Sunday, January 16, 2011

Australian Open Day 1 preview: Sharapova Leads Off

Maria Sharapova is playing with a new racquet and -- thanks to a first round loss to Maria Kirilenko last year -- no rankings points to protect.
Maria Sharapova will get the opportunity to exorcise some of 2010's demons right off the bat when she opens the Australian Open on Rod Laver arena against Tamarine Tanasugarn. Maria was extremely unlucky last year in terms of draws at the Slams, but in my opinion she's a lot better off this year in Australia than she has been in any of the last four Slams.

Last year she had to open with Maria Kirilenko, and things went horribly for Maria. She played one of her worst matches of the year against her compatriot, spewing double faults and errors (21 df's and 63 UFE's) in the stunning first-round loss.

This year, she's in a lot better shape.

She's back to serving much better, she's gotten a lot of her confidence back after the shoulder surgery, and -- finally -- she's got an easier draw. There are some who argue that being drawn into Venus' quarter is just as bad as what she had last year. Perhaps they are right, but in my opinion, it doesn't get any tougher than Henin in the third round of Roland Garros, followed by Serena in the fourth round of Wimbledon. Wozniacki in the fourth round of U.S. Open was easier -- and yes it was very disconcerting to see Sharapova outclassed by Sunshine in such a big match -- but a lot of that might simply have to do with the fact that Wozniacki played the match of her life against Maria last year.

I think Venus is a better match up for Sharapova. The two have split six career meetings, and Venus is still very dangerous, but Sharapova can slug with the best of them. It's when she has to run like a rabbit that Sharapova gets into trouble, and that's something that Venus doesn't force her opponents to do. If they do meet, short points will be the norm, and fatigue shouldn't be a factor.

I like Sharapova's draw, is what I'm trying to say, and if she does end up playing Venus in the fourth round, I think she'll be a lot better off than she'll have a better chance to make her first Slam quarterfinal since the '09 French Open.

But ultimately Maria's going to have to win a few big matches, regardless of who she plays, to become the Grand Slam threat that she used to be. Her road back to being that player starts today on Rod Laver.

Here are some other great first rounders that I'll be keeping an eye on:

1. Yanina Wickmayer - Jarmila Groth, Rod Laver Arena, 7Pm

I think this is the worst possible draw for the young Belgian. Good thing she's got game, because she'll need it against Groth, who is fresh off her second WTA title (Hobart) and is currently ranked 34. The fact that she lives in Melbourne, and will get the crowd support, will make this even more of an uphill battle for Wicky.

2. Svetlana Kuznetsova - Alison Riske, Court 3, match 4

Sveta's been to the third round at Melbourne every year since 2004. Alison Riske is playing in her first Australian Open. Why do I think this is a match to see? Because Riske -- rapidly approaching the top-100 -- will bring everything she's got, and because anytime Kuznetsova plays there is sure to be drama.

3. Fabio Fognini - Kei Nishikori, court 8, 11 Am

A lot of eyes will be on Nishikori, and those will want to see if there is any difference in Nishikori the player after adding Brad Gilbert to his coaching team. He's got lots of firepower, and if Gilbert can help him develop his tactical approach he could start to move up the rankings. But Fognini is a very tough opponent in this kind of situation. He's never done much in Australia, but he appeared to relish the Slam stage last year in Roland Garros and Wimbledon when he scored huge wins over Gael Monfils and Fernando Verdasco.

This was a very unfortunate draw for Nishikori, and it will be a huge test.

4. Andrey Golubev vs. Grigor Dimitrov, Court 10, 3rd match

Golubev is all the way up to 38 in the rankings, and he's never been past the second round of a Slam. Dimitrov, meanwhile, has too huge of a following for a player who has made one slam appearance in his career. Is Dimitrov ready for the big stage at the tender age of 19, or will this first-rounder simply be an opportunity to get his feet wet? He cites cars, and watches as his hobbies, so first round prize money won't do for long for a man of Dimitrov's taste.

5. Caroline Wozniacki - Gisela Dulko, Rod Laver Arena , 2nd match.

Caro's under the microscope now, and Gisela Dulko has made a habit of squeezing the life out of other "it girls" before. She took out Ana in the second round last year in Melbourne, and she sent Victoria Azarenka to the door at the French and the U.S. Open last year.

Could Wozniacki -- who has switched racquets, dresses, and apparently winning ways (losses in 2 exhibitions, and a first round loss to Cibulkova in Sydney) -- be Dulko's latest victim? Or will Wozniacki prove what Stella McCartney and Piotr Wozniacki already believe -- that she deserves the No. 1 ranking, and she has the game to prove it?

For this, that, the other thing, and more: Click today's Australian Open Order of Play

Enjoy the tennis!

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