Just what constitutes a legitimate surprise in tennis is a relative matter. Let’s face it, if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga makes the semifinals of the Australian Open, it will represent a great effort, but not a surprise. We expect No. 8 Tsonga to contend for the title, even if his seeding says that he should be finished in the quarterfinals.
You measure the surprise quotient in degrees, and only if you’re really a connoisseur. Let’s face it, most people could care less if No. 16 Roberta Vinci makes the semis, or even if Janko Tipsarevic loses in the final. A tournament rarely has more than two or three huge surprises, and those are much less likely to be based on the serial performances required to go deep into an event than on single unexpected results.
You want a ground-shaking surprise? Virginie Razzano over Serena Williams, first round of last year's French Open. Lukas Rosol over Rafael Nadal, second round of Wimbledon. You want surprise an aficionado can appreciate? Try Mikhail Kukushkin rolling into the fourth round, as happened in Oz last year.
I’m not Nostradamus, and I don’t have a drop of Mayan blood. I can’t predict that James Blake will qualify and win the first Grand Slam of his career at age 33. But I will pick five players who might surpass the expectations dictated by the rankings or their reputations:
Tomas Berdych (ATP No. 6): There isn’t much Berdych can do to surprise us other than win the tournament, and I believe this may be his time. Although he was upset in Chennai by qualifier Roberto Bautista Agut and has taught his fans not to expect too much of him, the reality is that Berdych is a former Grand Slam finalist, still young (27), and has quietly buried his reputation as one of the tour’s prominent head cases. Sure, he still has mystifying mental lapses, especially against the players ranked above him. But in general he’s become a model of consistency, and tenaciously clings to that mid-Top 10 ranking.
The physical demands of the Australian Open are such that fit, well-built, and preferably lean specimens—think Marat Safin—enjoy a real advantage when it comes to either avoiding or winning those brutal five setters in intense Aussie heat. Berdych, at 6'5" and 200 pounds, fits that bill perfectly. He’s 20-9 Down Under, and reached the quarterfinals last year. He’s played just one Melbourne five-setter in his entire career, which seems a sign that one way or the other, he wants to get it over and done with. (That five-set match was a 2009 fourth-round loss to Roger Federer; no shame in that.)
When Pat Cash predicted that he’d win Wimbledon one day, he winked at me and added, “Every dog has his day, mate.” That’s how I feel about Berdych’s Grand Slam career.
Svetlana Kuznetsova (WTA No. 85): Still just 27, this two-time Grand Slam champion and popular free spirit had a particularly frustrating and injury-plagued 2012. Kuznetsova missed the last six months of the year with a knee injury, but says the hiatus may have been a blessing in disguise. Always one to question the itinerant pro life, she recently said, “I never feel sick of the game because I love tennis a lot. I have been sick from traveling. I have been sick from staying away from home, from my family, from my friends.”
Roughly five years elapsed between Kuznetsova’s first triumph at a Grand Slam (defeating Elena Dementieva in the 2004 U.S. Open final) and her last one (beating Dinara Safina in the 2009 Roland Garros final). It’s getting to be time for “Sveta” to make another statement. Her overall health and fitness remain question marks, but her motivation once again appears to be peaking. “Now, after the break, I just feel fresh, I feel happy, I feel balanced on the court," said Kuznetsova recently. "I feel I'm doing the right things when I have to do them. I'm definitely far away from where I want to be at, but I like how it looks at the moment."
Although Kuznetsova go off to a rough start in Auckland—losing to Kiki Bertens in the first round—she went right to Sydney to play qualifying, slashed her way into the main draw, and won three matches, one of them an upset of Caroline Wozniacki. She ran out of steam in the quarterfinals against Angelique Kerber, but all that match play ought to help her next week. Kuznetsova may be the most dangerous “floater” of all in the WTA draw.
Jerzy Janowicz (ATP N0. 26): Janowicz burst upon our consciousness last fall at the Paris Masters, where he qualified and beat five Top 20 players, including Andy Murray, before losing to David Ferrer in his first ATP final. As impressive as that was, it was the rest of Janowicz’s year that deserves to be noted.
The Pole started the year ranked No. 221 and frequently slept in his car as he traveled from one Challenger event to the next (I presume the guy’s beater is a used stretch limo, as he’s 6'8"). He was 32-9 with three titles on that minor-league circuit—good numbers that demonstrate that his year was an arc, not a spike.
Janowicz’s height and rail-thin figure will serve him well under the conditions in Melbourne, as will his big serve and willingness to end points quickly—with either a forehand blast, a volley, or the unexpected drop shot. Janowicz was beaten in Auckland by Brian Baker, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, in his only match thus far this year.
Dominika Cibulkova (WTA No. 15): In Miami, Cibulkova came within a hair’s breadth of stopping Victoria Azarenka’s early-season 2012 winning streak, then atoned for letting that match slip away by knocking Vika out of the French Open. The diminutive (5'3") Slovak also upset Caroline Wozniacki twice when the Dane was No. 1 in 2011, and outdueled third-ranked Vera Zvonareva way back when at Indian Wells.
This week in Sydney, Cibulkova has already taken care of former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, No. 3 seed Sara Errani, and No. 2 seed Kerber. She brings new meaning to the term “giant killer” in tennis. Cibulkova seems to have boundless energy, and that can make a big difference under the broiling Australian sun.
Tommy Haas (ATP No. 21): Haas crafted one of the most inspirational and moving comeback stories in recent memory last year, jumping 184 places in the rankings at age 34. So I’m going with the veteran over other potential candidates like the recently successful Grigor Dimitrov.
Given that Haas is quickly closing on 35, it was almost a relief to see that he lost a three-setter to Gael Monfils in Auckland today; he now will have plenty of time to rest and prepare for the start of the Australian Open. The nimble, energetic native of Germany has a solid history Down Under; he’s been to three semifinal, and in those lost to a man ranked below him only once: In 2002, Haas, then No. 7, lost a thrilling five-setter to No. 9 Marat Safin.
Haas has been ranked as high as No. 2, and he’s on the short list for “best player never to win a major.” Given the age-indifferent tendencies we’ve seen on both the WTA and ATP tours recently, don’t be shocked if Haas gets to the fourth round—or better. But remember, it really is all relative.