Two weeks from now when the 2017 Australian Open has been pared down to two women and two men remaining in the singles draws, the event will have evolved a logic all its own. But in the meantime it’s just a bunch of names and numbers on tournament drawsheets.
There are a grand total of 252 matches to be played before the two sets of finalists are determined and right now, before action begins on Monday, logic and intuition, mixed with a little luck, are about all tennis followers can rely on to forecast the outcomes of 2017’s first Grand Slam event.
With that caveat on the table, here’s a look at this year’s women’s and men’s draws and what stands out from a preliminary examination.
The initial reaction around Melbourne Park to Friday’s draws related to the two six-time champions, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, and their first-round matches. Williams will play No. 48 Belinda Bencic, the talented Swiss who memorably beat her 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals of the 2015 Rogers Cup in Toronto. Bencic, 19, suffered from a back problem last year, as well as a hand issue and she had to pull out of a tournament this past week when she lost half the nail on her right big toe. Still she beat Heather Watson and Andrea Petkovic (and lost to Kristina Mladenovic) in Hopman Cup action a week ago so she has shown some form. Two Czechs, Lucie Safarova in the second round and Barbora Strycova in round four, are experienced and talented enough to also be threats for the 35-year-old Williams.
As for defending champion Angelique Kerber, pictured at top on Friday before the draw ceremony with Djokovic, she would seem to have a less complicated path to a possible quarter-final match-up against No. 7 seed Garbiñe Muguruza.
In the fourth round, Kerber is slated to face No. 15 seed Roberta Vinci, the spunky, 33-year-old Italian who is fast approaching the end of her career. But that match-up presupposes that Vinci survives a section of the draw that includes feisty Russian 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina, who had a match point on Muguruza in Brisbane and upset Kerber 7-6(5), 6-2 in Sydney before losing 6-3, 7-5 to eventual champion Johanna Konta.
Kasatkina could be key to Genie Bouchard’s fate at this year’s Australian Open because they will likely play in the second round – assuming Kasatkina gets past Peng Shuai and Bouchard beats American 19-year-old Louisa Chirico. Bouchard – Kasatkina would oppose two strong-willed competitors and would easily qualify as a popcorn match.
Aside from Williams and Kerber, the most logical candidates to raise the Daphne Akhurst Trophy in two weeks would be Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep – all three of whom have been one match away from winning a Grand Slam final – and Konta who was stellar in Sydney. But the 26-year-old Brit, seeded ninth, has a tough draw and could play, in a row after the second round, Caroline Wozniacki (17), Dominika Cibulkova (6), Williams (2), Karolina Pliskova (5) and Kerber (1).
On the men’s side, the Djokovic – Verdasco clash might not be as eventful as many anticipate considering the 33-year-old Spaniard held five match points on the world No. 2 in Doha last week before going down 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-3. Of course Verdasco unforgettably ousted Rafael Nadal in the first round a year ago but Djokovic will have been forewarned this time. He leads their head-to-head 9-4 and hasn’t lost to the man sometimes known as ‘hot sauce’ since 2010.
The Roger Federer draw fears among many of his loyalists were largely calmed on Friday when the Swiss got three qualifiers directly above his name and will not face a top-100 player until a potential third-round meeting with No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych, a man he usually handles on big occasions. Ironically No. 9 seed Rafael Nadal could just as easily been in Berdych’s spot so Federer fans can count their blessings. Further down the line Federer could face No. 5 Kei Nishikori, whom Japanese reporters speculate is carrying a hip issue, and then No. 1 Andy Murray in the quarter-finals. That match-up would be another popcorn affair with Federer surely believing he can maintain his mastery of Murray and the Scot convinced his most recent iteration is superior to Federer, at least to the 35-year-old version of the living legend.
As for Milos Raonic, seeded No. 3, he starts out with funky Dustin Brown for the second Grand Slam in a row. Raonic beat Brown 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 at the US Open last August before his infamous ‘cramping’ loss to Ryan Harrison in the second round.
Raonic will have to be wary of a potential second round against the forward ‘barreling’ gamestyle of Gilles Muller and a third round with another Gilles, Simon, the tireless Frenchman who can wear down many opponents but who seems to be wearing down himself at age 32. He is six years older than Raonic right to the December 27th birthday they share. In the round-of-16, either of Spaniards (13th seed) Roberto Bautista Agut or (21st seed) David Ferrer could turn out to be an anticlimax for Raonic before the storm of a quarter-final against No. 9 Nadal, who is no sure thing with the prospect of him having had to overcome emerging force Alexander Zverev (No. 24) in the previous round.
If form holds and Raonic reaches the semifinals as he did a year ago – this time the opposition would potentially be Djokovic instead on Murray.
