Now the fun begins. But first, a complaint.
I have followed tennis for going on 25 years now, and one thing has always bugged me more than anything else. The bracket nerd in me likes perfectly aligned brackets, and that is something tennis has never provided. You know the 1-seed is going at the top of the bracket, and you know the 2-seed is going at the bottom. But after that, organizers pump as much randomness as humanly possible into the bracket. The No. 1 could be matched with either the No. 3 or No. 4 in the semifinals, anyone between No. 5 and No. 8 in the quarterfinals, and, in a slam, anyone between No. 13 and No. 16 in the fourth round. This doesn't make much of a difference at first, but by the time we reach the quarterfinals, we see the impact this extra randomness can have.
Both No. 1 seeds on the men's side (Novak Djokovic) and women's (Caroline Wozniacki) were paired with the No. 5 seed when the bracket was released. For Djokovic, that means playing No. 5 David Ferrer in the quarterfinals instead of, say, No. 24 Kei Nishokori, or whoever may have advanced from the 8-9 slot when both No. 8 Mardy Fish and No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic lost. For Wozniacki, it means something even worse, if accidentally so. Not only might she have drawn No. 5 Na Li in the quarterfinals, but instead she drew Kim Clijsters, who beat Li.
In a perfect, orderly bracket -- one that sees third round matchupes of 1-versus-32, 16-17, 9-24, 8-25, etc. -- we would probably have ended up with quarterfinals like this on the men's side: No. 1 Djokovic vs. No. 24 Nishikori, No. 4 Andy Murray vs. No. 5 David Ferrer, No. 3 Roger Federer vs. No. 11 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 7 Tomas Berdych. On the women's side, we'd have possibly ended up with No. 1 Wozniacki vs. Ekaterina Makarova, No. 4 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 21 Ana Ivanovic, No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. No. 11 Kim Clijsters and No. 2 Petra Kvitova vs. Jie Zheng. While we did end up with some of those matches, we're also getting Djokovic-Ferrer and Wozniacki-Clijsters earlier than we should have. But if I weren't such a fan of bracket order, this probably wouldn't bother me. But thank you for allowing me that digression.
No. 3 Roger Federer vs. No. 11 Juan Martin del Potro
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 4
It's funny how one match can linger over all others in a series. Roger Federer has played Juan Martin del Potro nine times; he has won seven of the nine matches (three of four in slams) and 20 of 27 sets. And yet, it is difficult to shake the way del Potro blew him off of the court in the fifth set of the 2009 U.S. Open finals. Del Potro is the one player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a slam in the last seven years, and he looked fantastic doing it. A wrist injury held him back in 2010, and he struggled to regain top form in 2011, but for a while in 2009, it looked as if tennis' Big Three would become a Big Four. (Del Potro is still just 23, however; there's time.)
Since losing his first set of the tournament to Adrian Mannarino, del Potro has looked the part of a big-time threat. He lost just five games in his third-round match against Yen-Hsun Lu and seven in the fourth round against Philipp Kohlschreiber. He lost his only meeting with Federer in the past two years (6-3, 7-5 in Cincinnati last year), but when he is dialed in, he has just about the most vicious forehand you'll ever see. At 6-foot-6, he can generate serious leverage, and he can beat you up physically as well as even Nadal. At this point, the onus is on del Potro to prove he has the consistency and stamina to do sustained damage to someone like Federer, who is still incredibly formidable.
No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 7 Tomas Berdych
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
There are few things in sports more exhilarating than when a typically polite tennis crowd unanimously turns on someone. You expect passionate boos at a basketball game, but when it happens in a tennis arena, a certain "I can't believe this is happening" feeling overtakes you. Such was the case in Tomas Berdych's fourth-round win over Nicolas Almagro. Almagro pegged Berdych at the net during a fourth-set rally, and while all commentators agreed that the shot was completely excusable, Berdych did not. He was mad enough that, at the conclusion of the match, he waved Almagro off during the customary post-match handshake, and the crowd turned on him instantaneously.
The reaction of the crowd alone makes Berdych's quarterfinal match with Rafael Nadal worth watching, even if the match itself might not. While Berdych has acquitted himself quite well versus Roger Federer through the years, Nadal has owned him. He has won the last nine matches in the series and 21 of the last 22 sets. Berdych can take solace in the fact that his last match versus Nadal (a 2-6, 6-3, 3-6 loss in Miami last year) was his best in years, but it still wasn't good. Perhaps Berdych will wear the villain role well? If not, he won't advance to the semifinals.
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. No. 11 Kim Clijsters
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
If Caroline Wozniacki wants to prove that she is ready to take the final step forward and win a grand slam, tonight would be a good place to start. Because of Wozniacki's relative youth (she's still just 21) and Clijsters various injuries, the two have met just twice on the tour, but Clijsters won both. She took out the young Dane in the finals of the 2009 U.S. Open (7-5, 6-3), then won a tighter battle in Qatar the next year (6-3, 5-7, 6-3). (She also won an exhibition versus Wozniacki, 6-2, 7-6, this past December, but this wasn't played under the most serious of circumstances.) In theory, Clijsters seems the type of player Wozniacki could handle -- she makes so many more errors than you expect, and Wozniacki plays some of the most error-free tennis the sport has seen. But Clijsters makes errors because she's aggressive, and a run of hot aggression is usually good enough to take Wozniacki out in a slam.
In fairness, however, the Woz has been playing some pretty awesome tennis thus far in Melbourne. While Clijsters was rolling her ankle and needing an adrenaline rush to get past Na Li in the fourth round, Wozniacki was crushing former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic (6-0, 7-5). In all, she has lost more than two games in a set just twice in four matches. She is, in other words, playing like the world No. 1. The draw is not kind to Wozniacki -- if she gets past the defending Aussie champion, she'll have to potentially face No. 3 Victoria Azarenka in the semis, then either No. 2 Petra Kvitova or No. 4 Maria Sharapova in the finals. But the competition is never easy in a slam, and this seems like as good a time as any for her to pick up her game a bit. And if she doesn't, then Clijsters, who has won three of the last six slams in which she has actually participated (it is worth noting that she, too, used to be known for underachieving in major tournaments), will be more than happy to take one more step toward slam title No. 5.
No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
It has been very easy in recent days to focus attention on certain potential matchups -- Wozniacki-Clijsters, for one, and the ill-fated Sharapova-Williams match for another; it has also been difficult to ignore how well Petra Kvitova has been playing. But the two combatants in today's other quarterfinal have been playing incredibly well outside of the spotlight. Victoria Azarenka has avoided playing any seeded players to date, but she has still laid waste to her opposition, losing just 12 games in eight sets. Agnieszka Radwanska, meanwhile, has only fared slightly worse. She dropped her opening set in the tournament but has lost just 16 games in her last eight sets as well.
Both Azarenka and Radwanska are 22 years old, and both have been playing at a Top 10 level for a while now, but Azarenka has held an edge in the slams. She made two quarterfinals and a semifinal (Wimbledon) last year, while Radwanska made the quarters at last year's Aussie but suffered letdowns the rest of the way. Azarenka has also fared better head-to-head. She has won five of seven matches and four of the last five. One thing to note about their series, however: there are typically momentum swings galore. The two have played 11 sets in their last four matches (Azarenka has won seven of them), and seven of the sets were no closer than 6-3. Azarenka won, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 in Sydney earlier this month.
This is a prime opportunity for both players. The winner will play either a tired Clijsters or an always vulnerable (until proven otherwise) Wozniacki.