In the wake of her statement triumph over Venus Williams, world #2 Maria Sharapova faced the challenge of avoiding complacency as she prepared for a fourth-round encounter with the unremarkable Kirsten Flipkens. At first, that challenge did seem to trouble an inconsistent, uninspired Russian, who struggled through a few protracted games. Once she settled into the match, though, Sharapova added a breadstick and a bagel to the waffles of Belgian bakeries by dispatching Flipkens 6-1 6-0.
Battling through three deuces, Flipkens needed several game points to light up the scoreboard with an encouraging “1” next to her name—more than two of Sharapova’s three previous opponents had accomplished. That encouraging start stemmed in part from a slightly scratchy series of groundstrokes by the second seed, who missed two routine inside-out forehands. Once she stepped to the service notch, however, Sharapova produced a confident hold and built upon it for an easy break of serve. If Flipkens failed to seize control of the point with the first stroke or two, her more powerful opponent typically wrested it away.
Sharapova continued to look a bit flat, at least in comparison to her sparkling performance against Venus. One wondered whether her motivation simmered at a low ebb for a foe of whom she knew little. With two double faults and two errant forehands, she offered Flipkens a pair of break points in the fourth game, which extended through several deuces. A challenge erased a third break point by handing the Russian a backhand winner, and the 12-minute game finally ended with a hold.
Deploying drop shots to great effect, Flipkens tried to move Sharapova into the net on uncomfortable terms whenever the opportunity invited. After she had led 30-0, though, she soon faced break point following a thunderous return winner from the second seed. Seizing the insurance break with a backhand pass, Sharapova established her authority over the first set. An uneventful hold preceded a long game on the Flipkens serve in which the Belgian held several game points before yielding on her second set point under the pressure of her opponent’s weight of shot.
Despite her pedestrian play for much of that set, Sharapova still had recorded her sixth bagel or breadstick of the Australian Open. One sensed that her level would rise in the second set as the quarterfinals beckoned, and such proved the case. Losing just five points through the first five games of that set, she mirrored a dip in her opponent’s level with cleaner tennis in most areas, although her first-serve percentage continued to languish. It appeared briefly that Flipkens would hold when she held three game points at 1-6, 0-5. True to her remorseless character, however, Sharapova saved all three and ripped a forehand winner down the line on her first match point.
This match did not represent a peak performance from the second seed, the scoreline notwithstanding. But Sharapova still has lost only five games in four matches here, illustrating how quickly she can find her rhythm at the start of a new season and how well this surface suits her. She should face a more worthy opponent in the quarterfinals, compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, although their meeting at the same stage last year ended with a comfortable victory for the more heralded Russian. Few players ever have plowed so deep into a major with such a tsunami of momentum, and Sharapova could not have asked for a more auspicious start here.
In a strange match that fell short of expectations, fourth seed David Ferrer claimed his revenge for an Olympics loss to Kei Nishikori by halting last year’s quarterfinalist here in the fourth round. Nishikori looked sporadically hampered after a brief but impressive surge to open the match, whereas Ferrer played generally solid baseline tennis to prevail 6-2 6-1 6-4.
Saving break points in the opening game with an ace and a service winner, Ferrer struggled to survive deep groundstrokes from Nishikori that showed his improved pace. The Japanese star opened the court efficiently before closing to the net and finishing points with crisp technique. Although he could not claim the early lead, he held confidently in his first service game, always important for an underdog. Nishikori lost little time in thrusting Ferrer under pressure on serve again, constructing points with care as he outmaneuvered his opponent from the baseline. The Spaniard saved three more break points in a demonstration of his tenacity.
A multiple-deuce game ensued on Nishikori’s own serve, which he erased with an inside-out forehand approach. With a double fault, though, he conceded the break in deflating fashion. For a change, Ferrer jumped ahead 40-0 on his serve and held without facing a break point for the first time. Nishikori again found himself mired in deuce after deuce despite taking an initial 30-0 lead, but he saved a crucial break point with a serve-forehand combination. Still just a single break behind, he started to look a bit dejected and tossed his racket after a netted groundstroke moved Ferrer to 5-2. Probably sensing that tone, the fourth seed redoubled his persistence and closed out the set with a break as Nishikori donated a handful of uninspired errors.
