Five storylines for the second week of the Australian Open | Opinion

Novak Djokovic in driver’s seat, but look out for red, white and blue

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The Australian Open’s first week did not go according to script.

Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek, the No. 1 seeds, lost earlier than expected. The so-called “Netflix Curse” was blamed for early exits of Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Taylor Fritz, Maria Sakkari and Ons Jabeur, who starred in the first installment of the new “Break Point” documentary series.

In some ways, the biggest story of the first week was 35-year-old Andy Murray, who gutted out marathon wins in the first two rounds. Alas, he’s now out of the tournament, too.

But after all the upsets, there’s an air of intrigue about what might unfold over the next several days as the first Grand Slam tournament of the season comes to a conclusion.

Here are five storylines to watch as the Australian Open enters the second week: 

Novak Djokovic is back — probably

Though he got through the first three rounds without too much drama, Djokovic looked a bit vulnerable because of a hamstring injury that was clearly causing him pain, limiting his movement and making him concerned about whether he could hold up for seven matches. 

Not anymore.

In dispatching Alex de Minaur 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in the round of 16, Djokovic was back to the elite form that made him a heavy favorite coming into the tournament. Djokovic has a track record of managing injuries through a Grand Slam and gaining strength round by round, and if his hamstring continues to feel as good as he claimed Sunday night, he’ll be awfully tough to beat. Djokovic is gunning for his 10th Australian Open title, which would be his 22nd Grand Slam overall and tie him with Nadal for the all-time record. 

This might be Jessica Pegula’s time

It really wasn’t until last year that Pegula was considered a legitimate threat to win Grand Slams, but the 28-year-old American continues to take steps toward a big title. Pegula, who is the top seed remaining in the women’s draw at No. 3, has been dominant thus far, winning six of the eight sets she’s played by a score of 6-2 or better.

Pegula, who has been wearing Damar Hamlin’s No. 3 on her outfit — her parents Terry and Kim Pegula are the principal owners of the Buffalo Bills — is an interesting story because of how long it took her to first crack the top-100 in 2019 and then the top-50 for the first time in early 2021.

Since then, however, Pegula has been among the most consistent players on the WTA Tour and reached the quarterfinals in three of the Slams last year. Though the path still isn’t easy as she’ll face two-time Australian Open champion Vika Azarenka in the quarterfinals, there’s a real opportunity with Swiatek now out of the tournament after losing to Elena Rybakina on Saturday. 

Ben Shelton has arrived

People who are plugged into American tennis have been excited about the 20-year-old Shelton ever since he started playing pro tournaments last summer following a career at the University of Florida that included an NCAA singles title. Still, it would have been difficult to imagine Shelton making the Australian Open quarterfinals in his first trip outside the United States and breaking into the top-50 of the rankings this quickly (he’ll be at least No. 43 next week). 

To be fair, Shelton has not had the most demanding draw, facing Zhizhen Zhang (No. 96), Nicolas Jarry (No. 154), Alexei Popyrin (No. 113) and J.J. Wolf (No. 67) on the way to the quarterfinals. Still, the 6-foot-4 lefty is showing the world why he’s such an exciting prospect. Though the foundation of his game is a massive serve, Shelton plays with a lot of variety and athleticism and so far has not shown a significant weakness that opponents can attack. 

It’s probably asking too much for Shelton to go all the way in just his second Grand Slam main draw, but becoming the first American man since Andy Roddick to reach a major quarterfinal before his 21st birthday is pretty good company. 

A red, white and blue party 

With Shelton facing Tommy Paul on Tuesday night, one American is guaranteed to make the semifinals. But there could be a second if 22-year-old Sebastian Korda beats Russian Karen Khachanov on Monday night. 

Korda has been one of the revelations of the tournament, beating two-time Australian Open finalist Daniil Medvedev in straight sets and then backing it up with a fifth-set tiebreaker victory over No. 10 seed Hubert Hurkacz. Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda, is a beautiful player to watch because he is so fluid and technically sound in everything he does. He’s also one of the rare young players willing to come forward and finish points at the net, putting his opponents under a lot of pressure to come up with passing shots.

The question mark with Korda has been on the mental side, where he’s shown a proclivity to struggle closing out matches. But beating Medvedev without any late drama and playing some clutch tennis in the fifth set against Hurkacz could be a turning point for a player who has been predicted to accomplish great things by many people inside the sport. 

Against Khachanov, Korda will hope to avenge a loss he suffered in the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2021 where he lost 10-8 in a fifth set that featured 13 breaks of serve. 

Time for a breakthrough 

Stefanos Tsitsipas has been oh-so-close to a major title, winning the first two sets from Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final before watching the trophy get ripped from his grasp. But the 24-year-old Greek might get another opportunity this week, as the draw has set up for him to make his second Grand Slam final. 

Tsitsipas has probably played the best tennis from start to finish thus far on the men’s side and will get unseeded Czech Jiri Lehecka in the quarterfinals before potentially facing the Korda-Khachanov winner in the semis. Though Tsitsipas still has a lot of years left, he may not get many better opportunities to bag a major, especially if Djokovic is compromised at all by the hamstring. 

On the women’s side, the big question is whether Aryna Sabalenka’s big-hitting game can hold up under pressure — something it hasn’t done the past two years in the U.S. Open semifinals or the Wimbledon semifinal in 2021. Sabalenka is almost unbeatable when she’s on, but it gets ugly very fast when she’s off. Through four rounds in Australia, Sabalenka has been playing with discipline and controlled aggression — but questions will remain until she finishes the job. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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