Australian Open Week 2 Prep Previews: Sydney, Hobart and Auckland
The opening week of the 2011 season contained a few miracles: another jaw-dropping tweener from Fed, an "Arn"believable triumph in Auckland, a week without Andy Roddick harassing umpires...scratch that last one.
How's the second week of crucial Australian Open prep shaping up? I take a look at the four tournaments-in-progress here.
Considering the warm-up period for the Australian Open is so short, the tournaments beforehand usually get great fields. Sydney's no exception—even Serena, known usually for going into the year's first major cold, was drawn out of hiberation the last couple years to play in the coastline city.
She'll be missed this year, as will two-time defending champ Elena Dementieva. But the packed draw is still mightily impressive—Caroline Wozniacki, Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic have already been eliminated, but Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka and hometown favorite Sam Stosur are all alive.
Wozniacki was bundled out just a short while ago by pint-sized Dominika Cibulkova in straights—not a great sign for the world No. 1, especially after the thrashing she just suffered at the hands of Zvonareva in Hong Kong.
Clijsters, meanwhile, has rolled into the quarters—defeating a couple of counterpunchers in Dulgheru and Zahlavova Strycova, losing just eight games thus far. Next up could be a much different brand of tennis if Azarenka can defeat Shahar Peer. I'd love to see another match between the Belgian and the Belarussian. It'll be a good first test for Kim in the new year, a measuring stick to see how well and how consistently she's hitting the ball. You've got to think redeeming herself after last year's horrid performance in Melbourne, when she looked listless and unfocused in winning one game to Nadia Petrova in the third round, is absolutely crucial.
For Azarenka, whether she can topple Clijsters will answer a lot of questions about her chances in Melbourne. Last year, the Belgian—at 27—was the youngest Grand Slam winner on the WTA. The tour's been in severe need for one of the young girls at the top to step up and bring it at the Majors, and a lot of times the biggest factor in doing just that is gaining some much-needed confidence. I don't think Azarenka will beat Kim here, but if she plays her tough, it'll be a good sign for the Aussie.
Seconds before writing this sentence, live scores from Sydney confirmed that Flavia Pennetta just scored a huge win over Zvonareva in straights in the Russian's opening match. Pennetta's had Vera Z.'s number as of late, but the Italian pulled out of last week's Brisbane tourney with illness and was coming up against a woman who had demolished the world's top player only a few short days ago. I had picked Zvonareva to head to the final before writing this, but serving 11 double faults and getting broken six times was never going to take her there. Pennetta, though, now has a great shot to spar for the trophy—she's up next against streaky Aravane Rezai or newcomer Bojana Jovanovski, both winnable opponents.
Also in this bottom half is eighth seeded Li Na (or is it Na Li?), already in the quarters thanks to a pretty cozy draw. She'll play either Kuznetsova or Stosur, locked in a third set as I type. Both Stosur and Kuzy looked good in opening matches, but their foes weren't in top shape. Wickmayer, who fell to Stosur in a close two-setter, had just played the final in New Zealand; Dokic, schooled by the Russian 6-2, 6-2, said she's been sick for the past week or so. No matter who wins, I still like Pennetta's chances—particularly after today's great upset.
Top Half: (3) Clijsters d. Kleybanova
Bottom Half: Pennetta d. Kuznetsova
Final: (3) Clijsters d. Pennetta
The men's draw in Sydney isn't as nearly as action-packed as the women's—granted, it's not as top-level a tournament, but it'll still be an interesting way to check out the players who showed up.
Most of the top men decided to leave a gap week before the Aussie, so Sam Querrey at No. 18 is the highest seed here. World No. 20 Marcos Baghdatis pulled out with a groin injury—hopefully (and probably) nothing serious—right before the tournament's start, leaving a smattering of guys ranked in the low 20s and 30s as the rest of the seeds.
But tucked away in the draw is a much-loved hulking Argentine wildcard—DelPo is back! He scraped by in his opener...could...he...go...all...the...way...?
Querrey's got a very manageable section to work with in the upper half—tough players but not tough enough to take him down. A young gun to start—Dolgopolov (did he take off the Jr.?) or Tomic—then, most likely, Gilles Simon. All formidable but very beatable. The semis could see the hulking American go up against the likes of Gulbis, Andreev, Stakhovsky or Garcia-Lopez, the latter two scoring a couple tight first-round wins. All four of those guys are reputable on hard courts—Gulbis has the flare, Andreev's got the firepower, Double S has a huge delivery and Garcia-Lopez possesses a deceptively tricky baseline game. Still, with the first-round bye in his pocket, I like the third-seeded Latvian to get through that little section.
Seeing how he'll do against Querrey is comparable to how Azarenka does against Clijsters—in terms of measuring up to the next level of competition. Gulbis needs and wants to break through to that next tier, just as Querrey's done—the American is solidly entrenched in the Top 20 and, in my mind, looks poised to rise even higher. So scoring an upset over the top seed here would really jumpstart Gulbis' season.
With the withdrawal of Baghdatis—and subsequent replacement with Lukasz Kubot—this lower half becomes a bit more up for grabs. Del Potro, who eked past fourth seed Feliciano Lopez in the first round by saving a match point, plays tricky German Florian Mayer in Round 2. The U.S. Open champ had trouble with the guy in last year's Australian, so I think Mayer might take advantage of DelPo's poor health and go all the way to the semis.
