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David Rosenberg: Notes from Down Under - Wk 1

1/21/2011 9:00:00 AM

By David Rosenberg
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Jan. 23rd
Weekend Update  

Most of the A Team might be missing from the Australian Open after week one, but that doesn’t mean the women didn’t outshine the men. We saw fabulous early round matches, outrageous fashion, innovative press conferences, a bunch of rising stars, broken racquets, balls that wouldn’t bounce, talk of big boobs (and not about Simona Halep), coaching changes, on-court dancing and the longest match ever played in a grand slam. Serena, who?  Below are a few other thoughts from a very exciting first week in Melbourne.  

More reason to believe taking some time off the WTA tour might be a good idea.
Apart from Kim Clijsters’ obvious success, Agnieszka Radwanska has been using her killer drop shot to reach the fourth round with a very decent chance of making the quarters.  

Reason never to take time off the WTA tour.
Although Justine Henin had some good results in 2010, she had better ones before she left. And in Melbourne, after taking half of 2010 off, she looks as if she needs to get match tough soon.  

Warm up events are a solid indication of a player’s form.
Petra Kvitova and Robin Soderling both won Brisbane and Andrea Petkovic reached the final; all three have played great so far in Melbourne.  


You can count on Kim.

Warm up events show nothing.
Vera Zvonareva and Carolina Wozniacki both lost early in Sydney, didn’t seem too upset about it, and have played themselves into the second week.  

Chinese players are back on the radar.
Na Li and Shuai Peng both look fitter and are hitting the ball better than they have in a while.  

More New Balls?
Everyone’s talking about “New Balls” version 2.0 on the ATP Tour, but would anyone bet against the big 5 here – or for the rest of the year?  

Aussies probably don’t like tall, left-handed players in the women’s draw
Ekaterina Makarova and Petra Kvitova were standouts on the women’s side, taking apart Ana Ivanovic (might as well be Australian) and Samantha Stosur  

Aussies probably don’t like average height (for a tennis player), left handed players in the men’s draw
Rafael Nadal took out local boy Bernard Tomic while Jurgen Melzer beat Marcos Baghdatis (might as well be Australian).  

Will the following players please show up?
Victoria Azarenka, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Fernando Verdasco, Gael Monfils  

If you play it, they will come
I sat through Radwanska vs. Simona Halep on Margaret Court arena at 11 am on Saturday with a packed house – there were lines at every gate waiting patiently to get in. Granted, Tsonga vs. Dolgopolov and Isner vs. Cilic followed so maybe they were claiming seats. Either way, there was vocal support for both players. Best fans I’ve seen at a slam.  

Woz PR?
Caroline Wozniacki should open her own PR firm after turning an uncomfortable situation with the media into an opportunity to show off her comedic side. I hope some of that variety starts to make its way into her game, too. Still, she probably didn’t need to apologize for “Kangaroogate.”  

A moment of kindness
Resolution: I will not speak about the fashion of Nadia Petrova, Venus Williams or Aravane Rezai unless they wear something that actually looks good.  

That’s just nuts
Would someone please explain why a small bag of m&m’s cost $3.30? I repeat, a small bag.

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Jan. 21st
I’ve been enjoying starting the day with a nice breakfast since I arrived in Australia.

Seems Aussies are fond of their “brekkie” and not just a “weekend brunch” type of love. Everyday during the week I’ve been sampling the cafes around Collingwood. I’ve had Indian lentil pancakes with pees and potatoes in a spicy curry; brioche French toast with a berry compote and yoghurt; baked eggs with Parmesan and cauliflower. It’s not exactly the cheapest meal of the day; brekkie runs a minimum of $15 when you add the requisite flat white (kind of a latte) to the mix. But it’s a small price for a little bit of morning pleasure of good food and a hard look at the day’s schedule of play.


No nerves to be seen.

When I arrived at Melbourne Park on Friday after a delicious red quinoa porridge, the only match on the lineup that interested me was the third round encounter between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Justine Henin. I’m sure I wasn’t alone, judging from the packed house on Rod Laver Arena. Whoever came up with “the luck of the draw” certainly knew what they were talking about. How else could these two match up in the same round that also featured Victoria Azarenka agasint Chanelle Scheepers and the barn-burner lineup of Anastasija Sevastova vs. Vesna Manasieva?

