On Monday, the rest of the quarterfinals take form in both the men’s and women’s draws. The action shrinks to Rod Laver and Hisense, by which we divide the previews.
Rod Laver Arena:
Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova: Fans may remember their pair of US Open three-setters, both of which Wozniacki won when her retrieving skills and superior fitness outlasted Kuznetsova’s fiery shot-making and athleticism. Those victories formed part of a four-match streak for the Dane against the Russian that halted abruptly last week in Sydney, where the latter astonished the former in a three-setter played under sweltering conditions. All but irrelevant last year, Kuznetsova appeared to have regained her motivation during the offseason before charging back into contention with one of her best results to date here. For her part, Wozniacki recovered from a dismal first-round effort to play cleaner tennis through her next two matches, albeit less impressive than what she produced as world #1. Long rallies and service breaks should await as both players focus on what they do best in this strength-on-strength matchup: offense for Sveta, defense for Caro.
Azarenka vs. Vesnina: On the surface, this match would seem like a rout in the making, and it might well turn out that way in reality. But Vesnina has played some of her best tennis in recent memory this month, starting an eight-match winning streak with her first career singles title last week. Meanwhile, Azarenka has looked vulnerable in two of three matches and staggered through an unexpected three-setter against Jamie Hampton, who likely would not have trouble the Vika who swaggered to last year’s title. Unable to hold serve consistently, the defending champion has relied on her return to break opponents regularly, possibly a more difficult task against Vesnina than the three before her. Still, Azarenka has won all six of their previous sets.
Tsonga vs. Gasquet: If the passivity of Simon and Monfils bored you, rest assured that this pair of Frenchman will not produce the same lethargy. Outstanding shot-makers each, they shine most in different areas. Whereas Tsonga unleashes titanic serves and forehands, often rumbling to the net behind them, Gasquet favors one of the ATP’s most delicious one-handed backhands. He ventures to the forecourt often as well, displaying a fine touch that has contributed to his success in their rivalry. Gasquet has won four of their seven meetings, but Tsonga looked the sharper player during the first week. Not dropping a set in three matches, he has maintained the focus and discipline lacking from his disappointing 2012, so he will fancy his chances of halting Gasquet’s eight-match winning streak.
Serena vs. Kirilenko: Apparently recovered from her ankle scare, Serena remains the favorite to win a third straight major title here. Outside an odd three-game span in the second set of her last match, she has ravaged a series of overmatched opponents while reaffirming the dominance of her serve. The competition does elevate in quality with the 14th-seeded Kirilenko, much improved in singles over the last year or two. Serena has won all five of their previous meetings, though, and the weight of her shot should leave the Russian struggling to match her hold for hold. Only on an especially erratic day for the 14-time major champion would Kirilenko’s balanced all-court game and high-percentage brand of tennis threaten her.
Raonic vs. Federer: Perhaps useful in preparing him for the titanic serve across the net was Federer’s previous match against Tomic, who regularly found huge deliveries when it mattered most. As brilliant as the Swiss looked in other aspects of his game, he struggled to convert break points and nearly lost the second set as a result. Nevertheless, Federer did not lose his serve in the first week or even encounter significant pressure on his service games. That trend should continue against the unreliable return of Raonic, while the veteran’s struggles to break should as well. Combining those two threads, one can expect some tiebreaks to settle sets that should hinge upon just a handful of points. All three of their previous meetings, on three different surfaces, reached final sets—and two a final-set tiebreak, illustrating Raonic’s ability to trouble Federer. The younger man’s belief fell slightly short last year, but he has looked more assured in his status as a legitimate threat by brushing aside his first-week opponents here.
Chardy vs. Seppi: A match of survivors pits the man who defeated Del Potro in five sets against the man who defeated Cilic in five sets. Spectators who expected to see two baseline behemoths dueling today may feel surprised to see one of the ATP’s most asymmetrical games square off against a baseline grinder. Striking nearly 80 winners to topple the Tower of Tandil, Chardy produced nearly all of his offense from his forehand and at the net, where he will want to travel frequently again. A clay-courter who has enjoyed his best result here to date, Seppi wore down Cilic by staying deep behind the baseline, absorbing pace, and extending the rallies. That positioning leaves him vulnerable to someone as adept moving forward as Chardy, but the main theme of this match may revolve around who can recover more effectively, mentally and physically, from their notable but exhausting victories in the last round.
