Each Monday morning, I will break down ATP and WTA draws quarter by quarter with a prediction of who may meet in the final and perhaps the semifinals. Fans can look forward this week to three ATP 250 tournaments in Montpellier, Zagreb, and Vina del Mar. The most significant storyline concerns the highly anticipated return of Rafael Nadal in the last of those events, but the other two merit the attention of dedicated fans too.
Montpellier: After a weekend satisfying but exhausting, Berdych travels from a Davis Cup tie in Switzerland to neighboring France and one of his most productive surfaces: an indoor hard court. Clearly the best player in his half and probably the best in the tournament, the top seed might face an intriguing quarterfinal test in Nikolay Davydenko, also proficient on this surface. A champion in Doha last month, the Russian owns a stunning 9-2 record against the Czech. But most of Davydenko’s success comes from before 2010, the year when his decline and Berdych’s breakthrough began. The greatest pre-semifinal obstacle for the top seed probably lies in his ability to recover from the longest match in Davis Cup history, which spanned a remarkable 422 minutes.
As one would expect in a draw littered with Frenchmen (10 of the 24 direct entrants), the home crowd should find plenty of reasons to cheer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second quarter, where Gasquet could meet Monfils in the second round. Both men shone at the Australian Open by their standards, as did occasional upset threat Julien Benneteau. While all of these French stars have faltered on home soil at times, they also can point to notable achievements from Gael’s two appearances in the Paris Masters final to Julien’s upset of Federer at the same event. Like that doubles specialist, the third-seeded Gasquet will bring momentum from a commanding Davis Cup effort on French soil.
Less impressive is the lower half of the draw, spearheaded in the third quarter by Gilles Simon. The fourth seed shares Gasquet’s task of surmounting the compatriots scattered around him. A group that features Benoit Paire, Adrian Mannarino, and Paul-Henri Mathieu includes no challenger of a competitive will comparable to Simon. This Frenchman’s first real test should come in the semifinals against the winner of a tantalizing all-Serbian quarterfinal.
While the second-seeded Tipsarevic has produced much better tennis than Troicki lately, the former arrives from an injury and the latter from a fine Davis Cup performance in Belgium. In a small, fervently patriotic nation like Serbia, rivalries among compatriots can prove more tightly contested than their relative talents would suggest. Hoping to disrupt that projected clash, the aging Michael Llodra seeks to rekindle his former magic from the Paris Indoors with a net-rushing style that reaps rewards on these courts. If Tipsarevic does advance, he will need to reverse a poor history against Simon, not an easy task in view of his unimpressive recent form.
Final: Gasquet vs. Simon
Zagreb: Twice a titlist at his home tournament, top-ranked Croat Marin Cilic has started to knock on the door of the top ten again after an encouraging campaign in the second half of 2012. He holds the top seed in a draw that features several rising stars from the region, including Blaz Kavcic and Aljaz Bedene. The former reached the third round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open in the wake of a five-set, five-hour marathon, while the latter reached a semifinal in Chennai by defeating Wawrinka (more impressive in retrospect) and winning a set from Tipsarevic. If the winner can survive the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis, an exciting quarterfinal with Cilic would beckon.
Among the most notable figures in the second quarter is seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, assigned a difficult opening assignment against serving leviathan Ivo Karlovic. The young player popularly likened to Federer endured a January of extremes that lurched from his first career final in Brisbane to a first-round exit in straight sets at the Australian Open. Beyond Karlovic, another local threat in Ivan Dodig would unleash his first-strike power against the maturing Dimitrov, which should test his focus. The third-seeded Mikhail Youzhny, well past his prime, looks less intimidating in a quarterfinal that could showcase two elegant one-handed backhands.
Another aging veteran in lefty Jurgen Melzer holds the fourth seed in a tournament near his native Austria, where he will attempt to raise his level from an unimpressive Davis Cup display in Kazakhstan. Explosive upset artist Lukas Rosol might test him in the quarterfinals should he survive another Lukas, the eighth-seeded Lacko. The latter Lukas nearly upset Tipsarevic at the Australian Open, so he may fancy his chances against the Czech Lukas or a Polish Lukasz (Kubot), better known in doubles but dangerous in singles with his pinpoint serves and returns.
