January 31, 2009

Lucky Number 10

It didn't even take an hour for Serena Williams to dispatch Dinara Safina at the finals of this year's Australian Open -- but the victory was worth a lot.

By getting to the championship match, she became the highest-earning women's athlete of all time -- more than $23 million in prize money during her career. With the win she regained her #1 ranking and took her tenth Grand Slam title -- just four women have more major trophies.

The match was, admittedly, a letdown after yesterday's marathon men's semifinal. Safina was completely outmatched in her second Slam final -- it was only during her first service game I even thought she had a chance to keep things close. She held serve only twice and won just seven points on Serena's serve. Williams on the other hand won 95% of her first serves and didn't commit one double fault.

Serena actually faced bigger challenges earlier in the draw. She struggled in the second round against Gisela Dulko, giving herself a "D-" grade for her performance, and dropped sets to both Victoria Azarenka and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Had the heat not taken its toll on Azarenka, Serena might not have made it past the fourth round. Part of me wishes I'd watched one of those games in the final.

Dinara, with her performance in Melbourne, will climb to a career high #2 ranking on Monday, but I'm sure she wishes she'd put on a performance more worthy of that position on Saturday. But she'll be back, I hope -- she doesn't seem like one to collapse after a disappointing loss.

In the meantime the folks Down Under are getting ready for the highly-anticipated men's final tomorrow. It will be the first time Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have met in Australia -- or in any hardcourt Grand Slam, for that matter. I'm willing to bet Serena's prize money that we'll be watching for longer than an hour.

See you tomorrow!

January 30, 2009

¿Dónde están los "Guns"?

That was the sign flying in the stands during Rafael Nadal's quarterfinal match against Gilles Simon, apparently objecting that the world's #1 men's tennis player chose to wear short-sleeve tees at the Australian Open this year, rather than his signature arm-exposing tanks.

He didn't bare anything more during the semis, except during change-overs when he replaced a sweaty shirt, but his guns were out in full force against countryman Fernando Verdasco on Thursday.

Then again, so were his opponent's.

The year isn't even one month old, but I already know this will be one of the classics for 2009. The match started just before 4a.m. New York time -- when I tuned in around 5:30, the first set had barely ended. In 75 minutes neither man had been able to break the other's serve. But Verdasco, with triple the winners and four times the errors, pulled out the win in the tiebreak. I sat glued to my television while I should have been getting ready for work, afraid to miss a point of the second set. After another fifty minutes of amazing angles, unrelenting stretches, and ten-, fifteen-, even twenty-stroke rallies the match was tied a set apiece.

Needless to say I was late to the office.

When the third set tiebreak went to Rafa, Verdasco at first seemed defeated, like he'd expended all his energy early, and was now struggling to hold serves. But he brought his best stuff when the score was tied 3-3, unleashed menacing overheads, delicate drop shots and an inside-out forehand that kissed the lines. He won the third tiebreak of the match 7-1.

The fifth set started past midnight in Melbourne. Even after five hours of play, both Nadal and Verdasco looked spry and energetic -- as if they'd just walked on the court. Like in all Grand Slams the final set is not allowed to go to a tiebreak and, as had been the case since the third set, both men held onto their serves stubbornly. The first and only break came in the tenth game, disappointingly on a double fault by Verdasco -- just his third fourth of the entire match.

And so #1 Rafael Nadal will meet #2 Roger Federer in the finals on Sunday -- the first time they do so with those rankings. Finally.

Roger must be breathing a sigh of relief -- he's had an extra day and a much easier match in the semis to recover from. If Rafa is even a little off his game, this could be the chance for Federer to tie Pete Sampras's long-standing record. For Nadal, this is a chance to prove his dominance on all surfaces -- he's never made a final in a hardcourt major.

But I wonder if the semifinal wasn't really the showdown of the tournament. It was the longest match ever played at the Australian Open, the third longest at any Slam. Verdasco showed he is far better than his #14 seed suggested -- if his upsets of Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier this week didn't prove it, today's game certainly did. He's only won two titles in his career -- one in 2004 and one at last year's teeney Umag tournament in Croatia -- but I think he's poised to take 2009 by storm. If nothing else, he showed in Melbourne that he was not going to back down from any fight.

I've said before that the Australian Open tends to be a stage for new stars -- and my guess is that Fernando Verdasco will be this year's sparkler.

January 29, 2009

All Good Things...

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I woke up this morning.

After a rash of upsets and star-making performances during this year's Australian Open, I'd begun to think we could see some new faces shine as they held up their championship trophies this weekend.

But the three semifinal matches that have so far been played showed a reversion to the norm.

I had high hopes for Elena Dementieva in her match against Serena Williams. Though the Russian trails the current world #2 in almost any major metric -- ranking, number of titles, service speed, career prize money -- Elena has been on a roll. She had won the pair's last three meetings, most recently in the Sydney semifinals and at last year's Olympics. And she'd amassed a stunning 15-0 record for the year, complete with two titles.

Serena, however, had random logic on her side. Commentators loved to point out that she's won the Australian Open in every odd year since 2003 and that she's never lost a semifinal or final match in Melbourne. Of course there was more behind Serena's strength than strange statistics -- she led the women's draw in aces, twenty-eight before she even met Elena, and had won a stunning 73% of her first serves. She'd rallied after being down a set to Svetlana Kuznetsova to notch an impressive win in the quarters. And she had some serious motivation -- a trophy here would be her tenth career Grand Slam and help her regain the #1 ranking.

The match wasn't easy for either player -- for Elena especially, as she marked her first loss of the year -- but the outcome was probably expected. Serena won 6-3, 6-4, taking little more than ninety minutes to score the victory. In the end the score didn't reflect how hard Elena fought (it seldom does), but it did represent Serena's continued presence as a real force in tennis.

In the finals she will meet her third Russian in a row -- Dinara Safina was also triumphant over compatriot Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, bringing the seventh-ranked player's best major run to an end.

