Monthly Archives: September 29, 2021

…Serena is the only player who could drop into a slam out of nowhere and steal it.

Last Thursday I went onto the radio show Fantasy Draft Help Insider to take part in an ATP/WTA fantasy draft. Their draft has a Roger Federer rule: if you get the top pick in the first round and take Roger Federer (a foregone conclusion), you have to pick last in every succeeding round. I managed to get that first pick and I immediately joked, “Oh, no, does that mean I’ll get stuck with Serena Williams?”

The joke’s on me. Serena is rolling. Besides Goran Ivanesevic, who stole a Wimbledon after his career looked like it was over, and Andre Agassi, who scratched and crawled his way to a French Open crown, Serena is the only player who could drop into a slam out of nowhere and steal it.

Of course it takes a bit of luck and Serena is looking at some of that right about now. First of all, she’s in the easiest half of the draw and it just got a whole lot easier: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelies Mauresmo and Elena Dementieva are all gone. And while you have to give Serena credit for taking out Nadia Petrova, Petrova has not been performing up to her seed in slams. A long list of injuries has left her up and down and her slam confidence is low. She has three quarterfinals and one semifinal appearance in the last eight slams; not terrible but not befitting the sixth ranked player.

I don’t expect Serena to steal this slam, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis are still going strong in the other half of the draw, but she should be able to get to the semifinals and that is pretty amazing. But it may not be a good thing for Serena and it’s not good for the WTA. If Serena thinks she can drop in and get to a semifinal in a slam, that won’t exactly push Serena to hit the treadmill or spend hours on the tennis court. Why should she if she can get so far with so little preparation?

And it also doesn’t say much about the WTA. When Martina Hingis returned after a three year layoff, she got into the top ten by August. And now Serena, after playing only sixteen matches last year, is doing well in a slam. That means the level of play hasn’t improved much over the last three years and clearly the top ten players are not performing well in slams. Sharapova and Mauresmo (last year anyway) have played consistently well. Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne have also played well but they’ve missed months at a time due to injuries. That’s two consistent top 10 players and a few part-time top 10 players, not enough to carry a tour.

Mardy Fish has had a bit of luck too. When he got to the third round, his opponent, Wayne Arthurs, had an adverse reaction to a shot he took for hip pain and had to retire after only three games. Of course, Fish got there by defeating number 4 seed Ivan Ljubicic in the first round but here we go again: Ljubicic has reached one quarterfinal and one semifinal in his slam career. Other than that, he’s never gone past the third round. No disrespect Mr. Fish, but that’s not befitting a player who’s been ranked as high as number 3 in the world.

Fish did beat David Ferrer to get to the fourth round and I have no caveats for that, it was just a damn good victory for Fish.

This is the best Roddick has played since a good serve and a strong forehand was all you needed to win a slam.

Fish’s opponent in the fourth round will be his good buddy Andy Roddick. Just before Roddick’s third round match with Marat Safin, his coach Jimmy Connors arrived in Melbourne and that’s as it should be because he got there just in time to see two sets of tennis that marked Roddick’s transition from a timid, one dimensional power player into some semblance of an aggressive all-court player.

In the fourth set alone I saw Roddick step inside the baseline – yes! Inside the baseline – and hit a return winner off a Safin second serve. Not only that but it was a backhand. Roddick has the hardest serve in the game and his forehand has always been powerful but his backhand was suspect and since he grew up as a backcourt player, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of following one of those massive serves in to the net.

Roddick’s return of serve had always been weak too so Brad Gilbert moved him behind the baseline to give him more time to read the serve. After Gilbert left Roddick’s employ, Roddick stayed behind the baseline and that took away his ability make his opponent’s pay for second serves.

One game after that return winner, Roddick picked up a dipping passing shot and placed it right on the sideline for a volley winner. Roddick came to the net over 50 times in the four set, 7-6(2), 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), victory. That qualifies as aggressive.

This is the best Roddick has played since a good serve and a strong forehand was all you needed to win a slam. One other thing. Both his forehand and backhand are good enough that his next opponent, Mario Ancic, told himself to finish points quickly so he could stay out of rallies with Roddick.