Jovanovski vs. Stephens: Somewhat surprisingly, Stephens enters her first fourth-round match here as a clear favorite. Probably the most unexpected member of the last sixteen, Jovanovski upset Safarova and weathered the distinctive game of Kimiko Date-Krumm to record a potential breakthrough. She plays an orthodox power baseline style, more raw than the game honed by Stephens, and she has struggled at times to contain her emotions. That said, one wonders how the young American will respond to the pressure of the favorite’s status at a stage where she has little more familiarity than her opponent. This match marks the first meeting of what could become an intriguing rivalry.
Simon vs. Murray: After his epic battle with countryman Monfils, which nearly reached five hours, Simon should have little energy left for the Scot. He tellingly said that he would appear for the match but estimated his probability of winning it as slim. Despite the issues with holding serve that Murray has experienced here, and his troubles with timing in the third round, he probably needs to play no better than his average level—or even below it—to advance. Even a rested Simon would have few weapons to harm an opponent who has defeated him nine straight times, much less this battered version.
Since Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova announced Russia’s arrival in women’s tennis in 2004 with their Grand Slam triumphs, the nation took a stranglehold on the WTA rankings. Serena Williams once joked that she should just be called “Williamsova” at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, where the main draw contained 24 -ovas and seven -evas. “I just know the standard: everyone is from Russia,” she quipped. “Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new -ovas, I don’t know anyone, I don’t really recognize anyone.”
At one point during 2008, Russians made up 50% of the world’s top 10, with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Anna Chakvetadze all occupying places in the elite. That came in the period when Sharapova was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They swept the podium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, with Dementieva winning gold, Safina taking silver and Zvonareva winning bronze. However, in the 2012 year-end rankings, there were only four in the top 20, or 20%.
That led to the question: where have all the Russians gone? Dementieva’s retirement, coupled with injuries to Safina, Chakvetadze and Zvonareva, made many feel as though the days of Russian dominance on the WTA were over. Their mantle of churning out multiple quality WTA players all at once had now been taken up by nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the longstanding tennis powerhouses of the United States and Great Britain have multiple young stars with bright futures.
The answer is: the Russians never really left, they were just taking a vacation.
With Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina all making the second week Down Under, it marks the first time that Russia has had more than two players reach the second week of a major event since the 2011 US Open.
Little needs to be said about Sharapova and Kuznetsova, arguably the two greatest Russians in terms of career accomplishments, who have six Grand Slam titles between them and 40 overall titles. Kuznetsova’s reascension has been particularly notable, as she missed almost half of 2012 due to a knee injury.
Kirilenko, perhaps one of the hardest workers on the WTA, makes the most of what she has. In addition to being a standout doubles player, Kirilenko reached her career-high ranking in singles in 2012. She and countrywoman Nadia Petrova, who’s had a late-career renaissance in her own right, won the bronze medal in doubles at the Olympics; she finished fourth in singles, losing to Victoria Azarenka in the bronze medal match. Kirilenko’s had success Down Under before, as she reached the quarterfinals in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova in the first round; she’ll have an extremely tough test against Serena Williams.
Makarova has had her greatest successes in places called ‘bourne. The lefty stormed to the title at the WTA Premier event in Eastbourne as a qualifier in 2010, beating Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Azarenka in the final. She’s perhaps best known for her upset over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year en route to the quarterfinals, and matched the feat this year by taking out Angelique Kerber. Her 11-5 record Down Under is her best mark out of all the majors. If the US Open was held in Bourne, Massachusetts, she’d probably win it.
Vesnina, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in her Grand Slam debut in 2006, matched the feat this year. In her seventh career final to open the year in Hobart, she dethroned defending champion Mona Barthel to finally win a WTA title. She’s taken out two seeds this week, No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 16 Roberta Vinci.