Vera has never made it past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam, and she's lost in the first round here three times. But she's coming off her best year on record and pranced through her first five matches in Melbourne without dropping a set, even earning her first win over tenth seed Nadia Petrova since 2004. She should have been pretty confident against Safina. Again, despite the discrepancy in ranking, Zvonareva had won all three matches they played last year, including a semifinal matchup in their hometown of Moscow.

But Dinara was on top of her game Thursday. She was certainly the aggressor in the match, scoring two times as many winners as her opponent, but also committing twice the unforced errors. She was dominant at the net, winning seven of eight points there and dictated points on both first and second serves.

As a reward Safina will get to attend her second Grand Slam final -- she lost to Ana Ivanovic last year at Roland Garros -- and make her own case for the #1 women's ranking, the first time she would achieve that honor in her career. Serena has taken all but one of their six previous matches, but with a title on the line I'm betting we could see some sparks

And then came the gentlemen.

Unfortunately I had to be up early enough this morning that I was able to catch the end of the first men's semifinal match live -- just in time to see Andy Roddick lose to Roger Federer. Again.

Roger led the series 15-2, but he was facing a new and improved Roddick. With the help of a new coach and in better physical shape, Andy had made it to the finals in Doha, his first tournament of the year. Earlier this week he silenced naysayers in Australia when he outlasted reigning champion Novak Djokovic in the quarters, scrambling for balls no one has the right to chase down. Even before meeting Federer in the semis, Andy stood atop the leader board in aces, scoring 79 zingers, twenty-one more than the world #2.

But his run was brought to a halt too -- Roger dominated, as he usually does, in three sets. He scored 51 winners and only fifteen errors, without a single double fault. While Federer couldn't quite match Roddick's serve in speed, he was able to score sixteen aces and win an astonishing 83% of his first attempts, 58% of his second. Though the last two sets were tighter, there was no question Roger is eager to get his hands on a record-tying fourteenth Grand Slam championship.

He still has one match to go though, and will face one of the two Spaniards playing their semifinal match today.

Rafael Nadal is clearly the favorite to beat Davis Cup teammate Fernando Verdasco -- he's won all six previous meetings. But Verdasco has been on a roll of his own, stunning fourth seed Andy Murray and #5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in consecutive rounds. It remains to be seen whether the semifinals will bring an end to his string of victories as well.

Of course, I've been waiting for the Nadal-Federer rematch for some time -- but Australia seems to be the venue of choice for new talent to emerge, and an upset by Verdasco would certainly not be the first.

So good luck to all, and may all your (future) winning streaks be long-lasting!

January 27, 2009

I Don't Even Know Where to Begin...

So I go away for a few days and when I return, as is usually the case, the whole world is turned upside down!

Now I confess, I wasn't able to keep up with all the matches while on vacation and some of the shocking upsets that happened in the third and fourth rounds occurred without comment -- but there's still plenty to talk about from latter-round action. But let's just rewind for a minute.

Jelena Dokic continued her comeback for as long as she could, beating #11 Caroline Wozniacki and #29 Alisa Kleybanova before finally being stopped in the quarterfinals by Dinara Safina. You can't say she collapsed under the pressure, though -- she did take the middle set from the #3-seeded player. Marcos Baghdatis also followed up his strong start with a straight-set win over American Mardy Fish, but reigning champion Novak Djokovic put an end to the Cypriot's surge in the fourth round. Even Carla Suárez Navarro was able to back up her defeat of Venus Williams with wins over two compatriots for the right to meet Elena Dementieva in the Elite Eight.

There was also the day of retirements, when three matches were suspended early due to injury or sickness. Gael Monfils and Jie Zheng both pulled out of their fourth rounds with wrist injuries while nineteen-year-old Brisbane champ Victoria Azarenka nearly collapsed after taking her first set from Serena Williams.

But then came the real shockers.

I suppose technically Andy Murray's loss to #14 Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round was an upset -- but I can tell you I shed no tears. After winning the Capitala World Championship in Abu Dhabi, an exhibition match in which he beat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on consecutive days, and Qatar's ExxonMobil Open, Murray was considered by most to be the favorite in Melbourne, despite his #4 seed and the fact that he'd never won a major before.

Verdasco had other ideas though.

The score over the first three sets makes them each seem like blow-outs -- Murray took the lead 6-2, 1-6, 6-1. But the Davis Cup winner, who had lost his five previous matches to the Brit/Scot, was not dissuaded. With a shocking 78% first-serve percentage in the last two sets, Fernando didn't allow Murray one break point opportunity. He served six aces in the final set, leading Andy in both winners and errors, and after more than three hours of play came out with the win.

On the women's side Jelena Jankovic looked like she might've had an easy road to her second Grand Slam final with both Williams and red-hot Dementieva in the bottom half of the draw. I'm sure she didn't expect her biggest threat to come from sixteenth-seed Marion Bartoli.

It's easy to have forgotten Bartoli. The Frenchwoman made it to the finals of Wimbledon in 2007 but was demolished by Venus Williams, officially ranked lower but hardly the underdog. Since then Marion has struggled a bit. She barely made it past the third round in any tournament last year -- only making one final -- and saw her ranking drop from #10 to #17. She began 2009 with a second place finish in Brisbane, but I still didn't expect her to be much of a force against the top-ranked woman in the fourth round -- even though she'd won their last two meetings over a year ago. But Jankovic was almost no match for Bartoli. In less than ninety minutes Marion scored twice as many winners, three aces to none, and took 81% of the points on her first serve.

It's a shame that she was handed just as big a defeat at the hands of Vera Zvonareva in the next round. Again, I admit, I didn't have high hopes for the runner-up at last year's Sony Ericsson Championships. Though the seventh-ranked Russian led Bartoli head-to-head and is clearly coming off her best year ever, Vera pulled out of the Sydney warm-up tournament with an intestinal illness (to be fair, Bartoli withdrew as well), and I worried she might not be in top form in Australia's sweltering heat. But Zvonareva did triumph -- in barely over an hour! -- as Marion spewed errors and struggled to hold serve.