Roddick managed to beat Ancic but it took five sets. Interesting to note that Roddick had a 1-7 record against top 10 players in the slams coming into this match – Ancic is ranked number 10.

It would be hard to exaggerate the degree of consistency required to win a five set match. You may have to crawl back into a match – Ancic lost the third set 6-1 – only to find yourself at the beginning of a fifth set where it’s winner take all and a few loose shots loses the match. You also have to be aggressive but not too aggressive. If you stay back, your opponent will hit winners. If you approach, your volleys have to go to an empty corner but they also have to stay inside the lines.

Ancic had problems with both of these concepts. Serving at 2-2, he hit a few loose shots. He lost the game on a volley that landed just beyond the corner. Roddick is now 2-7 against top 10 players in slams and that’s another improvement.

Oh yeah, I forgot about James Blake. He has quietly made his way to a fourth round match with Fernando Gonzalez without dropping a set. I expect him to get past Gonzalez and then past Rafael Nadal and into the final. One more caveat, though. The court here is Rebound Ace and I assume that’s because it’s made of crushed rubber tires and objects bounce on it. It’s also sticky and that means Nadal will have good footing for his scampering and his high looping spinners will bite the court – helping the spin – then bounce up high. Those are favorable conditions for Nadal.

Still, even talking about three Americans nearing the semis is a good thing for the U.S.

See also:
The Yanks Step It Up in Melbourne
2007 Australian Open: Loosey Goosey Young And Talented
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Round
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

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Since our website was down over the weekend and things got backed up here, and because it is now early Sunday and what I was going to write about is ancient history, I may as well talk about those feisty Americans down under. You remember the Americans, they were the ones many people wrote off before the tournament even started. We were injured, we were aging, we were just a mess, the sport was dying in America, blah blah blah.

Well, lo and behold, as the Australian Open reached its first weekend of play there were a handful of Americans left alive. Mardy Fish started the proceedings on opening day with his upset of Number Four seed Ivan Ljubicic and he’s just kept on going. I thought Fish could face Roddick in the quarterfinals. Now they will, because Fish took out another higher-ranked player yesterday, Spain’s David Ferrer. Fish jumped out to a two set lead only to see it melt away. Like the other David here, namely Nalbandian, Ferrer likes to do things the tough way. He had to come back from five sets in his prior match against Stepanek and now he was threatening to do the same thing against Fish. But Fish hung in and won in four sets, 6-1, 7-6(4), 2-6, 7-5. Good work guy, I don’t think you stand much chance against your buddy Andy Roddick but it is great to see you here. It will be Fish’s first grand slam quarterfinal match.

Robby Ginepri played well early and made it into the first weekend before succumbing to fellow American James Blake. Ginepri is kind of the B version of Blake, he can do a lot of the same things shot-wise but Blake does it bigger and more consistently. Blake has been stellar, I am picking him to be in the final next Saturday against Federer.

After his match Blake said, “Going for my shots on set points, it shows just how close tennis is, how quickly it can change, how close all the guys are on tour. ‘Cause if you change literally two points in that whole match, it’s a completely different match. If he wins the set points in the first set, four set points in the second, any one of those goes a different way, that’s a whole new match.”

That observation certainly applied to Andy Roddick in his ferocious matches against Marat Safin and Mario Ancic. They were two of the best matches of his career. The key for Roddick’s matches has not been his serve so much as his return of serve and his ability to make his backhand more of a weapon, especially going up the line. Funny how these two things have become keys for all the other players here. The court is playing faster this year so the servers have an advantage again, and that means their opponents have to find ingenious new ways to return the firepower. Taking care of your serve and going after the returns were the marching orders of the day.

There was really not much between Ancic and Roddick. Both had their chances. Roddick had a bit more gas late in the match, he got an early break in the fifth set and preserved it with serving that got more powerful as the match went along. The key stat was this: Andy guarded his serve better. Ancic broke his serve only 5 of 14 chances while Roddick broke him 3 of 4 times. Roddick had an astonishing 60 winners to only 33 errors, but Ancic was not far behind with 52 winners to 19 errors. Incredibly good-looking power tennis from two of the biggest servers in the game. How nice to see guys actually rushing the net again!