The bottom quarter may hold the least interest for local fans, since the only Croats received wildcards to compensate for their low rankings. But its two seeds, Martin Klizan and Andreas Seppi, enjoyed their best seasons to date in 2012. Seppi in particular has hinted at building upon that momentum in 2013 by reaching the second week in Melbourne, although this surface does not much suit his patient style.
Final: Cilic vs. Melzer
Vina del Mar: The toast of Chile when he arrived last week, Nadal celebrated his return to professional competition after a six-month absence by basking in a ceremonial welcome from the nation’s president and noted tennis stars. Fans throughout the world, even those who never especially admired him, should welcome the return of a warrior whose presence injects much more intrigue into the ATP elite. While Nadal probably will not find his finest form immediately, he may not need to find it here to win a title on the clay that he relishes so deeply. Nobody in his quarter should muster the nerve to contemplate stopping the Spaniard, including compatriot Daniel Gimeno-Traver and home hope Nicolas Massu, a former Olympic gold medalist.
The only clay tournament in a week otherwise spent on indoor hard courts, Vina del Mar has attracted a host of players from South America and the Mediterranean. Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy will seek to shift his momentum from hard courts to clay, a surface that could reward his asymmetrical baseline game but not his preference for shortening points in the forecourt. The third seed in Chile, this Frenchman might encounter veteran Spaniard and clay specialist Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals. Or perhaps Chardy will meet Lorenzi, who once nearly upset Nadal in Rome.
Often neglected among Spanish men, fourth-seeded Pablo Andujar occasionally drifts within range of an ardent fan’s radar during the clay season. This week, he could collide with a compatriot ranked just six slots below him in Albert Ramos, who looked rather crisp at the Australian Open in a five-set loss to Baghdatis. South Americans Rogerio Dutra Silva, Leonardo Mayer, and Horacio Zeballos add some local interest without heightening the level of competition significantly.
Like his fellow second seed Seppi in Zagreb, world #12 Juan Monaco produced a season far more productive last year than any before it. A veteran clay specialist, he notched his greatest success last year on hard courts, where he reached the Miami semifinal. But he regained his groove on his favorite surface while contributing to Argentina’s Davis Cup victory over Germany this weekend, and he often has excelled during the February South American clay swing. Fellow Argentine Carlos Berlocq, known as the worst server in the top 100, should pose little threat in a weak section. Can Monaco test Nadal in the final, as he has Djokovic and Murray on clay? We will know better once the tournament unfolds.
Final: Nadal vs. Monaco
I will return on Friday morning to look at the first round of Fed Cup. Ahead on next Monday are previews of ATP events in Rotterdam, San Jose, and Sao Paulo, in addition to a more detailed preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha.
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.
By Evan Valeri
While Berdych didn’t have what it took to defeat the world number one in their quarterfinal matchup, he played well. It was right along the lines of some of the other matches the two have played over the course of the past two seasons. Berdych seems to squeak a set out of him every now and then sandwiched between a couple lopsided whoopings. Tomas wasn’t able to capitalize on a few keys to winning the match. He needed to keep points short and win a majority of the rallies that lasted between four and nine shots. Tomas was unable to complete this task with Novak winning 60% of those points. Tomas also needed to serve well and win most of his first serve points. This was also a bust with him winning just 66% against the best returner in the game.
It’s tough to play your best tennis and capitalize on the key points every time when you are playing the best in the world. Even though Djokovic was coming off a five hour marathon match with Stan Wawrinka, he looked fresh and fitter than ever. For the number six ranked Berdych to win sets more consistently against the top players, he needs to become a more complete player. It’s possible for him to elevate his game and play top tier tennis, hitting big winners against these players for a set, but to do it for three is another story. He lacks the ability to play grinding, retrieving, defensive tennis, which the top five players in the world are able to do.
A player’s ability to run down ball after ball has become a must. Look at the Ferrer vs. Almagro quarterfinal a few days ago. Almagro was able to play at a very high level the first four sets, but after the fourth set ended and the two players were past the three hour mark on court, he looked weary. He wasn’t hitting his shots with the same zip they had early in the match and he was moving as though he had glue on the bottom of his shoes. Ferrer on the other hand, who is considered to possibly be the fittest man on tour by his peers, looked fresh as a daisy as though the two players were just starting the second set. Because of his superior fitness, Ferrer cruised to a 6-2 win of the fifth set, and won the match after clawing back from two sets to love down.
