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The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, Jan. 24, 2023

Happy Tennis Tuesday, everyone! Tuesday marks the beginning of the quarterfinals in Melbourne and to say the draw hasn’t lined up as expected is an understatement. This is your quarterfinal lineup (as of late Monday night, ET):

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(22) Elena Rybakina vs. (17) Jelena Ostapenko
(3) Jessica Pegula vs. (24) Victoria Azarenka
(30) Karolina Pliskova vs. Magda Linette
(5) Aryna Sabalenka vs. Donna Vekic

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The final eight players remaining in Melbourne include a few I predicted, but also some I was on the fence about but didn’t think they’d come through with a big run. Let’s talk about how each quarter has unfolded:

Quarter 1: Rybakina’s Swiatek Shock, Can Ostapenko Power Through?

When I first saw the draw, one of my predictions I couldn’t decide on was Elena Rybakina vs. Danielle Collins. Collins barely made it through her first two matches, but still fought hard in a three-set loss to the Wimbledon champion. Oh yeah, remember when Rybakina won a Grand Slam last year? Probably not because she’s been put on outer court after outer court and hasn’t been treated like a Grand Slam champion. FWIW, she would be ranked in the Top 10 if ranking points were awarded at SW19, too. Nevertheless, the Kazakh is letting her racquet do the talking and she did in her straight-set win over Iga Swiatek. Rybakina essentially swatted Swiatek off of the court and stayed level-headed throughout the match.

On the other side, we have another power player in Jelena Ostapenko, who comically combats the Hawkeye Live system. I admire Ostapenko because, like myself, her strategy is to “go big or go bigger.” Honestly, is there any strategy going on between the Latvian’s ears? Still, she’s continued to go under the radar — like Rybakina — and it’s paid off. In the fourth round, she knocked out Coco Gauff to also reach her first quarterfinal in Melbourne. The 2017 French Open champion had a 7-7 record at Melbourne Park and like her crowning moment in Paris, could she take advantage of an open draw for her second Grand Slam?

Quarter 2: Third Time Lucky for Pegula? Can Vika Claim a 3rd Title?

Jessica Pegula continues to play some of her best tennis in Melbourne, reaching her third consecutive quarterfinal. What’s crazy to think is that before her first in 2021, she won a total of three matches at Grand Slams — with two of those at the 2020 US Open! She’s kept her head down and is laser-focused and is the lone player in the top half to not drop a set — only dropping 18 total games in her four matches. She’s playing controlled tennis and has been an analytical delight in the press. On paper, she’s the highest seed remaining and “projected” to take the title, but she’s 0-3 in Grand Slam quarterfinals. Not only that, but she has two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka to get over that hump. However, if you’re one for superstitions, this is the No. 3 seeds third Melbourne quarterfinal and her family’s Buffalo Bills have rallied around No. 3 Damar Hamlin following the player’s medical emergency a few weeks back. Maybe the stars will align for Pegula.

Last week, I briefly mentioned Azarenka and having a favorable draw to play into. I was basically flipping a coin between who would win between her and Madison Keys and incorrectly predicted. Shocker! The former World No. 1 is nearly unbeatable when on and overcame a tough first round with 2020 champion Sofia Kenin en route to her win over Keys and then surprise second-weeker Zhu Lin. The Belarussian played both Adelaide tournaments this year and lost a third-set tiebreaker to a rising Linda Noskova and then was a few points from beating Veronika Kudermetova the following week, so it’s not like she’s completely out of form. Still, she continues to bring her best tennis as of late on the hardcourt Grand Slams, so bulldozing her way into the final wouldn’t be a shock to me.

Quarter 3: Pliskova Resurfaces, Linette’s Career Breakthrough

I did expect Karolina Pliskova to have a bit of a resurgence in Melbourne, but she’s been under the radar and playing fantastic tennis. She’s one of the three quarterfinalists yet to drop a set, only dropping 19 games en route. Having to play qualifying the week prior in Adelaide — her first since 2014 — might have been the wake-up call the Czech needed. Pliskova’s serve, one of the best on tour, has been her bread and butter throughout the first week and will have experience on her side of the draw as this is her fourth Australian Open quarterfinal. She’s made the finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open, but has failed to claim the big one. With everyone looking at other players, perhaps this could be the glory Pliskova claims?

We all expected one Pole to be in the quarterfinals and if you were saying it would be Magda Linette, you’re likely lying. I always have a soft spot for Linette since she viewed an Instagram story of mine in 2016 and when I say Linette, I’m pretty sure it was a bot her team had in place to get her account seen and followed. Still, I joke to my friends she’s my “fan.” Previously 0-6 in Grand Slam third rounds, she pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the tournament by knocking out WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in straight sets to make the quarters. She handled unchartered territory extremely well in the fourth round, but a match against Pliskova for a semifinal berth is another story. She trails their head-to-head 2-7, but did snap a five-match losing streak at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals.

Quarter 4: Sabalenka Continues Down Under Dominance, Vekic Surprises

The third player who hasn’t lost a set is No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, who combined has dropped 21 games. Her fourth round match against Belinda Bencic in the matchup of Adelaide champs put me on notice that she’s past her service woes from last year and doesn’t care which names she takes. Of the remaining eight, she’s impressed me the most with how dialed in she’s been. The win over Bencic put Sabalenka in the Australian Open quarterfinals for the first time after previously losing in the round of 16 the last two years. I liken this run to Pliskova’s — can power anyone off the court on any day, but has been severely underrated. She’s made three Grand Slam semifinals, but never gotten past that hump. Could this be the final yip she overcomes this week?

