The draw at the outset of any Grand Slam championship is bewildering. If you’re prone to anxiety about what you might miss while watching something else on your television, computer, or smart phone, you could end up a blubbering mess on your sofa, with printed draw sheets spread all around and three devices simultaneously beaming information and images.
I mean, who would have predicted that qualifier Facundo Bagnis would upset Frenchman Julien Benneteau in the first round at Roland Garros a few weeks ago? That match ended 18-16 in the fifth; nobody who saw it will ever forget it. A Grand Slam draw consisting of 128 men or women is truly the forest you can’t see for the trees.
Of course, nobody could have predicted that outcome, and I’m not going to pretend I can, either. But let me choose a few matches that ought to have “watch me!” labels plastered on them — not necessarily because they’re liable to end up 18-16 in the fifth, but because they involve interesting match-ups or come with tantalizing backstories:
No. 59 Marinko Matosevic (AUS) vs. No. 18 seed Fernando Verdasco (ESP) — Branko Matosevic’s son Marinko (I just had to write that!) is a rugged 6-foot-4 jasper with a huge serve and a huge smile to go with it. He’s an appealing, easygoing Bosnian-born Aussie who’s been playing very well lately; at Queens he bombed his way to wins over fellow big men Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (no mean feat, eh?). Verdasco was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year (his best performance there to date), but Branko’s boy Marinko may have enough firepower and confidence to pull off the upset.
No. 82 Bernard Tomic (AUS) vs. No. 100 Evgeny Donskoy (RUS) — Tomic is the archetypal spoiled tennis brat. The words, “Do you know who I am?” are never far from this guy’s lips when he’s in trouble, which is pretty often. He made the fourth round last year, and he’s got a lot of grass-court game. Donskoy, though, is one of those “on the cusp” players who’s probably desperate to work at least a little deeper into the protected ranks of the direct entry players (the cutoff at Grand Slams is usually No. 104). Donskoy a 24-year old Muscovite, knows that Tomic is a head case. Look for him to exploit the knowledge.
No. 78 Dustin Brown (GER) vs. wild card Marcos Baghdatis (CYP) — This is bound to be an entertaining, ahem, dust-up between two exuberant characters — Brown, who has steadily improved his ranking and plays a slashing, dashing game, and Baghdatis, that wonderful ball striker who made the Australian Open final and the semis at Wimbledon in his best year, 2006. Over the years, Baghdatis seems to have lost his drive (he’s down to No. 115, which up from wherever he was a few months ago), and at times he appeared to be carrying a spare tire around his waist. Brown had a spectacular win over a leg-weary Rafael Nadal in the first round of Halle (just days after Nadal had collected his ninth French Open title). Baghdatis has declared that his goal is to “get back into the Top 10.” I’ve got news for you, Marcos — the road to the Top 10 goes through Dustin Brown. Beware!
No. 243, wild card Daniel Smethurst (GBR) vs. No. 9 seed John Isner (USA) — Okay, maybe I’m a sadist. But I’m just hoping that after Isner throws in that first serve, he looks across the net and asks, “Ever see anything like that before, boy?” More realistically, I’m curious to see how often Smethurst, who hasn’t even cracked the code in Challengers yet, gets polyester on those Isner serves. Is it really fair to give so green a prospect a wild card into Wimbledon, and put him up against the most lethal server in the game? This could ruin the kid for life.
BTW, Ivo Karlovic plays lucky loser Frank Dancevic in the first round, so my question to you is: Who wins the ace contest, Isner or Karlovic?
No. 70 Benoit Paire (FRA) vs. No. 50 Lukas Rosol (CZE) — This will be a battle of two very big (6-foot-5) dudes with very big attitudes, and not always good ones. With his scruffy beard, all Paire lacks should he desire to impersonate a French fur trapper circa 1820 is a coonskin hat and a necklace made from grizzly bear claws. He’s quick to anger and his strokes are wild and unpredictable, and that makes him great fun to watch. Rosol bolted to fame when he hit Rafael Nadal off the court in a second-round match at Wimbledon. To his credit, Rosol has built on that unexpected win and, at age 28, he’s now solidly established in the middle of the Top 100. Leave it to Rosol to produce the savage ball striking, and Paire to leaven it with temperamental outbursts — interspersed with bizarre drop shots — in this one.
No. 82 Julia Glushko (ISR) vs. No. 19 Sabine Lisicki (GER) — This one has potential disaster written all over it. With defending champion Marion Bartoli out of the game, Lisicki, who lost to Bartoli in last year’s final, gets the honor of opening the women’s competition. Given that Lisicki froze up so badly in last year’s train wreck of the final that she was in tears half the time, you have to wonder what emotional impact walking out onto that court will have on Lisicki. The woman dubbed “the Laughing Girl from Germany” by the British tabs let it be known that the tournament means the world to her. At what point does that kind of enthusiasm morph into debilitating pressure?
No. 142 Samantha Murray (GBR) vs. No. 5 seed Maria Sharapova (RUS) — I don’t care if her name is “Murray” and this is Wimbledon, the woman who lost two-and-three in the first round of the New Delhi ITF event to Thailand’s Varatchaya Wongteanchai doesn’t have a chance against the French Open champion.
No. 26 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) vs. No. 44 Alison Riske (USA) — It’s hard to decide which is the more beatable seed, No. 21 Roberta Vinci or Pavlyuchenkova, who hasn’t won three matches in a row since the January WTA event in Paris. Okay, Riske hasn’t done that herself, not in all of this year. But she’s been improving gradually, while the talented Ms. Pavlyuchenkova continues to be one of the biggest disappointments in the WTA. She could be the first seed to go this next week. Riske, who attended Vanderbilt University, has said that were it not for the lure of pro tennis she would have gone into medicine. Had she chosen that course, she might have become a psychiatrist and could now help Pavlyuchenkova figure out how to make good use of her gifts.
No. 31 seed Klara Koukalova (CZE) vs. wild card Taylor Townsend (USA) — It was nice to see Wimbledon give the wild card to Townsend, a singles finalist in the junior girls’ competition last year. She earned her invite at the French Open, where she had main draw wins over Vania King and Alize Cornet, but the just-turned-18 youngster is still ranked outside the top 100 (no. 148). That could change, and quickly, if Townsend shows the kind of volleying skill and precise shot making that powered her run at Roland Garros. Given that Townsend could have drawn anyone in the first round (includiing a top seed) she has to be happy with this match-up.
No. 18 seed Sloane Stephens (USA) vs. No. 87 Maria Kirilenko (RUS) — Kirilenko’s ranking is irrelevant, except as a measure of how much tennis she’s missed over the past two years. Before she was laid low by a series of injuries (shoulder, knee, wrist — that about covers it) she was a Top 10 player. Kirilenko is still trying to get herself match tough, but in spite of that this may become an interesting test for the unpredictable Stephens. She has a way of coming up big in majors but she was crushed by eventual French Open finalist Simona Halep in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
I don’t know how many of these matches will wind up making headlines for one reason or another, but that hardly matters. Surprises are meant to be exactly that, and tennis would be less fun without them.