In addition, Valeria Savinykh scored an upset win over Dominika Cibulkova in the second round and junior standout Daria Gavrilova qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw and had a second round showing.
As the old cliché goes, it’s always about “quality, not quantity.” As the Russians on the WTA have proved over the past decade, you can have both.
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.
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 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.
By David Kane
Two tweets from former World No. 2s, Vera Zvonareva’s announcement that she would be missing the upcoming Australian Open, and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s suspense-filled declaration that she indeed loved life, seemed to sum up the status quo for Russian women’s tennis these days. It feels like a lifetime ago that to be a Russian on the WTA Tour usually signified a player with a high ranking who made deep runs in major tournaments and, if nothing else, was a fierce competitor, a member of a contingent strong in numbers. As recently as 2009, there were four Russian women in the top 10, two in the top 4. As the 2013 season approaches, only Maria Sharapova remains among that elite group, with three others floating around the top twenty.
The formerly proud and prolific Russian horde even found themselves the butts of a light joke from Tennis Australia, who boasted that their best player, Samantha Stosur, could beat anyone with an “-ova” surname. That Stosur has failed to beat a player inside the top 50 Down Under since 2006 (and has a paltry head-to-head record against most Russians in general) illustrates how far things have fallen for what used to be the game’s most indomitable force.
With Christmas only hours away, imagine if you will, jaded tennis fans, several midnight visits from three of the most knowledgeable spirits: the Ghosts of Tennis Past, Present and the always ominous Ghost of Tennis Future. Allow these spirits to remind you of what has already been, and perhaps warn you of that which is soon to be.
It was a little over a decade ago that “Anna’s Army,” led by the glamorously talented Anna Kournikova, burst onto the women’s tour. While their leader failed to win a singles title, those who followed in her footsteps took full advantage of the road she paved. In 2004, thirty years after Soviet Olga Morozova reached the finals of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the first three Russian women won Grand Slam titles at major tournaments that featured two all-Russian finals. While Sharapova has won most often on the sport’s biggest stages, compatriots like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva have more than made names for themselves with multiple Slam titles (Kuznetsova), 26 weeks atop the world rankings (Safina) and multiple Slam finals and semifinals (Dementieva).
The year 2009 represented a second crest on the wave of Russian dominance: Kuznetsova won the third all-Russian final of the Open Era, Safina was ranked No. 1 for most of the year, and Dementieva came within one backhand passing shot of upsetting Serena Williams for a place in the Wimbledon final. As the decade came to a close and talented youngsters like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko began to post impressive results, the Russian horde looked as strong as ever.
Barely two years on, the Ghost of Tennis Present presents a wholly grimmer reality. Vera Zvonareva may have been the breakout player of 2010, reaching two Slam finals and peaking just behind the top spot in the rankings, but since then, “Anna’s Army” has done an almost complete about face. What could explain such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Ostensibly, injuries and early retirements are to blame. Dementieva retired at the end of 2010. Safina is indefinitely absent with a broken back. Kuznetsova and Zvonareva are rehabbing injuries in the hopes of reviving their stalled careers.
Truthfully, however, most of the Russian contingent could be diagnosed with problems that are as mental as they are physical. Over the years, it has become increasingly uncomfortable to watch these talented women fail to get out of their own way time and time again in important situations. Matches that look to be straightforward from the outset end up having more twists and turns than a Tolstoy novel, complete with double-digit double-faults and screaming into hands. Where most of the top men could have their names etched in to the final rounds of major tournaments in pen, even the faintest pencil tracing could derail what should be unassailable progress.
In fact, Maria Sharapova has been so successful at deviating from this tragic formula that, despite bearing the Russian flag at the London Olympics, American journalists and commentators hardly believe her to be of the same ilk, and frequently attempt to claim her as their own. This is wrong. Not only is Sharapova as Russian as her compatriots, but she has also suffered her own heart-wrenching losses to prove it.
