While some of the stars opening play in Melbourne should encounter little resistance, others might want to tread carefully. We look at some of the most notable matches on Day 1 from Rod Laver Arena to the outer courts.
Chang vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena): A flustered bundle of nerves on home soil, Stosur has lost six of her last seven matches in Australia and exited in the first round here last year to Sorana Cirstea. Despite her smooth game, Chang lacks Cirstea’s intimidating weapons and thus should pose a less severe test. But an 0-2 start to 2013 with losses to unheralded opponents in Brisbane and Sydney inspire little confidence in Stosur as she rebounds from an ankle injury.
Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic (RLA): Quite the contrast to Stosur, the greatest Aussie champion in recent memory typically thrives under the adoring gaze of his compatriots. In his 17th Australian Open appearance, Hewitt thoroughly deserves this showcase setting in the first night session on Rod Laver Arena. Recent years have seen him deliver upsets over opponents like Baghdatis, Safin, and Raonic on this court, so Tipsarevic cannot take this match lightly. The second-ranked Serb looked solid but mortal while winning Chennai, and he won’t overpower Hewitt like many opponents near his ranking.
Ivanovic vs. Czink (RLA): This match may start very late indeed in the aftermath of Hewitt-Tipsarevic, possibly a bad sign for Ivanovic. A morning person, the Serb can grow weary quickly when she plays late at night, and she has struggled against lefties sporadically in her career. That said, Czink has declined since she upset Ivanovic on the much faster court of Cincinnati in 2009, and the former finalist built confidence with three decisive wins at the Hopman Cup before Medina Garrigues outlasted her in the final. She should aim to avoid a third set whenever possible, and probably will here.
Goffin vs. Verdasco (Hisense Arena): Four years after he reached the semifinals (and nearly the final) here, Verdasco has regressed back to his former incarnation in which he can win or lose to anyone on any given day. Startlingly boyish in appearance, Goffin reached the second week of Roland Garros last year and recorded fall upsets over Troicki and Isner, among others. The 22-year-old must refine his game, especially his shot selection, to rise further into the top 50, although Verdasco can teach him little in that area.
Cibulkova vs. Barty (Hisense): The Slovak pocket rocket unleashes impressive power when on a hot streak and can collapse completely when she loses her range even a little. Last week in Sydney, Cibulkova showed her best and worst in defeating three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel from Radwanska. Which memory lingers longer in her mind may define how far she goes here, while Aussie prodigy Barty will try to gain confidence from the Hopman Cup memory of upsetting Schiavone.
Bobusic vs. Radwanska (Margaret Court Arena): For winning the Australian Open wildcard playoff, Bobusic received a berth in the main draw—against the world #4. Radwanska also happens to have won both of her tournaments this year, so the challenge looms very large for the home hope. The Pole sometimes does need time to settle into an event, though, wobbling through uneasy three-setters in the first round here before.
Youzhny vs. Ebden (MCA): Yet another Aussie faces a Russian well into the twilight of his career. Still lovely to watch with its one-handed backhand and crisp volleys, his game matches up well to the net-rushing style of Ebden. Both men feel comfortable all over the court, which should create some variety in the ways that points unfold.
Dellacqua vs. Keys (MCA): After reaching the Sydney quarterfinals, the 17-year-old American should have soared in self-belief by proving that she could compete with much more experience and accomplished opponents. She eyes a winnable match against an Aussie returning from injury, not for the first time, but with a memorable run here five years ago to inspire her.
Medina Garrigues vs. Bartoli (Show Court 3): The Spaniard enters on a somewhat hot streak from winning the Hopman Cup with Verdasco, although she defeated no notable opponent other than Ivanovic. Bartoli has dominated their head-to-head on hard courts but has suffered a series of early upsets at the Australian Open in recent years. The match will rest on her racket, for better or for worse.
Harrison vs. Giraldo (Court 8): From their last meeting at the Olympics came the regrettable temper tantrum that led to Harrison’s equally regrettable apology. He still lets his competitive fire burn too brightly at times, although a victory over Isner in Sydney may bode well for this fortnight. Not averse to emitting some sparks himself, Giraldo will fancy his chances in the best-of-five format if he can claim an early lead.
Bolelli vs. Janowicz (Court 8): The toast of Paris last fall when he reached the Bercy final, Janowicz reverted to ordinary toast this month in a sloppy loss to Brian Baker. The moribund game of Bolelli, an Italian with much more flair than power, should not trouble the huge-serving Pole as long as he stays out of his own way better than he did in Auckland.
