Monday, January 24, 2011

5 Fourth Round Musings

Giant killer Alexandr Dolgopolov is the Ukraine's first Australian Open quarter finalist since 1995. Andy Murray is next up for him.
If you like drama and surprise mixed in with your usual dose of tennis's regal stars — Nadal, Federer, and Clijsters — then the fourth round of the Australian Open was right up your alley. Here's a look back at the last two days.

1. Watch out for Dolgo -- Alexandr Dolgopolov has been on a lot of people's radar for the last year or so. Now, he's on everybody's radar.

When slashed his way through Robin Soderling yesterday in very convincing fashion, it seemed a carbon copy of his stunner against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga two days earlier: Start slow and then come with a lethal sneak attack just when the opponent takes his foot of the gas.

Soderling, undefeated for the year, and having only been broken one time in his first three matches, was flummoxed by the 22-year-old's ability to read and react to his booming serve. Dolgopolov broke him 9 times in the final four sets of the match, and used his unorthodox style of play to take Soderling off of his game.

I think a lot of players are going to have trouble with Dolgopolov's unorthodox playing style. The tempo and look of his service motion are very unique, he runs like a rabbit after three cups of coffee, and he displays a natural ability to play shots that keep his opponents off balance. He may have a weakness, but his next opponent, Andy Murray, might want to avoid asking Tsonga or Soderling what that weakness might be. Neither of them seemed to have a clue.

2. Schiavone-Kuznetsova: I've written extensively about this brilliant match already, but since I can't stop thinking about it I won't stop writing about it either. I've come to the conclusion that Schiavone is the best defensive player in the women's game, bar none. Her desire to compete is monumental. She is the Rafa of the WTA (same strings, too), breaking the hearts of the hard hitters time and time and again with her ability to anticipate, retrieve, and regain traction in points that have seemingly been lost. Svetlana, to her credit, nearly put her down for the count.

It's going to be very interesting to see what kind of bounce Francesca will have today against Wozniacki. My guess is she'll be on her game. Even if she's hurting, she'll hardly show it. She's a competitor on another level, and if I was a young WTA player I would be looking to her for inspiration.

3. Petra the Pterodactyl: I was commenting that Petra Kvitova was channeling her inner crow when she screeched after big points in her three-set win over Flavia Pennetta yesterday on Hisense. But another tennis-obsessed tweeter came up with a better analogy. Kvitova sounds like a pterodactyl. Or she looks like one. Or she plays like one. Or she swoops in to clean up sitters after that nasty lefty serve out wide like one. So, pterodactyl it is.

Watch her play — and hear her squawk against — Vera Zvonareva in the quarters and let me know what you think.

She struggled from the service line a bit yesterday, but the 20-year-old Czech managed to keep with her tradition of only surrendering one service break per match. That's mighty damn inmpressive, and if it continues, is there any reason to believe that she can't be the last woman standing in Melbourne?

In other related news, Kvitova announced to the press that she only plans to wear braces for two more months. It's not a kangaroo story, but it is slightly juicy nonetheless, don't you think?

4. Rafa Sweats Less, Plays Better: Count me among the ones concerned a little bit about Rafa's status after his 3rd-round match with Aussie Bernard Tomic. I just felt that Rafa looked a little subdued out there, and perhaps a little irritable.

It was no surprise that Rafa mentioned the fact that he has been sleeping more than usual of late, and feeling more tired in practice. He also mentioned the sweating, but he didn't need to. Anybody who viewed his match with Tomic could see that Rafa was uncharacteristically drenched. It seemed as if changing shirts at changeovers was insufficient — Rafa looked as if he needed to change it after every point.

Nadal was still a little more irritable than usual last night in his fourth-rounder against a recently rejuvenated Marin Cilic, but as he worked his way into the match, you could see that his level of play was getting closer and closer to where it'll need to be for him to become the first male player to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time since the venerable Rod Laver.

There has been a lot going on in Melbourne over the first 8 days of the tournament, I can honestly say that Rafa has become a little bit of a back story for the moment. I think it's mainly because we've come to expect him to breeze through the early rounds, and we know we'll be able to concentrate on the exploits of the surly Spaniard in the final week.

Well, here we are, and if there are any lingering concerns in terms of Rafa's health, all questions will undoubtedly be answered when he faces the challenge of grinding out a match with his in-form compatriot, David Ferrer, in the quarters.

5. The Battle of Switzerland - Roger's been good thus far in Melbourne, but he's also gone into shankapottamous mode at times, leaving us all wondering if he's up for the challenge of elevating his game in the final three rounds, where the fins of hungry sharks abound.

Meanwhile, Stan the Man has been playing the best tennis of his career. Wawrinka, in spite of his well-documented romantic failings, seems to be in a good place on the tennis court. He appears to be in complete harmony with his coach, former Safin steerer, Peter Lundgren, and his stone cold drubbings of Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick are proof that he's hitting the ball as cleanly as he ever has.

Is Stan ready to make the next step? He was a tick or two from the semis at the U.S. Open, where he defeated Andy Murray and Sam Querrey but ran into an eventual roadblock by the name of Mikhail Youzhny.

In Melbourne, a more noteworthy roadblock awaits. His larger-than-life compatriot, the man who has lived in the rarefied air of the top-2 for the better part of the decade while Stan has stayed low in the jungle, looking for less accomplished scalps to earn his living.

I'm sure — even though he'd never say it — Wawrinka would like nothing more to exact one small iota of revenge against his good friend and father figure. Whether their relationship is amicable, passive-aggressive, or downright warm and cuddly, why shouldn't Wawrinka be burning to step out of the man's shadow for one week?

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