In addition to his mental strength, groundstroke depth had played a crucial role in winning the first set for Ferrer. The run of games for him continued with a difficult hold during which he saved a break point. But the war of attrition appeared to reap continuing rewards for the Spaniard who specializes in it, Nishikori quickly surrendering his own serve at love with a series of errors. A quick hold with an ace confirmed the lead for Ferrer. Summoning the trainer at the changeover, Nishikori again lost his serve at love as the match that had looked so promising began to fade. Ferrer oddly threw his tottering opponent a lifeline by falling behind triple break point.
Erasing each of them, the last with a spectacular running pass, the fourth seed served out the set with aplomb. He had yielded just three games over two sets in a surprising display of dominance for someone who had faced five break points in his first two service games. Unable to convert any of his nine break points, Nishikori must have nourished little hope of a comeback, but Ferrer again fell behind 0-40 at that stage. He nearly executed another miraculous escape before finally sending a backhand long to level the set.
Not maintaining the positive momentum for long, Nishikori dropped serve for the sixth time in seven games, although the rallies grew more intriguing as his effort level rose. After Ferrer had led 40-0 in the sixth game, the revitalized Japanese star won five straight points to pull back on even terms, again dictating play by stepping inside his baseline and keeping the veteran well behind his. The two men traded holds that set up a critical game at 4-4. Nishikori survived several deuces and earned multiple game points to put Ferrer on the brink of serving to stay in the set. As his unforced-error total climbed above 60, however, he could not hit through the Spaniard often enough to nudge ahead.
Ferrer served out the match at love with some well-placed first serves, advancing to his third straight Australian Open quarterfinal and his fifth straight major quarterfinal overall. There, he will face either compatriot Nicolas Almagro or Janko Tipsarevic, against whom he played an epic quarterfinal that reached a fifth-set tiebreak at the US Open.
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.
Sharpening her skills by leaps and bounds of late, Jamie Hampton had reached the third round of a major for the first time. The 23-year-old American faced world #1 Victoria Azarenka there in a match that looked lopsided on paper but became much closer in reality. Battling the defending champion at the Australian Open with confidence, Hampton succumbed 6-4 4-6 6-2 only after a three-set match of greater quality on both sides than much of the women’s first week.
Having won just a single game from Sharapova here last year, Hampton needed a more positive start to keep her spirits high. She showed off a greatly improved forehand over the first several points, although Azarenka displayed her athleticism in ranging to her right to cut off what looked like a winner and redirect it down the line for a winner of her own. Still, Hampton impressed with her commitment to dictating play behind that shot, which sent an early signal of intent. So did her ability to hold in her first service game, weathering deep returns from the top seed.
Azarenka constructed points with precision through the next few games, using sweeping angles to open the court and keep Hampton off balance. The relentlessness of the rallies also seemed calculated to wear down an opponent with less experience and consistency. As early as the fourth game, the underdog began to leak a handful of routine errors that surrendered the break. Hampton gamely fought to break point on Azarenka’s serve, which inspired Vika to play some of her most aggressive tennis. Culminating with a well-angled smash, the top seed’s salvage of the break point enabled her to survive a long deuce game that felt like a potential turning point.
As Hampton stayed determined to step inside the baseline whenever possible, Azarenka looked content to absorb the pace and redirect it with greater depth. The American started to attempt overly aggressive shots towards the end of the first set, aiming too closely to the lines out of respect for her opponent’s admittedly superb defense. A magnificent scramble to retrieve a cross-court forehand that looked like a sure winner preceded a pinpoint lob over Hampton at net to produce an insurance break.
Soon thereafter, the underdog scored her first break with the assistance of some indifferent serving by Azarenka. Hampton continued to place herself in winning positions from one rally to the next, sometimes failing to deliver the coup de grace but putting enough pressure on her opponent to exploit the opportunities that presented themselves. Despite her inexperience, she showed tenacity in outlasting the top seed through a long deuce game, and she built upon that momentum shift with a strong hold. Breaking Azarenka again, more easily this time, Hampton miraculously restored the set to serve. But the top speed had accumulated too large a lead to let all of it slip away, breaking Hampton comfortably in the tenth game for the set.
That slightly deflating end to an engaging comeback seemed likely to weigh on the American as the second set began. To the contrary, Hampton broke Azarenka for the third straight time to open the set, only to hand the break back directly. Still unable to find rhythm in her service games, the world #1 quickly fell behind triple break point again. She sprayed her normally trusty backhand wide on the third of those chances, suggesting the disarray into which her smooth game had fallen. Hampton still needed to consolidate the break, no easy task against such a fine returner. After a deuce hold, she held a two-game lead for the first time.