This bottom half also contains seeds Gasquet and Troicki, who had moderately successful tournaments last week. I actually would have picked world No. 40 Denis Istomin—a 6'2", 200 lb. Uzbek with a really entertaining game—to potentially sneak through here, but the guy was waxed 6-0, 6-1 by unheralded Andreas Seppi in the first round.
I'm assuming Seppi played great (although Istomin's serve stats were atrocious), but he'll have to step it up against Gasquet in Round 2. I really like the Frenchman here. He showed us good stuff in Chennai and has a spark back inside that shows he wants to get back to a consistent level of top tennis.
Top Half: (1) Querrey d. (3) Gulbis
Bottom Half: (5) Gasquet d. Mayer
Final: (5) Gasquet d. (1) Querrey
So Sydney's a hot blond at the bar. And Hobart's her homely, pockmarked sister hiding in the bathroom. What kind of name is Hobart anyway?
Alright, maybe that's a bit harsh. It's not that Hobart's draw is ugly, it's just that it features a lot of...familiar faces from last week. None of whom really make you want to buy 'em a drink.
Dinara Safina's unlucky streak doesn't seem to want to end anytime soon. She drew second seed Wickmayer in last week's Auckland tourney, then came up against top seed Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli in Hobart. And it wasn't pretty. Bartoli was ruthless, sacrificing just one game in the first-round victory. The tournament's been posting some full matches on YouTube, including Bartoli-Safina.
While there wasn't much to watch, I did notice some troubling things about Safina's game. Like last week against Wickmayer, she was brewing with intensity yet just self-imploded with errors—they flowed off her racket easily against Bartoli. She's also changed her serve up. The old motion was already very disjointed but had its own special rhythm; now, the wind-up is awkward and slow and, as I said, downright troubling.
Give Bartoli credit for playing well, though. She looked awesome last week in Brisbane—falling in the semis to a red-hot Petkovic—much better than I thought she'd be. And she didn't give Safina anything in the first round. She thrives when she plays down at this level. Tough competition could be on the horizon—Zakopalova had a solid year in 2010, and you've got to love Jarmila Groth's game—but the Frenchwoman should move on.
There's a lot of opportunity down in the bottom half. I love wild card Alicia Molik's comeback story, and she looked good against Arvidsson in Round 1—especially considering Arvidsson was so, so close to beating eventual titleholder Arn in Auckland last week.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, benefiting from a hurt Pavlyuchenkova in Round 1, is coming off an impressive Hopman Cup victory—where her doubles play was top notch, and she pushed Justine Henin hard in the final.
Alla Kudryavtseva could also take advantage of the wide-open field. The Russian has recently torn open some weak draws like this one on her way to the final rounds. But I like Shuai Peng (or Peng Shuai or feng shui...or whatever) to come through here. Her semi against Wickmayer last week in Auckland was awesome—the most impressive and entertaining women's match so far of this very young season—and I think she'll carry the confidence from that thriller into this tournament.
Top Half: (1) Bartoli d. Baltacha
Bottom Half: Peng d. Kudryavtseva
Final: (1) Bartoli d. Peng
This week, the men grace Auckland with their presence—will we see another miraculous Arn-esque victory in the land of Kiwis?
There are definitely several unseeded dark horses who could step up and do just that—skyrocketing Germans Tobias Kamke and Phillipp Petzschner, veteran Tommy Robredo and last week's Chennai finalist Xavier Malisse could all do serious damage (although Malisse is locked right now in a third set tussle with the indefatigable Arnaud Clement).
The Spaniards and South Americans came out in full force in New Zealand as well—seeds include No. 1 David Ferrer, No. 2 Nicolas Almagro, No. 4 Albert Montanes, No. 6 Juan Monaco, No. 7 David Nalbandian and No. 8 Thomaz Bellucci. Third seed John Isner, defending champ, is also in the works. I think Auckland could very well shape up to be the most entertaining of the four tourneys on the docket in Week 2.
I like a rematch of last year's Valencia final in the tip-top section's quarterfinal—Ferrer vs. countryman Marcel Granollers, a net-charger with an awkward but mystifyingly awesome two-handed backhand. I was going to go with Bellucci as a semifinal pick, but the Brazilian struggled mightily against redheaded Grandfather Time—American qualifier Michael Russell in round one. So let's insert Montanes in there instead.
If Ferrer can beat young gun Kamke—2010 ATP Newcomer of the Year—in his opening match, I think he's got a great shot at getting to the championship. I'm actually surprised the Spaniard hasn't posted better results at the Australian over the years, with his best result being a lone quarterfinal. The gritty Plexicushion bounces high and is a lot slower than the other hardcourt major, so you'd think a dirtballer like Ferrer would favor it.
We could be in for some blockbuster quarterfinal matchups if the seeds hold—Nalbandian vs. Isner and Monaco vs. Almagro.
Each man will have his challenges in getting there—Nalbandian taking on Petzschner, Isner potentially facing Haase and Almagro playing Romanian Victor Hanescu, who ousted an in-form Kevin Anderson in a three-setter first round.
I favor Isner's chances down here. He's the defending champion, so he knows he can bring his best on the surface and has great memories from last year's tournament. I think, like Querrey, he can rise even further in 2011—especially without many lingering distractions from his Mahut marathon. Plus, he just posted up a great week in Perth at the Hopman Cup, taking the title there with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Top Half: (1) Ferrer d. (4) Montanes
Bottom Half: (3) Isner d. (5) Monaco
Final: (3) Isner d. (1) Ferrer