Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
Tennis, at heart, is not the most complicated of human endeavours, and the number of things one can usefully say about it is limited. The trick (though sadly not always the goal) for those determined to talk about it at all is to say the same things in interesting ways.
Even so, there are limits. The most skilful and thoughtful commentators in the world will still inevitably repeat themselves from time to time, and most commentators by definition aren’t the best. This isn’t to say most commentators are wrong – some are, but tennis, broadly speaking, is a hard topic to misread – merely that they are endlessly right in the same way. The average commentator peddles repetition without relent. This is why, whenever Davis Cup comes round, we hear . . .
1. ‘Isn’t it great that doubles matters?’
Saturday was by broad consensus the greatest day of doubles in living memory. The centrepiece was of course the record-shattering match in Geneva between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, which ended 24-22 in the fifth set. That is the match destined to endure – breaking records tends to cement at least a temporary place in the annals – but there were others that were great in their own way.
Slovenia’s Blaž Kavčič and Grega Žemlja both suffered straightforward singles losses, then somehow backed up to defeat Poland’s mighty duo of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg, 13-11 in the fifth. Marc López and Marcel Granollers kept Spanish hopes from guttering out entirely, defeating Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, again in five sets. Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares commenced Brazil’s audacious recovery with a five set victory over the Bryan brothers.
There were others, and taken as a whole they guaranteed that the middle day was the key to a fine weekend. Over and over again, the doubles rubber proved pivotal, stopping momentum or confirming it, inspiring a comeback or clinching the tie. It is ever thus – that’s the beauty of the format – but this weekend showcased it more succinctly than ever. If ever the Davis Cup format is altered, the crucial function of the doubles must surely remain.
2. ‘How about that Davis Cup atmosphere?’
When Pete Sampras defeated Gustavo Kuerten in the final of the Miami Masters in 2000, the day was cloyingly warm, the crowd was rambunctious, and the air was dense with samba. Local players often struggle with the Miami crowd – think of Andy Roddick facing Pablo Cuevas a few of years ago – since the support for South American players is overwhelming. There is close harmony chanting. There are jeers on double-faults. It is, in the parlance of tennis commentary, ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
For all that some would dearly wish it to be otherwise, tennis has few opportunities for blatant and macho patriotism in the normal run of events, at least beyond the early rounds where the wildcards and local hopefuls are weeded out. Davis Cup is all nationalism, all the time. Of course, local customs still prevail. The crowd in Ariake Stadium that watched Japan see off Indonesia was utterly unlike the one in Buenos Aires that witnessed Argentina dismantling Germany, but it was also more spirited than a usual Japanese audience. I’m not entirely sure why the USA chose to host Brazil in Florida this weekend, thus neatly ceding the crowd support to the visitors. After his loss to Thomaz Bellucci, John Isner professed not to appreciate the Brazilian supporters, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered so much had more than a handful of Americans turned up.
The atmosphere doesn’t merely inspire the players on to greater heroism, it alters the way they go about it. Would Bob Bryan have yelled ‘Come on’ so vehemently at Melo at a normal tournament? According to Bryan, no: ‘Davis Cup is an emotional atmosphere . . .There were some words said. You know, no hard feelings, no grudges. It’s Davis Cup. This sort of stuff happens all the time.’ Would Carlos Berlocq have shredded his shirt so exultantly upon achieving a win via retirement in any other situation?
Part of the function of Davis Cup is to provide a context in which overtly nationalistic behaviour is more or less tolerated, if not encouraged, so that the rest of the sport can relatively remain free of it. When such behaviour seeps across the other events – with exceptions – it tends to feel misplaced and leaden-handed. At best we indulgently chuckle and call it ‘a Davis Cup atmosphere’.
3. ‘Davis Cup allows lesser players to shine.’
Fabio Fognini clinched the tie for Italy. If he’d lost that crucial fifth rubber, then Ivan Dodig would have clinched it for Croatia. Frank Dancevic played a crucial role in seeing off Spain. Andrey Golubev, among the most gifted underachievers in the sport, won both his singles rubbers, including a four set defeat of Jurgen Melzer to seal the tie for Kazakhstan. Who honestly saw that coming? How many of you had heard of Thiago Alves before he nearly sent the mighty USA crashing out yesterday?
