1. The heat broke!
Granted, it was 106 degrees again in the mid-afternoon in Melbourne, but the temperature had dropped by 30 degrees by the time the night matches were wrapping up. Clouds rolled in, rain delayed the proceedings on multiple occasions, and it appears the forecast is improving for the week ahead, just in time for the real tennis (for lack of a better term) to begin.
2. Ana Ivanovic has confidence
If you follow tennis even casually, you probably know the Ana Ivanovic story pretty well by now. She won the 2008 French Open and reached No. 1 in the world at 20 years old, and then, in the most mental of sports, she combusted. Her star rose, her marketability and modeling opportunities were off the charts, and her confidence on the tennis court vanished. Following the French Open win, she failed to make even the quarterfinal of her next 17 slams. Seventeen! And after reaching the U.S. Open quarters in 2012, she failed to get past the fourth round in any slam in 2013. She hasn't made the WTA Tour Championships since 2008, and her WTA ranking has basically established permanent residence in the teens.
We haven't seen much of Mega-Confident Ana in a while, in other words, at least on the court.
Since the start of 2014, however, Ivanovic has played some rather incredible tennis. She has cruised at times -- she whipped young Annika Beck, 6-1, 6-2, the second round of the Aussie Open, for instance -- but even in tight matches, she has shown a level of perseverance that has frequently been a problem. In Auckland earlier in January, she beat Kirsten Flipkens, 6-0, 7-6, in the semifinals; then, in the finals against Venus Williams, she won 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, bouncing back from a tight second set to survive in the third.
But in her most impressive performance of the year, she took down Sam Stosur on Friday in the Aussie third round. Stosur is another player who tends to get in her own way sometimes, but with both women playing well, Stosur took a tight first-set tiebreaker, 10-8. Ivanovic responded with two sets of brave, awesome tennis, and advanced to the next round, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2.
Against a strong, athletic opponent, Ivanovic was aggressive throughout. She hit 46 winners to 40 unforced errors (Stosur had 21 and 30, respectively), and with the match on the line in the third set, she dominated. And again, Stosur was playing pretty well.
Winners: Ivanovic 14, Stosur 6
Unforced Errors: Ivanovic 8, Stosur 7
Total Points: Ivanovic 29, Stosur 18 (62% for Ivanovic)
At her best, Ivanovic catches the ball early, pins you deep, then takes you off the court with strong angles. It is an artistic, entertaining style of play, but it requires her to be completely dialed in. She has been so far in 2014.
Her reward for taking down Stosur? Serena Williams. As the No. 14 seed, Ivanovic could have drawn any of the top four seeds for her Round 4 match; unfortunately for her, she drew the best player in the world. Ivanovic has never taken a set from Williams in four matches and has never even taken a set to 5-all. Her run will likely come to an end on Sunday, but her play in January has been quite intriguing. It won't take her long to break back into the Top 10 if she keeps it up.
3. You like chalk, right?
There were technically some upsets here and there on Friday. No. 17 seed Tommy Robredo took down No. 9 seed Richard Gasquet in four sets, for instance, and Florian Mayer whipped No. 20 seed Jerzy Janowicz. But Mayer is actually ranked quite a bit higher than Janowicz in the AB hard court rankings (so it really wasn't an upset), and there was once again mostly chalk on Friday, with high seeds winning far more often than not. Novak Djokovic took down solid Denis Istomin in straight sets, and David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych did the same to Jeremy Chardy and Damir Dzumhur, respectively.
On the women's side, Serena Williams (against Daniela Hantuchova) and Angelique Kerber (Alison Riske) did their jobs in straights while Na Li shook off a rough start to survive Lucie Safarova.
I end up saying this a lot, but while upsets are a lot of fun in the present tense, they tend to result in mismatches in later rounds. Heading into the first weekend of the Australian Open, though, a general lack of major upsets (aside from a Juan Martin Del Potro here and a Petra Kvitova there) are creating all sorts of big-time matchups. They began on Friday with Stosur-Ivanovic, and they continue on the men's side on Saturday.
4. Day 6 is loaded
From the Styles Make Fights department, the Nadal Region is loaded with fascinating matchups for Day 6.
(AB hard court rankings in parentheses.)
No. 1 Rafael Nadal (2) v. No. 25 Gael Monfils (16)
No. 16 Kei Nishikori (12) v. Donald Young (54)
No. 11 Milos Raonic (11) v. No. 22 Grigor Dimitrov (22)
No. 27 Benoit Paire (42) v. Roberto Bautista Agut (46)
The headliner is obviously Nadal-Monfils. Monfils, always entertaining (for reasons good or bad), has the ground strokes to stretch Nadal and indeed took the 2009 Aussie Open champion to three sets (1-6, 7-6, 2-6) in the finals of the Qatar Open earlier this January. Now, Nadal has taken nine of 11 matches all-time against Monfils (five of seven on hard courts), so we probably know how this is going to end, but from a journey-over-destination perspective, it should be fascinating regardless.
The other three matches here are also pretty nice matchups. Nishikori-Young pits a couple of grinders -- in front of the ultimate grinder, Michael Chang (Nishikori's new coach), no less. Paire-Bautistia Agut is an unexpected battle of enigmatic shotmakers ("enigmatic" is the nice way of saying "flaky," right?). And Raonic-Dimitrov gives us a battle of two relative youngsters (Raonic is 23, Dimitrov 22) with high upsides; the winner will have an excellent chance to make his first slam quarterfinal. The two have met twice, and split four sets, on hard courts.
Young, by the way, is the last American standing.
7 Slams, 7 Different Last US Man Left: #AusOpen 14:Young US13:Smyczek Wim13:Reynolds RG13:Isner Aus13:Querrey US12:Roddick Wim12:Fish— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 17, 2014
5. Really loaded
The third round in the Murray Region has almost as many interesting battles.
No. 4 Andy Murray (3) v. No. 26 Feliciano Lopez (29)
Martin Klizan (138) v. Stephane Robert (149)
No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7) v. No. 18 Gilles Simon (27)
No. 6 Roger Federer (4) v. Teymuraz Gabashvili (108)
Some of these battles are interesting for different reasons, of course. Murray and Lopez will be forever tied because of reasons that have nothing to do with actual on-court battles (which Murray tends to dominate) -- Murray's mother thinks Lopez is quite dreamy. That's the kind of story that tends to stick with you on tour forever and always.
Klizan-Robert is most interesting simply from the "One of these guys is going to make the fourth round of a slam" perspective. Meanwhile, Gabashvili is basically the third most important part of his match versus Federer, after Federer himself and Federer's new, bigger racquet.
Plots are important in these matches, but the actual action when Tsonga and Simon face off should be quite entertaining. "Enigmatic Frenchman" is a redundant term when tennis is involved, but these two both fit the description as charismatic shotmakers prone to frustrating lapses. They have faced off six times in the last five years, with each player winning three, though Tsonga has won six of seven all-time on hard courts (Simon's 2-0 on clay). Injuries kept Tsonga off the court for a while in 2013, and his ATP ranking dropped to 10th, dooming him to life in a region with both Federer and Murray. But he has won six of six sets in Melbourne thus far, a strong showing would certainly suggest he has a good chance in a likely fourth-rounder against Federer.