Australian Open 2014: Highlighting Early Dark-Horse Threats

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Australian Open 2014: Highlighting Early Dark-Horse Threats
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Tennis season's first Grand Slam is underway in Melbourne as the game's biggest stars take center stage at the 2014 Australian Open.

While all eyes are sure to remain on the favorites, the early rounds offer us a rare opportunity to venture off of the beaten path. 

Below I'll highlight four players who have emerged as early dark-horse threats Down Under.

Alexandr Dolgopolov

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Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov is flying under the radar coming into the year's first major. But don't sleep on the 25-year-old.

Sure, Dolgopolov was one-and-done in Melbourne a year ago. But keep in mind that we're talking about a player who reached the quarterfinals in Australia in his very first main draw appearance back in 2011. 

After topping Ricardas Berankis in straight sets in the first round, Dolgopolov has set himself up with a very winnable second-round match against France's Jeremy Chardy. Although it remains to be seen whether Dolgopolov is ready to string together a few wins, his performance in Round 1 suggests he's capable of making noise in the first week.

Dolgopolov was superb on serve against Berankis and finished with 37 winners through three sets. If he can play another clean match against Chardy, he has the game to threaten some of the top men's contenders in Australia. 

Ekaterina Makarova

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The No. 22 seed in the women's draw, Ekaterina Makarova isn't a household name by any means, but she's certainly a dangerous player at the season's first Slam.

The 25-year-old Russian has reached the quarterfinals in each of her past two trips to Melbourne Park and is poised to make another deep run Down Under after coming from behind to defeat Venus Williams in the first round on Day 1, per

It was a really tough match to play someone like Venus in the first round, she is such a great player. At 3-0 down [in the final set], I decided I had to fight for every point. I just kept fighting, and I turned around the match.

Makarova dropped the opening set to Williams in 31 minutes but was much-improved in the return game over the final two sets as Williams' unforced error count soared. 

The two-time Aussie Open quarterfinalist will take on unseeded American Irina Falconi in the second round and will have an excellent shot to reach the fourth round and set up a potential showdown with two-time Australian Open finalist and No. 4 seed Li Na

Vasek Pospisil

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Up-and-coming Canadian Vasek Pospisil is seeded 28th in the men's draw in 2014 despite making his first-ever appearance in the Australian Open main draw this January. 

Thanks to some impressive play down the stretch in 2013, including a semifinal appearance at the Canada Masters in Montreal, the 23-year-old is on the radar and officially a force to be reckoned with on the ATP tour. 

After cruising past Samuel Groth in the opening round on Day 1, Pospisil is staring down another winnable match against Australia's Matthew Ebden in Round 2.

However, there's no telling how far Pospisil can go in Melbourne. After all, one of his biggest strengths is his serve, which features incredible pace. In his straight-sets victory over Groth, Pospisil won a remarkable 90 percent of his first-serve points for the match, surrendering just two total break-point chances to his opponent from start to finish. 

If Pospisil can continue to serve lights-out moving forward, his confidence will continue to grow and you can bet he'll be a tough out for anyone. 

Alison Riske

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The upside for American women at the 2014 Australian Open is tremendous with Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens leading the way. But with talented young players like Alison Riske starting strong in Round 1, the long-term future is bright.

Which dark-horse threat has the best shot to survive into the second week?

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Riske, a 23-year-old from Pittsburgh, upset 23rd-seeded Russian Elena Vesnina in the first round, winning in convincing fashion in straight sets. 

The unseeded American lost her previous two first-round matches Down Under prior to her upset win. But tennis fans shouldn't be all that surprised by Riske's early success. After all, she's coming off a fourth-round appearance at the 2013 U.S. Open last summer and a run to the third round at Wimbledon before that.

Riske will match up against unseeded Belgian Yanina Wickmayer in the second round in a match she's more than capable of winning. Moving forward, keep an eye out for Riske's first serve. She managed to put two-thirds of her first serves in play against Vesnina, winning a ridiculous 96 percent of those points. 

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