Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

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Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

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