None of these fellows are household names, except perhaps in their own countries, and, one presumes, in their own homes. The point of Davis Cup isn’t that lower-profile players achieve wins. These guys regularly win matches at the levels at which they compete (the exception being Golubev, who’s been known to indulge in losing-sprees that rival Donald Young’s). The Davis Cup enables them to secure meaningful victories in a tournament of global importance. Winning a tie means a great deal. Winning the Cup itself means everything.
Last year the deciding rubber in the final was won by Radek Stepanek over Nicolas Almagro. There is no event in the sport of comparable stature in which that might happen. A reformatted biennial format (the most commonly proposed alternative) surely would work against such an outcome.
4. ‘It’s time to look at tiebreaks in fifth sets.’
Every Davis Cup weekend features at least one match whose heroic proportions compel most onlookers to shake their heads in wonderment, yet oblige others to resume their call for fifth set tiebreaks to be made universal, in order that so arresting a spectacle might never be repeated. This weekend it was the seven hour doubles match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
As far as I can make out, the most heated discussion around this issue occurs in the United States. Discussion elsewhere seems more measured and sporadic, and I can’t imagine the debate reaches any special incandescence in countries where cricket is popular. A test match has barely hit its stride by the seven hour mark. I’m also yet to hear many players vociferously calling for tiebreaks to be introduced in deciding sets, whether it be in Davis Cup, at the Majors (besides the US Open) or the Olympics.
If it all becomes too much, there is always a mechanism whereby any match can be shortened. It’s called losing. As it was, even the longest doubles match in history had little material impact on the tie.
5. ‘Davis Cup matters!’
Anyone who watched Alves huffing and heaving as he failed to contain his disappointment after losing in the live fifth rubber to Sam Querrey in Jacksonville was left in little doubt about what this match, and by extension the Davis Cup means to him. Ditto for Milos Raonic’s exuberant roar as he sealed the tie against Spain. Or Fognini collapsing triumphantly to the dirt in Turin. Or Stan Wawrinka prostrate on the hard Geneva surface. There were uncounted similar moments, twinkling and flaring across the entire weekend, pricks and gashes of light, all joining up to form a long archipelago across the doubting world, proving to us that for unnumbered players and fans, the Davis Cup matters as much as ever.
By Evan Valeri
In this series of articles, I will break down what the ultimate ATP player’s game would look like in today’s singles game. This first article will dive into which modern players have the most desirable strokes.
Serve: Milos Raonic
In 2012, Milos “The Missile” Raonic led the ATP Tour in service games won (winning 93%), 1st serve points won (winning 82%), and break points saved (74% saved). He also ranked second in the field in aces, by serving 1002 untouchable bombs, only three behind big serving American John Isner. Milos is able to keep opponents guessing because he has a full artillery of serves to choose from. At the 2012 Rogers Cup he served the third fastest serve ever at 155.3mph. Milos backs the heater up by mixing in kick serves that can jump over the heads of opponents as they curve way outside the doubles alley, and sliding slices that are tough to retrieve unless you are stretch Armstrong. And to top it off he can vary the pace and combine the spins so opponents are left standing like the house beside the road as the ball flies past. The serve of Milos Raonic is the ultimate shot anyone would love to start a point with.
Forehand: Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal’s forehand is so good it has a nickname, “The Fearhand”. Fearhand is a very fitting name for the forehand of Nadal. He hits the heaviest ball that the ATP has ever seen. With nearly a full western grip he bludgeons the ball with never before seen power and spin from anywhere on the court. Nadal can hit the ball just as effective from shoulder height as he can from his shins. Rafa’s spin gives him a huge advantage over the rest of the field. It allows him to hit the ball higher over the net giving him great margin for error. Nadal can hit the ball harder and also bend and dip passing shots like no one else because of this tremendous amount of topspin. The fearhand is a weapon desired by many and is the best on the ATP Tour.
