Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Thoughts On the 2017 Australian Open

By Kevin Beane

I write this on Monday, January 23rd, as we embark on the second week of the Australian Open. The quarterfinals are set, and things have not gone according to how they usually have the last few years in the top-heavy, upset-light tennis tours (especially on the men's side).

The top two men's seeds, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both failed to reach the quarterfinals, the first time that has happened in a Grand Slam since the 2004 French Open. The top seed from the women's side is out, as well. So what has happened? What should we know? Let's take a look.

* Andy Murray lost to unseeded Mischa Zverev in a virtuoso, inventive performance on Zverev's part. It reminded me of Michael Chang's famous fourth round upset over Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open. In that match, Chang threw every trick in the book at Lendl, including serving underhanded. Zverev didn't go that crazy, but he did start heavily serve-and-volleying, a largely extinct tennis strategy. It worked. And it demonstrated a lesson I try to espouse over and over again in the space — if you need to pull off the big upset, you need to get aggressive and pull out your bag of tricks. You can't beat the heavies at their own game.

Zverev's assent to the quarterfinals is particularly out of nowhere. He's ranked 50th in the world, has never been ranked higher than 45th, and has zero titles on the ATP tour. Until this point, he had been well overshadowed by his brother Alex, nearly ten years his junior, ranked nearly 30 places ahead of Mischa, and with an ATP title to his credit.

* The surprise on the women's side is Coco Vandeweghe, who obliterated top seed Angelique Kerber, 6-2, 6-3. Vandeweghe has now won seven of her last nine matches after bolstering the U.S. to a berth in the Hopman Cup final two weeks ago. She's ranked 35th (she will be higher after this) and now gets to take on another Slam winner, 7th seed Garbine Muguruza, reigning French Open champ. If her name sounds familiar, she's the niece of '80s NBA player Kiki Vandeweghe. No word on whether there is a CooCoo or a Keke in the family.

* With Murray and Djokovic out, I was hoping for some fresh faces in the winner's circle, but that might not be the case. Two of the remaining quarterfinalists are none other than Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Nadal has fallen to ninth in the rankings and hasn't won a major since the 2014 French Open. Federer is 35 and his last slam title came at Wimbledon in 2012. If these guys reassert themselves as the best in the game, 10 years or more after first doing so, that tells you how big the line is between the elite of men's tennis and the rest of the field. Federer is playing none other than Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals.

* Possible next U.S. men's tennis star: Reilly Opelka. He wasn't even seeded in the qualifiers, but qualify he did, and he took 11th-seed David Goffin to five sets. Do you know who else has taken Goffin to five sets? No one in this tournament; he's in the quarterfinals having beaten everyone else in four or three sets. If you don't like that (John) Isner-esque American style of punishing serves being a player's calling card, you're not going to like Opelka. But I do.

* It hasn't been a great story for Americans on the junior side of the tournament drawsheet. The girls impressively saw four Americans seeded (top 16) for the tournament, but two of them lost in the first round and the other two are the only two Americans left in the field. The boys' side is more bleak for the Americans: only one seeded player, who promptly lost in the first round, leaving just one American boy left in the tourney, Alexandre Rotsaert, and he's only in the second round as of this writing. The girls remaining are 2nd-seeded Taylor Johnson and 13th seed Carson Branstine.

* All this Australian Open stuff has me wanting a Foster's. Who has a Foster's for me?

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