It always screws with our heads to see that first dispatch from Melbourne. Michael Russell's in full fledged, sleeveless, "gun show" mode while we're wondering if things at the office will be casual enough for us to wear our down puffer jackets versus our grin and bear it in wool car coats. Soon enough though, we reconcile ourselves to where we are, where they are and get down to the business of enjoying the tennis. The first day of this 101st Australian Open didn't deliver much in the way of major surprises, but it did deliver a strong start to the 2013 tennis calendar.
The Audacity of Promise: Every now and then ESPN or Tennis Channel or whichever network gives your tennis fix will inevitably display a graphic about the dominance of the Big Four men in Grand Slam play. Yes, 33 of the 36 majors played since 2004 have been won by just four men: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. That consistency has been great for TV, providing a steady narrative and stars who can be depended on to appear at the business end of the majors. It's also yielded consequences for the rest of the tour, locking the rank-and-file into the existing world order and all but smothering the tour's young talent.
Today, two potential future stars moved in opposite directions in Melbourne. Grigor Dimitrov lost in straight sets to 32nd seed Julian Benneteau while Ryan Harrison reversed the result of his Olympics opener getting past Santiago Giraldo in four. Dimitrov had become a fashionable sleeper pick after a run to the final at the warm-up tourney in Brisbane. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian nicknamed "Baby Fed" looked more like "Baby Chuidinelli" getting routined 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 by the Frenchman out on Court 13. Harrison, on the other hand, kept his temper in check after dropping the first set 2-6 in just 24 minutes. Harrison was out of sorts in that first frame, serving 48% and gifting 15 unforced errors to the Colombian's cause. His first serve percentage though perked up in the next three sets and he closed out Giraldo 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.
The reason at least this pundit saw such an opening for Dimitrov had less to do with his opening match than the fact that he fell in the presumably weak Ferrer/Tipsarevic quarter. With no offense to the solid Ferrer who won a tour leading 7 ATP titles last year, the opportunity to get through a few matches unimpeded by one of the Big Four was a huge one that has rarely been afforded to the young guns of the last decade. Dimitrov squandered that chance and will have to wait who knows how long for another one. Harrison, for doing things the right way, has a very different opportunity in his hands: a date with World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the second round. The last time Djokovic lost this early in a major was Wimbledon 2008. That said, the best way to make a breakthrough is less sneaking through a hole in the draw than blasting your own, right? We'll see how Harrison does.
Maria Dominant: 2nd seeded Maria Sharapova blew past her compatriot Olga Pouchkova as if she wasn't there, 6-0, 6-0 in 55 minutes. With a dominant display of the power tennis that is the bedrock of Brand Sharapova, the Russia establishes herself as a contender again in the 2013 edition of the Australian Open. The stats that matter today are that Sharapova landed 68% of her first serves and won the same percentage of receiving points. In other words, despite a collarbone injury that kept her from playing any warm up events, she's in devastating form early.
The narrative on the Siberian Siren seems to have shifted a bit in the last couple of years. In the wake of stinging defeats to the likes of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, plus the shoulder injury that derailed her during what could have been the most productive period of her career, it seems some have begun considering Sharapova an also-ran. The reality is she remains a steely competitor, one of just ten women to ever earn the Career Grand Slam and a threat to win every event she enters, especially if she can keep the yips at bay.
At Last: We couldn't help but smile that Samantha Stosur won her first round match today. Stosur is a thoroughly likable, no frills workhorse of a player who seems to have brought her best tennis everywhere but her home country. Stosur came home to Australia after winning the US Open in 2011 expecting a hero's welcome, which she received. It was short lived though. For all the moxie she showed in claiming her first major title, over Serena Williams in the final no less, Stosur seemed to crumble under the pressure of her homeland's expectations. Her 7-6 (3) 6-3 win over Kai-Chen Chang was heartwarming after five consecutive losses (dating back to last season) in Australia. A tough date with Jie Zheng of China awaits, but for the moment, good on ya, Sam!