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!

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