The Djokovic vs. Ferrer semifinal matchup tonight at the Australian Open will show any casual fan the importance of being fit and being able to stay in the point. These two are masters of pulling out points after it appears their opponent has won the point two or three different times. They are bound to trade blows for at least four sets and several hours. Fitness most likely won’t be an issue tonight with these two. They have proven they can both play at the highest level for over five hours. The match will feature many points where these guys are moving each other side to side behind the baseline, waiting for that carefully calculated, high percentage chance to be aggressive and finish the point.
While tennis seems to be following the “defense wins championships” trend, it takes more than just running down ball after ball and staying consistent to be the best. Players need to be able to combine that with the ability to play aggressive, point ending, all court tennis when the opportunities present themselves. If players can’t master the transition ball and they just counterpunch every shot, eventually they will get too far out of position and the opponent will seize that moment to change the tides and win the point. If you look at the five best players in the world, they are able to play defense better than anyone and transition that defense to offense at the drop of a hat.
The fitness of modern players has changed the game of tennis. Tennis used to be a game dominated by the serve and volley, but with the introduction of more powerful racquets, the change to more western grips, and polyester strings, the trend has favored the hard hitting baseline player. During the serve and volley era, points were short and although the top players were in good shape, fitness wasn’t a priority like it is to athletes today. With the amount of topspin players are putting on the ball in today’s game, they are able to swing more powerfully while staying consistent. If players aren’t able to run down ball after ball to stay in points they are going to lose every match. The open stance has also grown in popularity and is hit on both the forehand and backhand wings. It allows players to generate loads of angular momentum and apply tons of spin and pace to each shot, while also recovering quicker towards the center. As time goes on we are seeing courts get slower, which also encourages defensive play and long rallies. Players have advanced from quick serve and volley points to grinding 20 plus shot rallies and five hour matches.
Combine all of this together and it is easy to see that defense is the new offense.
Never having lost to quarterfinal opponent Tomas Berdych on a hard court, world #1 Novak Djokovic must have brought plenty of confidence into their encounter. Questions surrounded the defending champion’s condition following his narrow escape from Stanislas Wawrinka in the previous round. But he laid those questions to rest emphatically with a largely crisp four-set victory over a top-eight rival, advancing 6-1 4-6 6-1 6-4.
Evincing no traces of fatigue from his five-hour marathon, Djokovic wasted little time in setting to work upon his more heralded opponent. Although Berdych held serve to start the match, the Serb reeled off six straight games from there with a blizzard of imaginative shot-making. Nearly every area of the defending champion’s game sparkled, even the drop shots with which he often struggles and a side-spinning backhand slice that he rarely uses. Especially notable, though, was his ability to return Berdych’s imposing first serve with pinpoint accuracy, pockmarking the baseline repeatedly. The Czech depends on taking control of rallies from the outset, and Djokovic robbed him of that opportunity by catching him on his back foot and starting the point in neutral tone. From there, his superior movement wore down Berdych as he reversed direction on his groundstrokes almost at will, revealing the advantage of his greater versatility.
Ending the first set with a double fault, the challenger knew that his fortunes could not decline much further in the second. Meanwhile, Djokovic may have grown a bit complacent after starting his match so much more impressively than he had a round before. Whatever the cause, Berdych collected a service break to start the second set, striking his forehand with greater depth and confidence. Djokovic’s movement, while still elastic at times, looked a shade less impenetrable as the Czech consolidated his break into an early lead. In these first few games, shots that had clipped the outsides of lines and corners started falling slightly outside them from the Serb. At 0-2, 15-30, Berdych threatened to claim an insurance break, but Djokovic regrouped enough to hold.
In the Serb’s following service game, his opponent again hovered on the verge of extending his margin. Saving two break points, Djokovic prevented Berdych from dashing away with the set, which soon became a question of whether the opening break would prove sufficient for the underdog to draw level. The top seed repeatedly pressured the Czech in service games, drawing to 30-30 twice, but he could not quite manufacture a break point. Attacking the net with greater commitment than he had shown early in the match, the broad-shouldered Berdych tried to neutralize Djokovic’s talent for the sprawling defensive get.
Two scintillating backhand returns from the former, one a near-winner and one a clean winner, moved him within a point of leveling the match. Berdych spurned the set point with a loose backhand, and the set moved to his racket for the most important service game of his tournament. As one might expect, it unfolded in eventful fashion. Two groundstroke errors thrust him into trouble from the outset, and a stunning sequence of Djokovic scrambles pinned him at double break point. But Berdych saved those two break points with an ace and an inside-in forehand winner, and then he saved a third with an equally dazzling backhand down the line. Once Djokovic had let a fourth break point slip away with an errant forehand, his frustration contributed to his opponent’s success in compiling the next two points for the second set.
