We enter the Round of 32 at the 2012 Australian Open on Thursday with, predictably, a minimal American footprint. Andy Roddick "retired" (because tennis has its own word for "quit a match with injury," just like they have their own lingo for "three points to zero") against Lleyton Hewitt, leaving John Isner as the only American male remaining in the field. On the women's side, there are three: Serena Williams, Christina McHale, and Vania King, who upset Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Day 4 just like I said she couldn't. McHale and Isner lace them up on Day 5, and the novelty of Americans in the field puts them both on the "must watch" list.
No. 3 Roger Federer vs. Ivo Karlovic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
Have you ever thought to yourself, "I really wish I could watch the greatest tennis player of my generation taking on Lurch from The Munsters?" If so, now's your chance! The 6-foot-10 Karlovic, one of the more enjoyable players in tennis off the court (and online), plays tennis exactly how you think a 6-foot-10 man would play tennis: with a booming serve and iffy flexibility. His ranking reached as high as 14th in the world in 2008, but he has been on a steady regression since then. He currently ranks 57th, but he is always a tricky out because of that serve. Last March, he broke the world record with a 156-mile per hour serve, and he won 91 percent of his service games on hard courts last year. The problem: he only won nine percent of his return games. He is a virtual lock to play in a wealth of both tie-breakers and fast sets.
Federer and Karlovic have played ten times in their respective careers. Federer has won nine of the matches, but 13 of their 25 sets have ended in tie-breakers. Yes, Federer typically wins those (he's won ten of the 13), but relying on tie-break wins is always a little dicey. Federer should win this one by all means, but he will have to work.
No. 16 John Isner vs. No. 18 Feliciano Lopez
Hisense Arena, Match No. 3
America's version of Karlovic, John Isner, takes his own monstrous serve (and hit-or-miss ground strokes) into battle versus 30-year old lefty Feliciano Lopez. Lopez is peaking at a late age, but not with any sort of sudden surge. After plenty of almost perfectly average seasons (he went 27-24 in 2007, 27-26 in 2008 and 26-24 in 2010), he improved to 36-26 last year, playing well in the fall. He took out Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic in Shanghai in October and Gael Monfils in Paris in November.
After his win over Monfils, however, Lopez was matched up against Isner and was swept (6-2, 6-4). He never laid much of a finger on Isner's serve (11 aces, one break point all match) and was broken three times in nine games by Isner, who has typically only had a middling return game. Opportunity No. 2 may go much better for Lopez, but it can't get much worse.
Both players are reliant on a nice service game. Lopez is a Spaniard who plays a bit like an American, meaning he has a heavier serve and isn't necessarily better on clay courts. He will give himself a decent shot if he actually consistently lands his first serve this time around, but Isner should be considered the favorite in this one.
No. 13 Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Bernard Tomic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
When these two players walk onto the court, your immediate assumption will be that Bernard Tomic is the No. 13 seed. He has a good five inches and 40 pounds on Alexandr Dolgopolov, and, as he now calls Australia home, he will receive a healthy ovation from the locals. Tomic intriguing, a former junior star who, at 19, has risen from 208th to 38th in the last year. He took out No. 22 Fernando Verdasco in the first round, recovering from a two-set deficit in the process, and he dumped American Sam Querrey in four sets on Day 3. At 6-foot-5, he looks the part, and he will have a chance against Dolgopolov, a high-intensity, high-variance player who can flip the switch from "tons of winners" to "tons of errors" rather quickly.
The two have met three times in the past two years, and while Dolgopolov has won all three, Tomic has taken a set in each of the last two matches before fading (6-7, 6-1, 6-2 in Sydney last year, and 5-7, 6-1, 6-0 in Shanghai). The environment for this one should be fantastic, with the pro-Aussie crowd rallying behind Tomic, but we'll see if the result changes much. Tomic hasn't been able to touch Dolgopolov's serve in previous meetings.
Others: No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. Lukas Lacko, No. 7 Tomas Berdych vs. No. 30 Kevin Anderson, No. 10 Nicolas Almagro vs. No. 21 Stan Wawrinka, No. 11 Juan Martin del Potro vs. Yen-Hsun Lu, Alejandro Falla vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber.
No. 13 Jelena Jankovic vs. Christina McHale
Margaret Court Arena, Match No. 4
After sweeping through No. 24 Lucie Safarova in the first round, Christina McHale (who, you will be told every 10 minutes, is from New Jersey) took out New Zealander Marina Erakovic in a highly enjoyable, well-played second-round match on Day 3. Her third-round opponent is Jelena Jankovic (who, you will be told every 10 minutes, is a former No. 1). The former U.S. Open finalist still has her moments, but she has been absolutely dreadful in recent grand slams. After making four slam semifinals in 2007-08, she has only made it past the fourth round in a major once in the past three years. Like fellow Serbian (and former No. 1) Ana Ivanovic, Jankovic seems to be her own worst enemy at times, misplacing her game like a set of keys and taking a while to find it.
In her second-round match versus Erakovic, McHale proved quite adept at a baseline game. The 19-year old (from New Jersey!) has come on in recent months, taking out Caroline Wozniacki (in Cincinnati) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (in New Haven) in August and knocking off Mario Bartoli in the second round of the U.S. Open. Her last match against Jankovic, however, does not inspire confidence: Jankovic mauled her in Charleston (6-2, 6-0) last April.
No. 11 Kim Clijsters vs. No. 20 Daniela Hantuchova
Hisense Arena, Match No. 4
Two old hands go at it late in the day, when 28-year old former No. 1 Kim Clijsters takes on 28-year old former No. 8 Hantuchova. Hantuchova has only won one tournament title since 2007, but she just keeps hanging around in a career that has had two distinct arcs. A hotshot 18-year old, she quickly rose to No. 8 in 2002 and made the quarterfinals of three consecutive slams in 2002-03. She fell all the way to 54th in 2004, then slowly made another comeback. She won four tournaments in 2007 and rose back to ninth, and while she has manage to float around in the Top 30 ever since, if you recognize her name, it is probably for a different reason than her play on the court.
Clijsters has seen peaks and valleys in her career for reasons other than slumps and surges. The made at least the semis of five consecutive slams in 2003-04 before missing significant time with injury. She came back to win the 2005 U.S. Open and made the semis of four of the next five slams ... and retired in 2007 to become a mom. She launched a comeback in August 2009 and won the U.S. Open again the next month. She won the 2010 U.S. and 2011 Aussie as well ... and then got hurt again. When healthy, she is a strong hitter with perhaps the best set of hands on the tour. But elite form has been hard for her to maintain. She retired with a hip injury versus Hantuchova in Brisbane earlier this month.
Others: No. 1 Carolina Wozniacki vs. No. 31 Monica Niculescu, No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. Mona Barthel, No. 5 Na Li vs. No. 26 Anabel Medina Garrigues, No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Galina Voskoboeva, No. 22 Julia Goerges vs. Romina Oprandi, Nina Bratchikova vs. Iveta Banesova.