Sunday, January 22, 2012

Australian Open: March to Quarters

Well the big guns have been coming out blazing on both the Men’s and Women’s sides of the Australian Open. There have been a few significant upsets, but nothing to shake up the natural order of things.

The Men
Rafa Nadal (2) and Roger Federer (3) have moved into the Quarters without much trouble in their previous matches, both winning in straight sets as expected, given their competition. Both have some significant challenges next, however, with Nadal facing the hard hitting Tomas Berdych (7), and Federer taking on Juan Martin Del Potro (11).

Of the two, Federer is likely to have the tougher time getting through to the semis. Del Potro Has won two of the last three meeting, including their only meeting in a Grand Slam (2009 US Open). Federer did win the last matchup in 2011, but Del Potro was still on the comeback trail from injury. He’s looking pretty healthy now, so this out to be a humdinger of a match.

On the other hand, Nadal has downed Berdych nine consecutive times, stretching back to 2007. Berdych is striking the ball extremely well, but unless Nadal is having knee issues, and Berdych fixes his mental issues, look for Nadal to march into the semis feeling good about whomever he’ll play there. We all know his record against Fed, and although Del Potro has played him tough the last three times they’ve met, Nadal has triumphed.

All of the high seeds on the top half of the draw are still alive and in action tonight. Novak Djokovic (1) figures to moves through relatively easily against the resurgent but unseeded hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt. Djokovic has won the last four times they’ve played.

Richard Gasquet (17) is as on form as he has ever been in a Grand Slam, taking out Janko Tipsarevic (9) in straight sets in the third round. He’s got David Ferrer (5) in the next round, and the question will be, "Can Gasquet outlast the gritty, “all guts, no glory” Ferrer?" 

Gasquet has won once in the six times they have played, but they haven’t played since 2009, so this is a new day for them. If you love the game, this matchup of conflicting styles should be fun to watch.

Well Whadda ya know! Mikail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan (my favorite phrase) is still in the draw after taking out the unpredictable Gael Monfils (14) in five sets. Does he have a chance against World No.4 Andy Murray? Heck yeah he does! Well, if he comes out without fear like he did against Monfils and Murray comes out playing his standard defensive game, then yes. 

If Kukushkin is awed by the moment and allows Murray to get comfortable in his “retrieve & wear you down” mode, then Murray will move on. If you’re betting, put it on Murray...but don’t bet too much!

I’m still not sure where former Australian Open Finalist Jo Wilfied Tsonga’s (6) game and head are right now. He can look spectacular one moment, then look like me the next…well, maybe not quite that bad. The point is, there is no one in the field that Tsonga can’t beat when he’s playing his best and has his head together, and there’s no one who can’t beat him if his mind wanders as it’s prone to do. I imagine that he has too much firepower for Kei Nishikori (24) to withstand for five sets, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Women
Caroline Wozniacki (1) seems determined to shush the naysayers. Although she came close to doing so in the first round, Wozniacki hasn’t dropped a set in the event. Jelena Jankovic (13) gave her a tussle in the second set (7-5) last match, but Wozniacki has held firm throughout.  She will have her toughest test to date with Defending Champion Kim Clijsters (11). 

I’m not sure if Clijsters will have the emotional fortitude for the grinding battle this is likely to be, after needing all she had to get past Na Li (5) in a grueling three-setter last match (4-6, 7-6, 6-4). I’ll have to give Wozniacki the nod on this one.

No one is talking about Agnieszka “Aggie” Radwanska (8) as a potential winner of this thing, and she probably likes it that way. She is the David Ferrer of the Women’s Draw. There’s no “Q” in her name and no quit in her game! After winning her first match against American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in a tough three-setter, Aggie has dropped no more than four games in her next three.

Radwanska has the big-hitting Victoria Azarenka (3) next, and if Azarenka is slightly off her game, it wouldn’t be much of an upset here. Considering their last meeting, just a couple weeks ago, when Azarenka needed three sets to beat Radwanska in the Sydney Final, and Radwanska’s three-set triumph their previous time out, chances are this will be a gut-check battle. Oh, by the way, the two have played three sets in five of their last six outings, and six of the nine times they have played. Get your snacks ready for this slug fest.

Serena Williams (12) has been relentless in her last two matches, dropping just six games total in those matches. She hasn't played anyone of note, and seems to have a relatively easy path to the Quarters as well. 

Serena will face the unseeded Ekaterina Makarova, whom she’s faced once and beaten in 2009. Makarova hasn’t had much success against top players prior to taking out Vera Zvonareva (7) last round, and probably won’t have success against Serena. Barring injury problems, this would appear to be a lock for Serena.

Maria Sharapova (4) has her work cut out for her against Sabine Lisicki (14), who eked out a tough one against Svetlana Kuznetsova. Kuznetsova is always a tough win, but Lisicki did what she had to do, taking the final two sets after losing the first. 

Sharapova has been crushing her less-than-stiff opposition, but Lisicki will be no cake-walk. Those who don’t really know the game may think of Sharapova as “just another pretty face,” but she is as gritty a competitor as there is on the WTA Tour. I suspect that Sharapova will scrap her way to victory despite the double faults she’s likely to produce.

Nobody is talking about Jie Zheng, and if you examine her record against the top players, there’s good reason to ignore her. However, she took a few months off at the end of 2011, and appears to have come out refreshed and committed in 2012. 

Zheng is 8-0 this year, with four wins over four top-25 players, including No.9 Seed Marian Bartoli in the last round. She faces unseeded Sara Errani next and is a good bet to make it to her first Grand Slam Quarterfinal in singles. She already has two Grand Slam doubles championships to her credit.

In one of the marquis fourth-round matchups, Petra Kvitova (2) will face Ana Ivanovic (21), who seems to be reinventing herself after her fall from the pinnacle of the women’s game, which she reached briefly in 2008.  Ivanovic hasn’t faced anyone of Kvitova’s caliber thus far in the event, and she is likely to be at the end of her run. 

Regardless of who moves on, there is nothing but great tennis ahead! I can't wait! Game, set, Match...T A

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