Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Updated: January 19, 3:19 AM ET
Can a first-timer break through in Oz?
By Ravi Ubha
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The women's tour was awash with first-time Grand Slam winners last year. One by one, Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur picked up titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, respectively.
Breaking through on the men's side is distinctly more difficult, courtesy of Nole, Roger and Rafa. But there's always a chance it could happen -- and even here in Melbourne, too.
With the Australian Open approaching the end of the first week, who are the top 10 contenders to nab a maiden Grand Slam title Down Under in a week and a half?
Here are our favorites:
10. Bernard Tomic: He's not the likeliest candidate -- yet -- but Tomic is most certainly the most popular in these parts. The tall, talented, unorthodox 19-year-old rallied from two sets down to beat Fernando Verdasco and came back again against Sam Querrey on Wednesday. He gets a player who'll be more tired in the third round, too, in Alexandr Dolgopolov Jr.
But if he advances, Roger Federer likely awaits.
9. John Isner: The first thing many think of when it comes to Isner is his big serve. Or, maybe the cricket match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Lost in the shuffle is how hard Isner competes. More proof came against David Nalbandian, when Isner played through a leg cramp -- with minimal fuss -- to advance in nearly five hours.
He says he'll be ready to go against Feliciano Lopez in the third round, and you'd think he is the favorite to progress. Will the legs be fresh enough thereafter, probably versus Rafael Nadal?
8. Agnieszka Radwanska: She was in trouble against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round. But as she customarily does, the likeable Pole found a way to win. She, too, is a fine competitor. And Radwanska has a nice path to the quarterfinals, where she'd probably face the surging, maturing Victoria Azarenka. That's tough, although Radwanska took Azarenka to three sets in Sydney and beat her last fall in Tokyo.
The problem is, even if she pulls off that upset, Kim Clijsters or Li, and then Serena Williams or Kvitova, would show up.
7. Milos Raonic: The mild-mannered gunslinger, was on a collision course with Nadal at Wimbledon last year. But he hurt his hip, an injury that necessitated surgery.
Raonic struggled when he returned, but it looks like he's back. Raonic won a title in Chennai, and his serve was untouchable. Like Isner, he can beat anyone, or almost anyone, when the serve is working.
He won't be overawed meeting Andy Roddick or Lleyton Hewitt. But it might be different if Novak Djokovic is on the other side of the net in the fourth.
6. David Ferrer: Yes, Ferrer is in the tournament.
He always flies under the radar, doesn't he? He drew a little more attention, however, after going five sets Thursday.
Ferrer won yet another title in Auckland and received a generous early-round draw in Melbourne, so he had to be chuffed. There now shouldn't be any danger for the Spaniard until the quarterfinals -- when that man, Djokovic, again surfaces.
Ferrer crushed Djokovic at the World Tour Finals. Djokovic, however, was spent in London. Ferrer could nab a set or even two against Djokovic -- but not three, unless it's super steamy.
5. Caroline Wozniacki: The world No. 1, yet she's only fifth on the list? Wozniacki's wrist is bothering her, and that's a bad sign given her best shot is the two-handed backhand. Then Wozniacki had to deal with a blister Wednesday.
A banged-up Wozniacki should still make it through to the quarterfinals. But from then on, it's Clijsters or Li, potentially Azarenka, then probably Williams or Kvitova.
The wait will likely continue.
4. Tomas Berdych: He didn't reach a Grand Slam final or even a semi last year, as he did in 2010, but as Berdych said, in 2011 he cemented his spot in the top 10 with consistent results. Now he wants to kick on at the majors and emulate countrywoman Kvitova.
Berdych looked sharp at the Hopman Cup alongside Kvitova, and some would say it'd be about time he ends his losing streak against Nadal -- if they clash in the quarterfinals (Berdych has lost nine in a row).
He doesn't lack belief facing Federer and would like his chances over five sets. Berdych has a recent win over Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2010, but he has lost three straight to Stanislas Wawrinka, his potential fourth-round foe.
3. Andy Murray: It's only a matter of time before Murray wins a Slam -- so we keep hearing. Rafa says it frequently, and new ATP head honcho Brad Drewett mentioned it Wednesday.
But it's harder now than it was a year or two ago. Djokovic, Murray's potential semifinal opponent, has elevated to another level, and guess what Murray's record against the big three was last season in Slams? 0-4.
Further, is Murray due for a slight hiccup after reaching all four Slam semis in 2011? He can coast to the quarterfinals (sorry, Gael), yet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won't be daunted in the last eight if they match wits. Tsonga has defeated Murray in Melbourne and had him in trouble in their only other Slam encounter, at Wimbledon.
2. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga enjoyed the healthiest season of his career in 2011, and the result was the best season of his career. Amazing how that works, eh?
He carried his form into the new campaign, triumphing in Doha, and his path to Murray is gentle. Kei Nishikori, a potential fourth-round opponent, downed Tsonga in the fall, but that was over three sets.
Not many players threatened Djokovic at Slams last year, but Tsonga was one of them. He took Djokovic to four sets in the Wimbledon semis -- and that was after failing to serve out the first. The crowd would be behind him.
Tsonga downed Federer at Wimbledon, which he'll take heart from, not their meetings since, and has toppled Nadal in Melbourne.
1. Victoria Azarenka: What's with holding up your index finger after matches, Vika? You're not No. 1 -- yet.
Azarenka hasn't wasted any time in her first two matches in Melbourne, destroying a promising teen and a local darling. She figures to have a tougher time against a surging Mona Barthel in the third round, although she'll be fully expected to progress.
Then at the business end, it's Radwanska, most likely Li or Clijsters, then Williams or Kvitova.
You wouldn't put it past her.
|Milos Raonic boasts a massive serve that few opponents would like to see. |
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.