In a development that few would have anticipated after the first set, the honors stood even between the combatants as the third set began. A game-ending ace from Djokovic restored some of the defending champion’s flagging spirits. Swiftly moved the Serb to double break point once more, capturing the second with a wild cross-court forehand from the Czech. While Djokovic held easily to consolidate the break, Berdych showed that his determination remained undimmed by tracking down a drop shot on an otherwise meaningless point. That determination reaped scant rewards, though, when Djokovic broke him again for the loss of a single point, rifling a backhand winner down the line. Although the Serb grew a bit careless when serving for the set, falling behind 15-30, he outfoxed the lumbering Berdych in a lengthy exchange at the net that set up his comfortable conversion of the last few points that he needed.
Now trailing two sets to one, the Czech needed to start the fourth set in a more positive manner to convince himself that his upset bid remained genuine. He accomplished that goal with an opening hold behind fierce forehands that he redirected down both lines. The reprieve did not last long, for Djokovic created two break points in his next service game with tenacious court coverage. Saving the first with a combination of wide serve and cross-court backhand, Berdych yielded the second when his opponent’s defense once again forced him to aim for too much from his forehand.
The set then settled into a relatively routine pattern of holds, neither man able to significantly dent the other’s serve. To his credit, Berdych continued to keep the pressure on the Serb by protecting his own games routinely. With Djokovic serving for the match, however, the plot thickened. Three match points came and went, one on a routine miss of a stroke that would have ended the match, although Berdych never earned a break point. On the fourth match point, Djokovic did not let his opponent put the ball into play, instead slamming an ace down the center service line.
In barely two and a half hours, half the length of his previous victory, the Serb had returned to his dominant form with a performance largely absent of flaws outside his lull early in the second set. Extending his hard-court mastery of Berdych, Djokovic also ensured that he will remain #1 after the Australian Open. Two victories from the coveted three-peat, he will face Ferrer in another match that he will enter heavily favored.
By Evan Valeri
The upcoming 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych marks the thirteenth time the two players will face off. Out of the previous twelve matches the Birdman was only able to capitalize once, taking out the Serb in straight sets during the 2010 Wimbledon semi finals. The last time the two met in a major was down under in 2011, a contest which Djokovic won, 6-1, 7-6, 6-1. Throughout the course of the last two years the two have played six other times. Berdych was able to take first set during three of the matchups, just to lose the next two. Does Berdych have what it takes to beat the reigning champ and world number one and advance to the semifinals in Melbourne?
The two players have very unique games which are quite different from one another. Djokovic plays a great all court style which has shown very few chinks in the armor over the past two seasons. He is able to play magically from all areas of the court. Opponents have said that even when he is playing defense he seems to stay offensive. He has a serve which has came together nicely over the years, giving him the ability to mix up spin, placement, and speed. He keeps his opponents guessing better than anyone. Djokovic is capable of ripping forehands and backhands from anywhere on the court with equal success. It’s hard to pick on one wing over the other when playing the Djoker. Whenever necessary he stays on top of the baseline and plays aggressively ,moving players wherever he pleases as though he has them on a string.
Berdych on the other hand has an aggressive baseliner’s mentality. He has a very conventional style of game compared to many other players on tour. Where you see players like Novak running side to side and hitting a majority of groundstrokes from an open stance, Berdych prefers to step into the ball often hitting from a square or semi open stance. He holds the racquet with a semi-western forehand grip, which is the most popular forehand grip on tour today. Where he differs is that many players follow-through lower on the forehand side, somewhere between the elbow and shoulder. This allows them to quickly come over the ball and apply tremendous amounts of topspin. Many of Tomas’ forehand follow-throughs are high over his shoulder. He has a smooth, classic, flat hitting style, barely dropping the racquet below the ball and driving through with great extension. This flat hitting style allows him to be very aggressive and hit massive groundstrokes which keep opponents on the defensive. Berdych moves well for his 6’5” height but playing defense isn’t exactly a strength for the Czech.
