The event: Twenty-four of the most talented Aussies who didn’t get direct entry into the Australian Open main draw (aka everyone except for Lleyton Hewitt), fight it out in a 32-draw, single-elimination tournament in Melbourne Park. The winner receives a wildcard for entry into the main draw of the upcoming Australian Open.

The Forbidden:  aka Those Who Were Banned: aka Brydan Klein, Nick Lindahl and Dayne Kelly, all of whom were forbidden to participate due to unspecified behavioral transgressions.  Brydan’s woes (racial vilification, outburst in Kalgoorie) are well-documented, but the transgressions of the other two remain somewhat of a mystery.  Although no one’s gone on record as saying so, the fact the Nick Lindahl has chosen to play for Sweden has to be the primary reason for his sanction. As for Dayne Kelly, I have no idea. He’s a funny, boisterous guy, oftentimes not all there on court (similar to Marinko Matosevic in that respect), but I’ve yet to hear what specifically led to his wildcard playoff ban.

The Top Competitors: let’s have a closer look at the top seeds competing for the wildcard prize.

Top seed Peter Luczak: the 31-year-old, 2nd-ranked Aussie behind Lleyton Hewitt, “Looch” has had a fairly rough year, going 25-35 on the season and dropping from his career high of 64 about a year ago to his current #137 in the world rankings. He has not advanced past the quarterfinals of any tourney this year, and lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal in the 2010 Australian Open.

Second seed Marinko Matosevic: the combustible 25-year-old has had a pretty good year, going 37-24 for the year and achieving a career high ranking of #137 last month. He currently sits at #138 in the world rankings, just behind Peter Luczak.  Marinko qualified and made the 2nd round at Indian Wells (l. Tsonga), and won the Aptos and Calabasas Challengers. He lost in four sets to Marco Chiudinelli in this year’s Oz Open.

Third seed Carsten Ball: the big-serving 23-year-old lefty has had an up and down season, as is usual with the laid-back “American-Australian”. He won the Lexington Challenger in July, which led to a career high ranking of #108 in the world. Since then, however, he has gone 6-11 and dropped back down to #153.  He gave Fernando Verdasco a good fight for three good sets at this year’s Aussie Open before succumbing to the Spaniard in four.

Fourth Seed Matt Ebden: also 23 years old, Matt Ebden has had a fairly decent go of it this season, going 35-24 and breaking into the Top 200 for the first time, achieving a career high of #162 in September. He had a good run at Brisbane to start the year, qualifying and making the 2nd round with a win over Melzer before going down in straights to Gasquet. He made the finals of the Kyoto Challenger in March and won the Great Britain F16 Futures in October. He also made it through qualifying at the ’10 AO before losing three 4-6 sets to Gael Monfils in the first round.  Ebden incurred a training injury from an on-court tumble this weekend, but an MRI on his right hand showed bruising but no fracture and will hopefully have little effect on his game.

Fifth seed John Millman: aka The Mailman (or, as the bawdy Greg Jones calls him, “The Milkable Man”), the affable and determined 21 year old has delivered a super season that saw him break into the Top 200 for the first time as well.  40 wins and 22 losses on the season, Millman had a torrid month-long span from mid-September to mid-October, during which we went 14-1 in winning the Australia F6 Futures as well as the Sacramento Challenger before petering out in his last two matches in the States in October.  The Mailman hasn’t played in a couple of months, but has been training hard with the NA-Brisbane team and should hit the court raring to go, despite the lack of recent match play.

Sixth seed Bernard Tomic: WITHDRAWN. And wasn’t at the draw ceremony. And has played three matches since September. Things that make you go, “Hmmmmm.”

Seventh seed Greg Jones: funniest guy on tour, hands down, but the gregarious 21 year-old has had serious trouble kickstarting his year.  After a super start which saw finalist showings at the Burnie Challenger (l. Tomic) and the Aussie F2 Futures (l. Millman), he made the semis of the Leon Challenger in April and reached a career high of #179.  A series of injuries (including one from a New York City cab accident as he headed to the airport post-USO) have left him limping toward the finish line.  Jones started the year 16-9 but has gone 12-22 since.   One unexpected highlight, however, was his silver medalist showing at the Commonwealth Games, where he lost in the final to Somdev Devvarman.  The tall, big-serving righty had Juan Monaco on the ropes in New Haven, and I think has what it takes to be a Top 100 player.  He lost in the first round of qualies to Ivan Sergeyev at the year’s AO.

Eighth seed Sam Groth: almost the red-headed step-brother to Greg Jones in both game and mannerism (and grunting too, for that matter), the 23 year old has a HUGE serve and a lovely one-handed backhand (Greg has two, if you’re scoring at home) (or even if you’re alone).  Sam’s year is divided into to distinct parts: the first three quarters of the year was characterized by frustration and injury, and then the talented Mr. Groth found his game, going 30-5 for a scorching hot end to the season.  Let’s see if Sam can keep his form going through the playoff (which would mean more of his wife Jarka in the commentary booth all week, so everybody wins).

The entire draw breaks down as follows:

Peter Luczak [1]/Bye
Joel Lindner v. Luke Saville
Mark Verryth v. Jared Easton
James Lemke [9]/Bye

Matthew Ebden [4]/Bye
Maverick Banes v. Benjamin Mitchell
Dane Propoggia v. Andrew Whittington [A]
Samuel Groth [8]/Bye

John Millman [5]/Bye
James Duckworth v. Matthew Barton
Adam Feeney v. Colin Ebelthite
Carsten Ball [3]/Bye

Greg Jones [7]/Bye
Sean Berman v. Jason Kubler
Matt Reid v. Michael Look
Marinko Matosevic [2]/Bye

I’ll be taking a close look at the other matchups as each day progresses.

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