Madison Keys ready for big second week Down Under

Sunday, 21 January 2018 05:56 Written by  Read 2 times
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Say, whatever happened to that "nightmare draw" Australian Open No. 2 seed Roger Federer pulled? He's playing No. 80 Marton Fucsovics in the fourth round in order to get either Tomas Berdych or Fabio Fognini -- neither of whom is in the top 15 -- in the quarterfinals. Seems more dreamlike than nightmare.

Among the women, Angelique Kerber has declared herself a major obstacle in the top half of the draw, where Simona Halep looks like an increasingly beleaguered No. 1.

But Karolina Pliskova, seeded No. 6, is also emerging as a legit force. She prevailed over No. 29 seed Lucie Safarova in a tight two-set match featuring just one service break in the third round. All this is relevant for U.S. fans because Madison Keys may have to beat all the women mentioned above (but for Safarova) if she hopes to make the final.

Here are our three top matches for Day 8:

No. 8 Caroline Garcia vs. No. 17 Madison Keys (series tied, 1-1)

Give Garcia a lot of credit. She had a stupendous run at the end of 2017 to qualify for the WTA Finals and finish No. 8 in the world. When she retired from her first-round match in Brisbane in the first week of January with "lower back soreness," it appeared she might not be much of a factor at the Aussie Open. But here she is, a relatively late bloomer at 24, poised to build further on her success.

Madison Keys has not lost a set through three rounds so far at this year's Australian Open. Mark Cristino/EPA

Keys, 22, shares much with Garcia, but she had the opposite experience last year. Troubled by a sore wrist and fragile nerves, Keys was blown out in her first Grand Slam final, at the US Open. She played just one more match -- a loss -- on the year. "The combination of being exhausted from that [US Open experience] and having a wrist that still wasn't 100 percent perfect, I just needed to kind of shut it down," Keys told the press in Melbourne the other day. "[I needed to] calm down, and then I was really excited to start the new season."

The women have traded wins, Keys claiming the most recent one in the fall of 2016. Both women pound the ball, but Keys is more explosive. She can do more damage with her serve, while Garcia is the more versatile player. In the past both have had trouble keeping their A-games dialed in on big occasions. They are works in progress, still trying to figure out how to handle the great expectations that have long been placed on them. One of them will be one step closer to accomplishing that when it's over.

No. 2 seed Roger Federer vs. No. 80 Marton Fucsovics (first meeting)

It's easy for Hungarian tennis players like Fucsovics (or the WTA's Timea Babos) to remain anonymous. Their native language is unique and the nation has a very modest tradition in the game. YouTube and Wikipedia have been a blessing to such players, but they still mostly fly under the radar. Fucsovics, now 25, had a sensational start to his career. A former world No. 1 junior, he claimed the 2010 Wimbledon junior title without losing a set.

Fucsovics has had trouble cracking the main-tour code, but that may be changing. He has halved his ranking since the start of the year. In addition to his upset of No. 13 seed Sam Querrey in the second round in Melbourne, he's had recent wins against Leonardo Mayer and Jared Donaldson. Fucsovics has a smooth all-around game, starting with a beautiful service action and a sharp, whippy forehand. He's a lean 6-foot-2, but moves with ease and has no trouble getting down to the ball.

Unlike other players in the twilight of their careers, 36-year old Federer has somehow managed to avoid those unexpected bad days when a veteran's motivation or game simply isn't there. But he still needs to guard against them, because after all he is human. Or so they say. While Fucsovics lacks the big game to smother Federer (the thing Federer most fears), momentum and fitness are his allies. You can bet Fucsovics will relish his moment in the sun.

No. 5 Dominic Thiem vs. No. 96 Tennys Sandgren (first meeting)

It's an exaggeration to call this a battle between two unknowns, but the reality is that Thiem is becoming the chronically overlooked Grand Slam contender. It's surprising, given that he's just 24 and already has eight ATP World Tour titles (with wins over Rafael Nadal and Federer en route to two of those). He also was the only player besides Nadal to reach at least the fourth round at all four Grand Slam events last year.

Sandgren can't claim comparable credentials, but his story has been magical. He's one of those wonderful players the U.S. produces now and then, a down-to-earth, hardworking, sincere journeyman who's making the most of his opportunities and winning friends and admirers in the process. A 26-year-old from Tennessee, Sandgren looks like he stepped out of an ad for Ford F-150 trucks.

Before 2018, Tennys Sandgren had never won a Grand Slam match. He now plays Dominic Thiem for a place in the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Photo by Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While beating hobbled No. 9 seed Stan Wawrinka was a great accomplishment, the more impressive feat was the way Sandgren backed up the win with a gritty four-set triumph over Maximilian Marterer in the third round.

Thiem will be a big ask for Sandgren. The American has played a grand total of just five matches at the Grand Slam level, none of them five-setters, none against a fully fit top-five-level competitor like Thiem. Nothing in Sandgren's experience has prepared him for the pace and fury of Thiem's fierce topspin groundstrokes, and Sandgren doesn't have the tools that would enable him to finish points quickly or avoid rallies. Whatever happens, Sandgren has already had a great run.

Upset Special: No. 85 Naomi Osaka over No. 1 seed Simona Halep(Halep leads series, 2-0)

Osaka, who's almost 6 feet tall, plays a physical brand of power tennis. Both their previous matches were tough three-setters, but Halep goes into this one still recovering from that rolled ankle as well as the record-equaling 3-hour, 44-minute third-round win. Halep is game, but there's only so much anyone can endure.

ESPN

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