The average Russian tennis player can be accused of many things, but rarely can it be said that she does not want success badly enough. In the last decade and a half, this diverse group of women has taken passion in this sport to a level where every point is a battle, every match a war. Painful as it can be to watch, the inherent entertainment value cannot be denied. More often than not, when a Russian takes the court, she takes on two adversaries: her opponent, and herself. When she wins, then, the victories are twice as sweet, for her and those who were swept up in her almost spiritual fervor and feel as if they helped will her over the finish line.
All of this is why what the Ghost of Tennis Future has to say is so important. Because they are so rarely the champions at the end of the fortnight, they may appear inconsequential to the many storylines in the canonical WTA soap opera. However, the drama that the Russian contingent brought and continues to bring (although on a muted level) kept viewers interested. They emit a passion for the game that could convert any causal fan (Bah Humbug!) into a diehard (Merry Christmas!).
Once, it was said that the Russians were coming. For a few brief-shining moments, they had arrived. Now, there are more than a few ghostly moans in the night, calling for their return.
Maria Sharapova giggled and jumped in the snow with her Russian compatriots. Forty-one year old Kimoko Date Krumm upset Polona Hercog, ranked 42 spots above her and born 21 years after her. Serena Williams destroyed a racket. Christina McHale served a bagel. Julia Goerges nearly upset Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova, but fell just short and broke down in tears on court. The upstart and adorable British team, led by new coach Judy Murray, stormed (and tweeted) their way through their competition. Francesca Schiavone (over)-dramatically won a match.
It was a predictably unpredictable Fed Cup weekend, what many would describe as “typical” WTA, and I loved every single minute of it.
It’s been a tumultuous few years for the most popular female sports league in the world. In 2007 the tour seemed invincible when Wimbledon became the final Grand Slam to offer the women equal pay. However, an unfortunate series of events have left the tour in flux ever since. In 2008 World #1 Justine Henin abrubtly retired, leaving a vacuum at the top of the game. With various injuries crippling The Williams Sisters and Sharapova, a group of talented young girls were thrust into the spotlight at the top of the game a bit prematurely. The “Slamless Number One” saga overshadowed everything else, only rivaled in media coverage by the incessant shrieking debate (which often reaked of sexism). Some of the best female athletes on the planet were constantly declared out of shape and mentally weak by the experts of the game, many of whom were former WTA stars themselves. To make matters worst, all of this turmoil transpired simultaneously with the “Golden Era” of the ATP. The more Federer, Nadal, and recently Djokovic dominated the Slams the more it seemed to diminish whatever “product” the WTA tried to produce.
As a WTA fan it’s been a sad few years. Wait- no, I actually don’t mean that at all. It’s been a rollercoaster for sure, but it’s been a blast.
I love parity, I love unpredictability, I love my sports to come with a side of “WTF is going on here?”. I love the fact that every Grand Slam you could pick fifteen women who have a legitimate shot to hold the trophy at the end of two weeks. I love the fact that Schiavone, Li Na, and Samantha Stosur are now Grand Slam Champions. I love that Vera Zvonareva, despite a history of meltdowns that would have made her eligible for the Real Housewives of Russia, made two Grand Slam Finals and climbed to number 2 in the world. I love that Kim Clijsters retired, had a baby, then came back to the tour and won three more Grand Slams- 3 times more than she had pre-motherhood. I love that Sharapova has fought her back from what many feared would be a career-ending shoulder injury and now, at 24, seems poised to be a factor for years to come. I love that Serena went from hospital bed to U.S. Open Final in less than six months. I love that Andrea Petkovic dances in victory. I love that the outspoken Agnieszka Radwanska seems to only win when she’s taped up like a mummy. I love Petra Kvitova’s forehand, Victoria Azarenka’s backhand, Marion Bartoli’s insane serve, and yes- even Caroline Wozniacki’s moonball. (Sometimes).
