Winners and Losers of the First Week at Australian Open 2014

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2014

Winners and Losers of the First Week at Australian Open 2014

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    Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    Week 1 of the 2014 Australian Open started off like a ball of fire. It was hot weather and grueling determination, mixed in with a little wrath, a smattering of boos and an improbable "lucky loser."

    But after the paper contenders burst into flames or melted away, the top ATP and WTA stars were still standing, minus the shocking elimination of superstar Serena Williams.

    Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been untouchable. Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray are right where they want to be: looking for the title.

    This is your midterm report for the Australian Open, where we examine the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis. These are your winners and losers.

Winner: Scorching Heat at Melbourne

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    Fiona Hamilton/Associated Press

    Mother Nature stole the headlines for Week 1 of the Australian Open. With terrifying heat reaching as high as 108 degrees F, people all over the world searched anecdotes ranging from Caroline Wozniacki's melting water bottle to Frank Dancevic's charge, as stated in BBC Sport, that conditions were "inhumane":

    Until somebody dies, they just keep going on with it and putting matches on in this heat. It's inhumane, I don't think it's fair to anybody.

    On Thursday, Australian Open organizers suspended matches in progress and more closely monitored their extreme heat policy.

    Thankfully for players and attending fans, the temperatures cooled by the weekend and are not projected to repeat these levels through the conclusion of the tournament.

    Players won and lost matches, but not as usual. Nobody defeats Mother Nature. She stole the show and then chose when to take her seat.

Loser: Juan Martin del Potro

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    Make no mistake about it: It is not a surprise to see Juan Martin del Potro trudging off another Grand Slam court without even a whimper of contention. He lost a five-set match to World No. 62 Roberto Bautista Agut.

    Last week, our article, "Top Storylines to Follow at 2014 Australian Open" was bewildered by the way tennis fans are enamored with Del Potro as a Grand Slam contender:

    It's also fair to question if he can develop a greater championship focus and aura. His personality is more relaxed, but there are times he seems to shrink away when the heat is on.

    Del Potro supporters will point out that the extremely hot temperatures affected the bigger, more lumbering Argentine star.

    Mats Wilander for Eurosport's "Game Sets and Mats" (postmatch comments on video) offered his opinion that Del Potro needs to work harder:

    I'm not sure he comes to these tournaments as prepared as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal...I don't think he does, and I think he needs to be physically a little bit stronger.

    He has never won a Masters 1000 tournament. He won his Grand Slam title way back in 2009; was this a fluke? Are his best years behind him? These are not unfair questions.

    Until he leaps forward, tennis fans need to shelve their expectations for the Argentine. As he presently performs, he is not a legitimate Grand Slam contender.

Winner: Stephane Robert

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    Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Say that you are a sports filmmaker and you want the most improbable story from the 2014 Australian Open. How about Frenchman Stephane Robert, ranked at No. 119?

    You decide: Let's take a 33-year-old journeyman with only four Grand Slam match wins in his entire career. He won't even get out of qualifying, but we will let him in as a "lucky loser" because Philipp Kohlschreiber has a strained hamstring.

    Nobody will really notice because his opponents are not exactly murderer's row. It would probably take a tennis guide and five hours on Google to ascertain that Aljaz Bedene, Michal Przysiezny and Martin Klizan are indeed tennis players and victims along the Robert victory trail.

    Hello, fourth round. Next up is Wimbledon champion Andy Murray.

    Will the tennis world witness an epic upset, or will Robert get trounced and pack up his five minutes of fame?

    This is your David vs. Goliath match and a chance to glimpse at a fringe professional player who now has a dream opportunity. Imagine if he topples Murrray and goes on to play Roger Federer?

    Who says tennis cannot take time out for dreams?

Loser: Australian Fans Who Booed Bernard Tomic

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    Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

    Look, I understand the antipathy towards Bernard Tomic. He has seemingly underachieved in his young career with some very lackluster results and effort. He has been accused of giving up or "tanking" in some of his matches.

    So perhaps Aussie fans were less than thrilled when their top young player retired after his much-anticipated first-round match versus No. 1 seeded Rafael Nadal. Tomic had lost the first set 6-4 but cited an injury near his left thigh. He now faces hip surgery and will miss an estimated 12 weeks.

    As he walked off the court, Tomic was booed.

    And it didn't stop there. Peter FitzSimons for the Sydney Morning Herald wrote an entire column about Tomic's lack of will, not buying the severity of Tomic's injury.

    But regardless of the disappointment sports fans may feel, it's still disgraceful to jeer at a player who is injured, especially a countryman. Athletes have to battle many kinds of difficulties, and fans are not often privy to the personal and internal degrees of these trials.

    Who knows how many of those fans called in sick from work to attend a day of tennis? They can continue to operate under a cloak of public anonymity while scourging an injured public figure.

    The Aussie tennis fans who booed Tomic deserve to chew on a burnt bagel.

Winners: Roger Federer and Andy Murray

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    Mark Kolbe/Associated Press

    Ho hum. Can anyone remember so little media attention for the combined efforts of Roger Federer and Andy Murray? Is it possible that they are so far under the radar that they are less of a story than the Melbourne weather?