Their match started out slowly and I was surprised to see Kuznetsova sticking to a solid game plan of really mixing up her serves and staying aggressive with her groundstrokes, especially that backhand down the line. “I kind of had a perfect match, 6-4, 5-4, serving,” Kuznetsova said after the match. “Didn’t have any breaks. Just a few breakpoints. Serving good.”

Of course she added it was around the time the nerves came. It seemed the packed crowd was waiting for it, too. I’ve seen too many missed opportunities from Kuznetsova against Henin over the years and decided to nickname Henin, “The Vulture.” Henin seems to circle just long enough until Kuznetsova’s game starts to die before swooping in and finishing the carcass. But maybe we’re seeing a new Kuznetsova? She certain looks fitter and said so herself. “The people say to me, yeah I did lose some weight. I don’t know, looks like to me as well. It’s a little bit easy, less trunk to carry on.”

And although she admitted she got nervous trying to serve it out (twice), she went for her shots in the tiebreak and hit right through the nerves. Last week in Sydney I was similarly impressed by Kuznetsova when she took out local favorite Samantha Stosur. But when she then played Li Na in the quarters, she served for the match, let it slip away and lost the match in three sets.

I’d be surprised to see her collapse against her next opponent, Francesca Schiavone, who seems to be playing on fumes, though from what I have no idea; she’s barely squeaked into the fourth round. The winner of that will probably end up playing Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters.

After criticism about her boring press conferences studded with stock answers (to be fair, many of the questions were stock questions) Wozniacki gave her best effort this morning to deliver a little bit of humor in her press conference by pre -answering what she thought would be asked. It was a cute effort from a player who stepped it up a notch today against the player who beat her in Sydney last week, Dominika Cibulkova.

“I am happy I got the revenge since I lost to her in Sydney last week,” Wozniacki answered herself. If Wozniacki plays Kuznetsova, she’ll take a 3-2 advantage into that quarterfinal but will face a fitter and more focused Kuznetsova then what we saw over the past year. And in the press conference department, no one comes close to Kuznetsova’s natural sense of humor. It’s one thing for Wozniacki to take down Kuznetsova on-court, but in the press conference battle?

I’m not sure how she starts her day, but she’d have to enjoy a breakfast of champions to accomplish that dual feat.
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Jan. 20th

Without question, the best thing about the Australian Open is walking to the tournament. Although Melbourne might not be in the same category of the other slam cities, who cares? It’s a beautiful, vibrant city with plenty to offer: the perfect size for a big tennis tournament.

As long as you stay within the city center or adjacent neighborhoods, you have a half hour walk at most to reach the tennis. I’ve been staying with some Aussie friends who live in Collingwood. If you’re familiar with New York City, the best way to describe Collingwood is “Williamsburg.” If that doesn’t help, imagine a place with cafes, galleries, skinny boys with fedoras and facial hair and girls with 1960s style dresses, straight long hair with bangs and nerd glasses. In other words, it’s Hipsterville.


Hisense - just a short walk away.

The only thing separating Hipsterville from Melbourne Park are 64 acres of one of the most beautiful parks I’ve even visited, Fitzroy Gardens. Want to visit Candy Land? Fitzroy Gardens is pretty close. Just reading the signs pointing to “The Fairies Tree” and “Sinclair’s Cottage” is enough to make you smile. And the species of trees sound straight out of a Pixar film: the Tulip Tree, Bunya Bunya Pine, and the Maidenhair Tree are all here, many with protection around their trunks, victims of the abundance of Brushtail and Ringtail Possums hanging around. There are signs mentioning not to feed them and I’ll admit, it’s hard not to; they’re really cute. No wonder Roger Federer called this place “The Happy Slam.”

My twenty-minute walk takes me to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a whopper of a stadium adjacent to the tournament. Here, there are ushers at a fork in the road, trying eagerly to get fans to enter Melbourne Park through Hisense Arena rather than the busier city entrance closer to Rod Laver Arena. Apparently, it’s a hard sell because no one seems to want to enter through Hisense. Until today. I figured it was time to give Hisense a little bit of love.