Ripping a sensational forehand down the line, Azarenka finally held without facing a break point for the first time since her second service game. A fine inside-out backhand tailing away from Hampton extended the American’s service game to deuce, but the inspired underdog held with a shot that curled around the net post. In a must-hold game at 2-4, Azarenka cruised through comfortably to keep the pressure on her opponent. She leaned on her return from the ad court in the next game, earning a break point. A wildly flailed forehand cost Azarenka the opportunity, though, and caused her to slash the air with her racket in vexation. The unemotional Hampton may have benefited from that outburst in closing out the perilous game.
With a booming forehand return winner on Azarenka’s first serve, the American claimed two set points against the top seed. Some rash shot selection cost her both of them before Vika extricated herself behind well-placed serves down the center line. As she prepared to serve for the second set, Hampton called the trainer for an apparent lower back problem. Leaving the court while Azarenka practiced her serve, she returned to open this crucial game with a drop shot that fell within inches of the net. The top seed’s groundstrokes and returns continued to veer out of her control as she won just a single point before Hampton closed out the second set.
Azarenka needed to reassert herself early in the final set, which she did with a service hold punctuated by two clean winners. Clearly experiencing persistent pain in her back, Hampton gallantly resisted but played into her fitter opponent’s hands before the time grew ripe. Nevertheless, she preserved her serve through a tense game, saving a break point en route. Seething with ill-concealed venom, Azarenka fell behind double break point on her serve as Hampton continued to rifle audacious forehands with abandon off baseline and sidelines.
With the break improbably in hand, the American continued to crumple in pain after nearly every effortful point. Showing no signs of fatigue herself, Azarenka did her best to stretch the court and force Hampton to change direction as much as possible, which helped her in regaining the break. Behind 2-4 soon afterwards, she could have resigned herself to the situation’s evident hopelessness. Instead, the tireless underdog fought back to earn triple break point with another forehand barrage.
The momentum threatening to veer away from her again, Azarenka finally found some clutch first serves to erase the arrears and end the last of Hampton’s repeated challenges. A break in the following game sealed the staggering underdog’s fate, but not before she had severely tested the defending champion.
Somewhat fortunate that the injury troubled Hampton so much in the final set, the world #1 extended her title defense into the second week of the Australian Open while revealing hints of vulnerability that will encourage future opponents. Or perhaps they should not, for an early test often inspires competitors like Azarenka to raise their level for the rounds ahead, recognizing the necessity of sharpening their form. Either way, Hampton should take pride and encouragement from a match that revealed her potential as both a fine shot-maker and a resilient competitor, the ideal combination of attributes for a rising star.
The most anticipated match of the first week in the women’s draw, the collision between Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams turned into a proclamation of the former’s brilliance rather than the suspenseful epic for which many had hoped. Superior in every area to the seven-time major champion, the career Grand Slam holder notched a 6-1 6-3 victory that echoed her dazzling efforts from the previous two rounds against a much more dangerous foe.
Establishing the staccato tone of the rallies from the outset, both women swung for early winners rather than constructing points. Each of them struggled on serve initially, Venus starting the match with a double fault and Sharapova missing a series of first serves. With a barrage of forehands that kept her opponent off balance, the second seed started the match by breaking serve. Not subdued a whit, the American nearly broke back directly by cracking explosive returns on the Russian’s second serves. Three straight forehand errors from Venus allowed Sharapova to escape the game, however, and she collected her 27th consecutive game of the tournament when her own sterling returns subjected her opponent to pressure that contributed to a double fault.
Soon staring at a 0-4 deficit, the seven-time major champion rallied her spirits for a solid service hold that halted a streak of 28 straight games by Sharapova to start the season, a record in tennis history. A service winner toward the Russian’s forehand, a tactic that had worked well for her earlier, followed steadier groundstrokes. But that ray of hope marked the last flicker of positive news for Venus in the first set, which Sharapova captured soon thereafter with relentlessly aggressive tennis despite persistent struggles with locating her first serve.
