I’m not sure if you know this, so let me tell you: Grand Slam draws are like crack to fans of the Challenger circuit. They’re like the ultimate Challenger event: a tourney featuring players ranked between 100 and 300, and nearly everyone plays. Granted, there are only three rounds instead of five, and it’s kinda like the tourney gets canceled halfway through, but my point stands: pretty much every challenger-level player of interest is here, gunning for a place in a grand slam main draw. What’s not to like?
And after a few glitches and false starts, the Australian Open men’s qualifying draw has finally been unlocked and unleashed upon unsuspecting (or, in my case, very suspecting) cybercitizens. And in my tried and true OCD-tinged maniacal fashion, I am here to break it all down for you. No info-nugget will remain unearthed, no useless factoid shall remain buried, no know-balls will remain unlobbed. (Huh? Well, you get the idea.)
Let’s dig in!
Much as I want to be impressed by Blaz Kavcic’s Chennai Open showing (he beat Jeremy Chardy and destroyed Robert Kendrick before falling 3&3 in the quarters to Berdych), I’m gonna be silly right from the get go and say there are no obvious favorites in this segment. A line-by-line breakdown:
 Blaz Kavcic SLO (World Ranking #100) v [W] Benjamin Mitchell AUS (#610): a tough draw for the likeable 18-year-old Queenslander, but not a completely impossible task for the lad who made the final in Bendigo and took Brisbane International quarterfinalist Matt Ebden to two tough TB sets at the Tennis Australia AO Wildcard Playoffs (having a lead in both sets). I’ve seen both play their fair share of matches, and to my mind they’re similar in game, style, speed, grit and even countenance. Blaz just does everything a bit better than Ben does. Odds are extremely good Blaz beats Ben in straights. But I expect Mitchell to give a good account of himself, I really do.
Rik de Voest RSA (#179) v Laurent Recouderc FRA (#204): Recouderc won their only match 6-4 6-4 two years ago on hard courts in Dubai. The big South African, however, has had better recent results, reaching the semis of the Charlottesville Challenger and the quarters in Knoxville at the end of last year. So on recent form as well as ranking, I’ll buck the two-year-old head-to-head data and pick Rik. Kavcic has never played de Voest, but he manhandled Recouderc 2&0 last June on clay, if you want to hedge yer bets.
Greg Jones AUS (#254) v Olivier Patience FRA (#196): The two have never met before, but Greg’s gonna win this one. Based on absolutely no data at all. Just trust me on this one. I’m tired.
Guillermo Alcaide SPA (#216) v  Ilija Bozoljac SRB (#152): Bozoljac beat Alcaide pretty comprehensively 6-3 6-2 in a recent meeting at the US Open qualifying tournament. And even though the Spaniard has played more matches recently (and gave Tsung-Hua Hang a pretty good fight in the Brazil F1 QF’s), I’d expect Bozo to make it through to face Greg in the next round. Those two have never met neither.
Who makes it through: De Voest beats Bozoljac (what? He’s won the only two matches they’ve played!)
Second quarter: this is where Simone Bolelli tries not to screw things up, as is his wont. He faces some fairly formidable competition along the way, but they’re all people he should honestly beat. Will he? Probably not. Let’s have a closer look:
 Simone Bolelli ITA (#107) v Ivo Minar CZE (#169): see, now right here, even, Ivo won the most recent match between the two (in ’07, and he trails their H2H 2-1, but still). Bolelli’s last four matches played? Lost to Lacko, lost to Semjan, lost to Kunitsyn, and lost to Phau. So you can see where I might be skeptical of the Italian’s ability to come through here.
Timo Nieminen FIN (#283) v Marco Crugnola ITA (#242): well, whoever wins this one should be easy pickings for the Bolelli-Minar winner regardless. These two have never met (on the tennis court anyway – perhaps socially). Timo’s been kickin’ around Oz for a while, having gone down with the intent to play Brisbane but not making it under the qual cutoff there. So he’s been vagabonding about, and practicing with his pals Ivan Sergeyev and Jurgen Zopp. Hasn’t played since the Helsinki Challenger, where he took a set off eventual finalist Michal Przysiezny. Crugnola’s done OK, I guess, of late, but I’m feelin’ Timo in a (very) minor upset here. And then he’ll lost in the next round, in all likelihood.