    Apparently straight-sets victories for each player has not garnered more than a yawn and "let's wait and see."

    The good news for Murray is that he is getting in more work after being sidelined since September because of back surgery. He can play his way into better rhythm and timing in the crucible of Grand Slam competition. He even has the improbable "lucky loser" Stephane Robert to help tune up for either Federer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

    Federer also has a comeback of sorts after a tough 2013 filled with injuries and disappointing play. Do the three easy wins prove that he is closer to 2012 Federer?

    Not exactly. Federer also blasted his first three nondescript opponents at the 2013 U.S. Open. Then the wheels fell off with a one-sided defeat to Tommy Robredo. Federer fans will nervously anticipate his first real test versus fourth-round opponent Tsonga.

    Now it begins.

Loser: Serena Williams

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    Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    The pre-tournament expectations revolved around Serena Williams. Was it her tournament to lose? Could anyone stand up to her?

    Serena lost to an inspired and aggressive Ana Ivanovic, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. She was hampered by a bad back and once again unable to put together her best injury-free tennis at Melbourne.

    It's a great disappointment for Serena, who has not won the Australian title since 2010, her longest Grand Slam title drought.

    For now, all she can do is treat her back and hope she can regain her optimum fitness and mobility as 2014 kicks off into several pre-French Open tournaments.

    The other WTA stars must feel that the domination of Serena World just might have a few cracks in its foundation.

Winners: Other Top WTA Stars

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    No Serena Williams? The surviving stars of the WTA could not ask for a better opening.

    Serena's legendary career and recent grip on the WTA is a daunting hurdle for the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Li Na. Outwardly, they might express confidence in their prospects of defeating her, but trying to overcome her power, athleticism and mental toughness has been next to impossible.

    Without Serena, the field is wide open.

    Will the Azarenka and Stephens quarterfinal match be the de facto final?

    How about Simona Halep's bid for a title as she looks to overcome Jelena Jankovic and Maria Sharapova?

    Li Na and Ana Ivanovic must feel that Serena's departure has made it their destiny to win the tournament.

    The elimination of Serena has made this tournament more of a crapshoot, but don't think the rest of the players are too disappointed about it.

Loser: Petra Kvitova

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Petra Kvitova had a Wimbledon title in her pocket and had many tennis fans believing she could own the No. 1 ranking.

    Things have not gone as hoped for the sixth-seeded Australian Open contender. She crashed out in the first round 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 to No. 88-ranked Luksika Kumkhum, who is not exactly the next coming of Serena Williams.

    The key was Kumkhum's superior movement and ability to move Kvitova around the court. Scorching hot temperatures made it more difficult for larger players like Kvitova. It was too easy for her to fall back to her error-prone ways rather than patiently play the percentages.

    The sky may not be the limit for Kvitova's career, which is showing signs of gradual regression. She has failed to get to the fourth round in four of her last five Grand Slam appearances.

    As for 2014, being grounded from the Australian Open is a great disappointment.

Winners: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

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    Sang Tan/Associated Press

    Before the Australian Open had opened to strike a single tennis ball, writers and fans scrutinized the tennis draw, opining which quarter was toughest and comparing the unfairness of it all.

    A week later, there's a very different picture, and the Cinderella stories have nearly vanished. While would-be contenders like Juan Martin del Potro, Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz bow out, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic keep winning.

    Correction, Nadal and Djokovic are destroying their opponents. Ask Gael Monfils, who before his third round match with Nadal had somehow been considered the stiffest test of the third round.

    Uh, no. Unless Nadal's 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 pasting of Monfils was an aberration.

    Djokovic has also treated his opponents like sparring partners, jabbing and dancing his way to victory with plenty of energy in the tank for a possible quarterfinals match with Stanislas Wawrinka.

    If players are going to defeat Nadal, it may only get tougher with each successive round.

    Djokovic has been the most automatic semifinal entry the past four years.

    It's possible somebody could defeat them with a Herculean effort. It's possible either player could roll an ankle ("Careful, Rafa!") or succumb to injury. But in case anyone needs a reminder that they are the top two players in the world, they are dishing out demonstrations at the 2014 Australian Open.

Losers: Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    It would be the height of redundancy to separate the stories and results of Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis.

    Both are large, young players with oodles of Grand Slam potential. They have big serves and can hit through any other player on the ATP tour.

    They were two of the primary threats to challenge the weaker half of the draw and perhaps be the one to upend Novak Djokovic.

    And both of them curiously melted away like Caroline Wozniacki's water bottle. 

    Gulbis was swept in the second round by American journeyman Sam Querrey, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. Janowicz was hammered 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. In tennis, getting doubled up in games is a major blowout. (Janowicz subsequently revealed that he had a broken foot.)

    What next for these talented enigmas? Can they at least move into the second-tier contention circle of Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga?

    Or will they settle into spectacular, inconsistent tennis, just enough to tantalize the tennis dilettante?