And of course the biggest quarterfinal upset so far came in the men's draw. Novak Djokovic was only three matches away from repeating as champion, but he'd suffered some early-round disappointments in the last few weeks. Still, he was the favorite to beat Andy Roddick who, at #9 in the world, is at his lowest ranking since 2006. After a first set with no breaks of serve, Roddick found himself down in the tiebreak and then down in the match. But the newly slimmed-down American showed off his fitness and regrouped in the second set as temperatures on the court rose. Nole couldn't withstand the heat -- from the court or from Andy -- quite as well and fourteen minutes into the fourth set, down two to one, he retired.

So that sets up an interesting second week at the Open.

On the men's side we might finally see that highly-anticipated Nadal-Federer match-up, though it does require a few more wins from both players. Nadal hasn't dropped a set this entire tournament, but next faces a wily Gilles Simon who received a walkover after Monfils retired. And Roger has to get past Roddick, who could power through solely on adrenaline.

For the women Serena is still the betting-man's favorite, but I wouldn't put it past Dementieva to make it through on her half. And Vera might be on a role, but I have to believe Safina's going to make it to her second Major final. That potential match-up, a repeat of the finals at Sydney and last year's Olympics (Elena won both), could usher in a new era for women's tennis.

And I can't wait to see it!

January 24, 2009

Cheers to the Vets!

Today I turn thirty.


And while I've always been jealous of the scrappy teenagers who could come out on the tennis courts and eke out wins against top-ranked players -- and moreso of the ones who could handily beat well-seasoned opponents -- that envy is even more palpable now.

But us older players still have some spunk, and a couple showed their stuff in Australia this week.

Thirty-six year old Fabrice Santoro returned for his seventeeth Australian Open and notched victories over former #1 Juan-Carlos Ferrero and seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber before he ran into a wall against Andy Roddick. The zany Frenchman previously proved he was no has-been and recaptured the hearts of fans everywhere when he took my dear James Blake through five emotional sets and three and a half heart-pounding hours at the 2007 U.S. Open. And with two titles last year Fabrice has shown that he's not going to leave the game quietly.

Veteran Ai Sugiyama tried to follow up her semifinal appearance in Sydney with more success in Melbourne. Ranked #26 in the world, she's not exactly an underdog, but she hasn't been a huge force in a major -- at least not in singles -- in years. At this year's Australian Open she dropped her first set to Nathalie Dechy before rebounding for the right to meet -- and unfortunately lose to -- top-seed Jelena Jankovic in the third round. Again, her top-thirty seed suggested that this match-up was inevitable, but I'm sure Ai was still happy to come through.

Gorgeous German Tommy Haas has been ranked as high as #2 in the world and has eleven singles titles to his name -- this time last year he was a stone's throw from the top ten. But a shoulder injury in 2007 and allegations of being poisoned during a Davis Cup match against Russia pushed him out of the top fifty for the first time in nearly five years. In Melbourne he put together back-to-back wins for the first time since last August, rolling through the man who dispatched Dmitry Tursunov in the first round. Against Rafael Nadal in his third match, Haas's comeback was stalled -- though, I believe not quite ended. He's rallied before, climbing from a four-digit ranking in 2004 all the way to #17.

The greatest story of this year's Open, though, might be that of Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm who, at 38, was the oldest player in the main draw. She turned pro in 1989, before players like Caroline Wozniacki or Alize Cornet were even born. She once made it to the semifinals in Melbourne -- in 1994 -- and acheived a career-high ranking of #4 the next year.

But that was pretty much the last we heard of her for a while -- she hasn't played a Grand Slam since 1996, when she lost at the first round in Flushing Meadows.

Kimiko returned last year, playing a handful of ITF tournaments and even scoring three titles. She played a few tour matches in Japan and a round in Auckland earlier this month. Before the Australian Open began she fought through three qualifying rounds, beating two players half her age and one in her twenties, to earn the right to play in her first major in a dozen years.

In her first round match Kimiko put up quite a fight against twenty-three year old Kaia Kanepi, who faced a slightly stronger opponent than she might have expected. They split the first two sets, 4-6, 6-4, and took the third to fourteen games before Kanepi eventually claimed the victory. But the stats were close -- Date-Krumm had a better first-serve percentage, but lost more points on her second try. She won over three-quarters of her net point attempts, but made fewer winners and unforced errors. In two hours and fifty minutes, she scored only eleven fewer points than Kaia.

Maybe it wasn't quite the return she'd wanted, but Kimiko Date Krumm definitely reminded the tennis world of her name. And I'm hoping this isn't the last we've heard of her.

So good luck to the veterans, if not at this tournament then certainly at others -- I hope to see you out there for many years to come!

In the meantime, I'm off to celebrate the last few hours of my twenties.


January 22, 2009

The Match(es) of the Moment

I was originally planning to dedicate this morning's post to what I considered the most memorable match of the second round, but man were there a lot to choose from.

I'll start with the one that made my jaw drop this morning.

Venus Williams hasn't been the biggest threat on hard courts in several years. Even though she won the Sony-Ericsson WTA Championships on the surface last year, she did so almost as the underdog with an eighth seed. In the Majors she hasn't made it to a final on anything other than grass since 2003. Even still you know opponents were terrified to see her in their side of the draw in Melbourne this week. And pundits were talking about the potential semifinal matchup between her and her sister as soon as the bracket was released.

But all those players can breathe a sigh of relief this morning -- on Thursday Carla Suárez Navarro, playing in her very first Australian Open, took Venus out of contention in three sets.

The match started predictably enough, with Williams winning the first set 6-2 in less than half an hour. She won all eleven points on her first serve and almost half the points on Carla's serve. But in the second set Suárez Navarro amped up her game -- she served more winners and fewer errors than she had in the first and converted both of her break opportunities. The third set went the distance -- sixty-three minutes and eighty points played. Venus couldn't capitalize on match point with Carla serving at 4-5, and a double fault in the subsequent service game handed the match to the forty-sixth ranked Suárez Spaniard.

