Australian Open 2012: Handing out the Superlatives for Week One

Marilee Gallagher@mgallagher17Contributor IIJanuary 23, 2012

Australian Open 2012: Handing out the Superlatives for Week One

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    For tennis fans alike, week one of the Australian Open offered some thrilling and entertaining tennis. The big four easily cruised through to the round of 16, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal already booking a trip to the quarterfinals.

    It wasn't, however, the big four winning in dominating fashion that made this week of tennis so great to watch. I mean sure, watching Novak Djokovic just crush his opponents can be a sight to be seen. But it was more than that—the excitement from the emergence of young, up-and-comers, the five-set thrillers that had us on the edge of our seats, the emotional breakdowns that had tennis racket manufacturers shaking their heads and of course the disappointing performances by one country in particular marked a great week in tennis.

    Yes, these were the moments, for better or for worse, that made week one of the 2012 Aussie Open a period of great tennis to see. So, in honor of the best players and the worst performances, here are the superlatives from the first week of the first major of the 2012 calendar year.

Best Meltdown: Marcos Baghdatis Breaks Not One, Not Two, but Four Rackets

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    Baghdatis has always been a fiery player, but in his match against Stanislas Wawrinka he let his emotions get the best of him.

    Frustrated that things in the match just weren't going his way, Baghdatis took advantage of the change-over to give the Australian Open crowd a bit of a show. As he took to his seat and toweled down, Baghdatis began to smash his racket on the ground. He continually hit it until it was damaged beyond repair.

    You would think that after one broken racket, Baghdatis might be done, but he wasn't. He pulled a second racket out of the packaging and smashed it too. Two still not enough, he took a third—and didn't even bother to take it out of the packaging. He smashed it once and then proceeded to pull a fourth racket out of his bag, and smashed that too.

    Now, at this point, the crowd cheered wildly and Baghdatis even flashed a small smile. It clearly became more about the crowd moment than the initial frustration in breaking the rackets. And if not for the fact that he was most likely out of rackets to finish the match with, Baghdatis probably would have played to the crowd and broke a few more.

Best Performance in a Straight Set Win: Novak Djokovic vs. Paolo Lorenzi

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    If it is possible to make a tennis match look easy, that is exactly what Novak Djokovic did in his completely dominating performance over Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi.

    It was a straight set complete humiliation for Lorenzi, as Djokovic just overpowered him in every aspect of the game. Sure, the match began pretty routinely as both Djokovic and Lorenzi won on their serve, but it went downhill from there for the Italian. Djokovic broke him on serve and even though Lorenzi did manage to break Djokovic once—a moment that was really Lorenzi's best in the entire set—Novak dominated to a 6-2 first set win.

    After that first set, Djokovic didn't lose a game. He won points on his first and second serve at 67% and forced Lorenzi to commit 13 unforced errors in a 6-0 second set domination. The third set followed a similar script, as Djokovic looked nearly unbeatable from the net and won points on an amazing 91% on his first serve.

    Lorenzi never even saw a break point opportunity, as once again Djoker manhandled his Italian opponent en route to another 6-0 win.

Best Shot: Ryan Harrison's Amazing Behind-the-Back Shot

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    It is hard to find yourself in a position to make a behind-the-back shot down the line in order to win a point, but that is exactly what happened to young American Ryan Harrison in his match against Andy Murray.

    Harrison had won the first set 6-4, but Murray quickly came back. Murray won the second and third, and took a break lead over Harrison in the fourth. Murray was serving to take a 4-2 lead, but Harrison wasn't just going to give him the point. It was a long fought rally that featured some net play, some incredible saves and of course, Harrison's behind-the-back winner that you just have to see to believe.

    For a kid who is being billed as the future of American tennis, this shot was a pretty great moment in an otherwise not so great tournament.

Best Match: Bernard Tomic vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    It may not have been the most exciting billed matchup on paper, but when the Australian phenom took on the crafty Ukranian, it resulted in the most high-intensity and most thrilling match so far in this Australian Open.

    Coming into the match, Tomic was favored to win. He had just come off a second round win where he forced a comeback down one set to love, and a first round match that saw him in an early two-love hole. Tomic didn't give up in either match, however, and his resilience together with some great tennis helped the 19-year-old win both matches.

    He was easily billed as the "Comeback Kid," as well as the next future great. A win against Dolgopolov would just cement that status.

