After well over a year at No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki's reign atop the women's rankings came to an end when she fell to Kim Clijsters in the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Now, we are basically facing a series of elimination matches to see who the new No. 1 will be. If Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova win this weekend, the top spot is theirs.
Wozniacki was a controversial No. 1 because of her goose-egg in the "career slam titles" department. And to be sure, she was never truly the best player in the world. The problem was, there was complete randomness when it came to who was actually better. Serena Williams was better, then got hurt, then got hurt again. Kim Clijsters was better, but she has been incredibly injury-prone as well. Petra Kvitova looks unbelievable one week, then incredibly beatable the next. Someone has always been better than Wozniacki, but nobody has been as consistently good. Plenty of people could have caught her in the rankings before now, but they faltered, and that's not Wozniacki's fault. Regardless, she was handed a tougher draw than a No. 1 should face this fortnight, and it caught up to her. And if the favorites win today, the women's semis could be incredible ... just like the men's will probably be.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 5 David Ferrer
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 4
It is funny to step back and realize just how dominant Novak Djokovic has been in the last 12 months. He has attained 13,630 points in the ATP rankings, 4,035 more than No. 2 Rafael Nadal. How much is 4,035 points? More than Andy Roddick and John Isner have earned, combined (3,680). Or to put it another way, the gap between Djokovic and Nadal would rank seventh in the world.
Of course, he has set the ball high enough that, should he falter even slightly in a given tournament this year, his advantage will begin to shrink quickly. Anything less than a win in the Aussie Open will make the point total disappear a bit. And to make even the semis, he must get past a man who has taken six of the past ten sets against him. Despite the fact that they each won plenty of matches in 2011, Djokovic and David Ferrer only played twice on tour in 2011; Djokovic beat the Spaniard on clay in Madrid (6-4, 4-6, 6-3), but in November at the ATP World Tour Finals, where Djokovic looked a bit fatigued, Ferrer swept him (6-3, 6-1).
With his stature (5-foot-9, 160 pounds), one would expect Ferrer to be all speed and defense. And while he is certainly fast, and his defensive game is top-notch, the 29-year old remains a Top Five fixture because his footwork and ability to disguise shots give him a nice offensive game as well. He won 84 percent of his service games on hard courts last year, and like Djokovic, he is great at the body blows. He chases every thing down and runs you from side to side; you may feel you are in control of a given point, but the odds are good that a) you're going to lose that point anyway, and b) after two sets you are going to wonder where your legs went.
All that said, Djokovic still has to be considered the favorite here, simply because of his overall level of play. Ferrer has fared well versus the world No. 1 in a small sample size, but he has still advanced to only one slam semifinal in the last four years (last year's Aussie). He is a grinder, but he can be overpowered if Djokovic is playing his A-game.
No. 4 Andy Murray vs. No. 24 Kei Nishikori
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
If you are a fan of the underdog, you are down to one option in the men's draw: Kei Nishikori. The 22-year old from Japan ranks 26th in the world and has logged his share of miles in the last week. After beating Stephane Robert in straight sets in the first round (the second set was a 9-7 tiebreaker), he needed five to beat Matthew Ebden, four to beat Julien Benneteau (including two tie-breakers) and five to upset No. 6 Jo-Wilifried Tsonga in the fourth round. He is 5-1 so far in 2012, but he has won just 14 of 22 sets in the process and was swept by Marcos Baghdatis in the second round at Brisbane a couple of weeks ago. In his one meeting with No. 4 Andy Murray (Shanghai 2011), he won just three games (6-3, 6-0). He is, to say the least, unlikely to make the semis in Melbourne; of course, he was unlikely to make the quarterfinals, too.