Rounding out the Elite Eight is Donna Vekic, who has made it to the fourth round of all four Grand Slams, but only reached the quarterfinals at the 2019 US Open. Finally healthy, she’s brought Pam Shriver into her team and she’s starting to find on-court consistency again. Sure, she needed a third-set tiebreak in the first round and she also needed a three-setter in the fourth round over Linda Fuhrvirtova, but having that experience earlier in the tournament is a special intangible that while you never want, it does help when the person you’re playing has been cruising. The Croat took advantage of a section that essentially fell apart by the second round and is playing with house money. Perhaps the lack of pressure will be enough to push Vekic to the next level she’s been projected to have for so many years?

Prediction Time

So, I honestly have no idea how this will unfold but I think Elena Rybakina will face Jessica Pegula in the top half and Karolina Pliskova will play Aryna Sabalenka in the bottom. Here, it’s anyone’s game. For most of the first week, my gut has been saying Rybakina is going to have the last laugh and prove all of the doubters wrong, but Pegula is finding some really great form. I hope to see a three-set tussle there, but I see Rybakina in Saturday’s final. The Pliskova-Sabalenka showdown could be a really fun one, but — based on Melbourne form — you could say it’s a coin toss, but I’m putting my money on Sabalenka here in three sets.

I almost want to leave it with just a Rybakina-Sabalenka final, but I know you expect me to deliver a full prediction. I wouldn’t be mad with either winner, but I think Elena Rybakina will walk away with her second Grand Slam title and the deserved Top 10 ranking she’s long overdue for.

Here we go, y’all! Now, onto links!

This Week in Women’s Tennis

A year after disclosing the imbalanced five-year affair with her much-older coach, Pam Shriver continues to press on the WTA in creating ironed-out safeguards to prevent grooming between coaches and players.

After a brilliant 23-year career that included Grand Slams in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, Sam Stosur bid farewell after her mixed doubles loss in Melbourne.

Abu Dhabi will be hosting a WTA 500 tournament next month after making an appearance on the 2021 calendar.

Some great news on the WTA Legend side: Chris Evert is cancer-free! Now, lets send some good vibes for the same result for Martina Navratilova.

Ons Jabeur has been a leader for Muslim female athletes, who are starting to find their footing in a variety of sports.

Zheng Qinwen didn’t expect to be amongst the world’s elite, but once she saw Li Na win the French Open, she redirected her route. Now, she’s hoping to do make her presence well-known on the tour’s biggest stages.

Taylor Townsend is hoping to find her best tennis after getting her first WTA win since maternity leave and overcoming the USTA essentially body-shaming the then-teenager.

Barbora Krejcikova is healthy and ready to be a contender for Grand Slam titles again after making a second week appearance in Melbourne.

Stars, they’re just like us! Queen Danielle Collins thought she won her third-set tiebreaker in the second round before the umpire had to remind her that the tiebreaker in Melbourne goes to ten instead of seven:

With one of the tour’s best names, Katie Volynets had a career-week in Melbourne, qualifying and knocking out No. 9 seed Veronika Kudermetova en route to the third round.

Zhu Lin knew late last season she was on the verge of having a breakthrough and she was right — reaching her first Grand Slam third and fourth rounds in Melbourne.

Today’s generation has been influenced by power players like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, but could the slicing all-court game of Ashleigh Barty be a sign of what the future entails?

You don’t normally see a couple face off against one another in mixed doubles, but we got to see it this week with Desirae Krawczyk and Andrew Harris.

Leylah Fernandez hopes that Netflix’s Break Point will be an eye-opener for tennis fans viewing the mental side of the game for the pros.

Mia Horvit was among the best players in collegiate tennis the last couple of years and now she’s hoping to take on the pro tour, cameos in TV/film……and hopefully Miss USA?!

Diana Shnaider nearly upset No. 6 Maria Sakkari in the second round, but now it’s time to see if the soon-to-be Top 100 player will actually make a debut for NC State this collegiate season. It’s looking likely:

Former World No. 4 Jelena Dokic continues to shed a light on the body-shaming she receives after her on-court interviews in Melbourne. Trolls, do better.

Remember Diary on MTV? Serena Williams’ episode was one of the best and Tennis Twitter took a clip to show what Break Point should feature. The tour these days is Candyland compared to the ruthless jungle of the late 90s/early 00s:

Tweet of the Week

Alison Riske-Amritraj is known as one of the most-liked and nicest players on tour. She’s not one to get riled up, but she lit up Tennis Twitter with her reaction to incorrectly losing a point in her doubles match. For the record, it’s “Kerrilyn,” not “Carolyn.” IYKYK

Five at The IX: First Week Quotes

“Then when I start beating players like Ash Barty and then Ons, that kind of gave me an extra kick that really showed me that I can really go far in those tournaments. I think it was more frustrating than I would wonder or worry about it. I think it was just more frustration why I can’t do it.” – Magda Linette

“I felt the pressure, and I felt that I don’t want to lose instead of I want to win….So that’s, I think, a base of what I should focus on in next couple of weeks.” – Iga Swiatek

“My name is going to be ingrained in the history. I feel like sometimes, when maybe you don’t feel confident with yourself, results are not there, you kind of forget what you’ve done.” – Victoria Azarenka

“I talk to [Adyn], and before my matches I look at pictures and videos and just remind myself of why I’m doing this and why I’m away, so it means something.” – Taylor Townsend

“It took me a long way to get here, and so that’s why I’m so emotional tonight. This is not the end. Let’s keep going.” – Zhu Lin

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Joey Dillon