On the women’s side, we could talk about the blood-letting that went on yesterday with Mauresmo, Kuznetsova and Dementieva following Petrova out of the tournament. In case you are wondering, that’s our 2, 3, 5 and 7 seeds. Somehow I don’t think we were expecting the names of Ashley Harkleroad and Serena Williams to be under discussion this weekend. Harkleroad got divorced and took time off but is now resurrecting her career; she had an excellent run here and was on the brink of snatching a win yesterday from Daniela Hantuchova. But not quite. The American let it slip away in heart-breaking fashion, having gotten the lead in both the second and third sets. The final score was 6-7(8), 7-5, 6-3.

Serena Williams has gone from being a lime-green eyesore to something like a revelation from on high. I will gladly eat my dollop of crow here, since we felt Serena needed a bit more seasoning before she was back in good form. The news is she’s nearly there already. Petrova slapped her around for a set and a half and that was all. Then Nadia pulled out her usual I-am-still-not-ready-for-the-big-occasion choke at the critical moments and the match went to Williams in three sets.

After Williams got blitzed in the first set 6-1, I hoped that Petrova would really rub it in, maybe even bake her a bagel and get Serena fired up so she would go home and train like a fiend and get herself fitter. That would be the best thing for her, I thought. Serena had other ideas. Like why don’t I just beat her right here right now? 6-1, 5-7, 3-6 was the final score. Petrova is certainly fitter, but there is nothing wrong with the competitive zeal of Serena Williams. And that was a major weapon, the deciding weapon in this match. For a woman supposedly fat and a bit out of shape, she produced some beautiful tennis. My mouth kept dropping open. How did she cover that much court? What a great thing it would be for tennis if we got at leat one of the Williams’ sisters back!

Serena pushed Jelena Jankovic aside too. Jankovic is the rising Number 11 seed who was expected to give Williams her comeuppance. It was not a pretty match though. Errors flowed. Jankovic was not on her game yesterday, she could not get into a grove, she seemed distracted and never fully into the match. The really juicy news for Serena now is, she has a road chartered from heaven through the draw. What’s not to like about facing either Shahar Peer, Nicole Vaidisova, or Lucie Safarova? Serena Williams could very well be another American player who will make the final next weekend, probably against Maria Sharapova.

ESPN2 must have thought that they had died and gone to some equivalent of tennis heaven: they had on their TV schedule not one, but TWO marquee matches. Andy and Serena. Prime time Saturday night.

Seems like old times, doesn’t it?

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He leaps all over the court, plays incredible defense and propels those long arms and limbs into his shots.

Check out this image of Gael Monfils. Short of Kim Clijsters, no one else could get into that position and even she doesn’t get this low. I’ve often wondered if physical characteristics mirror personalities. For instance, I can barely touch my toes and haven’t been what you’d call flexible since I could wrap my toes around my body in the crib. I am also known to be stubborn. If you’re flexible and loosey goosey, does that mean you have a loosey goosey, more adaptable kind of personality? Conversely, are you more flexible if your mind is more flexible?

I’m not looking to type people here – it’s never a good idea and certainly isn’t in this age of multiculturalism and Monfils himself is a black man in France, the site of a few multicultural battles between police and young immigrants in recent years – but I’m always on the lookout for someone who’ll break tennis out of its mode of conformity and splash onto the bigger scene. Someone, anyone, who could bring more media attention to tennis through his personality and game.

Monfils is most definitely loosey goosey. He leaps all over the court, plays incredible defense and propels those long arms and limbs into his shots. He defeated last year’s wonder boy Marcos Baghdatis in the second round at the Australian Open in four sets, the last one a bagel. He’s also unpredictable. He then lost to Richard Gasquet in the third round. One of the sets was a bagel. You not only don’t know exactly what he’ll do on the court, you also don’t know from match to match whether he’ll play well or not.

He’s also very emotional and sometimes emotional players can take longer to develop. Federer used to be a head case when he was a junior – I’ve seen footage of him catapulting his racket across the court – but he figured out that he is one of those players who performs better when his emotions are under control. Monfils, on the other hand, plays best when he’s leaping around the court and yelling and shaking his fist. He plays best when his personality is in full view, not when it’s hidden behind a calm exterior. From a media perspective, that’s a plus.