The American’s fortunes only could improve in the second set, it seemed, and she started reasonably well by winning two points on her opponent’s serve. From there, though, a hold preceded a love break and a love hold to position Sharapova at 6-1, 3-0. Her back to the wall, Venus fell behind triple break point in what represented essentially triple match point. The veteran found the range on her groundstrokes when she most needed them, in addition to an impressive first serve that saved the last break point. Suddenly errant with her own groundstrokes, Sharapova lost the next five points to throw Venus a lifeline. Her control continued to waver during the ensuing service game, which started with two netted groundstrokes on the first three points. Still searching for her own rhythm, Venus donated four unforced errors to assist her opponent in retaining the 4-1 lead.
The last point in that fifth game unfolded in scintillating style with an escalation of percussive groundstrokes, though, the type of point that most fans anticipated from the match. Running desperately to track down Sharapova’s baseline bombs in her next service game, Venus produced the scrambling defense that had fueled much of her success over the last decade. The second seed responded by delivering a mighty statement of her own, crushing a first-serve return for a clean winner and then pounding a backhand winner down the line.
Down double break point again, Venus benefited from an unforced error on Sharapova’s return and stayed in a rally long enough to elicit an overeager groundstroke. The shot-making from the Russian struck back with a second-serve return winner that created a third break point, but another unforced error let it vanish. In control of most rallies, Sharapova nevertheless looked a little edgy as she could not quite deliver the terminal blow. Fortunately for her, Venus netted consecutive forehands to end the multiple-deuce game and hand her opponent two chances to serve for the match, celebrated with a fistpump and fierce roar from across the net.
That additional breathing room proved vital for Sharapova, who failed to find her first serve or her focus in the ensuing game. With some crisp returning, Venus reached triple break point before a series of expertly placed serves leveled the game at deuce. Sharapova compensated for a sluggish error on the next point with a breathtaking get, but Venus eventually converted her fifth opportunity with the poise of a champion who refuses to yield. Dropping serve for the first time in the tournament, she showed a tremor of vulnerability.
Back within range, Venus still needed to hold. She won an entertaining cat-and-mouse point at the net early in the next game, and she answered a fine Sharapova drop shot with a tidy slice of her own that set up a smash. Able to hold without facing a break point for just the second time in the match, the veteran began to look more confident in general. Perhaps thinking ahead to the next game, Sharapova dumped a second-serve return in the net to extend the match.
A rocketed forehand winner and a fine first serve quickly moved her to 30-0 before an ill-conceived challenge and a wild backhand evened the game. With a long forehand return, Venus set up a match point. Sharapova would not need another.
Crunching an ace down the center service line, the world #2 completed an authoritative 6-1 6-3 rout that vaulted her into the second week with an intimidating statement. Sharapova revealed just how much this victory over a Williams sister meant to her with a pulsating series of fist pumps and primal screams before striding to the net. Once there, she shook hands with her fellow legend courteously, shifting from ferocious to gracious in an instant.
Due to face Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round, Sharapova towers above her section of the draw and will have soared even further in belief with this victory over a champion of such quality. This victory recalled her dominant performance against Lindsay Davenport in the first week of her 2008 title surge here. For Venus, meanwhile, the scoreline did not reflect her valiant effort late in the second set, when she came within two points of erasing a substantial deficit and improbably clawing back into the match. Once she puts this evening into perspective, she should feel proud of the way that she competed even if not satisfied with the result.
It is hard to build confidence without winning matches, but hard to win matches without having built confidence. Such is the situation in which Petra Kvitova has found herself lately, struggling to string together any victories as illness and injury have combined with a loss of form. In the night session on Rod Laver Arena, her struggles sprang to the surface in an ugly three-setter against Laura Robson, to whom she succumbed 2-6 6-3 11-9 after an improbable series of twists and turns.
Bearing some tape on her right ankle, the British teenager started in the most dreadful fashion imaginable by dropping her serve at love with two double faults, a forehand error, and a netted volley. A smartly angled backhand winner in the next game appeared to revitalize her fortunes, and two double faults from Kvitova set up a chance to regain the break, which she handed back to Robson with a gruesomely netted forehand. Despite another difficult service game, the younger woman escaped with consecutive aces towards her opponent’s forehand.
Following the two-game swing to Robson was a two-game swing for Kvitova, who began to find the range on her weapons more consistently than the Brit. She still remained very much bang-or-bust on serve, striking two aces and two service winners to outweigh a double fault and a wildly sprayed backhand in the sixth game. Rarely able to hit more than a few balls at the time before her opponent ended the point one way or another, Robson could establish little rhythm to settle into the match.