Djokovic is number one in the world because he has the most complete game physically but more important, mentally. He knows how to get it done. As I stated earlier throughout the past two years Berdych was able to win the first set fifty percent of the time, yet couldn’t capitalize. Novak has no problem playing from behind and is one of those guys who is hard to stay in front of. He copes better with high pressure situations than anyone else on tour.
Take a look at Djokovic’s last two five set matches during the Australian Open. At one point against Nadal in the final last year it seemed like he was gassed and had nothing left in the tank. Where in reality, he saved some energy and stayed in the match by cranking winners and ending points quickly at opportune moments. This allowed him to really turn it on and play spectacular tennis when it counted in the fifth set and come away the victor. During this tournament his previous round match against Stan Wawrinka was another epic, which he won 12-10 in the fifth. The last point of the match said it all. A grinding rally which included Wawrinka ripping two balls to Novak’s backhand side that didn’t seem retrievable that late in the fifth set, to set up a short approach shot, which Novak flicked a backhand off from knee level for a crosscourt passing shot winner to end the match. To cap it all off Novak knows how to win and Berdych has had a hard time throughout his career getting it done against the best players on the biggest of stages.
Besides the physical and mental matchups, this battle features many intangibles that shouldn’t be overlooked. First of all is the amount of time both players have spent on court. Berdych hasn’t dropped a set all tournament and should go into the night match feeling very fresh. Djokovic on the other hand is coming off that grueling five hour victory over Wawrinka in the previous round. Will the world number one come out with a full tank of energy against the world number six player? It’s tough to really say, Novak is probably in the best shape of anyone out there, but when was the last time he had to play a match a day after a five hour dogfight. Secondly, players have said that the courts are playing slightly faster than previous years. This could be in the big hitting Birdman’s favor. The third thing to keep in mind if you are Tomas, is the daunting task of erasing that 1-11 win loss record against Djokovic from memory.
Berdych has a tough task in front of him tonight as he tries to knock off Djokovic but then again nothing is impossible. If he is to prove victorious he will most likely have to keep points short, attacking weak returns, and pulling the trigger whenever he gets a good look. He will also need to win the majority of the rallies lasting less than ten shots. Berdych will also have to serve well and keep Djokovic from getting away early in sets. Tiebreaks could prove to be life or death situations for Tomas, and he needs to win them in order to get it done. Djokovic is the favorite and Berdych will most likely have to play nearly flawless tennis and have a little luck on his side to win. No matter who comes out victorious it should prove to be a fun match for spectators featuring some huge hit winners, unbelievable defensive retrievals, and emotions running high as these two titans battle for a spot in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals.
Evan Valeri is a USPTA P2 tennis teaching professional and has a USTA Sports Science Level 1 certification. He graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in Professional Tennis Management/Marketing and enjoys the technical and coaching side of tennis. You can view his website here: www.totaltennisplayer.com.
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
We are down to our final 8, and 6 of them are the main contenders for the title. With Djokovic being tired after his marathon match, it has really opened the door for Tomas Berdych. And, all of a sudden, we could be looking at Berdych or David Ferrer in the final. On the other side of the draw, it looks like it will be the winner of Federer/Tsonga against Andy Murray. This feels like the most wide-open Slam we’ve had in quite a while on the men’s side. It actually feels like there are six contenders with near-equal chances of winning it all. The only possible not-compelling matchup in the final is Federer/Ferrer, as Federer leads their head-to-head series 14-0.
Who Looked Good
Stanislas Wawrinka: I will talk about this match more in depth later on, but I really must stress that Wawrinka played at or near the level of a Grand Slam champion for almost the entirety of his match. Aside from a blip in the second set, Wawrinka was really playing at an incredible level throughout and showed signs of mental toughness that we don’t often see from him. Even though he lost in heartbreaking fashion, Wawrinka should be encouraged. If he can play at this level for an entire tournament there really is no reason (aside from a massive mental block against Federer) that he can’t be competitive in the later rounds of Slams as his career continues.
Tomas Berdych: Berdych didn’t do anything special in his fourth-round match. In fact, he didn’t do anything more than what we’ve seen him do before. What he did do, though, was execute on a high level for the entire match. His movement was superb, putting him in position to hit all of his shots with lethal efficiency. Anderson is a tricky opponent with a massive serve, and for much of the match Berdych just dismantled him from the baseline. If he can keep that consistency up when he meets a tired Djokovic in the quarters, then he should make his first Australian Open semifinal without too much trouble.
