W2W4 at Australian Open: Keys, Sandgren hoping to give U.S. contingent more success
So here we are, in the quarterfinals of an Australian Open that has been just right with a dash of the surprising results and sensational matches.
Nobody would have predicted the astonishing success of Tennys Sandgren (enough with that first name already; we get it!) and talented Hyeon Chung, who knocked off Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. Who would have predicted that?
The major surprise on the women's side, in retrospect, is really no shocker at all. Angelique Kerber played in three Grand Slam singles finals in 2016. She won two of them and finished the year No. 1. But nobody expected her to be playing at her current level after the dismal year she had in 2017.
Are there more surprises in store for us Wednesday in Melbourne? Let's see what's on tap:
Keys has never quite figured out Kerber, but this would be a pretty good time to start. With just one set won in their past four meetings, Keys has yet to impose her big game on the mobile 30-year-old German. But the Keys who has been bludgeoning opponents left and right in Melbourne is a different, less anxious player since that US Open final debacle and her long layoff in the fall. She's relaxed, confident and far more likely to assert herself.
Each of these women has been a revelation. Kerber looked woeful at times last year during a slump that resulted in a precipitous drop from No. 1 to No 19 in the rankings. She failed to win a tournament and recorded just a single win over a fellow top-20 player in 13 attempts. However, Kerber surrendered the fewest games of any player through four rounds, thanks partly to the confidence-building efforts of her new coach, veteran Wim Fissette.
Now through the quarterfinals, it's Keys who has lost the fewest games (19 to Kerber's 26). This promises to be a compelling matchup of a mobile defender in Kerber against a talented shot-maker with enormous first-strike capabilities.
As Keys told the media after her fourth-round win: "I'm going to have to be the aggressive one and take time away but also be really smart."
By "smart," Keys means she must avoid going for too much, too soon.
Kerber's mission will be to fight the urge to become a passive retriever. She finds major success only when her game has an aggressive dimension and when she can adequately protect her serve from predatory returners like Keys.
You have to love a guy who walked into the room full of reporters after his upset of No. 5-seed Dominic Thiem, smiled and remarked, "I didn't think I'd see you guys again."
Well, Sandgren, the 26-year-old journeyman from Tennessee was worthy of every pixel of attention he got after he weathered a five-set storm of blistering Thiem backhands and serves. Sandgren prevailed thanks to one of the least appreciated qualities of a big-time athlete: patience.
"I was holding onto my serve, telling myself to stay calm, be calm, don't burn too much energy on stuff you don't need to," Sandgren told the reporters. "Just focus on what you have to do. I think patience was a big deal there."
If Sandgren was cool enough to bide his time and pick his spots against the slugger Thiem, he should be able to do the same against Chung, the rapidly developing 21-year-old South Korean.
The really weird thing about this meeting is that these guys actually have a history. Chung knocked off Sandgren a few weeks ago in the Auckland tournament, but it took him three sets to get the job done. Chung is a tensile, dynamic baseliner; Sandgren is just one of those gritty, leathery competitors who won't give an inch.
Pliskova promised much when, after a tediously long apprenticeship, she appeared to break out at the 2016 US Open with wins over both Williams sisters. But Pliskova lost that final to Kerber. The Czech did reach the No. 1 ranking in 2017, however, it came without a Grand Slam title.
Halep is ranked No. 1, but she hasn't won a major yet, either. She's just 5-foot-6, short of power and must rely on her quick feet, wits and stamina. Halep has come awfully far, and she has paid a stiff price for her quarterfinal berth. That includes the pain of having to play on an ankle rolled earlier in the event. As she told the press after her fourth-round win: "Maybe I get used to the pain, and I'm not thinking that much that something can happen. I'm trying to play 100 percent, which I was close to today. But I still feel it. It's there, but I can handle it."
Pliskova is a 6-foot-1 player who gets around the court well for her size and totes a cannon of a serve. She looks and hits like she should win everything, only she doesn't.
Pliskova had a smooth run through three rounds and, in the fourth round, recovered impressively after losing the first set to No. 20 seed and fellow Czech Barbora Strycova.
If it happens, Federer fans from Kalgoorlie to Basel won't be happy. Berdych has the temperament of a spoiler. He's playing well, and the window on his career -- and his long-frustrated chance to win a Grand Slam -- is closing fast now that he's 32 and down to No. 20 in the world. He has wins over Federer at Wimbledon and the US Open and owns just the kind of big game that can smother Federer's genius.