    Dolgo knew the talk about Tomic, and knew what he was up against—but he didn't give up. The crafty Ukranian had also been playing solid tennis, and it showed as he played fluent first set—achieving 20 winners to 15 unforced errors, and seeming to have an answer to Tomic's strong backhand slice. Dolgopolov won the set 6-4 after breaking Tomic twice.

    No stranger to being down a set, the "Comeback Kid" did exactly what his nickname implies. He played a great set having changed speeds on his serve, managing to win 69 percent of second serve points to Dolgopolov's 39 percent. Despite playing well, he only managed one break, and Dolgo was able to break back. The set went to a tiebreak where Tomic easily overpowered his opponent, scoring seven unanswered to even the match at a set a piece.

    The third set was as masterful, and once again resulted in a tiebreak. Dolgo fared better in this tiebreak, but Tomic still won, giving him a two set to one lead. Another good set came in the fourth, which Dolgo won 6-2. He capitalized on both break chances, and his serving game was good enough that Tomic didn't get a break chance.

    The fifth set was more of the same, as both men battled. Dolgopolov has his share of break chances, but he didn't convert. Tomic converted on the only one he needed, the only one that counted. He stepped up his game and after a thrilling match of great tennis on both ends, Tomic emerged victorious. 

Best Breakout Performance: Bernard Tomic and Mikhail Kukushkin to Round of 16

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    A breakout chance can come as young as 18 or as old as 30, but either way, it is the tournament where a player says to the rest of the competition, "here I am." I was easily going to give the award for best breakout to Tomic, but another young player surprised me and I felt it was only fair to call this one a tie, as both made it to the round of 16.

    With some memorable performances, Tomic has certainly had an amazing tournament—if you don't believe me, re-read the last slide. He has played great tennis, and has just about elevated his name from future-star to current-star. Although he was easily beaten by Roger Federer in the round of 16, Tomic still firmly established himself as a force in the world of tennis.

    Be honest: before this Australian Open, had any of you heard of the Kazakhstani player Mikhail Kukushkin? I hadn't, but I had heard of Bernard Tomic. Tomic's rise was somewhat expected, as he has been billed as the next great Australian hope.

    But for Kukushkin, a 24-year-old making only his second Aussie Open appearance, no one expected a breakout performance. While Tomic's success helped him to live up to the name he had already been given, Mikhail's success helped him to establish a name all on his own.

    The Kazakhstani—ranked No. 92 in the world—didn't have an easy road in order to reach the round of 16. He won his first round match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain, but then drew No. 18 Victor Troicki for his second round matchup.

    Kukushkin came back from down a set to win his match in five. He played solid tennis throughout and outlasted Troicki. The win wasn't exactly a reason to celebrate, because he then drew one the toughest opponents he had to face in the extremely speedy No. 14 Gael Monfils.

    In a somewhat surprising fashion, Kukushkin took a two sets to love lead, but Monfils battled back to force a fifth set. The much quicker Monfils played well, but Kukushkin fared better and ultimately won the match—and a trip to the round of 16. Against Andy Murray, Kukushkin was clearly outmatched, and in the middle of the third set was forced to retire.

    Both Tomic and Kukushkin put up valiant efforts in their breakout slam, and it is pretty certain that we'll be hearing these players' names a lot of in the future. So learn how to say it: Kukushkin, because he is going to be causing trouble for the ranks for a long time to come. 

Best Comeback: Lleyton Hewitt to the Round of 16

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    If there was an award in tennis for Comeback Player of the Year, Lleyton Hewitt would be a strong candidate, based on his performance so far in the 2012 Australian Open.

    The 30-year-old Hewitt—who was once the world No. 1—entered his hometown slam barely in the top 200. Hewitt came in ranked at 181 in the world, the third-best Australian in the tournament, behind the top-50 ranked Tomic and top-100 ranked Matthew Ebden—both younger players and both overshadowing Hewitt in the tennis world.

    Many believed that Hewitt's chances to win a third major was slim-to-none. He had lost his place among the best in the world, and had been overtaken as the best Aussie as well. Coming into the 2012 Open, he really had nothing to lose. 

    Hewitt, who found himself in the unenviable spot of being in Djokovic's draw, opened up the slam with a match against No. 83 in the world, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany. Against the German, Hewitt played solid tennis and managed to secure an upset victory in four sets.

