johnson. The exhibition match had its roster changed around due to the withdrawals before the tournament, but neither the B-team players nor the weather outside could dampen the audience’s enjoyment of Johnny Mac displaying plenty of his signature magic at the net.
Monfils got up to plenty of showmanship as well, with his own brand of shots behind the back, between the legs, and hang time smashes, not to mention plenty of diving and sliding around the court, in his inimitable fashion. Sock and Johnson each acquitted themselves admirably, both serving and volleying with more precision that you might expect from a pair so inexperienced at tour level. Sock has perhaps a bit more firepower and a bit more flare than the USC Trojan, but everyone in attendance was left confident that both players ought to have long and successful pro careers ahead of them.
Of course, it was McEnroe who was the main draw of the evening, and he did not disappoint. He served exceptionally well, going so far as to thank the operator of the radar gun when one of his serves hit the 126 mph mark, which he claims to have been a first for him. McEnroe turns 53 on Thursday (the crowd regaled him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”) but his ability to hit pinpoint volleys from seemingly impossible positions and to place them perfectly on the other side of the court remains unmatched in the modern game. The crowd also got the result they wanted from the match, with McEnroe and Sock prevailing in two tight sets, 6-4, 6-4. There were even some theatrics involving the line calls and the challenge system, but it all seemed to be in good fun.
After the match, McEnroe fielded questions about the state of the game today and the surprises of his post-playing tennis career. He explained how thankful he was to have come to enjoy these sorts of exhibitions as well as his time as a broadcaster, two things which he never thought he would have wanted to continue doing, while he was playing. He also discussed his movie and TV roles, and marveled at how many people recognize him from his appearances in Adam Sandler movies, without being aware that he was originally a tennis player.
When it came to his take on the modern tennis game, he once again touched on how spoiled the United States had been up until the current generation, and what needed to be done to get an American player vying for grand slam titles, again. McEnroe touted Sock as a future top ten player, but he had more to say about what he is currently trying to accomplish at his tennis academy in New York. It was his opinion that the current trend in junior development which forces young players to devote themselves almost exclusively to tennis inevitably leads to burnout. He believed that a more rounded development process would ultimately be more successful, but he recognizes he’s in the minority, even finding himself in disagreement with his own brother, who is the head of the USTA player development program.
I guess time will tell.
When it came to the other matches during the day session, it was not a great day to be a former junior world number one. Two of them were in action in the final round of qualifying, and neither managed to win a set. Ricardas Berankis, who reached the quarterfinals in this tournament last year but has been struggling with a leg injury, was forced to retire against Tim Smyczek. Yuki Bhambri, another great junior player who has been struggling to make the transition to the pro level, fell to collegiate tennis player Dennis Lajola, of the University of Hawaii. It marks the first time that Lajola has ever successfully qualified into the main draw of an ATP event, and he has a chance to go even further, since he meets another qualifier in the first round tomorrow.