After eight days, the Australian Open field has been narrowed. Here’s a synopsis of the early round stumbles, near misses and a crack at determining a champion.
Maria Kirilenko rocked Rod Laver Arena with a first day, first round, first match upset of 14th seed Maria Sharapova. With a suspect serve, will and grit could not pull Sharapova through her first competitive match of the season. Not resting on her laurels, Kirilenko progressed to the round of 16 where she received an early Easter gift from Dinara Safina. Nine games into the first set, Safina threw in the towel because of a back injury. As a result, Kirilenko reaches her initial major quarterfinal and will play Jie Zheng, the 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist. Zheng ousted 11th seed Marion Bartoli in the third round, then took care of Alona Bondarenko. Now, one of these women has the opportunity to advance to her first Aussie Open semifinal.
Waiting in the wing for Kirilenko and Zheng is perhaps Justine Henin. The 2004 Australian champion had to work tirelessly to book a quarterfinal spot. Henin’s second round meeting with Elena Dementieva lived up to the hype with top-notch groundstrokes by both players. Upon surviving that encounter, Henin came close to saying cheerio in the third round. Alisa Kleybenova demanded Henin’s best before going down in three sets. A similar performance was required by Henin in the round of 16 with U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer proving a tough kill. Again, Henin needed to go the distance to seal the win and a date with Nadia Petrova in the quarters.
Petrova was probably regarded as the Russian least likely to succeed at the start of the Open. However, after dismantling U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters in the third round and ushering out French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in round four, Petrova is no doubt a formidable adversary. Therefore, if Petrova continues along the same lines, Henin may be in for a colossal surprise.
Defending champion Serena Williams has been impressive in marching to the round of 16. Serena has yet to drop serve nor a set. Her toughest test will be Aussie hopeful Sam Stosur in the upcoming round. With a big serve and a win over Serena in Stanford last year, Stosur has the tools to upstage the world number one.
Although Venus Williams has been tested more than her sister, she has also managed to prevail in straight sets. Venus battles Francesca Schiavone in the fourth round. Schiavone excused 10th seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the previous round. The crafty veteran with a one handed backhand will be a challenge for Venus as she attempts to move on to the quarters where Caroline Wozniacki may be next.
Wozniacki has been methodically taking care of business. The 2009 U.S. Open runner-up has swiftly dismissed her opponents. Na Li is her fourth round opponent, therefore, it will be stunning if the 4th seed doesn’t capture a quarterfinal berth.
Ana Ivanovic suffered another set back as the 2008 French Open champion was brought down in the second round by Gisela Dulko. Ivanovic threw in 11 double faults including one to set up triple break/match point. With her service woes, although with the difference of a major to her name, Ivanovic is on the verge of becoming the Guillermo Coria of the women’s game. Dulko was ousted in the third round by Vera Zvonareva.
The last two survivors in the top half of the women’s draw are Victoria Azarenka and Zvonareva. Their showdown in the fourth round has the making of great theater with these players having hired each other’s former coach. How well either woman implements her coach’s tips will be vital in determining which one will get to the quarterfinals.
As the tournament began, the obstacle to a Serena-Venus semifinal appeared insurmountable. Now, it at least seems possible. Since Serena usually glitters in this setting; if she gets through Stosur, neither Azarenka nor Zvonareva will be able to stop her. If Venus brings her “A” game the next two rounds, there’s a good chance that a Williams will make it to the final.
With 8th seed Jelena Jankovic falling to Bondarenko, 5th seed Dementieva to Henin, and 2nd seed Safina retiring, the bottom half of the draw is in tatters. As such, Henin’s wealth of experience puts her at the front of the pack to reach the final. Thus, like her main rival and countrywoman Clijsters, Henin could steal this major just a few weeks post un-retirement.