No one expected the result. In the preview of the match posted on the Open's website before the match, Alan Trengove wrote:

"The 20-year-old Spaniard would have a better chance at Roland Garros, where she reached the quarterfinals on clay courts as a qualifier. On hardcourt, she could be overwhelmed. Williams in straight."

But I can't help feel that it's just an indication of how wide open the women's draw really is. With five different women holding the top ranking last year, the #1 spot is really up for grabs at this tournament.

Number One may still be a long shot for Amer Delic, one of only two American men to make it through the qualifying rounds in Australia, but he's certainly on the rise. In the main draw the twenty-six year old has had to fight more than most. His first round match went five sets and almost three hours against countryman Taylor Dent, but he was even more impressive in the second round against 28th-seeded Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Less than an hour into the match, he was down two sets to love, and it looked like he would soon be headed home. But he rallied in the third set with the help of six aces and won the fourth in a tiebreak. The deciding set took sixteen games and seventy-two minutes, but Delic had better first and second serve percentages. There was only one break the entire set, but it was the one that counted. Amer became the fourth U.S. man, and the only one not ranked in the top 25, to make it to the third round.

Next he faces world #3 Novak Djokovic, to whom he lost in four sets at Wimbledon two years ago. It'll be a tough task, especially after two five-set matches in sweltering heat, but stranger things have certainly happened.

The last two matches yielded results I've been looking forward to for some time. Marcos Baghdatis followed up a straight-set win in the first round by knocking out #16 Robbie Soderling with relative ease. And, in a matchup I was a bit torn over, Jelena Dokic continued her comeback with a win over a still-stuggling Anna Chakvetadze. They'll both struggle in the next round, Marcos against Mardy Fish and Jelena against Caroline Wozniacki, but whatever the results, they've both chosen to make their statements here in Australia.

See you next time!

January 20, 2009

An Inaugural Opener

Round One matches for the year's first Grand Slam are in the books, and as expected some players were welcomed to Australia with stunning victories, while others were ushered off the court, scratching their heads and wondering where the last eight years five sets had gone.

On the men's side only three seeds failed to advance -- #27 Feliciano Lopez lost to Gilles Muller, Flavio Cipolla only dropped a set to #29 Dmitry Tursunov, and Dudi Sela beat #30 Rainer Schuettler. But that doesn't mean the rest of the draw was without drama.

I'm strangely happy that Lleyton Hewitt failed in his comeback attempt but disappointed that neither Japan's Kei Nishikori nor the U.S.'s Sam Querrey were able to pull out upsets.

Other Americans fared better, however, in the hours and days leading up to a proud moment for our country. Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish -- all seeded in the top twenty-five, believe it or not -- only dropped one set between them in the first round (Mardy was the offender).

The women's seeds suffered a few more casualties -- seven in total -- headlined by the early exit of #9 Aggie Radwanska who failed to follow up on her quarterfinal appearance here last year. My favorite, Elena Dementieva, gave me quite a scare too -- she dropped her middle set to 88th-ranked Kristina Barrois in the sweltering heat -- and Ana Ivanovic took a while to find her footing, though both made it through relatively unscathed.

And two of the players I had my eyes on pre-tournament set the stage for possible comebacks -- Marcos Baghdatis rolled over Lyon runner-up Julien Benneteau, and Jelena Dokic emotionally pulled out her first Grand Slam match win since 2003.

The weirdest thing about this Open so far, though, is how disorienting it is to see the #2 next to Roger Federer's name. Yes, this is the second major where he's held the ranking since losing the top spot to Rafael Nadal, but somehow the higher number is so much more tangible now than it was at the U.S. Open. Maybe it's because Roger's proved himself more than fallible in the last few months. Maybe it's because a surging Andy Murray seems to be the real man to beat, even though he's only ranked #4. And similarly, on the women's side, only one of the top four players, Serena Williams, has ever won a Grand Slam before -- this could be the chance for a new star to shine.

So maybe this Australian Open will mark the beginning of a new era -- just like Inauguration Day will for the U.S. The reigning kings haven't quite been knocked off their thrones yet, but brand new players are out for blood.

And it's going to be an exciting campaign.

January 18, 2009

Australian Open Preview

In just a few hours the year's first Grand Slam kicks off in Melbourne Australia, and there promises to be a huge helping of drama and excitement over the next two weeks.

Some familiar faces will be missing, others will be out in full force, eager to score their first major victory, and an elite few will look to add a little more silver to their already overflowing mantles. Then again, Australia seems to be the Slam of choice for previously unknown players to introduce themselves to the tennis world -- Marcos Baghdatis made it to the finals here in 2006 when he was ranked just #54. So it could be someone completely unexpected holding up the trophy at the end of the fortnight.

In any case you can be sure all the action will be fun to watch!

Women's Draw

Defending champion Maria Sharapova won't be making the return trip to Australia -- the shoulder injury that sidelined her for most of last year continues to nag. But her absense isn't the reason the door has been thrown so wide open on the women's side.

Current world #1 Jelena Jankovic makes her 2009 debut in Melbourne -- she'd pulled out of warm-up tournaments due to illness. She commands the top seed but faces a tough road to the finals. She could face Ai Sugiyama, a semifinalist in Sydney last week, in the third round or Marion Bartoli, a finalist in Brisbane, one match later. But Jelena is hungry to capture her first major title, and Australia might be her best chance. She made it to the semis here last year, and spent the latter part of 2008 proving that she was a force on the hard court, winning three consecutive tournaments after her final appearance at the U.S. Open.

Of course Serena Williams, seeded second, wouldn't mind taking another title -- or the top ranking -- away from Jelena, and she certainly could do it here. If her health holds up she should advance easily through her quarter. That could set up the match that most pundits always forecast -- Serena vs. Venus -- in the semis.

But I think we should be anticipating a final four match against Auckland and Sydney champion Elena Dementieva, who starts the year with a 10-0 record. She's got herself one heck of a draw though. Hopman Cup winner Dominika Cibulkova is a potential fourth-round opponent, and of course Venus looms large as a possible quarterfinal match.

