On Tuesday, I mentioned that 2012 was going to be an interesting year for U.S. men's tennis, for better or worse. Day 3 of the Australian Open very much fell into the "worse" category. Not only did Sam Querrey and Donald Young both lose, and not only did John Isner need an odd, controversial call to sneak by unseeded David Nalbandian in five sets, but Mardy Fish, the No. 8 player in the world and quite easily the top-ranked American, got swept by Colombian Alejandro Falla. Fighting cramps and potentially other nagging injuries, Falla played junk ball (his second serves often clocked in at barely above 70 miles per hour) and let Fish defeat himself. It worked. And in general, 'it' just didn't work at all for the Americans yesterday.
Men: No. 15 Andy Roddick vs. Lleyton Hewitt
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
In 2005, this was a semifinal matchup between the No. 2 (Roddick) and No. 3 (Hewitt) players in the world. In Day 4 of the 2012 Australian Open, however, it is just a match between an injury-prone 29-year old from Omaha (ranked 16th) and a really injury-prone 30-year old local (181st). Both have been on the downside of their respective careers for a while, but with both in relative good health, playing in front of an excitable night crowd, this could be fantastic.
As one would expect, Roddick and Hewitt have played each other quite often -- 13 times, according to the ATP's website (and honestly, it feels like it should be a much higher total than that) -- but the series has swung dramatically in Roddick's favor. Hewitt won six of the first seven head-to-heads (including wins in the quarterfinals of the 2001 U.S. Open and in the semifinals of the 2005 Aussie Open). But as both injuries and (as odd as it sounds for a world-class athlete) family obligations piled up for Hewitt, Roddick seized control. He has won the last six meetings, three in straight sets.
While neither competitor is likely capable of taking out a top seed at this point, and with these conditioning questions, Roddick and Hewitt could bring out the best in each other. Ignoring Roddick's admirable bald spot, each should spend a good portion of the match resembling his former self. But conditioning could win out in this one. Roddick has been less injury-prone and missed less time in 2011, and he should advance. Just like I said Mardy Fish should advance yesterday.
Men: No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. Santiago Giraldo
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
Don't watch this match for any perceived level of competitiveness. If this match ends up close, it is an accident. Instead, watch this match because nobody in the world, in any profession, is better at their craft than Novak Djokovic at the moment.
After years of serving as third fiddle to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Djokovic improved his conditioning heading into 2011, thanks in part to a gluten-free diet and what we will call creative recovery techniques. The results were staggering. He lost one set on his way to the Australian Open crown, sweeping through Federer in the semis and Andy Murray in the finals. He beat Federer again at Dubai in February, then beat both Federer and Nadal in Indian Wells in March. Then he beat Nadal again. And again. His semifinal loss to Federer at the French Open was his only loss for the first seven and a half months of the year. He took Nadal out in four sets at Wimbledon, then mentally pantsed him again at the U.S. Open. He ran out of steam a bit in November (due in part to both his, and the ATP's, grueling schedule), but if his first-round match versus Paolo Lorenzi is any indication (6-2 6-0 6-0), he is, to say the least, in pretty good form again.
Men: No. 5 David Ferrer vs. Ryan Sweeting
Show Court 2, Match No. 2
Twenty-four year old Ryan Sweeting, a Bahamian-American from Fort Lauderdale (via Nassau -- tough life), is in the odd no-man's-land of men's tennis. He is promising enough to have won a tournament in 2011 (the US Men's Claycourt Championships in Houston, in which he took out Sam Querrey, an over-the-hill, and hilarious, Ivo Karlovic, and the perfectly decent Kei Nishikori). He is also far enough behind the curve to have lost 14 of his final 18 matches of 2011. That he is (sort of) American makes this match semi-notable, but more noteworthy is Ferrer's recent rebound.