I hope Monfils stays the way he is. People with big, emotional personalities will find many people who try to chop them down to size. I have to admit that I’ve had a lover or two with a big personality that I tried to shrink; mainly because my personality wasn’t as big and I didn’t want to be overshadowed. Also, opponents don’t appreciate someone showing them up.

By the way, flexibility doesn’t prevent injuries. Monfils has had multiple injuries. At the Madrid event last year he leaped in the air for joy after making a good shot and came down on his ankle, spraining it badly. I hope he ignores people like me who saw that and said he should tone down his on court celebrations. He shouldn’t calm anything down.

He might want to find a more permanent coaching situation though. That unpredictability extends to coaches. After announcing that he’d hired Pier Gauthier and was moving to Florida to train at Nick Bollettieri’s academy last October, he fired Gauthier three days before the Australian Open.

Among those young players like Monfils – Tomas Berdych (who may have been around a bit too long to be in this group, come on Tomas, do something, now!), Marcos Baghdatis, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet – I’ve picked Murray to move to the front because he can play well on all surfaces and he has that magic man in his corner: Brad Gilbert. I can’t think of any other coach in the game who could improve his player’s results so much. That is except for Jimmy Connors and I wouldn’t have said that last summer. Besides, Connors is a legend. And Connors might not have his job if Roddick had kept Gilbert as his coach, which is what he should have done.

Monfils brings up the rear in terms of ranking – he’s number 59 while the other youngsters are bunched between 11 and 17 – but the when I get to my next tournament, probably Indian Wells, I’m heading immediately to his court for a bit of entertainment.

See also:
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Round
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

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Someone from Maria Sharapova’s box should have bounced a banana or sports drink off the Rebound Ace court and into her hands at the Australian Open.

One of my tennis buddies has trouble with his work schedule during the slams because he insists on staying up late to watch the matches live. I keep telling him to record the matches, that way he can skip the commercials. But he likes the commercials and his favorite is the Bud Lite ad where a beer drinker installs rubber flooring in his house so he can bounce beers off the floor and into his buddies’ waiting hands. At the end of the commercial, a small dog bounces up off the floor to greet a guest and goes flying out the door and over the guest’s head because the rubber is too bouncy.

Someone from Maria Sharapova’s box should have bounced a banana or sports drink off the Rebound Ace court and into her hands at the Australian Open. The court is made from crushed rubber tires and gets sticky and bouncy when it’s hot. And it’s been very hot. The temperature got up to 103 degrees F/38 degrees C and Sharapova’s 5-0 lead in the third set started melting away. Needless to say she had trouble functioning: “sometimes when it is that hot outside, your mind doesn’t work properly.”

The Open has a heat policy. If the temperature gets above 100 degrees F/38 degrees C, no new matches are started and the roof in the covered courts will be closed for the start of new matches. But not matches already underway. Sharapova would have been luckier if it had rained instead of overheated in two ways. 1. She could have cooled off. 2. The roof would have been closed. That’s right, the roof can be closed in the middle of a match if it rains but not if it gets too hot.

First of all Australia goes out and builds a ton of Rebound Ace courts even though the players don’t really like them and the surface certainly doesn’t benefit their top player – Lleyton Hewitt -because it’s slower than other hard court surfaces. Then they wait until its 100 degrees F/38 degrees C to close the roof then they refuse to close the roof until a new match starts. It may be the most fan-friendly grand slam but it’s not so player friendly.

Not that the fans are always friendly with each other. I always hoped that tennis would become as popular as soccer and that’s never going to happen but at least now we’ve satisfied one of the requirements for a soccer event: a fight broke out between Serb and Croat fans at the Open. The AP reports that “Croatian and Serbian spectators kicked each other and used flag poles as weapons” before police took control of the situation and threw 150 spectators out of Melbourne Park.

I’d certainly prefer to avoid the senseless violence that happens in and around soccer and I can’t think of any player except Safin who’d head butt an opponent – well, not an opponent, chair umpire maybe – but I would like to see more edginess on the tour. Hawkeye has taken personality out of the game because players don’t have anywhere near as much to yell about since line calls have gone the way of the robot. Roddick was noticeably pissy with the chair umpire during his first round match because he was on a court without Hawkeye. His behavior was boorish and included an f-bomb aimed at his opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but at least it was more exciting than the love fests we sometimes get – it actually looked like a fight out there – and it certainly made me wonder if Roddick is starting to channel his coach Jimmy Connors.

