The Over-the-Hump Round

Thursday, January 17, 2013 /by

The second round of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2013 certainly ended with a bang, a British one, touched off by Laura Robson’s 11-9 in-the-third upset of everyone’s favorite highly-ranked punching bag (a job formerly held by Jelena Jankovic), No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.

It was a fitting conclusion to as compelling a first two rounds of play as we’ve witnessed at a major in a long time, and it certainly makes you wonder what the rest of the tournament holds in store—especially for the WTA, which has grown as volatile as nitroglycerine.

If, like me, you’re in the habit of printing out draw sheets, you may also notice how the brackets suddenly “open up” like church doors to the sunlight at the end of the second round of play. All that dense, fine print that conspires to keep you from finding names and pairings over the first four days of an event is suddenly replaced by a list of names and brackets that’s clean, orderly, easy to read, and populated with just enough familiar names to assure you that you’re reading a draw sheet, not just the passenger list for a flight from Minsk to Brno.

While that’s not very scientific proof for the theory that the players really get down to business in the third round, to me that’s the time when the weeding-out ends and the tournament really begins. That the main contenders have to survive to the first two rounds of play is at once an odd oversight by the ancients of tennis and a tough assignment for the players, only slightly alleviated by the comfort of seedings (just ask Kvitova, Sam Stosur, Alexandr Dolgopolov, or Sara Errani).

The first two rounds are essentially a qualifying event that everyone is obliged to play, which makes the practice truly antediluvian (but a lot of fun) in the current era of sports. Somehow, the number of players we have left as the third round gets underway (32) seems to be what you might come up with if you had no considerations beyond putting on an adequate test of the best players in the world over enough rounds to demand the requisite consistency and adaptability of a champ. And somehow, eight seeds just seems like the right number of players to elevate—that’s two in each quarter of a 32-player draw. There’s an inherent symmetry in a draw of 32.

Ion Tiriac is one of the promoters who believes that the four biggest events in tennis shouldn’t feature overloaded fields any more than a Formula 1 Grand Prix race. He doesn’t even mind the idea of having a qualifying tournament for a number of those 32 places he would assign in a Grand Slam main draw.

In some ways, Tiraic makes a great and valuable point. Surely 32 is already more players than you can justly call “contenders.” But as Andy Roddick said when I asked him about this last year at Wimbledon, “I don’t see where two weeks of sellouts and television is somehow worse for tennis than one week.”

Roddick also makes a good point, and it shouldn’t be taken as a purely commercial point-of-view. One of the things the Grand Slams have accomplished, which makes the ATP and WTA tours salivate, was turning the events into something like tennis festivals that are just as much about simply being there than getting to watch famous tennis stars hit forehands.

The Woodstock music festival took place after the advent of Open tennis (I was a proud attendee, but I’ve had enough flashbacks for one lifetime). But it took the promoters of rock shows a lot longer to really get with the “festival” concept. Tennis embraced it from Day 1, and you can credit the ITF and the Grand Slams for that. The new opportunists who flocked to the Open game starting in 1968 actually were far more inclined to adopt the 32-player draw approach. Look under “W” for the World Championship Tennis tour that almost became the de facto “tour” (or, tennis’ version of the NFL, or NBA).

The conventional wisdom is that the majors are indeed two different tournaments separated by a middle Sunday. But by the second week a little too much of the stew has been boiled off. Surviving four matches just isn’t as comprehensive a test as enduring five when you take stock of the talent pool these days. There aren’t that many players capable of sticking it to Nole or Roger, even on a “given day” basis. But there surely are more than 16.

Beyond that, the third round (which begins today) is also the “over the hump” round for the players who aspire to be more than journeymen and women. That’s why a freely admitted goal for many players, and one benchmark for success for all but the best of players, is making it into the second week. Unless you’re a Top 5-level player, making it into the second week means it’s been a profitable and satisfying first one.

The WTA matches with the most “over the hump” relevance look to be the match-ups between No. 25 Venus Williams and No. 2 Maria Sharapova, No. 22 Jelena Jankovic vs. No. 13 Ana Ivanovic, No. 6 Li Na vs. No. 27 Sorana Cirstea, and two-time Grand Slam champ but free-floating radical Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Carla Suarez Navarro, who knocked out Errani.

But getting through this next round will seem like a dream realized for a host of players, including Robson and her next opponent, Sloane Stephens, as well as Madison Keys, Ayumi Morita, Jamie Hampton, and Heather Watson—none of whom seeded and thus all of whom have already outpaced expectations.

On the ATP side, it’s an over-the-hump round for No. 10 Nicolas Almagro, who’s going up against No. 24 Jerzy Janowicz, No. 15 Stan Wawrinka, who must face No. 20 Sam Querrey, No. 14 Gilles Simon, drawn to meet his unseeded and oft-injured countryman Gael Monfils, and No. 13 Milos Raonic, who goes up against tricky No. 17 Philipp Kohlschreiber.

The players who have already exceeded expectations but are looking to break through include Bernard Tomic (he meets Roger Federer and may be reminded of that old saw, “Be careful what you wish for”), Ricardas Berankis, Jeremy Chardy, Kevin Anderson, and Evgeny Donskoy.

One of the handy things about drawing a red line at the end of the second round instead of the third is that under the current regimen, the 32 seeds ought to take up all the available spaces in the draw. This time, the men lost seven seeds along the trail, while the women shed 11—more than a third of them all. In some ways, you can judge how exciting and competitive a tournament has been simply by looking at the number of seeds left in the third round.

At a purely personal level, I’m happy to see how well some of the WTA youngsters are doing, and I wish somebody on the ATP side would step up and make the big three players work a little harder. We don’t have quite the WTA’s degree of separation between the top three players and the rest of the field, but it’s getting pretty darned close. Why won’t Jo-Willy, Tomas Berdych, or even Juan Martin man up here?

But if I were Azarenka, Sharapova or Serena Williams, I wouldn’t take anything for granted—not while 42-year old Kimiko Date-Krumm is still on the loose in a world where miracles have happened, if seldom.

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