Barthel vs. Pervak (Court 11): Reaching the fourth round here last year, Barthel recalled her strong start to 2012 when she finished runner-up in Hobart (becoming the first woman ever to lose a final to Vesnina in the process). The gawky German owns a formidable but fickle serve and can climb into double digits in aces and double faults during the same match. Russian by birth and Kazakh by passport, the lefty gunslinger Pervak upset Wozniacki in Brisbane by showing more fortitude than usual.
Benneteau vs. Dimitrov (Court 13): At Wimbledon last year, the French doubles specialist came within two points of upsetting Federer as he proved again how lethal his game can become when all of its parts coalesce. A strong server with a penetrating two-hander and excellent net skills, Benneteau held match points in the Sydney semifinal last week before his habit of losing close matches resurfaced. The bad news for him is that he faces a man who served for the first set in the Brisbane final the previous week. The good news is that Dimitrov never has brought his best game to any major, nor has he developed a habit of stringing together solid results.
Makarova vs. Larcher de Brito (Court 19): Once at the vortex of the shrieking controversy, Larcher de Brito plunged into the tennis wilderness shortly after her uniquely piercing yodels had alienated fans. She returns to the main draw of a major for the first time in years. Is she ready for her comeback? Perhaps more to the point, are we?
Bogomolov vs. Baker (Court 20): From an American perspective, this match presents a good guy vs. bad guy narrative. Fans around the world warmed to Baker when he completed an odyssey through several injury absences to rejoin the ATP with a bang last year by reaching the final at his first tournament. His results faded a little afterwards, as one would expect, so his confidence probably rose when he defeated Janowicz in Auckland. Whatever one thinks of Bogomolov’s shifting national allegiances, they did nothing to disturb his reputation as one of the players least likely to induce empathy in the ATP.
Hradecka vs. Bertens (Court 22): Half of the world’s second-ranked doubles team, the Czech with an explosive serve faces one of last spring’s most surprising headlines. Bertens became the first Dutchwoman to win a title since 2006 when she took home the hardware from Casablanca as a qualifier who never had played a main-draw match at the WTA level. Summer upsets over Safarova and Petrova consolidated that breakthrough, so she will look to take the next step forward in 2013.
Excited about these matches and others on Day 1? Join our live chat at newyorkobservertennis.com, which extends from the start of play through the Rod Laver Arena night session.
For the rising American stars who are typically in the qualifying at the US Open, the pressure placed on their young shoulders can often be too much to handle. Over the years, the qualifying rounds have left a graveyard of names once touted as future champions, but who were unable to live up to what was expected of them.
Sloane Stephens does not look to be one of those players.
In front of a large, curious crowd on Court No. 11 at the USTA/Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that included U.S. Davis Cup Captain and USTA Elite Player Development Director Patrick McEnroe, three-time U.S Open champion Ivan Lendl, and USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith, Stephens came back from 3-5 down in the second set to defeat No. 7 seed Melinda Czink, of Hungary 6-3, 7-5, giving the 15 year old the biggest win of her young career.
With a father, John Stephens, an NFL Pro Bowl running back who played running back for the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packer and Kansas City Chiefs, and a mother who tried out for the US Olympic swim team, Stephens has no shortage of athletic genes. She brings the best of both worlds to her tennis game, using supreme foot speed to set herself up to hit her signature powerful ground strokes.
From the start of the match, Stephens said she tried to take control of the baseline rallies by attacking Czink’s weaker serves.
“I could see that she was a little bit tight playing against me because of my age,” Stephens said. “I wanted to take advantage of that and get off to a good start right away.”
Czink broke Stephens early in the second set with a barrage of forehand winners, causing Stephens to look over nervously at her support group. With each player holding serve through the rest of the second set, Czink’s serve let her down as she tossed in two double faults while serving for the set at 5-4, allowing Stephens to level at 5-5.
With Czink serving to stay in the match at 5-6, the Boca Raton native saved her best tennis for the final stages of the contest, lacing two groundstroke winners to give herself triple-match point. On Stephen’s fifth match point, Czink netted a backhand to end the match. After displaying composure well beyond her years for two sets, Stephens finally acted like a teenager by letting out a beaming smile and raising her arms in the air.
“I just thought ‘Oh my God! I won a round in the U.S. Open!” Stephens said. “I know that winning a (qualifying) round isn’t a big deal for some people because they’re expected to, but I’m only 15, so this means everything to me. It feels like I just won Wimbledon!”
