10 intriguing ties of the Australian Open Men's First Round (10-6) - UBITENNIS
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10 intriguing ties of the Australian Open Men’s First Round (10-6)

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The Auckland winner has a tough opening match in Melbourne (image via currentevents.today)

The first round of a Grand Slam is often the most exciting, with sixty-four matches to be played, there is always scope for shocks, new names rising to the occasion, or an veteran rolling back the years to re-awaken past glories. I preview some interesting matches that could perhaps go under the radar, others that could provide potential shocks, and the matches that many will naturally be drawn to in the opening round.

 

10. Pierre-Hugues Herbert vs Pablo Andujar: So neither of these two players are seeded. So what? Andujar is ranked 59th compared to Herbert’s 167th. That in itself is enough to make this match interesting. Andujar has a shocking record on hard-courts recently, winning just two matches on the surface in 2015 (excluding Davis Cup). He beat 251st-ranked Frank Dancevic and a Jarkko Nieminen well on the way to retirement. It is worth mentioning that he lost in the first round last year to Marius Copil, who was ranked 194th, and that is a lower ranking than Herbert currently possesses. Herbert is also in fine form, having had to defeat Gastao Elias and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in qualifying. Pick: Herbert in straight sets. 

9. Julien Benneteau vs Nicolas Almagro: In previous years at a grand slam this match-up would not have taken place in the first round, and odds are that in a draw these men would both have a bracket with a number next to their names indicating a seeding. But those days are gone for both. They have struggled with injury. For Almagro, a nasty foot injury curtailed most of his 2014 and he has yet to rescale the heights that took him to a top-ten ranking. Benneteau missed all of 2015 post Indian Wells. Almagro at least most of 2015 even if his form was not great, and this event two years ago brought his best-ever run at a grand slam, when he served for a place in the semi-finals against David Ferrer. Benneteau played a Challenger event last week, and was well off the pace in a defeat to Alejandro Falla, where he picked up just three games. Pick: Almagro in straight sets.

8. Martin Klizan vs Roberto Bautista-Agut (24): Bautista-Agut will be cursing his luck to have been drawn against Klizan because this meeting is fraught with danger. These two have never met at a grand slam before, but have played each other five times (three times at ATP events and twice further down the ranks of professional tennis). The problem for Baustista-Agut is that though owning a 4-1 lead in all meetings, he has only been able to win in straight sets once. Matches involving players like Klizan are always about the day, and whilst he probably does not boast the upset potential that the likes of Ernests Gulbis or Marcos Baghdatis have claimed in the past, the Slovakian left-hander will be hard to defeat. Bautista-Agut is in fine form though, picking up the Auckland title, and will hope to carry that form into the the first slam of the year. Pick: Bautista-Agut in five sets. 

7. Noah Rubin vs Benoit Paire (17): This is one for the romantics of shocks out there but this match is undoubtedly an interesting one. Rubin is one of the lowest-ranked players in the draw, by virtue of his winning the USTA Challenger competition that yielded an Australian Open wildcard to the American who performed best over three Challengers towards the end of last season. An in-form Benoit Paire is one who can defeat the very best, as Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, Nick Kyrgios, and Grigor Dimitrov will all testify, having lost to the Frenchman in 2015. He may have improved his ranking considerably over 2015, in fact he lost in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne last year. But his year was still punctuated by losses to the likes of Tim Puetz and Marco Chuidinelli. A lot will depend on which version of Paire will show up. Rubin has not had a lot of experience at this level, and this is in fact just his second appearance in the main draw of a slam, and his first at the Australian Open. Pick: Paire in four sets.

6. Dominic Thiem (19) vs Leonardo Mayer: Mayer is perhaps the most difficult draw for seeds in the first round. The Argentinian is a good server, at home more than most of his countrymen on hard-courts, and he reached his career high ranking of 21 just last year. Thiem is one of those youngsters on the rise, along with Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios. But there are times where Thiem still looks out of his league against experienced opponents, and is not immune to surprising defeats. They have played three times including a match in a qualfying draw, with Thiem leading 2-1. Thiem’s wins were both tight, whilst Mayer won comfortably in the other. Pick: Thiem in five sets.

