10 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch at 2014 Australian Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

10 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch at 2014 Australian Open

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    The 2014 Australian Open will feature many tennis players who hope to defeat reigning superstars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. They would like to join their company with successful results and momentum for the long months ahead.

    There are many dangerous players who have both talent and opportunity to make waves at the Aussie Open. We have primarily selected players who are outside the Top 20, but with a few notable exceptions.

    Some of these players are underachievers who are looking for a breakthrough.

    A few of these players are overlooked potential stars.

    Most of these players have good draws, and they could seize a great start to 2014 with their A-level tennis.

    Keep your eyes open as the first week eliminates the majority of under-the-radar players. Which of them could still be hammering groundstrokes by the second week?

Philipp Kohlschreiber

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    Philipp Kohlschreiber has continued his steady progress as a Top 20-caliber player. At age 30, he is playing tough tennis, including a growing resume of wins and tough performances against the best players in the world.

    His grass-court win over Nadal at Halle in 2012 was only a mild upset, if that. He has great hands to serve and volley, and he is an intelligent player with his angles and setup shots. Combined with his sense of maturity and belief, he is a dangerous player.

    Kohlschreiber showed his moxie at the 2013 U.S. Open in defeating home-country favorite John Isner. He then challenged Nadal in the fourth round, taking the first set.

    His draw sets him up to face Isner in the third round. They met last week in Australia, and it was a dogfight with Isner taking two of the three tiebreakers.

    If Kohlschreiber advances, he could be a lot of trouble for Andy Murray and possibly pull the upset.

Eugenie Bouchard

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    Here she comes! Eugenie Bouchard is only 19 years old, but she could someday be a Grand Slam champion.

    In 2013, she was named WTA Newcomer of the Year, a year after she had won the Wimbledon juniors title.

    Winning is part of her heritage, and the honors did not stop as she was named The Canadian Press' female athlete of the year. Her ranking has climbed from No. 144 to her current No. 32.

    She is already beginning to challenge top opponents, including wins over Jelena Jankovic and Sloane Stephens. Perhaps most significantly, she took one set from Williams at Cincinnati's Western & Southern Open.

    Her youthful quickness and anticipation are strong, but she could work on her strength and develop more of a game plan. Right now, she is more or less reacting and experimenting with her tennis, but she will learn to be more cerebral with her attack.

    Bouchard also has a nice draw that could see her play the clay-courter Sara Errani in the third round, followed by someone like Kirsten Flipkens, Madison Keys or Roberta Vinci. If all goes well, another chance to play Williams could be in the cards.

Benoit Paire

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    Benoit Paire could have a breakout performance at the 2014 Australian Open. The fiery Frenchman, age 24, has dipped his toes into the Grand Slam waters enough to set his sights higher. He is too talented to show up for a match or two, buy a stuffed koala and be content with his World No. 28 ranking.

    He's got game. His serve and double backhand are his bread and butter, but he still looks to put more risk and flair into his game. There are times he gets too cute with drop shots or pulls the string on an inexplicable and low-percentage chance.

    But Paire has a great opportunity to move into the second week. He should handle Frank Dancevic and the winner of Nick Kyrgios vs. Benjamin Becker. Then he could get a crack at fifth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro.

    It's a good matchup for Paire. He defeated del Potro at Rome last year in their only career meeting. He has the firepower to compete with the big Argentine, and his footwork is quicker. Why not do it again?

    Paire could conceivably run into Nadal in the quarterfinals, but there is plenty of work to do to get there. He must keep his emotions in check and take a page of inspiration from his friend and sometimes hitting partner, Stanislas Wawrinka.

    It's time for him to have a big tournament and move his career forward.

Fernando Verdasco

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    The other lefty Spaniard has provided a handful of great tennis moments.

    Who can forget his great 2009 Aussie Open semifinal performance against Nadal. He outhit his more esteemed compatriot and was painfully close to the final. It may still have been the most grueling match Nadal has ever fought, with all apologies to the 2012 Aussie Open final.

    Fernando Verdasco nearly knocked out Murray at 2012 Wimbledon. Had he continued to overpower Murray and hold on to his two-set advantage, the curse of Fred Perry would be alive and well. (And perhaps Djokovic would have split the four 2013 Grand Slam opportunities with Nadal.)

    Verdasco knows he can play with anyone. He has experienced world-class competition and success with Davis Cup play.

    He also has an interesting draw. He would be the dangerous third-round foe to Roger Federer, and depending on the Swiss Maestro's play, possibly the favorite.