I love that the best days are yet to come. Champions and superstars Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are sill hungry and fighting for titles. Azarenka and Kvitova, twenty-two and twenty-one respectively, seem unfazed by the pressure of expectations. Clijsters is with us for the rest of the year (and I still not-so-secretly hope for more) and will be extra motivated to win her first French Open and/or Wimbledon trophy. Venus Williams might not ever win another Slam again, but it won’t be without trying like a true Champion to deal with her Sjogren’s Syndrome and find a way to compete on the top level again. Wozniacki will (surely) be determined to regain her spot at the top of the rankings and earn that elusive Slam. Li, Schiavone, and Stosur will all be eager to get rid of the “One Slam Wonder” label. And then of course there’s Svetlana Kuznetsova. Any given Slam.
I don’t think that dominance is the only way to measure success. I don’t think that unpredictability is always a sign of weakness. If you disagree with the prior statements then that’s fine, but I do think that these female athletes deserve heaps more respect than they get on a regular basis.
Yes, I unabashedly love the WTA, flaws and all.
Here we are tennis fans. A new year. Another Grand Slam. Two grueling weeks of non-stop nerves, mind-numbing anxiety, long hours, exhilaration, and meltdowns- and that’s just for us!
Let’s face it- it’s not an easy task being a tennis fan, and sometimes the intensity makes us crumble faster than Mikhail Youzhny in a tiebreak. A Grand Slam doesn’t always bring out the best in us. Some of us choke while others lash out in pressure situations and it isn’t always pretty out there in tennis fandom.
But let’s make this year different. For the 2012 Australian Open let’s do things right.
This year we will come prepared. We will stock up on all of the essentials beforehand. Coffee, liquor, nutritious foods, junk foods, energy shots, vitamins, and- of course- tissues. We won’t have the energy or the willpower to go shopping over the next two weeks, so we will go ahead and do it now. The last thing we want is to find to find ourselves without supplies at the break of dawn in the middle of our favorite headcases’ third set break-fest.
We will be sure to manage our schedules properly. We will be mediocre employees and avoid temptation to volunteer for that extra project at work. We will cancel that family dinner that we’re already resenting and back out of drinks with friends on Saturday night. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for our friends, family, and selves during a Grand Slam is to keep our distance. They don’t want us to fake listen while we check our phones for the latest score. They don’t want to hear about Roger’s back or Svetlana’s fashion mishap or Fernando’s meltdown. We can spare them the boredom and spare ourselves the frustration.
We will follow social media rules and etiquette. It’s easy to get carried away and forget common courtesy, but that’s when things get ugly. This year we will remember the guidelines. When tweeting and facebooking about the results, we will not tag the losing player. We will refrain from tagging them in posts where we are bashing their game, mannerisms, or fashion sense as well. We will do the proper thing and only talk negatively about players behind their backs.
If someone breaks the above rule we will attack them mercilessly.
We will give everyone a break. At some point during the next two weeks we will all feel a little bit like Boris Becker. By Friday there’s a good chance I’ll be searching for Benneteau’s name in the draw, only to remember an hour later that I watched him self-implode on Monday. Between the time-zone differential, the rustiness of a new year (let’s face it, we’re all out of practice with streaming and scoreboard watching), and magnitude of the event we will all lose track of something important at some point. We will give everyone one pass. Of course, if anyone- especially an announcer or journalist- makes two mistakes, we are free to hold it against them forever.
We will know when to walk away. There will come a time for all of us when the best thing we can do is to step away. Whether it’s to take a walk, to actually get some sleep, or to just change the channel, we will not be too bull-headed to pull out of watching a match or two when we know it’s best for our overall mental and physical health.
And most of all fellow tennis fans, this year we will keep our senses of humor. Before we cry, before we throw things, before we lash out at our tennis fan friends and threaten to quit tennis forever, we will take a moment to laugh.
Because as much as we care, as much as we love these player and this game and the crazy stakes of a Grand Slam, at the end of the day it is only a sport. It’s supposed to be fun. So as we’re choking back tears and chowing down on espresso beans and energy shots at 4AM next Friday while toggling between ten matches and suffering from the advanced stages of sleep deprivation, let’s remember that we love this, that it’s hysterical, and that we wouldn’t have it any other way.