If you’re unfamiliar with the layout of Melbourne Park, Hisense is court number two that is cavernous and intimate at the same time. Located a decent walk to Rod Laver, it has almost an annex feel to it. I remember watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and heard the equestrian competition was held in Hong Kong instead of Beijing. How unfair! If I worked that hard and managed to get to the Olympics only to be told I would be competing thousands of miles away from the action, I wouldn’t have been to happy about it. Hisense isn’t quite that bad, but as I walked from the stadium to the media room (close to Rod Laver) I thought, “Is this place in Siberia?”

Well, close. I should have said, “Is this place in Serbia?” It seems all of the Serbs are hanging out in Hisense. Yesterday Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic played in Hisense. The day before, Ana Ivonovic lost over there. And on Friday, Serbs Victor Troicki and Djokovic will play there.

Today, I packed my lunch and headed over to watch Jelena Jankovic lose to Shuai Peng. What’s up with Jankovic? There’s nothing neutral about her, so why is she playing such neutral tennis? “I just couldn’t find myself anymore,” said Jankovic about her play. Well, here’s a hint: you aren’t a middle of the court player! When she was playing her best tennis, she was going after the lines.

After the match, it seemed fitting the number two court would host Australia’s second man, Bernard Tomic. I was somewhat surprised Tomic wasn’t put on Rod Laver (Alicia Molik was there, after all) but maybe they figured he would take care of Feliciano Lopez (he did) so better save Laver for the next round and a barn burner of a match against Rafael Nadal.

Sure enough, after Tomic came the last standing Serb in the women’s draw, one I’ve been watching a lot on this Australian tour: Bojana Jovanovski. There has been a lot of buzz around Jovanovski and her laser-like shots reminiscent of another woman of Serbian descent, Monica Seles. She definitely doesn’t play neutral tennis and took apart Vera Zvonareva in the first set before Zvonareva decided to mix up her shots and get into some serious defense. I spoke with Jovanovski after the match and she admitted she was very tired after playing Brisbane, qualifying for Sydney and then making the semis there. Still, she was pretty upbeat. “I play really good today,” she said. “I’m proud of myself how I play. I was playing so aggressive but I think I wasn’t lucky on some important points and she was defending very well and pushing me to make some stupid mistakes.”

If all three Serbian women can continue to play well, they’ll have a serious Fed Cup team this year. The last few nights, I’ve called it a day before the final matches were finished. I like unwinding with a stroll through the Fitzroy Gardens at night.  It’s quiet and peaceful, just me and the possums hanging around, their Muppet-like figures dotting the lawns. It’s about a fifteen-minute stroll through the gardens, but I like to stretch it out a little.

At the top of the park, I can still hear the cheers from Melbourne Park, only about ten minutes from the apartment where I’m staying. Say what you will about Paris, London and New York City but there’s nothing like having a city and your tennis at the same time. Now if only I can convince that Sinclair to move out of his cottage in Fitzroy Gardens; I’m about ready to take over the lease.

 

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Jan. 19th

 

Hangover Wednesday.

After all the excitement on Tuesday, I felt a little bit of the Wednesday blues on my way to Melbourne Park this morning. It didn’t help I was pelted with a few raindrops and the first matches of the day were all blowouts. To boot, there was no help from around the grounds: doubles has begun so there was little singles action on the majority of the courts.

When you’re dealing with a hangover, you cozy up in bed and wait for your body to start feeling better. Or, you try a little hair of the dog and head into Rod Laver Arena to catch Venus Williams play Sandra Zahlavova. Note: if your hangover is of the headache variety, avoid a match with either player.


This is what psoas pain looks like.

Allow me a brief digression. Grunting has a pied piper effect on me. When I hear a grunt before I see action, I immediately head in that direction to see what all the fuss is about. Say what you will about grunting, but it does – at times – add to the drama.

