There's no denying a seemingly clear path for Novak Djokovic to the finals of the 2013 Australian Open. He looks fresh, he has the experience, but most of all, Djokovic has improper and ill-prepared opposition in his section of the draw.
While there are some very talented players making their way stealthily through the top half of the bracket, they do not pose a threat to him due to lack of effective weaponry; they are in the midst of a work-in-progress establishment in their respective games. They can push him, yes, and they can certainly take a set, but they cannot break the flexible Serbian.
So what does this year's Australian Open mean to a couple of high-quality players in Novak's half of the draw?
If you remember the epic 2009 Australian Open final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, then you most definitely recall the fearless and heroic performances two days earlier by Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in their semifinal match.
For many tennis fans, including myself, this was the contest that signaled a true elevation in physicality and sheer athletic energy of the sport of tennis. The points seemed everlasting, each more immeasurable than the next. The battle of the lefties was more gladiatorial than gentlemanly, as the history of tennis sometimes suggests the sport to be.
I was legitimately frightened for them; I felt that their bodies were going to crack, that something career-ending was going to happen to someone because of how unrelenting the onslaught was between the two.
Though he would end up losing the match 6-4 in the fifth set, on a double fault no less, Fernando Verdasco had made a fan out of me, and since then, I have been disappointed that he has not been able to replicate that grand result. His game is fun, fast-paced and explosive, and when he's striking the ball cleanly, I'm not sure I can say there are many other players I would rather be watching.
While he is not playing at that standard of tennis at this moment in time, there is something about the Spaniard's form that is more promising than it has been in the past two years.
Coming in after losing in the first round of Sydney, the 22nd-seeded Verdasco is already racking up ranking points (he lost in the first round of the Australian Open last year). His forehand finally looks dialed in again, and he appears more driven and purposeful. Perhaps Fernando changed his offseason training routine and it's paying off? Or maybe he's shed a few pounds, as several fans have noted?
Though there's no way to pinpoint why Fernando is hitting the ball more solidly, it's certainly nice to see from a fan's perspective. Already in the third round, a victory over Kevin Anderson of South Africa could very well send Verdasco's confidence back to where it needs to be to play at a top-10 level once more.
This has been a long time coming for Sam Querrey. Though the road has been injury-paved, it feels that Querrey is now assuredly back for good. His results upon returning to the tour after elbow surgery have all been resolute, and plenty of fans had been waiting for a breakout comeback performance by the 25-year-old American.
When Sam is at his best, his one-two punch style of tennis can knock many top players off their perch. His combination serve and forehand technique is merciless, despite the California native's humble demeanor. Needless to say, Querrey has a game that fundamentally defines the direction in which up-and-coming tennis seems to be headed: baselining big men with good preparation, form and a lot of heart.
After John Isner's strong showings in the first half of the season last year, notching wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Querrey's name was surely fading from sight. But Sam would continue to quietly work his ranking back up into high-caliber contention, moving from as low as 106th in the world in early 2012 back into the top 25 by the year's end.
By far most importantly for Querrey, however, has been the adjustments he has made between the ears; that is to say that he has finally sharpened his mental edge. Possibly buoyed by a largely significant comeback win in late 2012 that saw Querrey defeat current World No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris after losing the first set 0-6, Sam has played steady and punctual tennis since.
The guts are clearly evident as the season begins in 2013, and the application on the tennis court appears to be unfolding as well.
So far at the 2013 Australian Open, Querrey hasn't had to show too many of his tennis credentials. He played skillfully and intentionally in his first-round match against Daniel Munoz-De La Nava of Spain but also with some rust around the edges, and essentially, he received a walkover from fellow American Brian Baker.
But what's exciting about the American is that what he has shown since late last season has been impressive, consistent and primarily a more improved, perceptive brand of tennis. As long as Querrey continues to make intelligent and resourceful decisions on the court, we may likely see him rise to the occasion as America's next true champion.
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