The teenager wielded plenty of powerful weapons herself, especially on her forehand, and she produced some inspired shot-making from that wing on the occasions when Kvitova gave her time. Those occasions came infrequently as the eighth seed’s high-risk style reaped rewards against an opponent often caught on the back foot. Lacking much experience against the weight of shot that Kvitova can unleash, Robson struggled to position herself or find the right amount of depth behind the baseline to defend her court adequately while looking for opportunities to attack.
An insurance break offered Kvitova two chances to serve for the set, but she clanked double faults on her first two set points just before Robson’s forehand caught fire. A long game ensued, unwinding through a series of oscillations between the ridiculous and the sublime on both sides. After she saved six break points, many created by blistering second-serve returns from Robson, Kvitova finally found consecutive first serves to close out the set.
Extending through deuce after deuce, the game illustrated how much the Czech depends on her first serve. With it, she took control of the point immediately and permitted no opportunity for Robson to regroup. Without it, she exposed herself nearly defenseless to explosive returns from which she could not recover.
Into the second set continued the staccato rhythm of points that ended after just a handful of strokes. Showing some fine resilience, Robson halted Kvitova’s run of games at five with a strong hold, and two more double faults left the Czech in another deuce situation. Then, the British teenager’s groundstrokes began to find the net with alarming consistency, a product of her flat swings. Robson lacks a margin for error when her timing goes awry at all on those shots, and her notoriously flammable temper began to simmer. Nevertheless, she clung to her serve in a match still searching for momentum.
A wildly sprayed backhand by Kvitova, who continued to betray a lack of belief, set up Robson with her eleventh break point and ninth break point of her previous three service games. Once she converted it with a penetrating return, the Brit survived a difficult service game of her own as her opponent alternately scarred lines and missed the doubles alleys with her shots. Particularly representative of her woes was a forehand putaway inside the service line that she smacked into the middle of the net.
Trying to regain the rhythm on her first serve, Kvitova experimented with taking some pace off the shot to increase her percentage, but Robson continued to punish her with returns. More wayward groundstrokes from the reeling eighth seed handed her opponent a 5-1 lead. When consecutive double faults threw her a lifeline, however, she seized it opportunistically to record a love hold. Just as the balance of power threatened to tip against her once more, though, Robson drew level again.
Now in a dogfight, Kvitova needed to start the third set positively. She did so, narrowly, with a hold of serve that displayed more consistency in rallies. That trend continued into the next few games as she broke the increasingly frustrated Robson with more accurate returning and started to find a groove with her first serve. Somehow releasing the tension in her shoulders, Kvitova began to swing more freely in the manner that had brought her to the top. The reprieve proved temporary, though, for another pair of double faults not only raised her total to 14 but set up a break point that Robson exploited.
Handed another break courtesy of Robson’s wavering serve, Kvitova tossed it back directly with a break at love. All the same, she clung to a 4-3 lead in the final set despite her increasingly downcast body language. When Robson held once more, Kvitova faced a dire moment with a break point that would have given her opponent a chance to serve for the match. Down crashed consecutive aces, a stunning and stunningly timely response to the adversity. Although the game would not ended until several points later, with another ace, Kvitova had Robson where she wanted her: serving to stay alive.
Or so she thought. Winning the first point of the tenth game, the Czech edged close to the finish line, only to see Robson outlast her in several tense rallies. With the rare hold in hand, the teenager broke Kvitova for the opportunity to serve for the match, but it quickly slipped away from her with loose forehand errors. A second-serve ace produced the first of six straight holds that brought the match to 9-9, not without Kvitova saving another break point in the fifteenth game.
The quality of the tennis improved distinctly over these last several games as both women fought valiantly with their backs to the wall. In the nineteenth game, Robson broke through when she followed a Kvitova backhand error with a sensational forehand return winner down the line. Drained of energy and hope, the Czech mustered no resistance as the teenager fired down a series of first serves en route to closing out the match at love. The triumph marked her second straight over a major champion in the second round of a major, following her upset of Clijsters at the US Open. For Kvitova, however, the loss marked her eighth in her last twelve matches and yet another dispiriting stage in a downward spiral that merely has deepened with time.