Backhand: Novak Djokovic
This could be the most complete shot in the game today. Novak is able to do anything with his backhand. He hits it offensively and defensively with equal effectiveness because he is just as comfortable hitting from an open stance as he is stepping into the shot. Djokovic can pull his backhand flat up the line for a winner at the drop of a hat, roll it with topspin on a crosscourt angle, or hit a deft slice to stay in the point or keep the ball low. Novak Djokovic strikes the backhand better than anyone in the world from anywhere on the court and it’s practically impossible for opponents to dissect and breakdown this stroke.
Volleys: Roger Federer
Many people may view this pick as a bit of a surprise. It would have been easier to choose more of a doubles specialist like Bob or Mike Bryan, Radek Stepanek, or Michael Llodra, but the volley in today’s game is more than just hitting the ball out of the air. Having a good volley in singles consists of not only getting it done once you get to net, but choosing the right time to attack and having the approach shot skill set to put you in the best position to hit effective volleys. Roger owns all of these skills that make up a great volleyer in today’s singles game. He picks smart opportunities to come in; hits his approaches to the correct locations, and once he arrives at net he can place his volleys anywhere. Federer can hit soft drop volleys, angles, deep penetrating skidding volleys, and can put away overheads on both the forehand and backhand sides. Roger Federer has the volleys that the best singles player in the world would need.
Return of Serve: Novak Djokovic
Considered by many to be the best returner in the modern game, he also appears in the conversation of best returner of all time for good reason. Djokovic is better than anyone at getting the ball back in play. In 2012 Djokovic ranked second behind Nadal in first serve return points won, break points converted and return games won, but those people that believe Nadal is the superior returner are construing this information incorrectly . Djokovic played nearly twice as many matches as Nadal, and Nadal’s shortened season was dominated by playing on the dirt. Djokovic also ranked second in second serve return points won, behind Andy Murray. While there have been better aggressive return players in the long history of tennis, think Agassi, Djokovic has a complete return game. He has the ability to be aggressive with returns while also somehow getting a stick on serves that catch him leaning in the wrong direction. He gives himself a chance to get into points, and with the game becoming more and more about staying in points rather than ending them, this is crucial and is what makes him the best in today’s game.
Combine the strokes of all these players and you would have a player with the most complete, rock solid, all around physical game. But as we have seen in the past, just because a player has superior technique and strokes doesn’t mean they will win every match. Tennis is said to be eighty percent mental, and without a good game upstairs, a player will never rise to the top of the ranks. The next article in the series will discuss what it would take to own an opponent mentally.
Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP. As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors.
Djokovic: The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years. That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final. Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them. Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray. Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka. The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven. Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win. A+
Murray: The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first. Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer. Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors. Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon. He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise. But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success. A
Federer: Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic. Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate. But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure. Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth. He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure. A
Ferrer: Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence. Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace. Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry. Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him. B
Tsonga: The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season. Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth. He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed. Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds. Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis. B+
Almagro: As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points. Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings. He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth. B-
Chardy: Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi. The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two. Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started. A-
Berdych: Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open. Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings. Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him. He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so. B+
Del Potro: Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying. Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort. That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten. F
Tipsarevic: He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before. Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement. Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements. C
ATP young guns: Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament. Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year. Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round. And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat. Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place. Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side. C+
Bryan brothers: At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight. The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively. Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade. A
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date. The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand. Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead. Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match. The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality. Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals. A+
Simon vs. Monfils: Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch. This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match. If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment. Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won. C-
Men’s final: Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final. The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal. Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch. Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue. These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax. B-
And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open! Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action: all eight ties previewed and predicted.
James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
MELBOURNE — One of Rafael Nadal’s great advantages in his tennis journey was the opportunity, as a junior, to hit and train with fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya.
Observing personally the preparation and expertise that some of the games best players employ, that keeps them leading the field, is perhaps the best lesson any young player can be a part of. Getting to practice with a professional player gives a junior player a step up and one that can ultimately skyrocket a young players game.
Jack Schipanski and Jordan Thompson are such two players.
During the last few weeks at the Australian Open these two junior Australian players, who are currently making the leap to the men’s game, were given the opportunity to hit with a range of stars.