And then there's Dinara Safina, who's already played in two finals this year. She's got two potential threats in her quarter of the bracket -- last year's finalist Ana Ivanovic and teenager Caroline Wozniacki. Ana of course would love to make a play to regain her #1 ranking, and Caroline has put up some tough fights against top players, even scoring wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Aggie Radwanska.

Any of these ladies could take the championship in Australia -- and maybe even the top ranking. But of course there are plenty of others who want to make their statements too. Vera Zvonareva will look to follow up on a great 2008 which culminated in a runner-up finish at the Sony Ericsson Championships. And some of the lesser seeds -- Victoria Azarenka, Alize Cornet, Agnes Szavay to name a few -- could easily score a few upsets and make a stand.

Men's Draw

On the men's side the action promises to be just as exciting. Both last year's winner, Novak Djokovic, and runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are back, carrying with them a lot of momentum from 2008. Novak, of course, won the year-end ATP Masters Cup while J-W scored wins over Andy Roddick, James Blake and Nikolay Davydenko on his way to two titles of his own. But Djokovic has faced some disappointing losses so far this year, and Tsonga pulled out of his quarterfinal match last week in Sydney with a back injury.

In the meantime Rafael Nadal is aiming for his first hard court Slam trophy. Of course he's more than proven he's an all-surface champion, but a title here wouldn't hurt. He's got a tricky draw, though -- former superstars Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas are both in his quarter. Lleyton hasn't been unseeded in Australia since 1999 -- then again, he's also only made it past the fourth round one time. But he'll certainly have crowd support. Haas, who's suffered in the rankings since late last year, has never really recovered after allegations he was poisoned during his 2007 Davis Cup match against Russia. But if he's in top form, he could go into the second week.

Frenchman Gilles Simon is also a potential quarterfinal matchup for Rafa, and he's no lightweight, either. He won his last match against Nadal in Madrid and has a stunning 2-0 record against Roger Federer. It wouldn't take more than a few close calls for Simon to advance to his first major semifinal.

Roger also has a tough draw as he goes for his record-tying fourteenth Grand Slam. He starts off against Italian Andreas Seppi, ranked an intimidating-for-first-round #35. A win there could give him the right to face former #1 Carlos Moya in his second match and a slightly insincere Marat Safin next. But he has a huge reason to power through all that -- a title in Melbourne would get him back within spitting distance of the top ranking.

In the other half of the bracket, though, Andy Murray will certainly have something to say about that. After his title in Doha and a win at the Capitala World Tennis exhibition, the Brit Scot brings a whole lotta momentum with him to Australia. He will have a fair amount of challenges himself on his road to the final four -- Tsonga, Blake and last-year's most improved player, Kei Nishikori are all potential early-round opponents. But I fear Murray will not only make it to the semis but, with recent wins over all the top three, could take the crown.

Things to Watch

There are always upsets -- happy surprises, to some -- at any good tournament, and I know Australia will be no different. More than a few first round matches pit the game's best players against barely-unseeded adversaries. Auckland finalist Sam Querrey could definitely pull out a win over #32 Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Alla Kudryavtseva, who last year took Sharapova out of Wimbledon, could present a struggle for Safina. And qualifiers like Dominik Hrbaty, who won the Hopman Cup earlier this month with compatriot Cibulkova, or Karolina Sprem, who once stopped Venus Williams at Wimbledon, have already proven they can fight off a few ranked players. And of course I'm looking forward to strong performances from one-time greats like Jelena Dokic and Marcos Baghdatis as they try to stage their comebacks.

Whoever comes out on top, though, I'm hoping for a good show Down Under. And with the stakes so high, you can be sure we're going to get one!

January 17, 2009

A Rougher Road

The men's draw at Sydney's Medibank International didn't go quite as smoothly as the ladies' did, with the upsets starting from the get go.

Two seeds were eliminated in the first round -- #8 Mardy Fish suffered his second straight defeat in an opening match this year. By the third round, only three seeded players remained, and in the quarters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the runner up at last year's Australian Open, pulled out with a back injury.

Then there were two -- reigning Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian, who eliminated home-country favorite Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets.

Nole didn't have the most glorious return to the Down Under -- he lost in the first round at last week's Brisbane International to Latvia's Ernests Gulbis. In Sydney he fared somewhat better, making it to the semis before Jarkko Nieminen ended his losing to the third-ranked Serb in a stunning two sets. The loss ended Djokovic's hopes of -- gasp! -- overtaking Roger Federer in the ATP rankings before the season's first Grand Slam.

Nalbandian was more successful in his half of the draw, taking out Richard Gasquet in the semis and reaching the finals without dropping a set. The Argentine who ended last year with three final appearances in his last four tournaments -- a championship in Stockholm -- had played Jarkko ten times before Saturday's final with pretty even results. He only held a slight 6-4 advantage.

In the Sydney final Nieminen gave David a bit of a scare. It took three sets and one tiebreak before Nalbandian was able to hoist the trophy over his head. The current world #11 may have slipped slightly in the rankings over the last few years -- he had been as high as #3 once -- but he's certainly making a case for himself to get back up there.

The results in so far this year, though, may cause some concern for Djokovic fans. With two early losses to lesser-ranked players, has he laid a poor groundwork for a repeat in Melbourne? Not necessarily -- he didn't play in any lead-up tournaments to last's years Slam. But you know that he had wanted to make a bolder statement in his return to Australia -- and follow up his ATP Masters Cup title with a little more success. Unfortunately for him now he's really gonna have to bring it Melbourne.

Incidentally, in the other men's tournament being played this week -- the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand -- world #9 Juan Martin Del Potro took his first title of the year, defeating American Sam Querrey in straight sets. Despite the ultimate loss it was a good showing for Sam -- he notched wins over fourth seed Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer, who continues to struggle -- and it could bode well for his performance next week.

Good luck to all!

January 16, 2009


It must be nice to be perfect.

And that's exactly where Elena Dementieva stands just days before the Australian Open begins on Monday. She rolled over compatriot Dinara Safina in the finals of Sydney's Medibank International, capturing her second straight title of the year, and currently holds a tidy 10-0 record for 2009.