With some preparation, perspective, and kindness we can make this the best Grand Slam yet- on our end at least.
by Stephanie Neppl, Special for Tennis Grandstand
What a week we’ve had at the 2012 ASB Classic! One of the best fields in tournament history has been narrowed down to just four players: a German (but not the top seed Sabine Lisicki as expected), an Italian, a Chinese (but not the #2 seed Peng Shuai) and a Russian.
To get us to this stage of the tournament, we’ve survived numerous rain delays which have done their best to complicate life for the players and organisers. One entire day of qualifying was moved inside, only one night session began on time and many matches had to change courts to accommodate the rain delays.
All that is a blur now as there are just two days to go. Today Lisicki injured herself during warm-up and battled hard against fellow German Angelique Kerber but she was forced to withdraw during the second set. It was not the ending she wanted, but the smiley Lisicki was hopeful the injury won’t affect her play at the Australian Open coming up later this month.
“I hope it’s nothing too bad,” she said. “I hope I’ll recover quickly and that a couple of days off will be enough. I’m just hoping for the best.”
The highest seed remaining is Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The two-time grand slam winner has the goods but has lacked consistency for most of her career. She’s looked good in Auckland and hasn’t dropped a set in her run to the semifinals.
After her win over Christina McHale in the second round, Kuznetsova was asked if she thought she could improve on her career high #2 ranking. “I think I can do better. It’s definitely in my potential.” She will now face surprise semifinalist Zheng Jie of China who has won her past two rounds with ease.
The other semifinal is a repeat of a US Open quarterfinal match between Flavia Pennetta and Angelique Kerber. The Italian made the final in her last visit to the ASB Classic and will be keen to redeem herself after the German won that grand slam match to reach the semifinals.
Stay updated and catch all the great action at the ASB Classic!
(All photos © www.photosport.co.nz)
Stephanie Neppl is the Social Media Manager for Tennis Auckland covering the ASB Classic and Heineken Open. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.
by Stephanie Neppl, Special for Tennis Grandstand
The 2012 ASB Classic is underway and it’s lining up to be a memorable tournament with stellar fields in both singles and doubles.
Despite the withdrawal of drawcard Venus Williams, the singles draw is full of big names and big talent. We’ve got our previous two champions in 2011 winner Greta Arn and 2010 champ Yanina Wickmayer as well as former runners up Flavia Pennetta (2010) and Elena Vesnina (2009) all in the main draw.
Sabine Lisicki, who was forced to play qualifing in Auckland in 2011 thanks to an injury that saw her ranking plummet, is the top seed. Lisicki made noise through 2011 with two tournament wins and a semifinal run as a Wimbledon wildcard. The smiley blonde has raised the interest of many tennis fans who relish the chance to see her big serve in action.
The field also includes Chinese #2 Peng Shuai, who lost a heartbreaker to Wickmayer in the semifinals here last year; two-time slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and German Julia Goerges. Goerges made the semis in 2011 and had some big results, including two wins over WTA #1 Caroline Wozniacki. It will be interesting to see how she fares this year with as the 5th seed and a lot more expectation than a year ago.
Pennetta, the #4 seed, made the final in 2010 but didn’t return in 2011. She had some inconsistent results in singles last year but had some big wins in the second half of the year – Maria Sharapova at the US Open and Caroline Wozniacki in Beijing.
New faces to Auckland this year include Italian Roberta Vinci (seeded #6), young American Christina McHale and two-time grand slam semifinalist Zheng Jie.
The doubles draw includes reigning Wimbledon champs Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke and reigning French Open champs Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. Pennetta, who won the 2011 Aussie Open doubles title with Gisela Dulko, will partner Goerges in the doubles draw. Also competing are Elena Vesnina and Sania Mirza, who made the French Open final in 2011, and Lisicki and Peng are partnering up.
Follow the 2012 ASB Classic on www.asbclassic.co.nz, http://www.facebook.com/ASBClassic and http://twitter.com/#!/ASBClassicAuckl
(All photos © www.photosport.co.nz)
Stephanie Neppl is the Social Media Manager for Tennis Auckland covering the ASB Classic and Heineken Open. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.