As he prepared for his 20th meeting with Nikolay Davydenko, Federer certainly knew what to expect from the Russian who had won only two of the previous nineteen. A shot-maker who excels at taking groundstrokes early and creating acute angles with them, Davydenko compensated with those skills and with a crisp return for his lack of a dominant serve.
Despite Federer’s stranglehold over their rivalry, many of their matches had stayed closer than the overall record suggested, such as a three-setter last year in Rotterdam. And, while Davydenko never quite regained his sharpest form following wrist surgery and an extended absence in 2010, he had flickered to life by reaching the Doha final this month after upsetting Ferrer. True to their history, none of that recent success mattered as Federer recorded a solid straight-sets triumph 6-3 6-4 6-4, during which did not face a break point against this quality returner.
Three years ago here, the Russian had led Federer by a set and a break before imploding en route to a four-set loss. This time, the Swiss looked in no mood to let his opponent dig such a hole for him, crafting two break points in Davydenko’s second service game. His movement and defense shone as he tracked down a barrage of those familiar angled groundstrokes, extending points long enough to extract errors from the inconsistent underdog. Davydenko salvaged both of those break points with more competitive resilience than we have come to expect from him, even at his best, but he could not turn that accomplishment into a break of his own in the next game. Escaping a deuce situation, Federer kept the pressure on the Russian.
That pressure bore fruit in the sixth game, although Davydenko saved two more break points with the help of a wayward Swiss who accumulated 14 unforced errors to that stage. An unforced error from his opponent on a cross-court backhand handed the first break of the match to Federer, though, and he wasted little time in consolidating the lead. Although Davydenko clung to his serve as he fended off another pair of break points, a love hold by Federer brought the first set to a routine conclusion. The second seed’s groundstrokes had looked uneven so far, but his serve offered him a decisive advantage over his opponent.
A quick break early in the second set confirmed the suspicion that Davydenko might not sustain a high level of resistance against a player who had conquered him so many times. The weight of his futility against Federer had appeared to weigh upon him in many of their marquee meetings before, and such seemed the case again. Endowed with a wry sense of humor and the fatalistic streak that often accompanies it, Davydenko looked resigned to his fate after a set and a half. His shoulders sagged as Federer strolled around the court with the gait of a man who knew himself master of the moment.
The rest of the second set unfolded uneventfully. When a slight spot of bother surfaced in the eighth game, which he trailed 15-30, Federer found the first serves that he needed to shut Davydenko’s narrow window of hope. In the following game, he let a set point slip away on his opponent’s serve with a forehand error and squandered another as well. Now 2 for 11 on break points, Federer did not allow that dismal record to trouble him and comfortably served out the 6-4 set.
Only two men, Tsonga and Djokovic, ever have defeated Federer at a major after losing the first two sets, and the aging Davydenko clearly lacked the willpower to join them. He dropped his serve meekly t start the third and never seriously threatened thereafter in a match that had seemed perfunctory for much of the last two sets. Under some pressure in an early service game, Federer threaded a lovely backhand pass down the line to negate a strong Davydenko cross-court approach and held two points later with a pinpoint drop shot. Several games later, the Swiss finished his outing with a service winner.
To be sure, Federer looked a few notches below his vintage self tonight, often shanking routine groundstrokes and enduring a poor break-point conversion ratio. But he still will enter his third-round match against Bernard Tomic as a heavy favorite considering the latter’s unimpressive performance earlier in the day. Tomic narrowly escaped qualifier Daniel Brands while struggling with his return game, an issue that will loom large against Federer’s sparkling serve. The world #2 thus can expect to play himself into the tournament one round at a time.
by James A. Crabtree
What we have learned Down Under, so far…
The Hopman Cup got the new tennis year started, even before the New Year had arrived.
Perth, the worlds most isolated city welcomed Tomic the Tank Engine who quickly became Saint Bernie after an impressive victory over a jet-lagged Djokovic. Still, it was a memorable enough performance by Bernard Tomic to inspire a tennis rich nation, starved of a real contender, to put their hopes in someone for the month of January.
John Isner looked rusty before he pulled out with an injury. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga looked confident and played aggressive focused tennis that would have pleased new coach Roger Rasheed. Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Haas both displayed improved physiques, sculptured during the off-season although they both may need a few matches until they find some form.
Surprisingly Spain took the spoils that included a diamond encrusted ball, much in part thanks to Anabel Medina Garrigues who only lost one match, that being in a dead group match versus Venus Williams.