    Beating Stebe meant that Hewitt was to face No. 15 and another former world No. 1, American Andy Roddick. Roddick played solid tennis, winning the first set, but Hewitt turned it on. He won the second and third set, before an injury sustained in the second set forced Roddick to retire, giving Hewitt a pass to the third round or better in his first tournament since the 2010 Wimbledon. 

    After winning this match, Hewitt next faced Canadian upstart Milos Raonic. Not many expected Hewitt to beat Raonic, but the Aussie crowd rallied behind him and absolutely exploded as their former great defeated the young Canadian in four sets.

    Beating Raonic means Hewitt is headed straight for a match against current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has been playing amazing tennis, and the defending champion has yet to challenged in this tournament. Hewitt will likely be his first test, and even then Novak should easily win the match.

    That said, if anyone can pull off a catastrophic upset at this point, it could very well be Hewitt. He seems to have a newfound confidence, and with the hometown crowd behind him he will certainly put up a fight. Even if he does inevitably lose to Djokovic, Hewitt will rise in the rankings and could continue to do so with a strong 2012 season. 

Best Upset: Alejandro Falla over Mardy Fish

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    It was a huge surprise when America's top-ranked player Mardy Fish fell in straight sets to No. 71, Columbian Alejandro Falla, in the tournament's second round. It was unexpected and completely shocking, as it led to a snowball of American defeats. As it stood, going into the round of 16, the top seven in the world had still survived—with Fish being the highest seed to exit the tournament, and a very early exit at that.

    Fish actually played a pretty solid first set. He wasn't as great as he had been in last year's US Open, as he had more unforced errors than winners, but he did enough to stay right with Falla up until the tiebreak. Fish, who had tons of missed opportunities—including only converting two of seven break points—lost the set with a score of 7-4 in the tiebreak.

    After the first set, it all seemed to go downhill for Fish. Although he played better tennis, increasing his first serve winning percentage and decreasing his errors, Falla seemed to have the momentum. He too stepped up his game and converted on the only break opportunity he had, while he didn't offer Fish a chance to break by his improved serving.

    The third set was pretty evenly matched, as both players broke each other twice before a third set tiebreak was needed. Fish stayed with Falla for a good part of the tiebreak, but eventually Falla got to match point and won it.

    Fish was absolutely stunned. In the press conference he made excuse after excuse, claiming his opponent called the trainer for cramps too many times. Although Fish was afforded the same luxury, he claimed he didn't know you could call the trainer for cramps.

    No matter how he tried to justify the loss, Fish was out, and that the rest of the Americans would soon follow after him.

Worst Finish: American Men Experience Their Earliest Major Exit in the Open Era

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    It wasn't the finest moment for American tennis when John Isner lost his third round matchup. For Isner, it was more than just a loss, as he was the last American male standing—and ultimately the last to fall.

    Isner's loss marked the first time in Open Era history that not one American reached the fourth round of a slam. It was a historical moment that the U.S. certainly hope to never see happen again, and a record low they hope to never break.

    Going into this tournament, the chances an American would win were pretty slim. Their top three, #8 Mardy Fish, #15 Andy Roddick and #16 John Isner had all played pretty good tennis leading up to the Aussie, so it wasn't out of the question that one of these men could go on a run late into week two.

    Turns out however, that wasn't the case. Qualifiers Denis Kudla and Alex Kuznetsov were easily extinguished in the first round, as were their compatriots Ryan Harrison, Jesse Levine and Michael Russell. Last year's U.S. Open success story, Donald Young, joined Ryan Sweeting, Sam Querrey, Roddick, Isner and Fish in the second round, where all but Isner were taken out unceremoniously.

    Fish was flat out shocked in a straight set loss to Alejandro Falla, and Roddick was forced to retire after a second set knee injury left him unable to finish against Lleyton Hewitt. Young and Querrey managed to take it to four sets, but they too fell against better opponents.

    Isner grinded out a third set win in a marathon five-set match against David Nalbandian, but probably the best performance by an American was the 24-year-old Sweeting taking No. 5 David Ferrer to five sets. Sweeting won the first and third sets, but Ferrer won the all-important fourth. He forced a fifth set, and ultimately Ferrer's fitness proved to be too much for the tired Sweeting.

    With the hopes of America resting on the big shoulders of John Isner, he played and lost a tough five set match to No. 18 Feliciano Lopez. Isner played pretty solid tennis until the fifth set, where it seemed the "Marathon Man" had finally run out of gas.

    He lost the match and with it, left no American man to play in the fourth round, capping off a very disappointing tournament for the boys from the U.S.A.