Quite a few of the top remaining players in the 2012 Australian Open take the court beginning Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET in the Round of 64 in Melbourne, as do a couple of interesting Americans.
Men: No. 8 Mardy Fish vs. Alejandro Falla
Show Court 3, Match No. 1
We are still at a point where most casual American sports fans have no idea that Andy Roddick is no longer America's highest-ranked male tennis player. Not only has Mardy Fish surpassed him, but a) he has done so rather significantly, and b) John Isner almost has as well. With Roddick aging and fighting nagging injuries, Fish is the latest American hope. Like most solid American males (sans Ryan Harrison, who looked pretty good in losing to Andy Murray on Monday ... or this afternoon ... depending on whether we're talking local time or Australia time), Fish is already pretty old; he turned 30 on December 9, but he is physically peaking. He discovered something called "fitness" and "not eating whatever you want." He dumped 30 pounds a couple of years ago and, not surprisingly, moves around the court much better.
With a strong serve (he won 76 percent of points when he got his first serve in last year) and an infinitely improved defensive game, he has won three titles in two years and moved into the top 10. His ground game is only good, however, and most of the seven players above him are rather spectacular in that category. If he gets past Alejandro Falla on Tuesday and the winner of Pere Riba and Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round, he could face the enormous Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round. Del Potro is absolutely a top-five talent when healthy.
Oh yeah, and if he beats del Potro, he probably gets Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. But hey, other than that, he has a pretty good chance of making some noise.
But in the present tense, things look pretty good for Fish in this second-round matchup. He has beaten Falla three of four times, and in both matches since Big Fish became Lighter Fish. They met last February in Delray Beach, Florida, and Fish both served and returned quite well. In a 6-1, 6-4 win, Fish faced only three break points and won 69 percent of his service points. The wind was a little crazy yesterday in Melbourne, but if Fish is bombing in his serve with any regularity, he should advance.
Men: No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. Tommy Haas
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
To people who don't understand how "physical tennis" can actually be a thing (there's no contact, so how can something be physical?), just watch Nadal play for an hour or so. He throws maximum effort into every single shot, and by the end of one set, you're exhausted just from watching him. The downside of this: his body seems to rebel against him with regularity. Whereas artiste Roger Federer never actually gets hurt (KNOCK ON WOOD, SOMEBODY KNOCK ON WOOD THIS INSTANT), Nadal is dinged up all the time. And he is evidently capable of injuring his knee while sitting on a chair in his hotel room.
If healthy, or even semi-healthy, Nadal should coast by Haas, a player who is similar, and inferior, to Nadal in just about every way. Haas plays a similar, physical style, only he's not as good at it (Nadal is 4-0 lifetime versus Haas), and he both gets hurt more and in less creative fashion. Once ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, he missed all of 2003 after reconstructive shoulder surgery. He surged back into the top 10 ... and then missed another full year in 2010-11 with hip and shoulder injuries. That he still laces them up and competes is admirable, but good results have come few and far between. He withdrew in the second round of the Brisbane International two weeks ago. In theory, we might find out what happens when two people withdraw from a match at a same time in this one, but probably not. You certainly couldn't tell for very long that Nadal was hurt in round one.
Men: Sam Querrey vs. Bernard Tomic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 4
Sam Querrey is one of about 25 Americans to receive the "Next Great American" label at some point. He missed much of 2011 because of an elbow injury, which is unfortunate because 12 months ago he had actually crept into the top 20. Like virtually every American tennis player, his serve is his biggest weapon. That can play well on hard courts, but the draw is rough: Querrey must play Bernard Tomic, a surging, 19-year old Aussie (sort of -- he was born in Germany).
Serving could be easy for both of these players. On hardcourts in 2011, Tomic only broke serve 16 percent of the time and won just 34 percent of return points, which is very good news if Querrey is in good form. The main problem is that, even at his best, Querrey isn't much of a returner, and Tomic has a pretty good serve game himself. This one could come down to tie-breakers.
As a whole, 2012 could be a telling year for American tennis. Andy Roddick is aging and James Blake has aged, obviously, but Querrey is on the comeback, both Fish and Isner are peaking, and in theory, younger players like Harrison, Donald Young and Ryan Sweeting. Harrison probably has the best overall skill set of the bunch, but he has a long way to go.
Other matches to watch: No. 3 Roger Federer vs. Andreas Beck, No. 7 Tomas Berdych vs. Olivier Rochus, No. 11 Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Blaz Kavcic, No. 16 John Isner vs. David Nalbandian, Donald Young vs. Lukas Lacko
Women: No. 11 Kim Clijsters vs. Stephanie Foretz Gacon
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
Women's tennis is in such an odd place right now. You can probably find infinitely more people willing to bet on 11-seed Kim Clijsters or 12-seed Serena Williams to win the Aussie Open than No. 1 Caroline Wozniaki or No. 2 Petra Kvitova. The proven players are aging and injury-prone, and most of the highly-ranked players have actually proven very little. Clijsters takes the court in Day 3 as both the defending Aussie champion, and as a 28-year old who played in only eight tournaments last year before taking a few months off to rest an abdominal injury.
Clijsters actually takes on somebody older than she in the second round: Stephanie Foretz Gacon, a 30-year old World Team Tennis veteran, Aussie Open qualifier, and (relatively speaking) doubles specialist. These two players have met just once, in 2002. This match is interesting because of Clijsters and her form, but assuming she has form, she should make the third round with ease.
Women: No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. Anna Tatishvilli
Hisense Arena, Match No. 3
Caroline Wozniacki fascinates me. Watching her and following her on Twitter (It's not creepy! She has over 260,000 followers, and presumably some of them are males in their mid-30s! And besides, now I can say it is for work purposes!), I see her as a wonderful team player in an individual sport. She talks a lot about her friends and workout partners, and when you watch her play, you see an absolutely spectacular defensive player. She is, as they say, a human backboard, returning everything until you either make a mistake or wear down. She would be a killer libero in volleyball, a lockdown defender in basketball. And overall, she is clearly good enough to win 18 career titles and not only reach No. 1 in the world, but stay there for over a year. But she has yet to win a grand slam title, and the primary reason seems to be that in tennis, you need to also dominate on offense. Over the course of seven grand slam matches, you will run into somebody who gets hot, and you won't simply be able to rely on fitness and defense to get you through.
At 21, Wozniacki still has plenty of time to make a Novak Djokovic-esque leap. (Djokovic was a similar backboard-type who got a little stronger, a little faster, and a little smarter in 2011, and he damn near went undefeated for the season.) But I'm not sure she's there yet. She should still get by Anna Tatishville, however. Tatishvilli is a 21-year-old grinder from Georgia (the country) who has slowly climbed in the rankings (she is currently 83rd). She is a muscular grinder, but she probably doesn't have enough offense to deal with Wozniacki. The Serena Williams types can take out The Woz, but the Tatishvili types probably cannot.
Other matches to watch: No. 5 Na Li vs. Olivia Rogowska, No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. Casey Dellacqua, No. 10 Francesa Schiavone vs. Romina Oprandi, No. 13 Jelena Jankovic vs. Kai-Chen Chang, Christina McHale vs. Marina Erakovic