Of course that sets up high expectations for her performance in Melbourne next week, where she's never advanced past the fourth round. She faces what could be a tight draw -- both Williams sisters are in her half, and she could meet Hopman Cup winner Dominika Cibulkova and local favorite Samantha Stosur before the quarterfinals.

But hopefully her strong start will give her what she needs to power through to her first Grand Slam Title. With two runner-up trophies and no championships yet, she certainly deserves it!

Congratulations, Elena!

January 14, 2009

Hot Child in the Sydney

It's friggin' cold in New York and, for more than a few reasons, I'm beginning to wonder why I didn't have the foresight to book a one-way ticket to Australia, where it's supposed to hit a refreshing 90 degrees in Sydney on Thursday.

And it's not just the temperature that's hot -- the action on the tennis courts this week has been too. Three of the top four women's seeds at the Medibank International advanced to the semifinals of the tournament -- #4 Vera Zvonareva pulled out due to illness.

But despite the seemingly expected results so far, the play hasn't gone quite as smoothly as you might have expected.

Top seed Serena Williams, who skipped last week's action due to a hamstring injury faced a bit of a shaky start in her return. She faced four match points in the first round against the highest-ranked Australian player, Samantha Stosur. Two rounds later Danish upstart Caroline Wozniacki had another three chances to eliminate the former world #1. But Serena struggled through a third-set tiebreak and eventually pulled out the win.

On the bottom half of the draw, Dinara Safina looks to improve on her runner-up performance in Perth last week, where she lost to nineteen-year-old Dominika Cibulkova in the finals. She coasted through her first two rounds, losing a total of only six games. But Safina hit a bit of a wall against Alize Cornet who, in the past year, has notched wins over Daniela Hantchukova, Anna Chakvetadze, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena Williams. The two traded breaks early in the match, and Safina even found herself down 1-4 in the second set before she was able to rebound and take the match in straight sets.

Elena Dementieva continued her undefeated streak for 2009, but not without some drama of her own. The champion in Auckland last week, scored easy wins over her first two opponents in Sydney. But against tenth-ranked Aggie Radwanska -- who won their last two meetings, most recently in Istanbul last May -- it took two and three-quarter hours and three sets before Elena earned her right to meet Serena in the semis.

The lone unseeded player to make it to the final four was Ai Sugiyama who took her place after #5 Svetlana Kuznetsova pulled out with an abdominal strain. The thirty-three year old veteran, once ranked as high as #8 in the world, has never made it past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam and hasn't won a singles title since 2004. But a win in Sydney could increase her intimidation factor at next week's Australian Open. She's still got quite a task ahead of her though -- she hasn't beaten Safina in more than five years, when Ai was ranked fourteenth and Dinara #66.

As the temperatures heat up Down Under, all four women are primed to do the same, each focused on making one last statement before the year's first Major. Every one of them still has a mountain to climb before taking the title, and you know it'll be fun to watch!

January 11, 2009

A Strong Start

Unlike the men's tour which is geographically well spread out in the weeks before the Australian Open -- there were tournaments in Chennai and Doha last week in addition to those that make up the official AO Series -- the women are pretty well concentrated in or around the Outback. And in New Zealand one of my perennial favorites made her presence felt.

Elena Dementieva, who ended 2008 with a career high ranking of #4, took the top seed and the crown in Auckland's ASB Classic, proving that she's going to take my New Year's resolution for her seriously. She didn't have the most difficult draw, and thanks to a series of upsets, only faced one seeded player on her way to the championship. Elena powered through #5 Shahar Peer in the third round, admitting that the Israeli might have been addled by political protestors who objected to her appearance at the tournament. But with straight-set wins over all of her opponents, Dementieva showed that she's not just taking advantage of weaker players -- she's got some power herself.

But this week, Elena faces a much bigger battle in Sydney. At the Medibank International she's only been awarded the third seed, behind Serena Williams and Dinara Safina. Williams previously pulled out of last week's Hopman Cup with a hamstring injury while Safina lost a tough three-set match to Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova in the finals. Both are eager for their chance to challenge current world #1 Jelena Jankovic, who won't be playing this week, for her ranking and look to gain some momentum going into the year's first Grand Slam.

Incidentally last year's Australian Open champion, Maria Sharapova, will not be back in Melbourne to defend her title. The shoulder injury that kept her out of the Olympics, U.S. Open and most of the second half of last year continues to plague the former #1. And while I certainly hope for a speedy speedier recovery, I fear it may be some time until she's back on tour.

So -- let the battle begin!

January 10, 2009

Rollin' in Doha

It was the battle of the Andy's in Qatar this week as the newly-branded 2009 ATP World Tour kicked off with the ExxonMobil Open in Doha.

Former #1 and fourth-seeded Andy Roddick breezed through his first four rounds, dropping only one set to Gael Monfils, who had earlier shocked Rafael Nadal with a straight set win. On the bottom half of the draw, Andy Murray scored an impressive sixth win over Roger Federer, making him one of very few players -- I count two three -- that have winning records over the Swiss giant.

It's no surprise who I was rooting for -- a win for Roddick would not only have been his first over Murray since 2007 but it would have helped him regain the momentum he's truly been lacking since early last year. Even though he remains solidly in the top ten -- for now -- he suffered some disappointing losses in the back half of 2008: Robin Soderling, Thomas Berdych and then-#93 Viktor Troiki all notched upsets.

On the other hand it seems Murray is on a roll. He won a career-high five titles last year and made his first appearance at a Grand Slam final in Flushing Meadows. In the past twelve months he's beaten every other player in the top ten, except for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And at last week's exhibition match in Abu Dhabi he drew victories over Federer and Nadal in consecutive matches.

In the end, unfortunately for me, the game played out as the statistics predicted -- Murray successfully defended his title and took the match 6-4, 6-2. And with just one week left before the world's top players head to Melbourne, I fear, the victory could presage a pretty strong performance for him Down Under -- and maybe throughout the year.

