It's the same dilemma we face every March in the NCAA Tournament: do we root for crazy upsets early on, even if it means lesser matchups in later rounds? Do we root for that 16-seed to finally take out that 1-seed, even if it means they will likely get smoked in the second round? Or do we grit our teeth and hope for chalk so that it's heavyweight-versus-heavyweight in the second week?
Personally, I tend to root for upsets despite myself. But in this year's Aussie Open, we get to see what happens when most of the favorite slip through to the second week, especially on the men's side. We have two quarterfinal matchups so far: Rafael Nadal vs. Tomas Berdych, and Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin del Potro. (And even if Berdych gets crushed by Nadal, as he typically does, that match will have extra entertainment value after Berdych got booed off the court on Day 7.) We love the Cinderella story -- Michael Chang at the French in 1989, qualifier Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1985 -- but the slipper rarely actually fits. And if things go according to plan today, we could be looking at another pair of wonderful men's quarters, and some killer women's matches as well, like Wozniacki-Clijsters and, potentially, Williams-Sharapova.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. Lleyton Hewitt
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
If there is a Cinderella story left in the draw, it is the 30-year old Hewitt, who took out up-and-comer Milos Raonic in the third round to get a chance at Novak Djokovic. While I can talk big about a potential Djokovic-Murray or Djokovic-Tsonga semifinal, followed by, of course, a finals matchup versus either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, it would still be incredible to see Hewitt give the world's current untouchable No. 1 a run for his money.
Of course, that isn't bloody likely. Djokovic has lost 10 games in nine sets at the Aussie Open thus far. He is, in a lot of ways, Hewitt 2.0. A little taller, a little faster, a little better defensively, and, at this stage, much better offensively. An incredible old-versus-new match here would be fantastic, but it is difficult to expect it.
No. 4 Andy Murray vs. Mikhail Kukushkin
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
Mikhail Kukushkin is the tournament's marathon man thus far. The 92nd-ranked, 24-year old from Kazakhstan took out Viktor Troicki in five sets on Day 4, then knocked off your little brother Gael Monfils in five more sets on Day 6, blowing a two-set lead, then winning 6-4 in the fifth. He has won five of his last six tour matches, easily the most successful recent stretch of his career. His one loss in this span: to Murray a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane (5-7, 6-3, 6-2). He can take solace, however, in the fact that he took a set from the world No. 4. He created almost as many break points (seven) as Murray (nine), and the overall difference in the match ended up being about six points. Not bad.
In their lone meeting, Kukushkin was eventually done in by his second serve. He won 70 percent of his first serve points (Murray won 71 percent of his), but he only got his first serve in 53 percent of the time (Murray: 61 percent) and only won 41 percent of his second-serve points. Murray is known for his counter-punching ability, but he is also an excellent returner, and if Kukushkin cannot keep him off balance, he will be broken quite a bit.
Other matches: No. 6 Jo-Wilifried Tsonga vs. No. 24 Kei Nishikori, No. 5 David Ferrer vs. Richard Gasquet.
No. 2 Petra Kvitova vs. No. 21 Ana Ivanovic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 1
Petra Kvitova has played six complete sets thus far in Melbourne, and they have been indicative of her last year or so on tour. She smoked Vera Dushevina (6-2, 6-0), and she didn't lose a single game in her third-round match versus Maria Kirilenko (6-0, 1-0, retired). But she damn near lost in the second round, exchanging 6-2 sets versus Carla Suarez-Navarro and winning the third, 6-4. When in a rhythm, she is quite possibly the best player on the women's tour. She took on a smoking hot Maria Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon finals and won in straight sets. But like so many of the young players on the women's tour, she doesn't just slightly falter -- it's all or nothing. When things turn bad, they turn VERY bad, as it did at the U.S. Open, when she lost in straight sets to Alexandra Dulgheru, currently the No. 61 player in the world.
In other words, one could say the exact same thing about Kvitova that they have about Ana Ivanovic for much of the last four years. Both are powerful shot-makers who can see their games go careening off the rails in a single moment. Kvitova likely has an advantage in this match, simply because she plays a little stronger, and has been quite a bit more consistent, over the past year. The two haven't played since Ivanovic whipped Kvitova in straight sets in Brisbane 2009 (she also swept Kvitova in October 2008 and won in three sets in August 2008), and to say the least, Kvitova's game has picked up since then. She was considered a favorite before she went without dropping a game in her third-round match, and she certainly still is. But as is usually the case on the women's tour, there are many land mines to avoid, many players who, depending on the day, could play like a Top Five player. With her high upside, Ivanovic certainly qualifies as quite the land mine.
No. 4 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 14 Sabine Lisicki
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
If not for Vera Zvonareva, Sabine Lisicki might have had an incredible 2011 season. She was already good enough to rise from outside of the Top 100 to her current status as the No. 15 player in the world. She was already good enough to win the WTA's Comeback Player of the Year award following an ankle injury that erased most of her 2010 season. She was already good enough to make the Wimbledon semifinals as a Qualifier, taking out Li Na and Mario Bartoli along the way. But her season was probably equally defined by her French Open collapse versus Zvonareva. She held a match point at 5-2 in the third set of their second-round match before collapsing, both physically and mentally. She lost, 7-5, and was removed from the court, sobbing, on a stretcher. She got smoked by Zvonareva in the fourth round of the U.S. Open as well. In general, Zvonareva's faltering play in key moments has given her a bit of a reputation, but in exchange, she has given Lisicki something of the same reputation.
Against Maria Sharapova in 2011, however, there were no collapses involved, only domination. They played twice, and neither match was terribly close. Sharapova won, 6-4, 6-3, in the Wimbledon semifinals, and 6-2, 6-0, on the hard courts in Miami in March. Shaparova is playing ridiculously well once again in Melbourne -- she has dropped just five games in six sets thus far -- so it is pretty clear who the favorite should be. But Lisicki is still strong enough to potentially make things interesting. Potentially.
No. 12 Serena Williams vs. Ekaterina Makarova
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
Ekaterina Makarova has established herself as a perfectly decent pro over the years. Since 2008, her singles record is 109-96, and she has now made the fourth round in three of her last five slams. But the 23-year old from Moscow has never made a serious career breakthrough, and there is not much to suggest that will start today. She has never advanced BEYOND the fourth round of a major, and in her one meeting versus Serena Williams (Beijing 2009), she lost, 6-3, 6-2.
While there were quite a few justifiable questions about Serena Williams' conditioning and motivation level heading into the Australian Open, she has certainly answered most of those questions thus far. She has given up more than three games just once in six sets and eventually responded well to a decent second-set challenge from Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova in her second-round match (she won 6-0, 6-4). When healthy, the 30-year old American is likely still the best player on the tour, and she is on pace for what could be an absolutely phenomenal quarterfinal matchup versus Sharapova if she gets past Makarova.
Other matches: Other matches: Sara Errani vs. Jie Zheng.