Highlights of Thiem vs Mayer from the Nice ATP final in 2015.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ds8PP4MGgNY

 

 

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas Play for the Men’s Championship

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Novak Djokovic this week in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

A year ago, Novak Djokovic experienced quite an embarrassing debacle.  After the unvaccinated Djokovic was initially granted an exemption and allowed to enter Australia, he was later detained, and eventually deported and prevented from competing at this tournament.  His refusal to get vaccinated continues to prevent Novak from competing in North American tournaments, missing Indian Wells, Miami, Canada, Cincinnati, and the US Open last year. 

 

But at the events Djokovic has been allowed to participate in over the past seven months, he has been nearly unstoppable.  Since the beginning of Wimbledon last June, he is now 37-2, with five titles.  Novak comes into this championship match on a 16-match winning streak, with seven of those victories against top 10 opposition.  With a win on Sunday, Djokovic not only ties Rafael Nadal in their ongoing race for history with 22 Major titles, but he also regains the World No.1 ranking, despite all the tennis he’s missed.

However, standing in his way is a hungry and confident Stefanos Tsitsipas.  This is the Greek’s second Major final, and the second time he’s encountered Djokovic in this round of a Slam.  Two years ago in the championship match of Roland Garros, Tsitsipas secured the first two sets, before losing to Novak in five.  If Stefanos can win one more set on Sunday, he’ll not only win his first Major title, he’ll also become the World No.1 for the first time.

Also on Sunday, the women’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, who have won six Majors as a team, face Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, who are vying for their first Major as a team. 


Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Novak Djokovic (4) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic’s excellence in the latter rounds of the Australian Open is rivaled only by Nadal’s excellence at Roland Garros.  Novak is now 19-0 in the semifinals and finals of this tournament, which is quite staggering.  He’s also won his last 27 matches at this event, and his last 40 in Australia in general, a streak that dates back over five years.  While Novak suffered a hamstring injury a week before this fortnight, he has still advanced to this final rather easily, dropping only one set through six matches.

Tsitsipas has now reached the semifinals or better in four of the last five years at the Australian Open, but this is his first time reaching the final.  He enjoys plenty of Greek support at this event, and appears to have some extra swagger in his step during this fortnight.  Stefanos has dropped three sets to this stage, and has been superb at saving break points.  Through six matches, he has saved 44 of 53 break points faced.

Both men feel fully at home on Rod Laver Arena, and have described it as their favorite court.  But this is their first meeting on RLA.  They’ve met plenty of times on other courts though, in a rivalry that’s been thoroughly dominated by Djokovic.  The Serbian leads 10-2, and has claimed their last nine matches.  That includes four matches that took place in 2022, in which Novak won eight of their nine sets.  They played three times within a six-week period this past fall on indoor hard courts, with their closest and best matchup taking place in the semifinals of Bercy, where Djokovic prevailed in a final-set tiebreak.

Djokovic is undeniably a huge favorite to win his 10th Australian Open.  But that common knowledge takes a lot of pressure off Tsitsipas, who was so close to defeating Novak the last time they met in a Slam final.  Djokovic has been rather unbothered by all competition during this tournament, even with an injured hamstring.  Can Stefanos pull off one of the bigger surprises in recent tennis history?  I expect him to challenge Novak on Sunday, but Tsitsipas’ backhand remains a liability. And with Djokovic determined to avenge what he sees as mistreatment a year ago in Australia, a Novak loss would be truly surprising.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Australian Open: Facing Tsitsipas For World No. 1 Spot May Be Different for Novak Djokovic

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Image via https://twitter.com/atptour/

It probably was a good thing that Novak Djokovic wasn’t facing a top opponent in the Australian Open semifinals. Certainly not one the caliber of Stefanos Tsitsipas.

 

Of course, Tommy Paul did his best. He just isn’t a top ten caliber player.

The American could rally with Djokovic, but when it came time to win the point or game, he  usually was nowhere to be found on the Rod Laver court.

DJOKOVIC WILL NEED TO BE BETTER

The fact that Tsitsipas is in contention for the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis is enough to ensure that Paul isn’t quite in the league with the Greek superstar.

Djokovic will need to be better than he was against Paul when he steps onto the court to face Tsitsipas on Sunday night in the Australian Open singles final.