    If he is on his game, there is a reasonable possibility he can navigate through other players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray to advance to the semifinals.

    It's a tall order, but Verdasco can be the dark horse of the tournament.

Jelena Jankovic

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    It's easy to forget that Jankovic was once the No. 1 player in the world. Five years have passed since her strong 2008 season, when it seemed she could become a future Grand Slam winner.

    She is a solid baseliner with enough skill in her arsenal to create points despite a weak serve. But if the draw turns messy, she could ride her way well into the second week.

    Jankovic could meet Simona Halep in the fourth round if she plays well. A possible quarterfinals match versus Maria Sharapova could be an opportunity to return to a Grand Slam semifinals for the first time since 2010.

Marin Cilic

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    Marin Cilic's first-round match versus Marcel Granollers is one of the more interesting bouts of the first round, but the talented Croat hopes for a much longer journey at the Aussie Open.

    Back from a four-month doping suspension, Cilic has the serve and offensive groundstrokes to contend against the top players.

    What he needs is a dose of confidence, mental toughness and positive results. Success in Melbourne could be a career boost and set him up for the kind of year Wawrinka had in 2013.

    Why can't he find the consistency to defeat Top 10 players on at least a semi-regular basis? That's his next step.

    If he advances to the second round, Cilic is slated to potentially face Gilles Simon, Tsonga and Federer. They will all be formidable challenges in their own way, but this kind of lineup is what Cilic needs to become a more relevant top-flight threat on the ATP tour.

Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    Two years ago, Alexandr Dolgopolov was ranked No. 13. Times have not been good lately with his fall to No. 56. It's easy to forget he is still on the ATP tour.

    At least he has been entertaining. Dolgopolov was a great draw at Sydney, and he upset Jerzy Janowicz to reach the quarterfinals against Bernard Tomic. Though he was defeated, it was a reminder that his flair and shot-making give tennis fans an inflated hope that he can contend in future big matches.

    If he can get through the second-round challenge against fickle Jeremy Chardy, Dolgopolov could provide the other half of an energetic clash of little men versus third-seeded David Ferrer.

    He's a long shot, but he could become an entertaining story.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

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    She may be one of the most underrated players in the WTA, so much so that tennis fans may forget that Svetlana Kuznetsova is a two-time Grand Slam champion (U.S. Open 2004; French Open 2009).

    Kuznetsova began a mini-comeback of sorts in 2013, playing especially well in the first half of the season. She reached the quarterfinals in Australia and Roland Garros, and at the latter was the only player to take a set from Williams.

    Though her quarter of the bracket is tough, she could most certainly overcome Stephens in the third round. If she plays her best tennis, she could realistically challenge Victoria Azarenka.

    She has great variety with her strokes and can present problems for opponents with her forehand. Her key will be to play with the confidence and strength that made her a big winner several years ago.

Vasek Pospisil

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    Vasek Pospisil's ranking would be higher had he not missed the Australian Open and early months of 2013 due to his battle with mononucleosis. Since April, his world ranking has climbed from No. 141 to No. 30.

    He gained more attention competing for Canada's Roger Cup when he defeated Tomas Berdych and eventually arrived at the semifinals.

    He is another player in his early 20s looking for that special breakthrough to find the belief and confidence to be a star. He has a great chance to advance to the third round to test himself against Wawrinka.

    Pospisil is athletic but has shown good instincts in learning to finish points. He explained to Rachel Brady of The Globe and Mail that this has been the designed part of his recent success: "The general theme is to be more aggressive. I’m making my way toward the net, improving my volleys, to finish the point at the net quicker."

    Better conditioning, more success and an aggressive mentality bode well for this young Canadian prospect. How far can he fly in 2014?

Tommy Haas

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    Tommy Haas worked his way to tennis relevance and the No. 12 ranking in 2013. He was very much on the radar into the summer, but his comeback story is now old news. Maybe he is poised for a super story at the cakewalk draw he has been handed at the Australian Open.

    Unless his sweet backhand is misfiring, or his feet are too sluggish to steal points at net, Haas should cruise to a fourth-round match versus the fragile Berdych. It's the kind of matchup of which Haas can improvise with a more creative arsenal to knock off the seventh-seeded Czech.

    A victory could set up a quarterfinal battle against third-seeded Ferrer. It could be a tossup match for the rights to play Djokovic.

    One thing to watch is how much energy Haas will expend in the first week. Can he play efficient enough to dominate the easy matches? Good recovery and rest will be important to possibly tackle Berdych and Ferrer.