It’s funny that tennis has become so tame considering that other sports have gotten decidedly more combative. In U.S. baseball a few years ago, a father and son ran onto a field and attacked the first base coach. Spectators throw things at players and sometimes players throw things back. The NBA had a full-scale brawl between players and spectators after a spectator threw a beer cup at a player.

Andy Murray is probably the most entertaining player next to Safin and he’s usually talking to himself. Now, except for a few fights here and there, most of the abuse is self-abuse.

Sharapova held on to win the third set 9-7 and moved on to the second round. As I speak, Sharapova is up 3-0 over Anastassia Rodionova and reports current weather conditions in Melbourne as follows: 90 °F / 32 °C Smoke. Whoa, smoke. Does the Open have a policy for smoke?

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See also:
The Australian Open: Early Rounds
2007 Australian Open Picks: Second Life

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My co-writer Nina Rota and I were wondering last week if the Australian Open was going to be up to snuff this year as a number of players were threatening to pull out before the event started. But as of today, Tuesday, the draw held together, with Nadal, Nalbandian, Davydenko, Tursunov and Gonzalez getting through their opening rounds. Their physical ailments are being held at bay, at least for now.

Recently I proclaimed that Andy Roddick would beat Federer at least once this year. He already did that this past weekend. Alright, it was only an exhibition match. I like to think it was a good omen for Roddick on the year. Roddick treated viewers on the opening Sunday to a nice little catfight with Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It ended with a Roddick victory in four sets, but first he had to nose his way out of a 20-18 tiebreak loss in the opening set and hang on through another tiebreak in the second.

The Roddick match illustrates why people have argued that the Australian Open should be set back a ways in the calendar. A lot of hiccups take place in the early rounds here. When I lived in a girls’ dorm once I remember the stream of sleepy faces filing into the cafeteria in the mornings. They hadn’t had their jolts yet. Players often look like that here. The Aussie Open is way too big too early. Roger Federer suggested recently that it be set back to early March. The weather would be heading into fall then down under, much like it is when the US Open takes place in late August. Players would not feel like they are leaping out of the gate into the middle of a major tournament. We could have a few run-up events to a March date for the Open, and maybe a mid-sized event in between. The Aussie could start the calendar in March, with a decent break between that and the French. Of course it would probably rework the schedule a lot, and other events would need to shift, but too many players are showing up here this week looking rusty and not quite ready for prime time. Neither are the writers. We need our foreplay too.

So everyone seems to hold their breath here for the opening rounds. Roddick especially. Even Roger Federer looked cranky and not quite on his game yet. After his first match against Bjorn Phau, Roger pronounced himself relieved to be through it. Now he felt he was “officially” into the tournament.

David Nalbandian probably hopes he is officially into the tournament too. He earned it the hard way, as is often the case with Nalbandian. Serbian player Janko Tipsarevic was set to serve out the match in the third set when Nalbandian decided he had better play after all. He clawed his way back until his opponent succumbed to the blistering heat and retired in the fifth set trailing 2-1. Last year I was making a bit of fun about Nalbandian and his paunch, which we can see protruding beneath his shirt. Now I am thinking it functions like the pouch on a kangaroo, it stores up energy for the lad for those frequent times when he’s coming back from two sets down. Nalbandian is not exactly a training monster, so I wonder how he does it. He looked like he was just getting started by the time Tipsarevic wilted into retirement. I want a paunch now too!

Speaking of paunches, we should say something about the return of Serena Williams. It amazes me still that she moves as well as she does on the court. But we won’t know that until she runs into Nadia Petrova in her draw, the likely woman who will give her a real contest. Everything about Serena is big right now, including her earrings. The outfit is a screeching limey thing, it has me longing for a mojito. Maria Santangelo was expected to give her more of a battle as the Number 27 seed but didn’, so Serena crafted an easy win aided in large part by a service game that has not deserted her. I want to see her back on top, but it is annoying to see how out of shape she still is. And yet her desire seems to be there. And yet she’s out of shape. Another year of back and forth with our hopes for at least one of the Williams’ sisters. I am going to try and ignore her for the next week or so and hope she can maneuver her way along into something good.

