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!

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