“I told Scott Draper I was around and available to hit,” said Schipanski of his experience. “Scott got back to me later that morning, and said you’ve got Novak.”
Schipanski hit with the world No. 1 for about an hour on an outside court whilst Djokovic’s coach, hitting partner, strength and condition trainer, physio and an abundance of fans watched on.
“His coach was also a help with some technical things on my game, he gave me some great advice.”
Later Djokovic was a little more challenging.
“We played a few points and he said whoever loses this point has do to five push-ups. So I played one of the best follow up forehands I have ever played and won the point. He comes straight back and says double or nothing. Again I get a forehand on top of the net, he guesses the wrong way and I miss an easy put away. Then it’s push-ups in front of everyone watching.”
Jordan Thompson revelled in his experience and found it an invaluable opportunity before his Australian Open qualifying match.
“My coach knows Bob Brett who coaches Cilic so I hit with him first. I then hit with Djokovic. After that, the tournament desk kept ringing. I hit with Djokvoic and it was tough, it felt like every ball he hit was hitting the baseline.” Jordan added, “The next day in qualifying I played against a guy roughly 800 places above me in the rankings, I had so much confidence. I won that match 9-7 in the third set, then lost to Ryan Sweeting in the second round of qualifying.”
Jordan got an up close and personal with a few more stars.
“Raonic was telling me where he was going to hit his serve and I still couldn’t get it. Lleyton was intense for two and a half hours but barely broke a sweat. Dolgopolov was the most fun. He was putting all kinds of spins on the ball. That slice backhand is a horrible joke, takes the ball places it shouldn’t go. We played a set, which I lost 6-3 on one break.”
Jordan and Jack are leaving the junior ranks and will find themselves on the circuit this year, contesting both Futures and Challenger events across Australia in the coming weeks.
Keep an eye out for them, there is no reason to believe that they wont be the big name in years to come, perhaps hitting with some young upstart before a tournament.
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.
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.
January 12, 2013 — The Australian Open kicks off main draw play on Monday, January 14th, but what exactly do we have in store in this year’s men’s draw? Your trusty panel of Tennis Grandstand writers delve into the hot topics surrounding the first Slam, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the men’s tour. You won’t have to look anywhere further than our comprehensive coverage!
Check out our women’s Australian Open draw preview here!
Romi Cvitkovic: Grigor Dimitrov.The men’s draw this Slam seems to be very forgiving to the top 8, but not so much to the players just under them. Despite that, the 21-year-old has finally been delivering this year, reaching his first ATP final en route taking out three players ranked considerably higher than him. His road to the quarterfinal is fairly open after his first round encounter with No. 32 seed Julien Benneteau, against whom he holds a 2-0 winning record.
Yeshayahu Ginsburg: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dark horse is a relative term, because the fact remains that in men’s tennis today it’s the top 4 and then everybody else. Nadal is out, so the odds of anyone but Murray, Federer, and Djokovic winning are incredibly low. But if I had to take someone from the field, I’d go with Tsonga. The AO is historically his best Slam and Federer is probably the one of the top 4 he’s most comfortable against in a quarterfinal. The fact that his draw is not particularly challenging until then helps too.
David Kane: Tommy Haas. The German has had more lives than a cat as he enters 2013 in the midst of his third career. With a pretty nice draw that pits him against a tournament’s supply of wild cards and a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Haas could keep things interesting for nostalgic fans that remember the German’s glory days. Should he make the second week, he could get a war-weary Roger Federer, who has more than his fair share of tough opponents early on. It might not be too late to party like it’s 2002.
Andrea Lubinsky: Richard Gasquet. Perhaps it’s a risky pick, at 26, it’s unlikely the Frenchman will all of the sudden start to consistently maximize his talent. However, after hitting a career high of No. 7 in 2007, Gasquet is back in the Top 10. He’s already 5-0 this season after winning his eighth career title, in Doha. His draw isn’t exactly a cake walk, but that backhand should get him to Week 2.
