Aussie Open middle-round notes and thoughts

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, as the saying goes. Usually this can be interpreted both literally and figuratively, and in the case of Juan Martín del Potro a couple of nights ago, that’s just about appropriate. The 6’6’’, big-serving Argentine made a second-round exit at the Aussie Open, losing to 62nd-ranked Roberto Bautista-Agut in five grueling sets.

Bear in mind that there were other factors involved. This year’s tournament is about as hot as it’s ever been, and the complicated formula that officials use to calculate whether or not it’s appropriate to close the roof on Rod Laver Arena and suspend other matches has come into play several times already. Top players, including Rafael Nadal, have mentioned how grateful they have been to get some reprieve from the heat.

The heat policy is rather convoluted and unclear, but suffice to say that if the temperature reaches a pre-determined threshold, combined with the humidity index, can trigger the roofs of Rod Laver and Hisense Arenas to be closed at the end of the set being played, and play on the outer courts to be suspended until after 5:00, as well as 10-minute breaks to be implemented for some women’s and junior matches.

Put simply, this is like treating a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid, as by the third day of the tournament, 970 fans (not players, but fans) had been treated for heat-related illnesses. Fifth-day tournament temperatures reached 111°F. Put simply, it’s really, really hot in Melbourne in the summertime. So del Potro feeling the heat seems a little more reasonable under the circumstances. On the other hand, other players have reasonably added to the debate by saying that the heat and the weather are things that you have to prepare for, and failure to do so is nobody’s fault but your own.

Where is the middle ground in all this? I don’t know. I do know that it increases my everyday awe of professional tennis players that play in temperatures exceeding 40°C (that’s 104°F) for hours on end with hardly any reprieve from the blazing sun. It’s astounding and slightly disturbing. How Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp played a third set (with no tiebreaker, remember), that took  almost two hours and lasted 18 games is beyond me.

Moving forward to the action, del Potro’s exit opens things up on the men’s side a little bit, though the winner of his eighth of the draw getting Nadal in the quarterfinals would seem poised to close that opening. Nadal has looked all but untouchable, and as we know from prior experience, if you don’t get him early, you’re probably not going to get him at all.

As predicted, Gael Monfils handles Jack Sock and then hit the brick wall of Rafa in the third round, setting up an intriguing matchup of Nadal against Kei Nishikori in the round of 16. Nishikori, a relative newcomer to the scene, has done well to get where he is, though he was deprived of a real challenge when American Donald Young (showing flashes of brilliance, but still a long way away) beat Andreas Seppi in five sets. Nishikori then handled young, setting up his showdown with Nadal. Nishikori is good, but expect Rafa to give him a lesson.

For proof that the top-half of the draw was seriously stacked, look no further than the fact that the sixth-seeded Federer is getting the tenth-seeded Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga (who has been absolutely blitzing his opponents and looking great doing it) in the round of 16, only to then move on and get Andy Murray in the quarters. For either of these gentlemen to win, they’ll have to go through (potentially) each other, then Murray, then Nadal, then three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic. By contrast, Djokovic’s path would include Stanislas Wawrinka (who gave him all he could handle in New York, but still), then David Ferrer (scrappy and tough, but seldom a problem for superior competition) or Tomas Berdych (a huge server and wild-card, but Djokovic would probably wear him down), and then Nadal. Good players all, but a little more tipped in the favor of the top half.

She didn't serve that well either.

Sam Stosur meekly lost to Ana Ivanovic, striking only 21 winners to her opponent’s 46.

Also as predicted, Sam Stosur can’t find her consistency. She lost to Ana Ivanovic in a close match, though she wilted in the third set, losing by two breaks of serve. Again, probably a moot point as Ivanovic now faces Serena Williams, but I would have loved to see more from Stosur. She had her chances and couldn’t convert, winning only one break of serve while serving decently. The stats tell a story; unforced errors: 40-30 Ivanovic, winners: 46-21 Ivanovic. Plainly, the offense just wasn’t there, and Ivanovic concurrent lack of accuracy hardly mattered. I’d love to see Stosur get back to what she does best and how she won her Slam: going for it consistently, trusting herself to make the big shots when she has to, and winning a higher percentage of her first-serve points (she got 68% of her first serves in and won only 61% of those points).

There are other players in the women’s draw that could challenge the seemingly foregone conclusion of a Serena-Victoria Azarenka final. Simona Halep has played well, lending credence to her strong 2013 that she may be on the way to being a serious contender. Angelique Kerber, the big-serving German, has also demonstrated why she’s a top-ten player and should have a great quarterfinal matchup with Li Na. However, barring something unusual happening, Serena and Vika are on a collision course for the final

While also unpredictable, the men’s side offers much more in the way of entertaining matches. Federer-Tsonga and Wawrinka-Tommy Robredo (an ageless wonder at 31 as well) are the marquee matchups, with so much more to come in the quarters.

Keep it right here.