Commentary

Temperamental talents tango in Oz

Updated: January 16, 2012, 9:15 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Ryan Harrison suffered a doubly cruel blow when he was pitted against Andy Murray at the Australian Open.

Murray is part of the elite four who have distanced themselves from the rest of the men's pack and thus isn't someone you want to face in the opening round. The fourth seed particularly likes Australia, making two of his three Grand Slam finals in Melbourne, and he promises to go deep again after beginning 2012 with a title in Brisbane.

"It's going to be tough for Ryan," Andy Roddick, a mentor to Harrison, admitted to a small group of reporters Sunday. "I saw the kid work every day; he busted his ass in the offseason. He wants to be a player. I wish he wasn't playing Murray in the first round."

The vast British media that flocks over Murray is an inquisitive bunch. Thus it was little surprise Harrison was hauled in for a news conference in an auxiliary interview room Sunday. They wanted to know anything and everything about the dapper 19-year-old. Such formal, pre-tournament sessions with journalists are usually limited to contenders and home hopes.

Harrison handled the situation with aplomb.

He was charming, calm and, in what came as no surprise given his makeup, confident. What was his own reaction upon learning he had to face the Scot, who reached at least the semis in all four majors last year?

Harrison, ranked 77th, was indeed far from overawed.

"I was excited," he said, genuinely. "It wasn't disappointing. My first thought was that I was going to be playing on a big court. I believe in myself. I believe in my game. He's obviously a great player. But I feel if I do the things I'm capable of doing, I'm going to have a good chance to win."

The combatants share similarities: They don't lack emotion and are highly talented. They have diverse games and carry the hopes of a nation or, in Murray's case, Kingdom. Although Murray is a serious Grand Slam threat now, Harrison, in his second full year on the tour, is often tabbed as the next big American thing.

More recently, Harrison and Murray hired new coaches.

Murray teamed with eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl in an effort to end his Grand Slam drought, and Harrison went full time with the more modest Grant Doyle. The building blocks already were in place since Doyle and Harrison worked together on and off in 2011.

One of the first orders of business for Doyle is to curb Harrison's outbursts. Harrison racked up fines last season for various infractions, most notably tossing his racket into a tree during French Open qualifying.

Harrison knows he has to change, but he isn't about to hit the mute button, either.

"I'm a very energetic person," he said. "I've had some moments where it's gotten out of hand at times, but one of the big things for me this year is learning how to channel that into positive emotion as much as possible. One of the things I'm trying to do is get a lot more positive early in matches. I'm never going to be a guy that goes side to side and doesn't say anything."

Neither, it seems, is Murray.

Observers are keen to see whether Murray will dare berate Lendl when he's struggling on court. In the past, Murray publicly vented his frustration on another high-profile coach, Brad Gilbert.

Murray and Lendl, who each possess a dry sense of humor, are getting along swell. After all, it is the honeymoon phase.

"I really enjoy being around him," Murray said in a news conference. "He's been good fun. As you probably expect, he has a lot of great stories to tell."

Even though Harrison tested top players at Slams in 2011 -- Robin Soderling at Roland Garros and David Ferrer at Wimbledon -- odds are that Murray will advance.

In that case, he'd meet either Xavier Malisse or Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the second round.

The winner there will no doubt be put on the hot seat by the British scribes, too.

Prediction: Murray in four.

Maria Sharapova (4) versus Gisela Dulko

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Paul Crock/Getty ImagesMaria Sharapova last won a Grand Slam here at Melbourne in 2008.

Sharapova and Dulko have several things in common, too. They have no shortage of male fans, and their significant others are professional athletes. Dulko's husband is Argentine international soccer player Fernando Gago, and Sharapova's fiancé is ex-NBA player Sasha Vujacic.

On court, however, Sharapova holds the significant edge, winning three Grand Slam titles, while Dulko has never lived up to the hype.

Yet, if nothing else, Dulko has garnered a reputation for being a giant killer at Slams -- knocking off none other than Sharapova at Wimbledon in their previous meeting three years ago.

Her cause in Melbourne will be helped by Sharapova's recent health woes. A left ankle injury sustained in Asia has left the Russian short of matches, and she bailed from Brisbane last week.

Publicly, at least, she claims the ankle is fine.

"It's healed pretty well," Sharapova said. "It just didn't heal as fast as I thought it would. But yeah, it feels good now."

Even if that's the case, then there are those double faults to worry about.

Trouble for Maria.

Prediction: Dulko in three.

Samantha Stosur (6) versus Sorana Cirstea

Speaking of players who haven't fulfilled their potential -- hello, Cirstea. Since reaching the French Open quarterfinals in 2009, the thumping Romanian has done little. Reaching a high of 23rd in the rankings in August of that year, Cirstea now sits at 59th. And that's an improvement from 2010, when she barely finished in the top 100.

But here's hope for her fans: Cirstea beat the reigning U.S. Open champ, Stosur, the last time they played at the Hopman Cup. She also reached the quarterfinals in Hobart last week (she actually held match points to reach the semis). Lastly, Stosur, who never plays particularly well in Melbourne, lost two of three prep matches.

Prediction: Stosur in three.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.