Sure there are plenty of others ready to argue their own cases -- Novak Djokovic, for example, needs to redeem himself after a first round exit in Brisbane, and you can bet neither Nadal nor Federer are going to take their recent losses lightly. And I'm still not willing to count out even Roddick -- it's time for the U.S. men to re-exert their skills on the court.

The results in Australia will really set the tone for the year. As I've noted before there's not a lot of distance between the world's topmost players, and a win at the Open could signal yet another changing of the guard.

So get ready for what's sure to be an exciting year!

And as always, serve well and play hard!

January 7, 2009

The New & Improved ATP?

The New Year is ushering in a new set of rules and guidelines governing the men's tennis circuit and creating a new brand -- the ATP World Tour. And while some of the changes may seem largely cosmetic, the organization hopes the new structure will make tennis more accessible and fan-friendly.

It's not the first time the ATP has changed its format, but it is the widest overhaul in almost twenty years. A few years back the organization instituted the ATP "Race" system, where players didn't carry over their ranking points from the previous year, starting with a fresh slate and racking up points as the year progressed. By the end of the year, the top eight players would qualify for the Tennis Masters Cup.

I suppose it all works out in the end, but I always was skeptical of a system that could provide a pretty inaccurate picture of the playing field -- after last year's Australian Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga claimed the #2 spot but was ranked a comparably low twentieth in the world.

This year's changes are a little more comprehensive

It starts by dividing sixty-three ATP tournaments into four tiers: Grand Slams, ATP World Tour Masters 1000s, ATP World Tour 500s, and ATP World Tour 250s. The numbers represent the points awarded to the champion of each event -- Grand Slam title-winners earn 2000 points.

Players also have certain duties to fulfill -- the top thirty as of 2008's rankings must play in all four Grand Slams as well as eight of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments. They score additional points for their best results at four of the "500" events and two of the other events during the year, either "250"s or Challenger tournaments.

There is a pretty substantial incentive for players to meet these requirements and do well. A $6 million bonus will be divided among the top twelve at the end of the year. The season also features a 20% increase in compensation as well as a profit-sharing program that rewards players as the sport itself succeeds.

The prize for coming out on top? The best players will compete in the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London in November for the championship trophy.

Of course there are other features to the new format: a new logo, greater promotion, an $800 million investment in improving facilities and building new stadiums. All that hopes to increase the profile of the sport and attract more of us to the game -- to play and to watch.

As with any big restructuring, the current outline does raise some questions. How exactly is the point system make tennis more fan-friendly? And I'm not sure why it's only the top thirty players who have to compete in specific number or quality of tournaments. Will #31 -- currently Paul-Henri Mathieu -- be at an advantage or disadvantage because he's not required to play every Major? What happens if one of the top guys misses a Slam due to injury or sickness? Does that automatically disqualify him from the year-end championships? And, maybe most importantly, will the changes guarantee that the very best players make it to the end?

(Some issues are addressed in a FAQ section on the ATP's new website, but I still wonder.)

I'm sure it will take some time to get used to the format and to iron out kinks in the system -- or at least for us, as fans, to be sure the system works as it should. No one wants a virtual unknown to take a spot in London away from the top tier by plugging away at low-profile tournaments while Roger and Rafa battle for a bigger crown. But then again, maybe it offers the opportunity for some of these upstarts to compete with the Big Boys on a grander stage.

I guess it all remains to be seen.

Until then, serve well and play hard!

January 4, 2009

Australia's Not to Be Outdone

A few years ago the USTA packaged together a series of tournaments between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and created a race of sorts they branded the U.S. Open Series.

This year our friends Down Under are doing the same.

The 2009 season kicks off with the brand new Brisbane International which starts today. Combined with the Moorilla Hobart International, the Medibank International Sydney and of course the Grand Slam in Melbourne, the tournaments will be now branded the Australian Open Series.

Maybe it's largely a marketing ploy, but the creation of a lead-up series to the year's first major is akin to rolling out a red carpet for the Oscars -- it could be more exciting than the main event. The set of Australian tournaments -- which have never held quite the cache as titles in New Haven, Cincinnati, or even Toronto -- will create, I feel, a livlier competition and could serve to attract a higher caliber of player. Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish were among the first to commit to the men's draw in Brisbane, while Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova are playing on the women's side. And both Marcos Baghdatis and Jelena Dokic look to come back to the tour and prove they're not to be forgotten.

Additionally the series provides a platform for Australian players -- who haven't exactly been at the top of their game over the past year -- to return to the limelight. Currently, and quite surprisingly, the country's top player is Samantha Stosur at #52. Even former #1 Lleyton Hewitt has been languishing outside the top fifty for the first time since 1999. And despite his recommitment to the sport, hunky Mark Philippoussis is probably now better known as a reality TV cougar-chaser than a tennis star.

As all these players come together on the hardcourts, we could see some real fireworks. Novak and Ana are clearly warming up for the year's first big championship, while Lleyton and Marcos are fighting to regai their credibility -- and their spots among tennis elite.

It may be some time before the AO Series generates quite the excitement of other tournaments. Right now participants don't rack up points for extra prize money like they do in the U.S. over the summer, but that could be a future development. But the branding change is certainly a step in a higher-profile and more glamorous direction.

And for those of you who are curious, here's the schedule of events for this year's Australian Open Series:

See ya Down Under, mates!

January 1, 2009

A Toast to 2009!

Despite my "Best of 2008" article published last month, I'm actually not a huge fan of countdowns -- in my opinion the champagne toast that comes after the ball drop is more a matter of ritual than something truly celebration-worthy. But as the clock wound down to 2009, I figured it was only appropriate to enumerate the things I'm looking forward to this tennis season.

Last year was definitely one of ups and downs for many of the world's top players. Injuries sidelined Maria Sharapova, Lleyton Hewitt, even Rafael Nadal for various lengths of time. Roger Federer battled mono for the first half and exhaustion for the second half of the year. The women seemed content to play hot potato with the #1 ranking, while several men did what they could to prove there were more than a few names to keep your eye on.

