Australian Open – Week 2 Preview

The big question this week – like it is every week – is: who can stop Novak Djokovic? So far, very few men have managed it, and as the Serb settled himself into the quarterfinals, it seemed like it was going to stay that way.

The trouble for everyone else is that Djokovic wins when he is playing well and he still wins when he is playing badly. Notching up 100 unforced errors against Gilles Simon in the fourth round, he found a way to get through 6-3 6-7(1) 6-4 4-6 6-3. He had a face like thunder for much of the match – a player of his calibre ought not to be flapping and faffing like that; a chap has standards. But he still got the job done because Djokovic in search of a major title is like a tiger in search of its prey: stealthy, powerful and utterly ruthless.

Next up is Kei Nishikori, the man who beat him in the US Open semifinals two years ago. Nishikori is good – he is very, very good – but after playing so poorly against Simon, it is unlikely that Djokovic will throw in another dud of a performance again. Champions of his status simply do not play like planks two matches running.

Djokovic’s main rival, and his regular final opponent here, is Andy Murray, the world No.2. He looked in fine fettle in his first two rounds, but dropped a set to Joao Sousa on Saturday. Forced to battle his way through, Murray responded to the challenge and after coming through the last two sets of his 6-2 3-6 6-2 6-2 win, he was back in control and looking like the No.2 seed again.

Bernard Tomic stands between Murray and a place in the last eight, and that will be the feature match of Monday’s schedule. He has beaten the Australian three times before, but Tomic has made a flying start to the new season. With a packed house cheering his every move, he will have all the help he needs as he tries to unseat the Scot.

But ambitious young men in shorts trying to unsettle him are the least of Murray’s worries at the moment. Not only is his heavily pregnant wife 11,000 miles away in London, counting off the days before their baby arrives, but it was his father-in-law, Nigel Sears, who was taken ill on Saturday during Madison Keys’s win over Ana Ivanovic. Sears is Ivanovic’s coach, and he fell ill after the first set and had to be taken to hospital.

At the same time, Murray was playing at Margaret Court Arena next door and knew nothing of the events until he walked off court. After visiting his father-in-law in hospital, he was back at work on the practice courts on Sunday, but keeping his mind on the simple business of a tennis match may not be easy over the coming days.

It has been utter carnage in the women’s draw so far, but at least we are in for a slightly more settled second week. By Saturday lunchtime, we had lost 20 seeds, and the top names were dropping faster than the oil prices. At least that has to stop: we don’t have that many seeds left to lose.

The result of this first week of mayhem is a very lopsided draw. The top section is still studded with famous names, and the pick of the quarterfinals has to be Serena Williams against Maria Sharapova. The winner of that has ‘finalist and probably champion’ written all their kitbag (although, if truth be told, it is not the snazziest slogan a lady of superstar status would like to be lumbered with).

The smart money is on Serena: she has not lost to Shazza since 2004 and has won their last 17 encounters. Then again, you just never know with Shaz: no matter how many times she takes a thumping from her oldest and fiercest rival, she always comes back for more. She will never give up but, alas for her, neither will Serena.

On the other side of the draw, it hard to know where to start. There are names in there that have never been seen at this stage of the competition – and none is more unknown than Zhang Shuai. Or, rather, she was a total unknown until this week.

After eight years of first-round defeats, 14 of them to be precise, she notched up her first Grand Slam win last Tuesday. In fact, she started the mass exodus of seeds when she dismissed Simona Halep, the world No.2 in the first round. And then, like London buses (you wait and eternity for one to arrive and then three turn up at once), from there the wins came along thick and fast. Now she is into the fourth round without dropping a set and faces Keys, last year’s semifinalist, for a place in the last eight. Can she keep her run going? Stranger things have happened this week in Melbourne …

Another new face elbowing her way into the spotlight is Johanna Konta, the British No.1. Making her debut at the Australian Open, she has now matched her best showing at a major by reaching the fourth round.

This time last year, no one would have believed Konta’s rise through the rankings would have been possible. Everyone knew she had a decent game, but it was her nerves that invariably let her down. When she lost in the first round of qualifying 12 months ago, she was ranked 144 in the world. Coming back this time, she began the tournament as the world No.47 and, thanks to her win over Denisa Allertova on Saturday, she will be up to No.36 when the new rankings are published after the Open. No.36 and rising if she beats Ekaterina Makarova on Monday.

It was beating Makarova in Eastbourne last June that began Konta’s run of success. The Russian was then ranked No.8 and was the overwhelming favourite, but Konta got her. From there until the end of the season, she lost just five more matches

Working with a psychologist, Konta has learned to deal with her nerves. She knows they are a part of her make-up, but she has found a way to recognise them, accept them and cope with them. As a result, she has rediscovered how to enjoy her every experience in every match: stay in the present and the past cannot hurt you, and the future will not scare you.

The one to watch, though, is Victoria Azarenka. For the first time in two years, she is looking ready to challenge for the big prizes again. Finally fit after two injury-plagued seasons, she has dropped a paltry five games on her way to the fourth round – and does not look in the mood to drop many more.

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(29/12/2020 at 09:00)