Chris Skelton: Milos Raonic. His towering serve makes him a threat in any draw on any surface, and he nearly toppled potential fourth-round opponent Federer on three occasions in 2012, losing two final-set tiebreaks and a 6-4 final set. Raonic will need to win his previous matches efficiently, something that has troubled him before but certainly within his abilities considering his accommodating draw.
Evan Valeri: Richard Gasquet. Winning a three set match against Davydenko in the Doha final to start the year, had Richard fist pumping left and right. Looking reenergized and in a favorable section of the draw, Gasquet is poised to make a deep run during the first major of the season. Look for a potential quarterfinal match up between the current world number ten player and Roger Federer.
Maud Watson: Juan Martin del Potro. Assuming anyone outside of the Big 4 is a dark horse, Delpo is in with a real shot. He had two big victories over Federer at the end of last season and gave Djokovic all he could handle at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals. He’s looking an awful lot like that guy who won the 2009 US Open, and let’s not forget that he is the only one outside of the Big 4 to have won a slam in over half a decade.
Seeded Player Crashing Out Early
Cvitkovic: Fernando Verdasco. Sadly, “Fer” has become my go-to player for crashing out early in Slams. But this time the strengths of his first round opponent, David Goffin, warrant it. The two have never played each other, and though Goffin’s best Slam result came in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, the young Belgian has had consistent results on the hard courts as well. Fer had a nice showing in Hopman Cup the other week, but we all know those good results come in all too-short bursts for him.
Ginsburg: Janko Tipsarevic. Nothing against Janko here, but there is no tougher atmosphere in tennis than playing against Lleyton Hewitt in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt will feed off the crowd and will give Tipsarevic the match of his life. And even if Janko gets through this, it will be physically and emotionally draining, possibly leading to potential problems in his next few matches.
Pentecost: Alexandr Dolgopolov. His encounter with Gael Monfils may well be the match of the first round, but I suspect it’s one the Dog won’t survive intact. This will of course depend on Monfils’ recovery from Auckland. I also doubt whether Juan Monaco will get past Kevin Anderson in the second round.
Skelton: Janko Tipsarevic. The second-ranked Serb doesn’t have as many weapons as the rest of the top eight seeds and never has left an impact on Australia other than a first-week epic against Federer in 2008. He may find himself in trouble against Hewitt in his opener, for the Aussie crowd always galvanizes their champion, but Tipsarevic’s section also includes rising young stars like Janowicz and Dimitrov who look ready to take the next step.
Valeri: Marin Cilic. The fourteen seed will lose in the first round to Australian Marinko Matosevic. The two played a tough five setter at the U.S. Open last year where Cilic came out on top but don’t expect the same result this time. Cilic is off to a so so start of the season, losing to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of Chennai. The 2012 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year will beat Cilic and advance to the second round.
Watson: Juan Monaco. Monaco was actually given a decent draw, but a hand injury that took him out of the Kooyong Classic has certainly hurt his chances. Now even his opening match against Kuznetsov is a tricky proposition, and a possible second round encounter with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson may be all she wrote.
First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For
Cvitkovic: Gael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though a first-rounder, this match has the potential to be a highlight of the tournament. Both players employ vastly unorthodox playing styles and they will run each other down until someone lands in the hospital. Be certain there will be plenty of diving, slicing, acrobatics and “Ooo’s” and “Aaa’s” from both the audience and the players. I recommend this match over any quarterfinal matchup of the top eight, and that’s saying something.
Kane: Robin Haase vs. Andy Murray. That this rematch is nigh may only serve to prove that the end of the Mayan calendar was not so much wrong as they were merely a few weeks late. I was in Armstrong Stadium for the last three sets of their US Open 2011 encounter, which has a similar effect to admitting that one was in the eye of Hurricane Sandy. Murray had seemingly righted the ship after falling two sets behind, only to suddenly take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal within feet of the finish line. Buoyed by support from perennial Armstrong courtside ticketholders (who are usually the ones behind the unnerving “What time is it? Break time!” call and response), Haase took advantage and nearly took the match before Murray once again regained composure. Can these two recreate the magic in the crazy bottle? Can you resist finding out?