Stephens is scheduled to play her second round match on Thursday against Stefanie Vogele of Switzerland. Despite playing without any expectations, Stephens said she believes she can go even further at this year’s US Open.
“These (pro tournaments) are actually more relaxing for me than junior tournaments,” Stephens said. “There’s no pressure on me here. All I have to do is show up and play.”
A professional tennis player’s career can change in just one week, and the challenger circuit this week created milestones for several talented players. One local girl did her home town proud in reaching her first challenger final, a Russian teenager lived up to the hype of being a former number one junior by winning her first pro tournament, and a claycourt specialist snapped a winless season by winning the biggest title of his decade-long career.
First, to the women’s side. The $50,000 event in Las Vegas has always boasted a strong field and this year was no exception; all of the seeded players were ranked among the world’s top 100. In the end, Frenchwoman Camille Pin snapped a five match losing streak in route to taking the title with a 6-4 6-1 win over Las Vegas native Asia Muhammed. While Pin’s form throughout the week was extremely impressive (her first serve percentage in the final was 96%), Muhammed was easily the biggest story of the tournament. Having never won a round in the main draw of a challenger before, the 16 year old used an aggressive all-court game and big kick serve to come through several long matches. The most telling sign of her rapid improvement was a 6-4 6-0 win in the first round over Melinda Czink, a player she only managed four games against in the qualifying of the US Open last year. However, Muhammed wasn’t the only success story amongst the young American brigade this week; Madison Brengle beat second seeded Yvonne Meusberger on her way to the semifinals, and Coco Vandeweghe recorded the biggest win of her career in knocking out top seeded Aravane Rezai in the first round.
At the $25,000 event in Minsk, Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova won the first challenger title of her career in dominating fashion, sweeping the first 11 games on her way to a 6-0 6-1 victory of Nikola Frankova of the Czech Republic. Minsk has been good to Pavlyuchenkova so far in her career; her only other challenger final, back in 2006, also came in the Belarusian capital. Despite the lopsided score, Frankova can also take some positives out of this week in reaching her first challenger final after only getting into the draw as a lucky loser. Both girls are also scheduled to compete at $25,000 tournaments later this month in St. Petersburg and Moscow
2008 had not gotten off to a promising start for either of the finalists at the $125,000 Bancolombia Open in Bogota; Spaniard Ivan Navarro sported a 1-7 record going into this week while Brazilian Marcos Daniel hadn’t won a match all year. However, Daniel was able to turn his year around by winning the biggest title of her career, prevailing 3-6 6-1 6-3 over Pastor. The win puts the 29 year old back into the top 100 for the first time since 2006. Despite the loss, this week also allowed Pastor to reverse his bad luck and gives him much to look forward to as the claycourt season, where Pastor has always had his best results, approaches.
Kyoto hosted its long-standing $35,000 challenger event this week, and Go Soeda of Japan thrilled the home crowd by winning a tense 7-6 2-6 6-4 final over Matthias Bachinger of Germany. This win gave Soeda his first challenger title of the year. Both players will also move up to new career high rankings this week.
On the futures circuit, Rui Machado of Portugal won his third title in a row as he took the $15,000 event in Lagos. The 23 year old is now on an 18 match winning streak. Brydan Klein, the 2007 Australian Open boys’ singles champion, won the $15,000 event in Hamilton, and new Canadian citizen Eric Chvojka won at the $15,000 tournament in Gatineau, which is the first of three futures event being held in Canada this month.
On the women’s side, Elisa Balsamo of Italy prevailed at the $10,000 event in Sabadell and Ellen Barry of New Zealand satisfied the home crowd by winning the $10,000 event in Hamilton. The title was the first of Barry’s professional career.
“In the second set, I started going for my shots,” Barry said. “In the third I tightened up again, but managed to get an early break and go from there. I hope to continue doing well now in $25,000 and $50,000 events and I hope it’s going to be a good year for me.”
The women will continue to have the spotlight on them this week as Andreja Klepac of Slovenia leads the way at the $50,000 event in New Delhi. Croatian Nika Ozegovic will contest her first challenger of the year as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Las Palmas De Gran Canaria, while Australian Monique Adamczak takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Kalgoorie, the first of two $25,000 events being held in the Western region of Australia this month. On the men’s side, Juan Pablo Brzezicki of Argentina is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Salinas, while Santiago Ventura of Spain leads the pack at the $35,000 event in Tanger, the first of two events held in Morocco this month.