During the Venus/Zahlavova match, they played an excellent first set tiebreak. Many of the points ended with winners and almost all of them finished with a ferocious grunt. Sure, the points were fun but having each player’s grunt hit a higher decibel until the final shot really got the audience worked up. Unfortunately, one of the loudest grunts in the tiebreak was from pain: Venus Williams went up for an overhead down set point and when she landed grabbed her side and watched Zahlavova win the set. The result? “Psoas. I guess a strain of some type,” Venus said. I took a quick glance online about that testy psoas muscle and apparently it helps out with rotation of the hip joint. And while Venus said she wouldn’t talk about how the strain would hamper her play (always the boxer that Venus), when asked about the noise she made when the injury occurred, she admitted it was pretty bad.

“Well, I didn’t even run for the next ball, so you can take your guess,” she said of the pain. “It was a bit of shock and just kind of involuntary.” Adding insult to injury, it looked like she broke one of her earrings in the first set. Playing with a strained Psoas is one thing. Playing with one earring? That’s some serious Venus determination. And for the record, about that dress? “Oh, the outfit is inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Yeah, don’t laugh,” said a laughing Venus. Ok, I won’t, but if we’re going to talk about Alice in Wonderland, I think that outfit could have been designed by that Hookah-smoking Caterpillar.

There was, however, more to Rod Laver than Venus Williams, a lot of noise, a broken earring, a strained Psoas and some funky Alice in Wonderland dress. There was also a feisty Czech player who had never been as close to a big win as she was during this second round encounter. I noticed (or, heard) Zahlavova in Sydney last week on an outside court during a loss to Virginie Razzano. I barely noticed her game because I was caught up with the noise she was making. But on Wednesday she played some great tennis.

After the match she mentioned she played a lot in 2010 because she was moving from a passive game to a more aggressive one. About winning the first set against Venus, Zahlavova said, “I start thinking I could win.” Of the injury timeout, “It was not so good for me. I start thinking, ‘Can I win?’” It’s basic, but is there really anything else to say?

I didn’t have much left by the time Venus had finished her press conference. My hangover long cured by Venus, I went to the “Garden Square” to have a beer with some friends who were watching Jelena Dokic lose to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (see Monday’s entry). The Garden Square is actually more of a circle than a square but who cares when you can sit at a table, have a beer and watch some tennis on the big screen with your friends?

The Melbourne sunsets are really gorgeous: lots of red and orange colors and the summer evenings are cool but have a festive feel to them. Really, what could be a better cure for a hangover? 

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Jan. 18th

 

Court 14 is one of the furthest courts away from the main stages of the Australian Open. The court borders a train station so there is a constant mix of doors opening and closing, muffled announcements, background conversation and train rumbling. When I headed over there Tuesday evening, there was also a very loud radio blaring Matchbox 20’s “3 a.m.” on a torturous extended play remix. All you needed was the smell of hamburgers and you might think you’re at the U.S. Open - except for the fantastic view of the Melbourne skyline visible behind a couple rows of seats.


Melanie over and out.

I thought if anyone could handle a New York style court like 14 it would be Melanie Oudin, which is why I headed over there to watch her first round match against the Czech Klara Zakopalova.

Oudin and Zakopalova have fairly similar games. That is to say, they’re both on the small side and both are baseliners. In fact, the two could star in a movie about twins separated at birth, one raised in the Czech Republic, the other in America. They would have no clue of the other’s existence until a chance match against one another on the WTA tour. Zakopalova beat Oudin last week in Hobart in straight sets during a run to the semifinal that included a victory over Marion Bartoli.

“She definitely beat me,” Oudin said of that match. But on Tuesday, after getting “blown off the court” in the first set, Oudin pumped herself up and took the second set before losing confidence after a terrible service game to start the third. Zakopalova steamrolled from there, winning the third set 6-1. After the match, Oudin said the loss to Zakopalova was her recent play in a nutshell: plenty of chances, few of them taken. “She’s a really, really good player,” Oudin said of Zakopalova. “She’s had some great wins. She definitely beat me but when I have had chances, I’ve kind of blown them and when my opponent gets their chance they completely take it and run away with the match.”

During the off-season, Oudin skipped the exhibition circuit and instead worked on her game and fitness. “I feel like I’m really fit now. I’ve gotten stronger and I can still get quicker. I just need matches - match play in tournaments. I’m playing a full schedule this year so hopefully I’ll be getting a lot of matches in.”