There was Djokovic blundering his way through a one-sided 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 win over Paul. The scoreline should have been closer to 3-1-2. But Novak appeared to have all kinds of physical ailments — legs, knees, bandaged hamstring. Or just plain conditioning and breathing hard. You name it.

NIGHT-TIME DUTY ONCE AGAIN

It was just night time in Melbourne. You wonder what might have happened if Novak had been assigned some daytime duty like everyone else in the tournament. Say, like Tsitsipas had been assigned for his closer than the scores reflex in the Greek’s 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 win over Karen Khachanov in Friday’s other semifinal.

Tsitsipas is a real threat to claim the world’s top ranking on Sunday night with a victory over the legend from Serbia. Of course, in the 2021 French Open final, Tsitipsas won the first two sets against Djokovic.

It’s possible. Tsitsipas could come through this time.

A SHADOW OF THE OLD NOVAK

Novak was only a shadow of the old Djokovic Friday night. And that was against a player who may never earn a berth in another Grand Slam semifinal.

Of course, Djokovic wasn’t quite as out of it as Rafa Nadal was in the second-round blitzing by Mackenzie McDonald. But Nadal was nursing a hip injury. He may be a different player in Paris in four months.

Djokovic still has all of the big shots and serves he has displayed for much of the last two decades. He just didn’t seem to know where all of those weapons were headed in the semifinals.

IS NOVAK’S BAG OF TRICKS EMPTY?

Of course, if Novak pulls a solid performance out of his bag of tricks and denies Tsitsipas the world’s top ranking, Djokovic likely would stand in Nadal’s path in Paris to a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title.

The task won’t be easy. First, Novak has to take care of business on Sunday night. But with a record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title up for grabs, Djokovic may actually look like himself. 

As Novak says, he wants to be known as the best player in the world.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina Play for the Women’s Championship

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Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

2022 was a trying year for Aryna Sabalenka.  She completely lost her form on her second serve, striking double-digit double faults in many of her matches.  And in her third Major semifinal within a 14-month period, she again lost in heartbreaking fashion, by a score of 6-4 in the third for the third straight time.  Many athletes never recover from such issues and scar tissue.  But in just the first month of 2023, and after working with a biomechanics specialist to fix her serve, a calmer, more confident Sabalenka has achieved her first Major singles final.

 

2022 was a milestone year for Elena Rybakina.  Six months ago, the 23-year-old had only won two WTA titles at smaller events, and reached one Major quarterfinal.  Then she surprised the tennis world by winning Wimbledon this past July.  However, she was granted no ranking points due to the controversial backlash to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes.  And in the ensuing months, Elena was often banished to outer courts at bigger events, including this one, with court assignments unbefitting of a reigning Wimbledon champion.  Rybakina used all of this as motivation, and has achieved her second Major final just six months after her first.

Also on Saturday, the men’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Will an Aussie team triumph for a second year in a row?  Wild cards Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler will face Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski, in a first Major final for both of these partnerships. 


Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is a perfect 10-0 in 2023, and 20-0 in sets.  This is the fourth time out of the last six Majors she has advanced to the semifinals or better, and she already owns two Slam titles in women’s doubles with Elise Mertens.  Regardless of Saturday’s result, Aryna will reach a new career-high of No.2 on Monday.

Rybakina had lost five of her last eight matches heading into this fortnight, but has found her form as the event has progressed.  She has dropped only one set through six matches, to last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins.  Elena will debut inside the top 10 on Monday, as high as No.8 if she wins this final.  And she would be solidly inside the top five with her points from Wimbledon.

Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three matches have gone three sets.  In fact in all three, Sabalenka won the first and third sets, while Rybakina won the second.  They’ve played four years ago in Wuhan, two years ago in Abu Dhabi, and two years ago at Wimbledon. 

Aryna’s vastly-improved serve and demeanor have been crucial in advancing her to her first Major singles final.  But can she avoid double faulting, and remain calm, in what is the biggest match of her career?

No player’s serve has been more effective during this tournament than Rybakina’s.  As per Tumaini Carayol on Twitter, more than 50% of Elena’s serves have gone unreturned, which results in a lot of easy points.  And no player remains more calm on court than Rybakina, despite the berating comments her coach may share during the match

I expect Elena’s experience winning Wimbledon six months ago to prove extremely valuable on Saturday, and slightly favor Rybakina to win her second Major.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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