Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Updated: January 14, 9:36 AM ET
Surprise, surprise: Who's the next Delpo?
In Melbourne, you need to predict the unpredictable.
The Australian Open has historically been the stepchild of the Slams, unsure of its place on the calendar and marooned months and miles away from the other majors. For decades it kicked off the tennis year. Then it shifted its dates so it closed the year. Then it shifted them back so it could open the year again.
Little did organizers know when they made that last move, in 1988, that it would place the Aussie in such an enviable position. Rather than an afterthought, the tournament is now first in players' minds as they train during the offseason. At no other event do they come in with multiple weeks of rest and practice under their belt.
Over the past 10 years, this has had two noticeable effects. First, the quality of play is always high Down Under; each Aussie Open seems to produce a match for the ages. Second, the break before the event has allowed formerly unsung players to find their games on the practice court and announce themselves to the world in Rod Laver Arena. The list of surprise runs on the men's side includes Carlos Moya in 1998, Rainer Schuettler in 2003, Marcos Baghdatis in 2006, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008 and Fernando Verdasco last year.
Is there anyone who fits the Aussie surprise profile for 2010? Is there a Moya or a Tsonga, a young future top-10 player just finding his game? Or is there another Schuettler or Verdasco, a veteran who has worked with renewed purpose over the holidays? Looking down the rankings, I'm surprised to find so few likely youthful breakouts on the list. With the strength and depth of the men's tour at the moment, it's hard for a kid to make his way up the ranks.
It's easier to glimpse potential final-weekend runs among the established second tier. Let's take them one by one, from the most to the least obvious:
Nikolay Davydenko: Like Andy Murray last year, Davydenko, who just beat Federer and Nadal back to back in Doha, comes in as the hottest player on the tour. But despite his success, he still doesn't believe in himself as a Grand Slam champion. He says he's a threat only when it's two out of three sets. Why shouldn't we believe him?
Robin Soderling: It would also make sense for the Sod, a Nadal killer in Paris and the newest top-10 member, to go deep in Melbourne. Too much sense, in fact. It's easier to imagine him caving under the new expectations and reverting to his old inconsistent, testy self.
Sam Querrey: The American has established himself in the top 30, but a semifinal appearance would qualify as a shocker. The serve and the forehand are there, and he proved a consistent competitor in winning the U.S. Open Series. To do that next week, he'll have to handle the Melbourne heat. He should at least improve on his dismal first-round loss of a year ago.
Ernests Gulbis: The tour's problem child showed again that he has top-tier game by dictating play and taking a set from Federer last week. He remains a long-term work in progress; for the moment, he's more likely to pull one huge upset than to put together a multimatch run.
Marin Cilic: With his steady improvement, calm demeanor, solid work ethic, easy win over Nadal last fall and successful title defense in Chennai last week, the 6-foot-6 Croat remains the most likely to pull a del Potro in 2010.
Then again, does a breakout run from the No. 14 player in the world really fit into Melbourne's tradition? That's the thing about surprises: You can't see them coming.
If you think you can, give it a shot in the comments below.