Best bets among the men outside of Murray and Djokovic would have to be Federer – until further notice he once again seems to be a force – Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Zverev and the always unpredictable Stan Wawrinka.
Stand-out mano a mano matches could be Djokovic – Dimitrov in the round-of-16 and the always contentious confrontation of Nick Kyrgios vs. Wawrinka, also in the round-of-16.
POLANSKY ONE STEP AWAY
Peter Polansky advanced to the final round of the Australian Open qualifying on Friday with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 180-ranked Mirza Basic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I played well,” Polansky said, adding about the delayed start because of some light rain, “I came out strong. He didn’t seem like he’d warmed up this morning. He was asking for a 10-minute warm-up.”
The 28-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., went up 5-1 in the first set before finally closing it out at 5-4. Then in the second set he broke the 25-year-old Basic in his opening service game and rode that to victory in just 64 minutes.
Polansky has an eventful history with the Australian Open qualifying. In 2009, he qualified and led two sets to love in the first round of the main draw against then No. 14-ranked Igor Andreev of Russia before losing 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 on a very windy day.
Since then in six tries he has reached the final round three times (2011-13) but failed to make it one step further.
This year there is more incentive than ever with $25,000 AUS ($24,622 CAN) awarded to players winning three rounds of qualifying plus a minimum of at least $50,000 AUS ($49,244 CAN) for losing in the main draw first round.
Turning 29 in June, Polansky is getting into the veteran category and it will probably feel like that to him on Saturday as he faces 19-year-old Andrey Rublev – one of seven teenagers in the top-200 in the ATP’s 2016 year-end rankings.
The No. 156-ranked Russian was the 2014 French Open junior champion and is touted as one of the promising up-and-comers in men’s tennis.
He and Polansky will be playing for the first time and it is a golden opportunity for both. The 6-foot-2 Rublev qualified for the 2015 US Open but has failed to get through qualifying in four other tries at Grand Slams.
As for Polansky, who relied on his consistency against the more error-prone Basic on Court 19 on Friday, he’s aiming to move his current No. 134 ranking up past No. 122, his career high reached in 2014. He’s also likely to pass Vasek Pospisil, currently No. 131 but already out of singles at the 2017 Australian Open, to become the No. 2 Canadian by the end of this year’s event.
“I think I need to qualify and win one round to beat 122,” Polansky said.
As for moving ahead of Pospisil to be Canada’s No. 2, Polansky explained, “we’re both entered in the Maui (Hawaii) Challenger (the second week of the Australian Open) so if Vasek won it he might still be ahead of me. But he might not even be able to play Maui if he’s still in the doubles here (at the Australian Open).”
Polansky doesn’t have many points to defend in the next few months – qualifying at Indian Wells a year ago in March and then a $10,000 Futures title in May – so there’s definitely an opportunity for him. “I start really defending points at the end of June,” he said. “It would be huge if I could get into the top-100 by the French Open or Wimbledon.”
Polansky will return to Court 19 to play Rublev at 12:30 pm on Saturday (8:30 pm ET Friday in Canada).
ABANDA OUT TO TOWNSEND
Francoise Abanda hadn’t been that impressive against an inferior opponent – Australian wild card Storm Sanders – in the first round of qualifying on Thursday and it caught up to her Friday when she lost 6-4, 6-4 to old junior rival Taylor Townsend of the U.S.
The match, on Show Court 3, a stone’s throw away from where the main draw ceremony was going on nearby at Margaret Court Arena, was competitive until 3-all in the opening set. Both players appeared nervous and tentative and neither could gain any separation until Townsend broke serve to lead 4-3 and soon 5-3 in opening set, finishing it off 6-4.
In the second set, Abanda continued to struggle and fell behind 4-2. But she got back to 4-all and led 40-15 on serve. Townsend looked a little rattled and antsy but pulled off two well-played points, the second finished with a winning forehand volley, to get to deuce. Then two unforced errors by Abanda, and Townsend was back in command.
The final game was almost a formality – Abanda did save a match point but former world No. 1 junior (2012) Townsend wrapped up it to 15.
There was a ‘drive by’ element to the post-match handshake but Townsend had been undemonstrative in her moment-of-victory after her win so there was little reason for bad feeling.
Montrealer Abanda, 19, will be joining fellow teenagers Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., 16, and Charlotte Robillard-Millette of Blainville, Que., 18, on the Canadian Fed Cup team that will compete in American Zone I competition in Metepec, Mexico, from February 6-12. But, with a February 5th birthday, she will no longer be a teenager then.
AUSTRALIA POST CARD
The current show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney features the nude as viewed through 200 works from the Tate Gallery in London. It covers a span of more than two centuries.
NOTE: No blog Saturday but check out @tomtebbutt on Twitter for info and pictures of Polansky’s qualifying match.