Praise should be bestowed on Djokoic and Ivanovic who won the hearts of the Perth crowd, for their lighthearted manor and their attempt at Gangnam Style.
Meanwhile the Brisbane Open had been playing out over on the other side of the country. This turned out to be a relative disaster for the home nation. Every Aussie player fell by the second round. Only qualifier John Millman, in his second round loss, showed true guts with a three set thriller against eventual champion Andy Murray.
Over on the women’s side Puerto Rican qualifier Monica Puig turned heads with the sort of hard hitting not seen since Seles. Although she lost to Angelique Kerber she is most certainly a player for the future.
Serena Williams won the women’s event in typically devastating fashion that we have come to expect from the most dominant woman on tour. She wasn’t however seen supporting her rumoured boyfriend of last year, and young riser….
‘Baby Fed’ Grigor Dimitrov, who is on the verge of getting a new nickname that has no reference to anybody but himself. His play this past week has been sensational, capped off by clear cut victories over Milos Raonic, Marcos Baghdatis and Jurgen Melzer.
In truth the final versus defending champion Andy Murray could have been a very different story after Grig-er Dimit-ederer (ok so that’s a poor nickname, help me here!) punished with his inside out forehand and his new and improved serve. The young Bulgarian took a 5-2 lead in the first set and had breaks in the second as we all wondered if we were witnessing the second coming of Fed.
Murray, who is wearing the tightest shirts seen since Borg this year, staged his usual counter-punching comeback every time he was counted out. Regardless, place a bet on Grigs the Great to be a top twenty player by the end of this year.
Up next is Sydney which was won last year by Victoria Azarenka and surprise winner Jarkko Nieminen. Oh yes midway through next week is the invitational AAMI Classic at Kooyong, where there is a strong rumour ol’ Mr Federer will be appearing for the first time since 2009.
By James Crabtree
A tour round Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park will lead you to the player changing and locker rooms, where some interesting stories are revealed.
First up, only the top 87 players are entitled to a locker. So bad luck Filippo Volandri who currently stands at 88 in the world rankings.
A certain number of superstitions exist for those who pick their locker. For starters, Roger Federer will have locker number 5, because he is going for his fifth title. No surprise which locker he will have the following year if he wins.
Marcos Baghdatis always has locker 83, because Andre Agassi had it prior and, of course, considerable success at the Open. How many racquets Marcos will bring to Melbourne this year is still to be determined, but let’s hope he brings enough, especially after last year’s antics…
Novak Djokovic will have 86, because it is next to a mirror. Novak is also known to play lots of practical jokes in the locker room to kill time.
Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray always wait for Djokovic and Federer to pick their locker, so they can locker-up on the opposite side away from their rivals.
Out on the courts, the play for the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs has been exceptional and the weather has been four seasons of “hot.” Yellow Card devotee Matthew Barton dodged a bullet in reaching the semi-final on a court you could have cooked an egg on. Youngster Nicholas Kyrgios led 4-1 in the fifth set only to start grabbing his legs with some suspected Andy Murrayitis — you know an injury that isn’t an injury but always gets the commentators worried. Devastatingly for Kyrgios, it was severe cramp. After brief reprisal and two injury timeouts Krygios retired from the match sending Barton through after three hours and forty four minutes on court, and a score of 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-3, 6-7(5), 3-4.
Ben Mitchell whose brother is actor Luke Mitchell aka Romeo Smith from Home and Away, will meet Barton in the next round. The unassuming second seed John-Patrick Smith rounds out the draw against former Bollettieri attendee Matt Reid.
(James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park for the December Showdown and giving us the scoop on all the latest news surrounding the Australian Open. Make sure to heck out his first and second installments of “Sights and Sounds.”)
Dec. 11, 2012 — American tennis player and world No. 127 Maria Sanchez has been forced to withdraw from this week’s Australian Open Wild Card Playoff in Norcross, GA, citing precautionary reasons related to knee tendinitis. She is still planning on playing Auckland at the end of the month to kick off her 2013 season.
Sanchez is now the third player who has withdrawn from the tournament, following the announcement last week of Jack Sock and Steve Johnson being replaced by Tim Smyczek and Chase Buchanan.
UPDATE: It has been confirmed that world No. 183 and Atlanta native Grace Min will take Sanchez’ open spot at the Playoffs.
(Photo via Maria Sanchez Facebook Page)