Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Forgotten Quarter

The Australian Open is mere hours away at this point, and as play begins, all eyes will be on the favorites to win the tournament to see how their form is. A lot has been made of the stacked top half of the draw in Melbourne and the possibility of a rematch between Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic.  However, there is one quarter of the draw that has been overlooked significantly. David Ferrer's quarter is wide open and loaded with the possibility of a break-through performance.

It wasn't long ago that the Australian Open was the site of some of the biggest upsets in tennis. Whether it was Djokovic ending Roger Federer's streak of consecutive slam finals, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga taking out Nadal, or Marcos Baghdatis reaching the final, the Happy Slam was full of surprises.

This hasn't been the case in the last two years with the top four seeds all reaching the semifinals in both 2011 and 2012. However, Ferrer's quarter could potentially be the location of a huge surprise. With a spot in the semifinals up for grabs, it seems as though nobody in the quarter is prepared to take it. The eight seeds in this quarter of the draw have a combined record of 6-9, and six of the seeds have not even won a match yet this year.

The top seed in the quarter, Ferrer, went on a four-match losing streak to end 2013 after he upset Nadal. That proved to be the trend more than a fluke as he went on to be upset by two players ranked outside of the top 50 in his first two tournaments of the season. Last year's Wimbledon semifinalist, Jerzy Janowicz, won just a total of four games in his only match to get prepared for the first slam of the year.

Tomas Berdych isn't in any better form. Despite winning doubles in Doha, he was upset in straight sets in the first round by Ivo Karlovic, who is a potential third round opponent. The Czech has been known to suffer early upsets at the slams anyways. For seven years in a row, he has lost in the first round of at least one slam each year.

Also, Tommy Haas, Mikhail Youzhny, Ivan Dodig, and Kevin Anderson have all lost their only preparation match for Melbourne. So if all of this players, have such poor form coming into the slam, who is going to reach the semifinals? Someone in this section has to! These are the three unseeded players that I think have the best chance of making a run at the Australian Open.

1. Steve Johnson (USA)
This is a perfect storm for Stevie to have a breakthrough event at a slam. Not only is he playing in a weak section of the draw, but he is coming into this tournament in good form and will play under favorable conditions. Last week, he came one match away from qualifying for Auckland, where he was beat by college rival Bradley Klahn. However, he got into the draw as a lucky loser and made the most of it. He beat Marcos Baghdatis, who is always dangerous when he is playing down under. Then he knocked out one of the seeded players in this quarter, Kevin Anderson, in straight sets.

Johnson is no stranger to succeeding in extrememly hot temperatures. As a senior at USC, he had one of the best seasons in tennis history, which led to a National Championship. He knows what it takes to win, and has that winning mentality. When he gets on a roll he is tough to stop, which makes him dangerous to go deep in Melbourne.

The word on the streets is that the courts at the Australian Open are faster and the balls are lighter, which is more good news for the American. He loves to crank his serve and back it up with his best weapon, which is the forehand. The court speed and light balls play right into his strategy, which will make it very difficult to break his serve. This could be an exciting tournament for Johnson, who has never gone past a third round at a slam.

2. Alexandr Dolgopolov (Ukr)
In contrast to Johnson, Dolgopolov has had success at the slams before. In fact, in his first appearance at Melbourne Park, he upset Robin Soderling and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to the quarterfinals. Dolgopolov's physical issues have prevented him from getting a high enough ranking to be seeded, but nothing is stopping him from making another run. He has already knocked off one of the seeds in this quarter, defeating Jerzy Janowicz 6-2, 6-2.

Nobody knows what to expect from the Dog from week-to-week, but this could be a couple of the best weeks so far in his career.

3. Ricardas Berankis (Lit)
Dolgopolov's first round opponent, Berankis, is another guy who has a chance to make a run. Unlike either of the other two on this list, Berankis came up through qualifying, which could give him an advantage. Players who come up through qualifying sometimes are able to use the momentum from the previous week to surprise their first round opponents. Berankis comes into the tournament after having played some incredible tennis. In qualifying he won all six of his sets without losing more than four games in any set.

Berankis is also capable of going on big runs when he gets hot. The first time I ever saw Berankis play in person was in Los Angeles in 2012, where he got all the way to the final. And guess what! He came up as a qualifier that week. We already know that Berankis is on fire right now. The only question is can he keep it up?

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