Who Looked Bad
Andreas Seppi: Honestly, Seppi didn’t play that poorly. He could have played much better but he didn’t really compete below expectations, especially with how fatigued he was. I just couldn’t really leave this spot blank. Seppi is better on clay courts and was up against a big hitter in Jeremy Chardy. Seppi missed a lot of shots and could have extended a lot of rallies, but he would have been very hard-pressed to win this match anyway. Still, compared to everyone else who played this round, Seppi really underachieved the most.
Match of the Round
Is there really any other choice? Forget match of the round, this was probably the match of the tournament. I am, of course, talking about the epic battle between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. Djokovic played a very good match but not quite at his peak level, while Stan actually played the match of this life. It is not possible to understate how good of a match Wawrinka played. He fought and played incredible points, pulling out ways to win them that most people just can’t do against Djokovic. The match was right throughout and the crowd thoroughly enjoyed this epic five-hour thriller. An unfortunate mistaken line call at 4-4 in the fifth cost Wawrinka a chance to serve out the match, and Djokovic capitalized over an hour later to win it 12-10 in the fifth. Most fans, watching both in the crowd and on television, felt gutted for Wawrinka, who had fought so hard and was so close to pulling off the biggest win of his career. The fact that a mistaken call might have changed the outcome in no way detracts from the epicness of this match. Saying that this match wasn’t fair or that Wawrinka got robbed is just as much an insult to the effort that Warinka put forth as it is to Djokovic’s.
When the quarterfinals begin, the action in singles compresses to Rod Laver Arena for the rest of the escalating drama. Here is a tour of what to expect from an all-Russian match, an all-Spanish match, and two collisions between top-eight contenders.
Li vs. Radwanska: These two top-eight women have compiled a history of closely contested meetings that has taken a few curious turns lately. After Radwanska won their first match of 2012, Li swept three straight on the second-half hard courts that included two routs. Aga’s revenge came with a flourish at Sydney last week, when she broke her former nemesis repeatedly en route to a straight-sets triumph, although she struggled to deliver the decisive blow. That match marked Li’s only loss of a season against twelve victories and a title, while Radwanska has won all 26 of her sets and has collected two titles.
Relatively unheralded as a contender, Li has progressed quietly through the draw but has looked very efficient in doing so as she has spurred memories of her 2011 final and 2010 semifinal here. Neither player should dominate on serve, despite solid efforts in that area from both here, so rallies should unfold that contrast the Chinese star’s flow with the Pole’s syncopation. Designed to disrupt, Radwanska’s smorgasbord of spins and speeds will test the rhythmic Li, who will aim to take time away from the world #4 by striking the ball early and constantly redirecting her groundstrokes. The woman who can impose her tone more thoroughly should prevail in a clash of mentally resilient competitor.
Ferrer vs. Almagro: Fond of playing Nadal to Almagro’s Ferrer, the man who will become the top-ranked Spaniard after this tournament never has lost to his compatriot. Some caveats apply, however, such as the dearth of outdoor hard-court meetings in a rivalry predictably centered on clay. Not since 2006 have these two quarterfinalists met on a surface similar to Rod Laver Arena, since when both of their games have improved dramatically. Moreover, Almagro often has kept their encounters extremely close, taking Ferrer to final sets in half of them and holding match points in a final-set tiebreak at Madrid last year.
Through the first four rounds, Ferrer has looked slightly the superior player. Recording his best performance at a hard-court major to date, Almagro needed five sets to escape an inexperienced American in his first match, and his dominance over the higher-ranked Tipsarevic lost some of its luster when the Serb retired. Also experiencing more difficulty than expected against an unheralded American, Ferrer rebounded from that four-setter to demolish a former tormentor in Nishikori. That match should boost his confidence for a more familiar foe in a quarterfinal where the favorite’s compact two-handed backhand will contrast intriguingly with the underdog’s florid one-hander.
Sharapova vs. Makarova: When they met in the same round here last year, the more famous Russian permitted just five games. Like the all-Spanish quarterfinal, the all-Russian quarterfinal offers the latest edition in a head-to-head controlled exclusively by one player. Sharapova has lost just one set in four meetings with Makarova, although they played two tight sets in Miami most recently. Mauled badly by Maria’s return on this court before, the lefty’s serve must sustain the pressure more successfully this time, and a high first-serve percentage would play a vital role in achieving that goal.
