This Week's Previews: Calm Before the Slam

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By now, with Doha out of the way and the carousel of Aussie Open tune-up events in full swing, everyone is present and accounted for Down Under. Even the elusive Roger Federer, who is foregoing all pre-major match preparation this time around, has been spotted practicing at Melbourne Park.
Still, there’s a sense of calm before the Slam storm this week. The big names who have been in action over the last few days—Serena, Novak, Vika, Andy M—are sitting this one out. If you’re a tournament, it pays to be close to a major, but not too close, because the contenders know they’ll need their rest. I wondered last week whether two other potential contenders who have yet to win Slams, David Ferrer and Agnieszka Radwanska, would begin to schedule themselves the same way. I didn’t have to wait long to get my answer. Ferrer, who lost in the Doha semis, is the first seed in Auckland this week; Aga, who just won in Auckland, tops the draw in Sydney.
Here’s a quick look at the four events that will take us up to the Aussie Open’s front door. You can find U.S. TV schedules for all of them here.
Apia International Sydney (WTA)
Sydney, Australia
$690,000; Premier
Hard courts
Draw is here
While the WTA’s other marquee names mostly bit the dust in Brisbane last week, Radwanska quietly didn’t drop a set in Auckland, though she was severely challenged by a big-hitting Jamie Hampton, who took her to two tiebreakers in the semis. Aga should have a tougher road this time around. In her half are Li Na, Stosur, Petrova, and Jankovic. 
The other side is led by Angelique Kerber, who looked rusty in Brisbane, almost losing to unheralded Monica Puig and finally going out to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Also here: Caroline Wozniacki, who beat the younger Radwanska sister, Urszula, in her opener.
Petra Kvitova has already been sent packing, unceremoniously, by Dominika Cibulkova, 6-1, 6-1. Kvitova is off to the roughest start of all on the women’s side. She lost early in Brisbane as well, where she complained that her asthma is hurting her again in the Aussie summer heat. (Is this the men’s best hope for beating Djokovic, who suffered allergy/breathing issues Down Under last year?)
Second slow starter: Varvaro Lepchenko. The American is 0-2 so far in 2013.
First-round matches to watch: Tamira Paszek vs. Jelena Jankovic; Li Na vs. Christina McHale
Apia International Sydney (ATP)
Sydney, Australia
$436,630; 250 ranking points
Hard court
Draw is here
As in Brisbane, the men are the afterthoughts at this dual-gender event. There’s less money on the line for them, and, with the withdrawal of Richard Gasquet after his win in Doha, fewer Top 10 players to try to claim it.
John Isner is the top seed. The American, who has a new coach, didn’t look good at the Hopman Cup last week, and he eventually pulled out due to a knee problem that he didn’t want to aggravate further. I would say that Sydney is a big event for Isner to get back on track, but after last year it seems that we have to wait for the Grand Slams, when he must go three-out-of-five, to see assess his status. Whatever he does in Sydney won’t necessarily translate in Melbourne.
Also here: Gilles Simon, Andreas Seppi, and Fernando Verdasco are the next three seeds, in order. Will the good vibes from Verdasco’s Hopman Cup title with Spain carry over? He has a decent draw; Jeremy Chardy is the only seed he would face before the semis. 
Ditto for Bernard Tomic, who's near Simon at the bottom of the draw. What did Bernie's win over Djokovic in Perth mean, if anything? I do feel like, after being dropped from Australia’s Davis Cup team, he will be motivated to succeed at least through Melbourne. He opens against his countryman, Marinko Matosevic.
First-rounder of interest: Ryan Harrison, qualifier, vs. Roberto Bautista-Agut, finalist last week in Chennai. The winner plays Isner.
Breakthrough Star: Grigor Dimitrov. The 21-year-old Bulgarian, who opens against Aussie Matthew Ebden, has apparently, according to the gossip mill, stepped up on two fronts recently. He reached his first ATP final, in Brisbane, the same week that he officially changed his nickname: Who knew that Baby Federer would one day grow up to become Maria’s Man?
Moorilla Hobart International
Hobart, Australia
Plexicushion; International
Draw is here
It’s been a meteoric rise for Su-Wei Hsieh. Ranked in the triple digits a year ago, the 27-year-old from Taiwan now sits at the top of the Hobart draw as the top seed. Before the year began, I wrote that she’s a player I wanted to see more of in 2013. This week we’ll get an idea if that might be possible.
Also here: Sorana Cirstea, Francesca Schiavone, Yaroslava Shvedova
First-round match to watch: Cirstea vs. Auckland semifinalist Mona Barthel
First-round match that you should have watched: U.S. teenager Sloane Stephens beat U.K. teenager Laura Robson yesterday in two close sets. This is a matchup that we’ll almost surely see again, many times, on much bigger stages. Also: Sloane looks good so far this year.
Heineken Open
Auckland, New Zealand
$433,400; 250 ranking points
Draw is here
You can see why, despite the tight schedule, that Ferrer would want to come back to sunny Auckland. He’s a three-time champ there. And another win is certainly plausible. There’s no one else in the Top 10 here this time. Kohlschreiber, Haas, Querrey, and Janowicz are the next four seeds.
It’s those last three names that may be of most interest coming into 2013. Haas, at 34, is coming off a remarkable comeback season that put him back in the Top 20. Querrey, at age 25, did much the same thing. Meanwhile, the world will get its first look at the 22-year-old Janowicz of Poland, a 6-foot-8 beanpole bruiser who stunned the ATP by reaching the final of the Bercy Masters in November. We thought then that we might have seen the future. Now we’ll get to see what that future looks like outdoors, in the sun, in the wind, with expectations, and against opponents who know who he is. Janowicz the first person of interest to start 2013.
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