2010 Australian Open Coverage
Day Seven Thoughts
Full of prime rib and cocktails, talking with friends and listening to music in celebration of my wife's birthday, we sat in rapture as the television silently projected the marathon match between twin towers Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Punching and counterpunching, the two racquet-wielding pugilists of the hardcourt yielded no ground to the other as they battled for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, broke in the eleventh game of the opening set and held his serve on the subsequent service game to take the first set 7-5. Both men were playing well with the serve, keeping the other from finding gaps in the facade. Cilic returned the favor in the second set, breaking Del Potro's serve while up 5-4 to close out the set and knot the match up at one set apiece. On the break between sets, Del Potro had to call out the trainer to take a look at the ankle which has plagued him all during the first week of the Open.
The two men, the Argentine and the Croat, continued their hard-serving ways. Both 6'6", the advantage they would usually hold against more modestly-sized opponents was negated by the equivalent height on the opposite side of the net. It looked as though Del Potro might have discovered a **** in the Adriatic armor when he broke at 4-4; but Cilic broke right back to 5-5, not allowing his higher-ranked opponent to consolidate his advantage. Cilic then went ahead two sets to one when he broke at 6-5 to claim the third set 7-5. He would have his chances to close out the match in the fourth, but he threw away several choice opportunities with overexuberant shots that went wide or long and kept the reeling South American in the game. True to form, Del Potro found several amazing forehands during Cilic's serve at 5-5 and forced the Croat to hit wide yet again to claim the break and serve for the set.
So it came down to one final set, one chance for the two tall tennis pros to punch their place among the elite eight. After putting so much energy into winning the fourth set, Del Potro found his intensity waning. Cilic renewed his efforts, holding his serve to go to 2-1. He then was able to crack Del Potro's serve and consolidate on his next service game to quickly pull out to 4-1. Each man held his serve from there, Cilic closing out the match on his serve for a 5-7 6-4 7-5 5-7 6-3 victory. After 4 hours, 38 minutes, the young Croat has booked his place in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career, sending the most recent Slam champ home sore and tired and waiting for Paris for his next chance at achieving the ultimate glory in a tennis player's world...
The Cilic match was one of two matches on the men's side where I accurately called both its length and its victor; I also correctly figured that Ivo Karlovic would be able to take a set from Rafael Nadal in a losing effort. Andy Roddick made it through to the final eight, where he will face Cilic, though he needed a full five sets to get there. The only match I completely botched the call on was the contest between Andy Murray and John Isner. I truly thought this would be the tournament where the young Bulldog would finally go deep into a Grand Slam tournament; instead Britain's greatest hope in a long time thoroughly routed the collegian from Georgia, winning a tiebreak to take the first set and then opening the gap 6-3 6-2 to complete the straight-set victory.
On the women's side, I also managed to pick two of the winners, but it was a wild day nonetheless for the ladies. Maria Kirilenko, who started the tournament off with a bang when she upset Maria Sharapova on the first day of action, has continued her Cinderella run with her first trip into the second week of a Grand Slam tournament as a singles competitor. Going up against Dinara Safina, her fellow Russian who has been ranked in the top two for a year now yet still has had trouble converting it into Grand Slam success, Kirilenko took a 5-4 lead before Safina's recurring back problems forced her abandonment. With less than a set played, Kirilenko advanced and will go on to play Jie Zheng in a quarterfinal matchup I think few people could've envisioned when this tournament started. The 26-year-old Chinese veteran, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2008, was on few radars despite her modest successes; much like Kirilenko she was a nonfactor with names like Sharapova, Safina, Marion Bartoli and Jelena Jankovic in their quarter of the draw garnering most of the attention. But that's why they play the matches -- upsets are bound to be around just about any corner, and usually when you least expect it. After all they're called upsets...
With Vera Zvonareva playing the next day, it was between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova for the other spot in the quarters out of all-Russian fourth round draws. The two women, longtime partners in women's doubles (though not playing together in Melbourne), had taken divergent paths to this point. Kuznetsova, #3 in the world currently, had no real challenge in getting to this point, her high seed offering up a series of clay pigeons for her to shoot out of the sky. Petrova, on the other hand, had just finished off Kim Clijsters in a clinical straight-set demolishing that stunned the world and ended the 2009 U.S. Open champion's nine-match Grand Slam win streak since her return from retirement prior to Flushing Meadows last summer.
After the women split the first two sets, each winning one 6-3, Kuznetsova actually appeared to be consolidating her momentum gains. After winning the second set to tie everything up and force a deciding third set, Svetlana came out and broke Nadia for a 1-0 lead. But she was finished on her serve, failing to hold her own and losing the advantage and the momentum in the process. Petrova would hold her serve from there on out, and would break Kuznetsova on each of her next two service games, to finish off a lopsided final set 6-1. Making uncharacteristic mistakes, Kuznetsova continued offering up opportunities to break and Petrova gladly took them.
Kuznetsova was 5-1 lifetime against Petrova, having won their past two encounters in straight sets. But Petrova has been playing perhaps the most inspired tennis of her career here in Melbourne in 2010, backing up her upset of one Grand Slam champion with a strong performance against another to return to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open for the second time in her career, four years after her first opportunity came up short against Maria Sharapova.
With Sharapova gone, it will fall to Justine Henin -- the losing finalist at that 2006 tournament, forced to retire to Amelie Mauresmo when the anti-inflammatories she took for shoulder pain started causing stomach cramps that prevented any sort of meaningful performance -- to see if she can hold back the Petrova charge. Henin went through to the quarterfinals after persevering against her compatriot Yanina Wickmayer 7-6 1-6 6-3. She has looked good so far in her prodigal return, and we all knew that Henin had the talent to come right back and make waves in Melbourne despite her sabbatical. Can she continue her charge and cool Petrova's fire? Or will the former #1, in her first Grand Slam back after retiring for a year and a half, be the next trophy scalp on the Russian's hunt for the finals? Either way, that will be one hell of a matchup to watch...
On a final note, of the four men and four women who have advanced so far to the quarters, I correctly predicted just one of the women but three of the men. The men have held fairly true to form, Andy Murray holding firm in a section where I expected either Gael Monfils or John Isner to pull off the upset. The women's draw has exploded, thanks to the efforts especially of Zheng, Kirilenko and Petrova. Far deeper than just the names we know, the sport of tennis is healthy on all levels, the best news we could possibly take away after the first week of the first Slam of a new season and a rollover of the decade digit...
Stay tuned daily during the Australian Open for more of Zach's thoughts here in the Non-Traditional Sports World presented by Informative Sports!