The Finnish Line. From left: Harri Heliovaara, now playing in Glasgow GB F1 Futures, Henri Kontinen, now set to make his return to action at the Germany F3 Futures in Kaarst, and Timo Nieminen
Nicolas Massu (#188) CHI vs. Philip Bester (#280) CAN: Massu was spotted by someone leaving a sports booking agent in Melbourne upon first getting to town. Make of that what you will. The 31 year-old Massu’s last win was in October on Clay. Make of that what you will. Bester was once a top ten junior. Make of that what you will. Bester won the USA F31 Futures in November. MOTWYW. Her’s what I make of it: the 22 year-old Canadian takes this match in straight sets.
Brydan Klein (#215) AUS vs.  Konstantin Kravchuk RUS (#144): Ye Olde Racial Vilifier (Klein, once suspended for racial vilification, is who I’m referring to here) in his first meeting against the Russian. How much Krav could a Kravchuk chuck if a Kravchuk could chuck Krav? Hell if I know. What I do know is that Konstantin has had konstantly better results of late, and I should expect that to kontinue here. Kravchuk’s never played Bester before either, but I’ll say he’ll get the bester him in QR2 and will thus face either Minar or Bolelli (still kinda unsure about that one). For the record, he hasn’t played either of them.
Who makes it through: I’ll say Bolelli, just so we can all come and have a laugh at my expense later on.
OK, kids – it’s clear at this point with my frantic packing/preparing/panicking about my move that I’m not gonna be able to finish this kind of OCD draw review before play begins. I simply don’t have the time. But I’ll post this much and add shorter bits to it if I can. Sorry to leave ya hanging, but… better something than nothing? Perhaps?
Regardless, you can watch qualifying live for free this week, with webstreaming available on Courts 3, 5, 6 and 7. Here is the schedule of play for Wednesday (warning: forecast is for rain), and here is the link that’ll get you to a stream. Enjoy!
11th hour update: have some Third Quarter action, at no extra cost!
Third quarter: man, what a loaded section this is. Dimitrov, Schoorel, Koubek, even Viola and Lapentti and the rest. This is one quarter that is chock full of capable players. The line-by-line:
 Grigor Dimitrov BUL (#108) v Matteo Viola ITA (#213): OK, we all know Grigor is the wunderkind who’s now shot up to near Top 100 on the back of a tremendous (60 win 18 loss) 2010 that saw him rack up three Challenger titles in a row before ending his season with the whole umpire-pushing shebang. But Matteo Viola is a good player too, who’s building on a good season as well. Matteo is one of my weird faves – I love his toe touching service motion and his lever-looking backhand. The 23 year-old Italian come to Melbourne on the heels of a Futures win in August and a Challenger semi in October, and on the wings of a 56/26 2010 campaign that saw his ranking reach new highs. Grigor will be too good in the end, but I just wanted to use this space to say I like Matteo, too. (In general, that is – not as a winner of this match.)
Reda El Amrani MAR (#218) v Marek Semjan SVK (#226): “The Martian” El Amrani, as a friend of mine likes to call him, has never met Semjan. Nor, strikingly, has the vice versa occurred. Despite their similar age/ranking/hair color, El Amrani has lost his previous four matches, while Semjan’s had some decent wins of late. Kind of a coin toss, this, but my coin leans toward the Slovak. Dimitrov is 1-0 head-to-head vs. El Amrani, while he’s not yet met Semjan. That won’t stop him from beating Marek in the 2nd round, should it come to that.
David Guez FRA (#183) vs. Thomas Schoorel NED (#165): Schoorel’s that tall Dutch guy who Roger Federer so rudely tweened in Doha, remember? He’s pretty good. He’s one of those 2011 Challenger Tennis Players To Watch I’m always blathering about. Guez once showed promise, but then he hid it away from view (why did he do that?). Two guys heading in opposite directions. Expect Schoorel to head into the second qualifying round.
Giovanni Lapentti ECU (#206) vs.  Stefan Koubek AUT (#133): Tough draw for Giova – he’s got an 0/2 lifetime record against “The Strangler”, including a 4-6 1-6 QR1 drubbing in USO qualies this past August. I think the Austrian old man will make it 3 for 3 when they meet here. The 34 year old would then probably meet Schoorel, and they’ve yet to play. I’m pretty big on Schoorel, as you may have guessed from my profile of him, and he’s pretty big himself. I’m looking for the Dutch dude vs. Dimitrov in the FQR, and holy shucking fit what an awesome match that will be.
Who makes it through: Don’t wanna call it. You’ll have to consult your magic 8 ball or Ouija board if you need more guidance.