Not expected by most to reach consecutive quarterfinals in Melbourne, Makarova claims that she learned from last year’s experience to become a more mature competitor at this stage. The often fiery Russian indeed looked composed when she upset world #5 Kerber in a tight two-setter, at least outside a wobble late in the first set. From that passage of play, as well as her flirtation with surrendering a 5-0 lead to Bartoli, one still suspects Makarova when the pressure rises. Pressure has not entered Sharapova’s vocabulary at this tournament, where she continues to set records of implausible domination. Never before has anyone lost just five games en route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, which raises the question of how she will respond when and if some adversity does arise. In a battle between two women who love to create outrageous angles, Sharapova will hope to make Makarova rue her professed eagerness to reverse last year’s disappointment.
Djokovic vs. Berdych: Winless against the Serb on a hard court, Berdych notched his only victory over him en route to the Wimbledon final three years ago, his best result at a major to date. Once Djokovic evolved into his invincible self when 2011 began, the Czech never came close to repeating that feat. Part of this lopsided rivalry has hinged on the contrast between Berdych’s forehand-reliant game and the world #1’s groundstroke symmetry, which offers him a far greater advantage in backhand-to-backhand exchanges than any edge that his opponent can claim in forehands. Also, Djokovic’s movement allows him to track down the first strikes that Berdych can hurl at him more effectively than can most players, returning them with the depth necessary to maneuver himself into the rally.
On this occasion, though, Berdych may harbor some legitimate reason to hope. The cathartic but exhausting epic with Wawrinka, which sprawled across five hours, may have left him drained of the energy to grind down the Czech’s offense as he has in the past. By contrast, his challenger has reached this stage without dropping a set or engaging in any physically taxing battles. If Berdych claims an early lead, he could test Djokovic’s resilience. All the same, the world #1 proved his nearly supernatural ability to rebound from one marathon to the next in Melbourne last year when he spent nearly 11 total hours on court in consecutive matches against Nadal and Murray. Berdych should not gamble on a depleted Djokovic entering the court at his best major.
At the start of the second week, all of the singles matches shift to the three show courts. We organize our daily preview a bit differently as a result, following the order of play for each stadium. From here to the end of the 2013 Australian Open, you can find a preview of every singles match in Wizards of Oz.
Rod Laver Arena:
Kerber vs. Makarova: When two left-handed women last met on Rod Laver, the match unwound deep into a final set. Viewers can expect less drama but higher quality from a meeting between the world #5 and a Russian seeking her second straight quarterfinal here. In this round last year, Makarova recorded probably the best win of her career in upsetting Serena, and she rekindled some of those memories with a three-set upset of Bartoli. Advancing through the draw more routinely, Kerber reached the second week here for the first time and will look to exploit the ebbs and flows in her opponent’s more volatile game. Makarova will aim to take time away from the German counterpuncher, in part by opening the court with wide serves behind which she can step inside the baseline. In a close match, Kerber’s outstanding three-set record and her opponent’s relative frailty under pressure could prove decisive. The German won all three of their 2012 meetings in straight sets.
Ferrer vs. Nishikori: Despite his clear superiority in ranking and overall accomplishments, the fourth seed might feel a bit anxious heading into this match. Nishikori has won two of their three previous matches, both at significant tournaments. More notable than his victory over Ferrer at the Olympics was a five-set thriller that he won from at the US Open, which introduced the Japanese star to an international audience four years ago. Chronically beset by injuries, Nishikori overcame a knee problem early in his first match and has won nine straight sets. As he pursues his second straight quarterfinal here, like Makarova, he cannot afford to encounter any physical issues in a grinding encounter filled with protracted rallies and few outright winners. Ferrer wore down Baghdatis, a former nemesis here, in a routine third-round clash as his level rose with the competition, but now it rises again.
Sharapova vs. Flipkens: Perhaps benefiting from the guidance of retired compatriot Clijsters, Flipkens has reached the second week at a major for the first time. Still, she defeated nobody of greater significance than Zakopalova to reach that stage, and it is difficult to see any area of her game that can trouble the rampaging Russian. Following her two double bagels, Sharapova conceded just four games to Venus in a highly anticipated encounter that turned into a demonstration of just how crisply she has started the season. The Belgian’s best chance may lie in the hope that the world #2 enters this match a little complacent or satiated with her statement triumph, not likely from someone of her professionalism. Their only previous hard-court meeting, in Luxembourg ten years ago, bears no relevance to what might unfold here.