It hasn’t been the best start for the American women of Oudin’s generation. Only Vania King won her first round match; Venus Williams has the American torch firmly in her hands here in Melbourne. Many young Americans qualified for the Australian Open so they’re working hard; they’re just not getting great results in the main draw. I caught Oudin watching Coco Vandeweghe’s straight set loss to Alize Cornet and Oudin mentioned she had spoken with Lauren Davis after her loss to Samantha Stosur. If at least a few of them can start getting better results, maybe they can ride a wave together.

For Oudin, the idea of being part of a group of rising Americans is a much better prospect of trying to handle the torch pass from Venus and Serena by herself.  “I think I’ll start doing better when everyone’s pushing each other,” said Oudin. As for Zakopalova? When she shook Oudin’s hand  after the match she sort of cocked her head a little bit as if to say, “sorry about that.”

One of the most poignant moments of watching a match on an outside court is when the players leave the court. We’re used to watching them disappear into a tunnel on the main stages so there was something sweet about seeing Zakopalova walk across the court with her racquets on her back, open the small gate and start her journey back to the locker room. She didn’t look as if she had just played – and won – a first round match. No one greeted her at the court afterwards and only after a few minutes into her walk did a couple of Czech fans ask to take a picture with her. She agreed, smiled and even put her arm around one of them. Court 14 might be a long way away from the main stage, but Zakopalova didn’t seem to mind. She had taken her chances and won. And her countrywoman, Lucie Safarova did, too. They’ll play one another in the second round.

 

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Jan. 17th
Outside courts make me jumpy. The crowds can be tough to navigate, finding a seat is almost impossible and without fail I always choose the one match that turns out to be a dud. The constant cheers around me from the other courts are a nagging reminder of my mistake; I might as well chase lightning. The larger arenas provide a more theatrical experience. These arenas turn the players into larger than life figures who aren’t “just like us” and have to be viewed from a distance. And although outer courts are part of a slam’s character, without the big stage there isn’t a slam.



Can't miss cashing this Czech.

On Monday night I decided to go against my gut and head over to court 13. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve found myself watching a lot of Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. It might seem an odd choice to head to an outside court to catch a relatively unknown Czech player when there was so much happening on the stadiums. I went to Court 13 because I was summoned there by an unknown power that takes over at tournaments forcing me to watch one player’s every match. It’s rarely a player I enjoy watching or even seek out. I’ve tried to avoid watching the chosen player’s matches but I always lose the fight. Eventually that player will find me. Sometimes it’s limited to one tournament, other times our meetings are an annual tradition at one event. And occasionally, it’s anytime/anywhere (Elena Dementieva).

During the Australian circuit Zahlavova Strycova has been my go-to player (hereafter referred to as ZS). I caught a couple of her matches in Brisbane without thinking too much about it. She’s kind of short, fairly muscular, retrieves quite a bit, hits a lot of squash shots and has this nutty slice backhand that makes me think she’s trying to carve the ball instead of slice it.  I didn’t think anything of her, even though I watched two of her matches; there just really isn’t too much that sticks with you. When I showed up in Sydney and walked around the grounds I ended up catching the last of her victory over Nadia Petrova. Suddenly I realized ZS and I were linked in Australia. I understood my mission and watched her next match against Kim Clijsters. It should be no surprise that I had to check out her first round match against Aravane Rezai here in Melbourne.

When I made it to court 13, Rezai had just won the second set after ZS took the opening 6-0. The third set was fairly long, had some hard hitting rallies, some arguments with the umpire about the amount of rain on court, and a number of loud screams from both players. I felt for ZS. It’s Court 13. It’s the first round of the Australian Open. It’s dark. It’s raining. She has her thigh taped. There are a couple groups of French fans rhythmically chanting “Aravane” after every point. It’s not exactly glamorous but it personifies that overused term on tour: journeyman. I feel as if I’ve seen the work ZS has put in so far. It’s only January and this match is her ninth of the year in three different cities.

With Rezai serving at 5-6 30-40 match point for ZS the wind picked up. On the second serve I thought Rezai might double fault; her serve had looked shaky towards the end of the match. She snuck the serve over the net and after a short rally ZS went for a little drop shot into the wind that just died over the net. It was an incredible shot and really represented ZS: gutsy, a little bit crazy and very determined. ZS even did a little dance after the match.