Pentecost: Janko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt. This is sure to be a night match, and here in Australia neither effort nor expense will be spared in whipping the nation to a patriotic froth. It’s hard to see this one lasting less than five sets, or finishing before 2am, which history has shown to be Hewitt’s preferred timeframes.
Skelton: For tennis reasons, Julien Benneteau vs. Grigor Dimitrov. The Sydney semifinalist faces the Brisbane finalist in an match that pits two hot hands at opposite ends of their careers. Also featured here is an intriguing contrast in styles between the streamlined two-handed backhand of Benneteau and the graceful one-handed flick of Dimitrov, often compared to Federer’s backhand. For the best atmosphere in a first-round match, though, nothing will top Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic, which seems destined for a Rod Laver Arena night session.
First Round Upset Special
Cvitkovic: Lleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. This may be a bold prediction given Tipsarevic is sitting nicely as the 8th seed and Hewitt is ranked 82nd, but Hewitt can surprise anyone, anywhere, and especially on his home turf. Though Hewitt leads their head-to-head 3-1, the two haven’t played since 2009, so dynamics have completely changed. If Hewitt doesn’t pull off the upset, you can be sure it’ll at least go the distance with five sets.
Lubinsky: Lleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. If there’s ever been a player who has played to their maximum potential, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. The 31 year old’s ‘never say die’ attitude makes him a difficult opponent regardless of his health and playing on his home turf seems to give him an extra kick. He’s made the fourth round in three of his last five appearances and has played some excellent tennis at the Kooyong Classic this week, which puts in him a prime position for the upset.
Pentecost: Grigor Dimitrov d. Julien Benneteau. Dimitrov seems congenitally incapable of playing well for consecutive weeks, but the bad news for Benneteau is that the young Bulgarian got his bad week out of the way in Sydney. Benneteau on the other hand went deep in Sydney, and may balk at a best of five in the Melbourne heat.
Skelton: Gael Monfils d. Alexandr Dolgopolov. The Frenchman with talent in spades and consistency in spoonfuls moved back into the fringes of relevance with a series of solid victories in Doha and Auckland. Meanwhile, the mercurial Dolgopolov struggled even against anonymous opponents at every major last year, needing a fifth set to escape the first round here against the world #198. If Monfils starts well, his opponent may lack the resilience to launch a counterattack.
Valeri: Grigor Dimitrov takes down number 32 seed Julien Benneteau. Grigor started the year by taking down seeded players Raonic, Melzer, and Baghdatis to reach his first ATP final in Brisbane, where he lost a tight two setter to Andy Murray, 6-7, 4-6. With new girlfriend Maria Sharapova in his corner, Dimitrov is on a roll to start 2013. This kid has loads of talent and is backing it up by playing smarter than ever, which will prove to be too much to handle for 31 year old Benneteau.
Cvitkovic: I like to take risks in Slam draws, but with Rafael Nadal out of the loop, the draw gods have been nice to the top eight seeds, and I’m expecting the majority of them to make the semifinals. Djokovic will take on Berdych, while Ferrer will battle compatriot Almagro in the top half. The bottom half will most likely see Del Potro taking on Murray in one semifinal while Tsonga will battle Federer in the other.
Ginsburg: Well, I can’t be that boring with this pick. Then again, in today’s ATP world, not going with the obvious choices at the top is usually just silly. But there are a few potential surprises in the draw. I will take Tsonga, Murray, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori as my semifinalists. Kei has a 2-1 career head-to-head against Ferrer and I think that Tipsarevic loses early. Nishikori also has the power to overpower Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. This would be a perfect draw for Lleyton Hewitt to make one final miracle run through, but he just doesn’t have the legs to play that many matches anymore. I think Nishikori becomes Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist in recent history.