Maria Sharapova had her own rollercoaster going on against France’s Camille Pin. Sharapova was up 5-0 in the third set before Pin started making a dent in the Russian’s game. Pin pulled back into the match aided in great part by a skillful, consistent ground game that unfortunately does not extend to her serve. Camille, meet Elena Dementieva. The land of cupcake services. Sharapova got a hypoglycemic attack from all that munching on Pin’s serves, both first and second. She treated them with the impunity they deserved.

The Russian took several long time-outs for trainer visits due to the heat and, for a moment there, we wondered if being born in Siberia means you can’t do well in 100 plus degree heat after all. She looked ready to cave. But when you see a serve coming at you with the speed of Pin’s serves, a staggering 60 something mph, Maria probably told herself there was no way she was ever going to lose to a player like this. She took care of business with a 3-6, 6-4, 9-7 win. The woman has nerves of steel. Maybe the time-outs were a bit of a fake job, but she seemed to be clearly fatigued. I hope she hurt like hell, because maybe then she will remember and condition herself better.

A couple of stealth bombers flew into town in the form of Mssrs. Djokovic, Murray and Berdych. They sprinted through their openers like there was no one on the other side of the net. Marat Safin got a major work-out against Benjamin Becker, winning his opener in a tough five sets. And our recent Aussie hero Guccione, the tallest man on tour, succumbed to the smallest, Olivier Rochus (co-shared with Christophe), in another brutal five-setter.

Also of note were the wins of a number of Yanks in the opening round, notably Robby Ginepri, who battled another big hitting guy – up and coming Spanish player Nicholas Almagro – for five sets. Big server Sam Querrey also overcame another big guy – Jose Acasuso – in four sets. But the big prize so far goes to Mardy Fish, who came forward to upset Number 4 seed Ivan Ljubicic. Last year Fish was on his way to becoming another lost American cause, but after wrist surgery he has bounced back well. He’s already had a win over Ancic in the Auckland event earlier this year, so Fish seems determined to get a good spot back in the fray. Mardy could get by David Ferrer in the Round of 16 although he would probably lose to Roddick in the quarters. If Roddick can survive a few early hiccups, he will be very strong.

A yummy dark house candidate: The Bagh Man. Marcos Baghdatis put on an entertaining show opening night against former Top 10 player Rainer Schuettler of Germany. I saw things that say Marcos is ready for this one. Mary Carillo cooed endlessly about how effectively he can play from any part of the court, and he went out to prove that. His forehand was not this crushing a year ago, but it is now. He unleashed brutal shots cross court all night against the German, and his backhand was equally adept and powerful. Then he pulls out a slew of forehand drop shots which neatly clear the net and die properly, like good little drop shots should.

But just when you think Baghdatis has it all, he can turn around and flub an easy-looking shot, and you wonder what goes on inside that head. Alright, so he needs therapy like most of us do because, in spite of his often brilliant play, or perhaps because of it, who knows, he seems to relax a bit, to let his mind wander. Perhaps he’s rewarding himself. Unlike my partner, I am picking Baghdatis to get by Robredo in the Round of 16 and face Federer in the quarters. And if Baghdatis gets that far, it could be an interesting match-up. He will feed on his confidence.

Here are my picks for the boys:

Federer will beat Djokovic, Baghdatis will take out Robredo.

Federer-Baghdatis in the quarters

Fish can upset Ferrer, Roddick will take out Safin then Robredo

Fish-Roddick make a nice American quarter

Haas will beat Nalbandian, Berdych will beat Tursunov (Malisse is already gone from that corner of the draw, and Davydenko will go too)

Haas-Berdych in a quarterfinal battle of the Pretty Boys

Blake over Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Murray over Rafael Nadal. This is the most interesting corner of the draw as it has guys who have never met, like Blake and Murray, and Murray and Nadal.

Blake-Murray should be an arresting quarterfinal

So hang on to your hats, we are under way down under.

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