And while 2008 was full of surprises, there are a few things that I wouldn't mind seeing in 2009.

#5. A comeback for the fallen
Remember Marcos Baghdatis? Jelena Dokic? What about Benjamin Becker? Or Sania Mirza?

2008 wasn't exactly a banner year for any of these players, but it wasn't that long ago when they were all at the top of their games -- and I see no reason why they can't make it back there.

Baghdatis made his mark on tennis at 2006's Australian Open where the #54-ranked Cypriot beat Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian before losing to Federer in the finals. He clawed himself to eighth in the world and gave Andre Agassi quite a run for the money in the American's last professional match at that year's U.S. Open. In 2008, though, Marcos played a paltry twelve tournaments, never advancing past the semis and retiring or withdrawing from four matches. Now ranked #98, he's got to come out swinging in Australia to prove he's not to be forgotten.

Almost ten years ago Jelena Dokic shocked the women's tennis circuit when she downed then-#1 Martina Hingis in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon. She made it all the way to the quarters before losing to the other surprise entrant, Alexandra Stevenson. By 2002 she'd climbed all the way to a #4 ranking but was known more for her rude and obnoxious outspoken father, who was ejected from not just a few of her matches for inappropriate behavior. Now twenty-five, Jelena is working her way back into the spotlight and is trying to qualify for her first Grand Slam since 2006.

Both Marcos and Jelena had a presence on the court that few other players have, and I look forward to see them back out there!

Becker and Mirza never made it quite as high in the rankings, but they both had their share of success and failure over the last two years. I don't think it's inconceivable that either scores a few more big wins, and maybe even climbs into the top 20 before year-end.

#4. Jelena's first Slam
It's been a long time coming.

Obviously the best player without a major victory, Jelena Jankovic proved she could hit with the big boys in 2008, winning three consecutive titles toward the end of the year, and showing off her grace better than most gymnasts could. But while both her Serbian compatriots, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic, took home Slam titles last year, Jelena had to settle for the runner-up trophy in New York.

Her best chance for glory will come early in 2009, I feel, at this month's Austalian Open. Serena Williams has already pulled out of the Hopman Cup which begins on Saturday due to a persistent hamstring injury, and defending champion Maria Sharapova could be a bit rusty -- she hasn't played a match since August. Venus Williams is less of a threat Down Under, making it to the quarterfinals only once in the last five years, and Dinara Safina has never won more than two matches in Melbourne.

With her heaviest competition less of a threat, it might be a straight shot to Jelena's first Grand Championship -- then again, it could prove to be quite a battle.

In any case, I can't wait to watch!

#3. Satisfaction for the J-Block
While 2008 didn't quite claim my dear James Blake as a victim as much as it did others (see point #5 above), he certainly didn't have his best year.

Of course there were some high points -- his long-awaited defeat of Federer at the Olympics, for example -- but last year was the first since 2004, when incidentally he was battling Zoster, where James did not bring home a single championship trophy. His best results were final appearances at Delray Beach (where he lost to the Japanese phenom Kei Nishikori) and Houston (defeated by first-time Davis Cup competitor Marcel Granollers). In the end, Blake did manage to hold onto his spot among the tennis elite, though he did fall out of the top ten from time to time -- and his ever-loyal fan club was silenced more often than not.

This year I'm hoping for a return to top form -- and something to back up the J-Block's cheers.

It may be too much to ask that James bring home his first Grand Slam, but I don't think a few ATP titles are out of the question. He missed New Haven last year because of the Olympics (a scheduling fact I forgot when I excitedly bought tickets to the finals) and is almost always a favorite to win there. But even West Coast tourneys could hold some opportunities -- San Jose, Indian Wells, even L.A. are within his grasp.

You know I'll be in his corner -- even if only in spirit.

#2. The return of Maria
The women's tennis court was missing one of its most prominent stars for most of the year.

I'm sure a lot of different people missed Maria Sharapova for a lot of different reasons, but mine is simple -- the girl can play.

I once had a friend say Maria was the new Anna Kournikova -- pretty and blonde with no substance. Now I think Anna gets a bad rap, but this isn't the time for that discussion -- regardless, Maria proved she was more than a cute face when she upset Serena for the Wimbledon crown in 2004. She backed that win up with a 2006 U.S. Open title and further solidified her spot at the top when she won in Australia last year. In fact I was surprised Maria had begun 2008 with a #5 ranking. She had been the runner-up at the Sony Ericsson Championships and started out the new year with three titles in four tournaments. By the time Justine Henin retired, though, Sharapova had racked up enough points to regain her spot at the top.

But then disaster -- in the form of a shoulder injury -- struck.

In the latter part of the year, Maria was much less of a force. She lost in the second round of Wimbledon to little-known Alla Kudryavtseva and withdrew from Montreal after playing only one match. She took the rest of the year off to recover but hopes to return to the tour this month. And while I really do love her Canon PowerShot commercials -- and her puppy -- I'm hoping she'll be able to put up a fight in defense of her title in Melbourne.

Whenever she is back in full force, I'm sure I won't be the only one rooting her on!

#1. The match everyone is waiting for
Well, at least the one that I'm waiting for.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have met eighteen times over the last five years, six times in Grand Slam finals. But since August, when Rafa wrested the #1 ranking from the Roger, every potential match-up was foiled. First there was U.S. Open when Andy Murray selfishly kept Nadal from the finals, then Madrid where both were stopped in the semifinals, and finally Paris where neither were well enough to make it past the quarters.

It can only be a matter of time before we see the two meet again with a championship title on the line. As long as they hold onto their respective rankings, or only swap them between each other, there can be no other option. But with Novak Djokovic right on the heels of Federer, we might see the contest before a final -- something that hasn't happened since the semis of the French Open in 2005.

So will Rafa earn his fifth straight French Open and deny Roger his career Grand Slam? Will Federer reclaim his throne at the All England Club? Who knows?

In any case, you can be sure that when the two top dogs do meet again, sparks will be flying.

So raise your glass! There's a lot to look forward to in 2009!