Kane: Djokovic/Ferrer. Despite the loss to Bernard Tomic at Hopman Cup, there’s no reason to believe the No. 1 seed won’t waltz into his third straight Australian Open semifinal (and beyond). That is, assuming he gets past Tomas Berdych. The one major stumbling block to the Big Four, Berdych does not fear the upset, but getting there may prove the bigger challenge for the inconsistent Czech, who lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai (I’m forgiven for not knowing who that is, right?). Murray/Federer. Murray has his work cut out for him after an unconvincing (although successful) display in Brisbane two weeks ago, but aside from a potential run-in with Juan Martin del Potro, the Scot will have few problems en route to defending his semifinal points from one year ago. As for the Swiss Maestro, his draw is something of a minefield, littered with upset fodder like Nickolay Davydenko, Tomic, Milos Raonic. Even Lukas Rosol landed in Fed’s section! Yet, for all the talk about his age, Federer has rarely showed it in the first week, and unless Tsonga strings together a nice run, I can’t seen anyone posing a sufficient threat.
Pentecost: Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer. If anything Ferrer has a cleaner run to the semifinals than Djokovic, although this depends on which version of Berdych shows up. Nonetheless, Djokovic should move through to the final in four sets at most. Roger Federer vs Juan Martin del Potro. I suspect Delpo will push deep here, and upset Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer’s draw is not kind, but he remains the favourite to make it through. I suspect the semifinal will come down to fitness, where the Swiss has the advantage.
Valeri: Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer. I expect the big three to all make the semis, although Federer and Murray will have a harder route than Djokovic, with many potential four and five set hurdles along their way, whereas Novak should cruise. Tipsarevic is set to have a breakthrough and has some momentum coming in with a win in Chennai. He has a tough first rounder against home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt, but should get through it and advance to the quarterfinals where he will defeat the number four seed David Ferrer.
And the Winner is …
Ginsburg: I have to go with Novak Djokovic to three-peat here. Australia is his best Slam and, while he hasn’t been playing at his seemingly-invincible level in a while, he still is the man to beat here in Melbourne.
Kane: Novak Djokovic. Ok, Nole fans; you can relax now (or at least stop flailing so violently). For the third year in a row, the Serb has started the year looking the fittest and making the strongest case for supremacy. Odds are strong that he will punctuate that assertion with a hat trick of Australian Open crowns. With Murray and Federer to duke it out in the other semifinal, Djokovic will only have to play one of them for the title, and likely relishes the thought of a rematch with Murray, the man who took his US Open title a few months ago. Had Murray shown more authority in Brisbane, it could have been a toss-up, but he still lacks that consistent killer instinct of his peers.
Lubinsky: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic/Murray may be the new big rivalry in tennis, but when it comes to the Australian Open, Djokovic is on top. He’s won this tournament three of the last five years, and after finishing runner up at the French Open and US Open, he’s likely to be hungry for another trophy to add to his collection.
Pentecost: Novak Djokovic. By this point one has to come up with good reasons why Djokovic won’t win his fourth Australian Open, and I can’t think of any. He appears supremely fit, calm, driven and in good form. Of course, Federer is still Federer, and he demonstrated amply last year that age has yet to weary him. On his day, he can still ascend to unplayable heights. But I still feel Djokovic, on blue plexicushion, has the decisive edge.
Skelton: Novak Djokovic. He has won three of his five major titles in Australia and probably has played his most dominant tennis during those runs. If playing 11 hours in two matches against Murray and Nadal doesn’t stop this man Down Under, it’s hard to think of anything short of an asteroid strike that will. He also receives the softer side (e.g., the Ferrer side) of the draw, as though he needs any help.
Valeri: Novak Djokovic. Djoker is in a great section of the draw and should make the final relatively unscathed. I have never seen a player who can will himself to victory as much as Novak. After a well rested off-season the worlds number one will be ready to fight off any challenges to his throne from Murray or Federer. The two time defending champ has great memories and too much support in Melbourne not to be crowned the 2013 Australian Open Champion.
Watson: Novak Djokovic. Murray ended up in Federer’s half. Djokovic has won it the last two years. Federer said that the current World No. 1 has been the best hard court player the last couple of seasons. Is Djokovic a strong favorite to win the title and pull off the three-peat in Melbourne? You bet!
And there you have it: 8 of 8 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Djokovic as the heavy favorite. That’s pretty good odds for the Serb.