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.
Once again on the futures circuit this week, another former ATP standout bravely swallowed his pride and started back at square one in the hopes of turning back the clock.
It’s hard to tell how many comebacks Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui has had. The 36 year old has overcome financial destitution and just about every injury in the book to achieve a top 15 ranking and reach the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and US Open. This week, El Aynaoui returned from a seven month injury layoff at the $15,000 event in Castelldefels. Appearing as a late entrant, he was forced to go through the qualifying rounds before surviving several tough three set matches in the main draw. In the end, El Aynaoui won his first title in almost 12 months by beating Adam Chadaj of Poland 6-3 7-6 in the final.
At the notoriously strong $100,000 event in Sunrise, Dutchman Robin Haase won a rain-delayed final that was pushed into Monday. Haase came back from being down a set and a break to defeat Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean 5-7 7-5 6-1. For Haase, who has already scored wins over Andy Murray and Ivan Ljubicic this year, this is the biggest title of his career. He hopped in a car directly after the final to head to Miami, where he layer played in the qualifying rounds of the Sony Ericsson Open (he won his first round match in Miami Monday evening).
Another player on the comeback trail is Mariano Puerta of Argentina, who’s still trying to rebound after a second doping suspension that almost ended his career. Competing at the $50,000 event in San Luis Potosi this week, Puerta showed glimpses of the form that took him to the French Open finals as he cruised through the draw without the loss of a set. However, injury derailed his good form as he was forced to withdraw from the final before striking a single ball, which allowed Brian Dabul of Argentina to win his first title of year. Both Dabul and Puerta are scheduled at the next $50,000 event in Mexico this coming week, held in the city of Leon.
In other challenger news on the men’s side, Ivan Navarro of Spain won his first event in two years at the $35,000 event in Meknes, while Andreas Beck of Germany won the $35,000 event in Sarajevo.
With her ranking just outside of the top 100, Israeli Tzipi Obziler decided to drop back down to the challengers for the $25,000 event in Tenerife. The decision proved to be wise as she dropped just 14 games in her last four matches and overwhelmed Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain 6-2 6-3 in the final. The win puts Obziler back inside the top 100 and, with little to defend over the next few months, she should see her ranking continue to climb.
In other challenger news on the women’s side, Barbora Zahalova Strycova of the Czech Republic won her second title of the year at the $25,000 event in Redding, while Melanie South of Great Britain won a nail biting three-set final to take the title at the $25,000 tournament in Sorrento. Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova won the $25,000 event in St. Petersburg, and Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova won her first challenger event at the $25,000 tournament in Noida.
The men keep the spotlight with two $50,000 tournaments this coming week. Werner Eschauer of Austria is the top seed in Barletta and Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer takes top billing in Leon. On the women’s side, Nuria Llagostera Vives of Spain accepted a late wild card and is the top seed at the $50,000 event in Latina. Once again this week, there are also several $25,000 women’s events. Anna Lapushchenkova of Russia will hope to keep her local fans happy at the $25,000 event in Moscow, while China’s Shuai Zhang hopes to reverse her losing streak at the $25,000 tournament in Hammond. Anastasia Yakimova of Belarus is the clear favorite a the $25,000 event in La Palma, while Estonia’s Maret Ani takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Jersey. Finally, Tessenderlo hosts its first professional event as veteran Selima Sfar of Tunisia is the top seed at this $25,000 tournament.