At this point, men's tennis seems to have a clear, obvious top tier (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer) and a mostly clear second tier (Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a healthy Juan Martin del Potro, and maybe Tomas Berdych). A grinder with an occasionally glitchy serve, Ferrer is a consistent, and consistently forgotten (at least by me) winner. He earns a ton of tour points by simply not losing matches he shouldn't, and this match certainly falls into that category.
Men: No. 14 Gael Monfils vs. Thomaz Bellucci
Margaret Court Arena, Match No. 4
Why is this on the must-watch list? Because everything involving Gael Monfils is on the must-watch list. On the football side, I've taken to calling Vanderbilt your bookish, nerdy younger brother. Well, Monfils is your other younger brother, both incredibly lovable and mentally unstable. He will come up with some of the greatest shots you've ever seen, and he will spend the rest of a given match trying (and failing) to blow your mind. At least once per Monfils match (and probably once per set), you will find yourself saying, with complete resignation, "Oh, Gael, no. No, no, no."
Other men's matches to watch: No. 4 Andy Murray vs. Edouard Roger-Vasselin, No. 5 Jo-Wilifried Tsonga vs. Ricardo Mello, No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic vs. James Duckworth, No. 12 Gilles Simon vs. Julien Benneteau, No. 17 Richard Gasquet vs. Andrey Golubev, No. 19 Viktor Troicki vs. Mikhail Kukushkin, No. 23 Milos Raonic vs. Philipp Petzschner, No. 24 Kei Nishikori vs. Matthew Ebden, No. 26 Marcel Granollers vs. Frederico Gil, No. 27 Juan Ignacio Chela vs. Pablo Andujar, No. 32 Alex Bogomolov, Jr., vs. Michael Llodra
Women: No. 4 Maria Sharapova vs. Jamie Hampton
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 1
This is another "There's an American involved, and that might interest you" match, but Hampton probably doesn't have too much to offer here. Hampton surged into the Top 200 in 2010 but stagnated last year, winning just one match at any major tournament. She looked great in her first-round win over Mandy Minella this week, but this match should be seen mostly as a form check for Maria Sharapova. Somehow only 24, Sharapova has overcome most of the injuries that set her back in 2009 and the inconsistency that followed in 2010. She made the finals at Wimbledon (losing to Petra Kvitova in an epic "new-school grunting versus old-school grunting" battle) and the semis of the French Open, but she struggled in both of the hard court slams, losing in the fourth round (to Andrea Petkovic) at least year's Aussie and in the third (to the wonderfully-named Flavia Pennetta) at the U.S. Open. Unless she slips, she could be in for a fun quarterfinal matchup versus either Serena Williams or Vera Zvonereva.
Women: No. 15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Vania King
Show Court 3, Match No. 2
This is another matchup of a seeded, established player versus an American you probably haven't heard of. King is a singer-slash-double specialist (14 career tournament titles!) who hasn't been able to creep too far past about 70th in the women's singles rankings. She is giving up five inches and 30 pounds to Pavlyuchenkova, a former junior champion whose senior career began to get somewhere in 2011. Pavlyuchenkova made the quarterfinals at both the French and U.S. Opens and possesses the power game that King very much does not.
Other women's matches to watch: No. 2 Petra Kvitova vs. Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 7 Vera Zvonareva vs. Lucie Hradecka, No. 9 Mario Bartoli vs. Jelena Dokic, No. 12 Serena Williams vs. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, No. 14 Sabine Lisicki vs. Shahar Peer, No. 17 Dominika Cibulkova vs Greta Arn, No. 18 Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Sloane Stephens, No. 21 Ana Ivanovic vs. Michaella Krajicek, No. 23 Roberta Vinci vs. Jie Zheng, No. 25 Kaia Kanepi vs. Ekaterina Makarova, No. 27 Maria Kirilenko vs. Aleksandra Wozniak, No. 29 Nadia Petrova vs. Sara Errani, No. 30 Angelique Kerber vs. Stephanie Dubois