It was a nice way to wrap up the day and made me appreciate the outside courts a little bit more. ZS and I will have another moment but I think it’s going to be a bit more up my ally. She faces Jelena Dokic in the next round on what will definitely be on a show court. It will be nice to catch her on the big stage looking a little less human.

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Jan. 16th
Since I can’t stop looking at my draw sheets and have the Brisbane and Sydney tournaments fresh in my mind, I think it’s a good time for a pre-Australian Open awards ceremony. No tears, no acceptance speeches, just some deserving winners from the players I saw over the last two weeks.  

Men  

In Lieu of Lu, Simon will do award
I watched Gilles Simon take apart Yen-Hsun Lu in Sydney and they play again in the first round in Melbourne. The only thing amusing was watching Lu check into media in Sydney. “Lu,” he said to the credential officer. “Who?” she responded. “Lu,” replied Lu. I left the room before the whole thing turned into a Dr. Seuss book. The bigger news is the winner – and I’m assuming it’s going to be Simon – plays Roger Federer in the second round.  Simon has a 2-0 head to head vs. Federer (both hardcourt, both in 2008) and has started 2011 playing pretty good tennis.   



Fed Awaits

Do his victims exhibit Stockholm Syndrome award
Robin Soderling looked fantastic in Brisbane en route to winning the title. Every match looked effortless and he played smart, economical tennis. He didn’t lose a set the entire tournament and took out both Radek Stepanek and Andy Roddick, both ex-champs in Brisbane. He could cause Andy Murray all sorts of trouble in the quarters.  

The SPF 50 award
Matthew Ebden was the big story in Brisbane but only because he took down Denis Istomin, so what does that tell you? Nothing, really. Ebden plays Michael Russell in the first round and I’m predicting this one will last long enough for a few coats of sunscreen.  

The glass is half empty award
Sam Querrey looked awful in Sydney, going down easily to Alexandr Dolgopolov in his first match. He plays Lukasz Kubot in the first round and probably very tough Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second.  Querrey mentioned he had tried a new stringing pattern (half gut/half Luxilon) in Sydney and would be going back to all Luxilon here in Melbourne.  

Women  

The little babe vs. the big babe award
Caroline Wozniacki has the giant killer (in slams at least) Gisela Dulko in her first round match. I don’t anticipate much trouble with Dulko but look out: Woz catches a very in form Dominika Cibulkova in the third round. Cibulkova took out the top seeded Dane in Sydney and could make it all the way to the quarters in Melbourne.  

This is what happens when you drop to #23 award
After watching Svetlana Kuznetsova take out Samantha Stosur in Sydney, I thought, please don’t let her catch Justine Henin early. Of course it happened and they’re due to play in the third round. Kuznetsova meets Hobart finalist Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round. Get that ranking up, Svetlana!  

So you think you can dance award
I loved the way Andrea Petkovic played in Brisbane. Look for her to possible double bagel American Jill Craybas in the first round. She and Venus Williams should play in the third round which would be a big career marker for the very fit German. Both Venus and Petkovic have been known to dance on-court so bring out the disco balls for their match.  

The Oil of Olay award
Ekaterina Makarova played tough in Sydney, barely losing to Victoria Azarenka. She’ll face “the people’s princess” Ana Ivanovic in the first round in a real toss up match. The winner’s quarter includes some of the older generation: Alicia Molik, Patty Schnyder, Roberta Vinci, Nadia Petrova, Greta Arn and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.  

She’s going to give someone Kvits award
Petra Kvitova was another standout in Brisbane, winning the title in fairly straightforward fashion. She’s tall, lefty, has some incredibly penetrating strokes and knows how to go deep in a slam. She and Stosur could meet in the third round.  

The Jovial award
Look for the Monica Seles style strokes of Bojana Jovanovski to do well in Melbourne. She has a terrible second serve but could cause a lot of trouble for Vera Zvonareva in the second round. Also in her section? Melanie Oudin, who desperately needs a decent run here to make up for her dismal results in 2010. 

David Rosenberg is in Melbourne and will be a Tennis Channel contributor during the Australian Open. Follow him on twitter at rosenbergtennis.