Nishikori has mastered the tie-breaker in Melbourne, and to upset Murray, he may have no choice but to go the same route because, quite simply, he might not be able to touch Murray's serve. In their first meeting, Murray won an incredible 82 percent of his service points; he won a ridiculous 22 of 23 first-serve points as well. While he generated nine break points on Nishikori's serve, he did not face a single one on his own. Nishikori has an average return game (he won 24 percent of his return games on hard courts in 2011), and he certainly can't do much worse in that regard against Murray, but let's just say his focus should probably be on holding his own serve. The breaks aren't likely to flow in at a high rate.
No. 2 Petra Kvitova vs. Sara Errani
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 1
On the women's side, you've got your choice of a couple of underdogs: Sara Errani and Ekaterina Makarova. Of course, neither has played much like an underdog thus far. Errani lost four of her final five matches in 2011 and got thumped by Angelique Kerber (6-1, 6-2) in her final Aussie Open tune-up, but she has been incredible in Melbourne. The draw has helped (she's played only one seeded opponent, No. 29 Nadia Petrova), but she has lost more than two games just once in nine sets. She lost a first-set tie-breaker against Sorana Cirstea in the third round, then rallied, 6-0, 6-2. In the fourth round versus Jie Zheng, she lost just three games. And now she takes on Petra Kvitova at what might be the perfect time. The world No. 1 is up for grabs, and a player like Kvitova, who has been incredibly loose and devastating for much of the Aussie Open, might (might) tighten up a bit with that much more on the line.
As good as Errani has looked over the past week, however, her track record versus top players certainly doesn't offer a lot of encouragement. Victoria Azarenka allowed her just six games in two matches last year, and Vera Zvonareva pummeled her, 6-0, 6-2, in the Fed Cup. Sam Stosur almost bageled her, 6-0, 6-1, in Dubai, and Venus Williams had little trouble (6-3, 6-2) in last year's Aussie Open. Perhaps her single most encouraging match was a three-set loss to Kim Clijsters (6-3, 2-6, 6-4) at Indian Wells. The good news is, she is clearly peaking this week; the bad news is, Kvitova may be peaking as well. Barring one glitchy set versus Carla Suarez-Navarro in the second round (she lost the second, 6-2), she has been magnificent. She has played two seeded opponents and won 20 of 28 games against them.
No. 4 Maria Sharapova vs. Ekaterina Makarova
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
One thought came to mind watching Ekaterina Makarova completely and totally pick apart Serena Williams a couple of days ago: wait, this women is ranked 56th?? Makarova has faced a brutal draw thus far and has emerged mostly unscathed. She drew No. 25 Kaia Kanepi in the second round and dropped just seven games. She demoralized No. 7 Vera Zvonareva with a tight win in a first-set tie-breaker, then blew her off the court in the second set (6-1), to the point that Zvonareva was fighting off tears in the final game. Then, in the fourth round, she preempted a much discussed Williams-Sharapova quarterfinal match by whipping Serena, 6-3, 6-2. She has looked magnificent thus far, just like she did last year at the Aussie Open, when she took out two seeded opponents before Kim Clijsters got the best of her in the fourth round.
So how is the 23-year old from Moscow ranked 56th? Because she really doesn't show well at non-slams. She made the fourth round at the French as well (she defeated Kanepi there, as well), and she took Maria Kirilenko to a third-set tie-breaker in the first round at the U.S. Open, but she dropped her final seven tour matches of 2011 and didn't advance past the third round of a non-slam all year. She is the anti-Wozniacki, in other words. She also doesn't have a very good record against Sharapova; the two met twice last year, and while Makarova did take a set, Sharapova lost just six games in the other four sets combined.
What an accomplishment it would be for Sharapova to regain the No. 1 ranking after six years of ups and downs. She was No. 1 as late as Spring 2008, toward the end of a span of eight semifinal appearances in 10 slams, but she tore her rotator cuff and missed a good portion of a year; then, she completely lost both her serve and her confidence. She had rebounded to 18th by the end of 2010, but her true comeback began in earnest last year, when she made the French Open semis and Wimbledon finals. She has looked good at the Aussie Open, and a win over Makarova might set up a heavyweight duel versus Kvitova in the semis.