Ivanovic vs. Radwanska: Early in their careers, the Serbian former #1 hit through the Pole’s defenses with her serve-forehand combinations. As Ivanovic has grown more erratic with time, the balance of power has shifted towards Radwanska with three straight victories in 2009-10 before a retirement from the former in their most recent meeting. All of those matches have stayed very close, though, which can give the Serb as she realizes that she will have chances against a player who will not overpower her. Stalling in the fourth round of majors for most of the last few years, Ivanovic has suffered a long string of losses to top-four opponents. Currently undefeated in 2013 with two titles already, Radwanska has shown greater discipline and steadiness here (no surprise, really) than the flustered former #1, who has oscillated wildly in form. Expect the fourth seed to outlast and outwit Ivanovic in an entertaining battle.
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Not exactly known as a steely competitor, the Swiss #2 has acquired a reputation for folding at majors against elite opponents—not just Federer, but Djokovic and Murray has well. He has lost his last ten meetings against the defending champion, last winning in 2006, although three times since then he has won the opening set. Demolishing his first trio of victims without dropping serve, Djokovic has not shown any vulnerability that might offer Wawrinka a reason to believe. Granted, the latter has not lost a set here either, but a matchup with the world #1 in a night session on Rod Laver Arena seems like the type of environment calculated to bring out the worst from the Swiss and something near the best from the Serb. Parallel to Sharapova and Flipkens, one struggles to imagine any part of the underdog’s game that can threaten the favorite consistently.
Almagro vs. Tipsarevic: Never before have they met on a hard court, discounting an Abu Dhabi exhibition. To no surprise, the Spaniard defeated the Serb comfortably when they met at Roland Garros last year, the most favorable surface for the former and the least favorable for the latter. Almagro remains almost as lethal a threat on hard courts as on clay, producing a handful of fine results in Melbourne and New York behind an impressive serve and plenty of groundstroke first-strike power. Both men can strike winners down the line from either groundstroke wing, nor will either hesitate in attempting a bold shot at any moment. That factor, combined with their proximity to each other in the rankings, bodes well for a tightly contested match, as does their mixture of impressive and unimpressive results in the first week.
Li vs. Goerges: If Almagro and Tipsarevic never have met on a hard court, this pair of women never has collided at all. Whereas Li rolled through the first week without dropping a set, Goerges needed to claw through a long three-setter in her opener against Dushevina and salvage a third-round epic against Zheng after the Chinese served for the match. Despite the accumulated fatigue, that resilience under pressure might aid her in a match likely to feature several twists and turns between two streaky women. Under Henin’s former mentor, stern taskmaster Carlos Rodriguez, Li has hinted at improving her consistency from one tournament to the next. Starting the year with a title and a Sydney semifinal, she enters this match with an 11-1 record in 2013. On the other hand, Goerges has wobbled through a long span of the unpredictability typical of WTA Germans, leaving her stagnant until this week.
Margaret Court Arena:
Anderson vs. Berdych: The first South African to reach the second week of a major since Wayne Ferreira ten years ago, Anderson did it the hard way by winning the last two sets of a five-setter against Verdasco. Few players have started the year more impressively than he has, marching from a strong week at the Hopman Cup to the Sydney final and now a week in which he twice has won matches after losing the first set. But Anderson may find himself eyeing adversity again when he meets a man who won all four of their matches last year. The last two of those reached final sets, offering him some hope in this contest of crackling serves, ferocious forehands, and meager backhands, which should produce repeated holds and perhaps some tiebreaks. Berdych has dominated the opposition through three rounds with the relentless focus that he does not always show, although he has not faced anyone of a quality approaching the South African.
Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets? Look no further. We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.
First quarter: Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will. Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes. Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round. The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.
The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco. While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time. His reward lies in a clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych. Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer. But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50. He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches: a Wimbledon semifinal. While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.
Player to watch: Querrey
Second quarter: The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives. In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic. A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him. Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist. While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him. He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.
Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament. Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer. The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result. His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match. Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat. But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him. If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Player to watch: Dimitrov
Third quarter: Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first. Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion. Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two. The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format. Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky. The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round. Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.
Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds. In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there. Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic. The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique. But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment. He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall. If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray. The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.
Player to watch: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year. All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko. (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.) Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year. In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly? The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.
Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013. To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci. Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent. Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year. Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before. But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.
Player to watch: Tomic
Final: Djokovic vs. Murray
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!