January 31, 2010

An Opportunity, Missed

Before Sunday's final at the Australian Open, a few commentators actually gave Andy Murray the advantage over Roger Federer.

It wasn't the craziest call -- the Scot had been playing some of the most impressive tennis of the tournament, only losing one set in the quarterfinals against Marin Cilic and scoring handily more winners than errors in each of his previous matches. The British media was beginning to get excited too, thinking this would be the year the country's seventy-four year Grand Slam drought would end. And Andy was certainly in better shape than he was during his last Major final, in which Federer demolished him at the 2008 U.S. Open. An upset wouldn't be the most surprising thing we've seen.

Murray had his opportunities, of course. After losing his opening service game he answered right back to even the score. He had a few more chances to take the lead in the first set when Federer was serving at two-all, but he failed to convert. His serve seemed to deteriorate and his attitude turned sour -- more than once cameras caught the look of irritation on his face, like a kid being grounded on Halloween.

By the time the second set ended, it looked like Murray was done for, but somehow he found the strength to regroup. He broke Roger in the sixth game of the third set after what was probably the best point of the match, one which brought both players to the net and saw Murray utilize his speed and light touch. He had the chance to serve for the set, but Federer roared back to force a tiebreak. There the Scot had three set points before Roger got his first championship point -- several minutes later, after chances for both men to take the set, it was 13-11 in favor of the all-time Slam champion, who takes home his record-smashing sixteenth Major title.

While Federer was clearly the dominant player on Sunday, I can't help but wonder what would have happened had Murray converted any of his five set points. It's not a common occurrence, but we've seen matches taken away from Roger, most notably at last year's U.S. Open -- if Andy had kept the game going, there's no telling what the next set or two would have brought. But as it stands, Andy Murray is oh-for-six in sets at Grand Slam finals.

Hey, you know who else hasn't won a set in the six she's played for the big game? Dinara Safina, who also can't seem to pull it together when it counts the most, has lost in straights to Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova. This would have been a great chance for Murray to distance himself from that comparison. That's not to say, of course, that neither will ever be able to come out on top -- but I don't think it's happening any time soon.

So the first Grand Slam of the new year is in the books, and not without results we should have expected all along. Sure there were blips along the way, and some scares that made you think the outcome wasn't inevitable, but at the end of a long fortnight, both Roger Federer and Serena Williams are once again crowned King and Queen -- the fifth time that's happened since the 2003 Wimbledon Championships.

And so the stage is set for the rest of the year -- and it's looking good for an exciting season!

January 30, 2010

The Importance of Defense: Part 3

Here's an interesting fact -- even though she's the active player with the most Grand Slam singles titles, until Saturday Serena Williams hadn't successfully defended a Major championship since Wimbledon, 2003. Amazing for someone who's been considered the woman to beat at the big games for most of the past decade.

That ended today as Williams took on a newly un-retired Justine Henin to win her fifth Australian Open trophy. The two had met thirteen times before with the American holding the slightest advantage, but surprisingly never at a Slam final. Between the two there are eighteen Major singles titles and 205 weeks ranked #1. When Henin left the sport twenty months ago, she was at the top of the game, today Serena is. Ironically, in the other tournaments they've played this year, both made and lost in those finals, so both were hungry.

Clearly this was the match-up we wanted to see.

It was an interesting final, though maybe not the best quality tennis we've seen in the last few months -- there were few points that made me gasp or cheer. Serena faced several break points in her first two service games, but Henin struggled to convert early. And just when it started to look like it would be a quick win for Williams, Justine went on a five-game, fifteen-point win streak ending the second to force the first three-set final since Amelie Mauresmo rallied to beat Henin for the 2006 Wimbledon trophy. Momentum was all on Henin's side, but it shifted right back to Serena when she broke her opponent in the third game of the last set. She gave it back the very next game. Neither player served particularly well, with both taking fewer than half of their second attempts. But after just about two hours it was Williams who held the big trophy in her arms.

By defending her title Serena ties the great Billie Jean King with twelve Slam singles titles, sixth on the all-time list, and does something to erase the last memory most might have of her. Henin, unfortunately, ends her campaign to be the second Belgian comeback story to take home a trophy at her first Major back in action, but does remind the world that she is still a force to contend with. With the match a long-time rivalry is reignited, and two world-class players who hadn't met in years kick off the 2010 tennis season with a bang.

It's certainly not the last time we'll see either Henin or Williams back in a championship match -- even facing each other. And the way they've played over the past two weeks suggests we could be in for some high-quality contests.

Let's hope they live up to the standard they've set!

January 29, 2010

Revenge Is Sweet

Way back in August Andy Murray was being hailed as the best chance to spoil Roger Federer's attempt at winning a sixth U.S. Open championship. That never happened, it turned out, because a youngster named Marin Cilic got in the way.

The unassuming Croat avenged a tough three-set loss in the fourth round of Roland Garros by stunning the heavy favorite in just about two hours. He won a solid eighty percent on first serves, fired off twice as many aces and broke his opponent five times while never seeding his own games. It was note the results Murray would have wanted.

A few months before that in Montreal, Roger Federer was ahead 5-1 in the third set of his quarterfinal match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and his rival looked wholly defeated. But somehow the Frenchman was able to pull off the comeback of the year -- against the most unlikely of rivals -- to win the deciding tiebreak.

This week both Murray and Federer had the opportunity to avenge these tough losses during the semis of the Australian Open -- and both took their tasks seriously. While the Scot ceded his first set, it appeared the twenty-two sets Cilic had already endured finally began to take their toll. Murray was able to pull even and ultimately close out the match in just over three hours.

Roger benefited from a similarly exhausted opponent. Shockingly Tsonga, who made the finals in Melbourne in 2008, had never played a five-set match until this week. But after a grueling fourth round against Nicolas Almagro and a disappointing sputter by Novak Djokovic in the quarters, Jo-Wilfried had amassed a nice 2-0 record in the long matches. That score wasn't even remotely challenged on Friday -- three-time champ Federer sailed through in easy sets, winning eighty-four percent of his first serves and breaking Tsonga five times. In ninety minutes he was on and off the court and ready to contest his twenty-second Major final.

So we're in for a reprise of the '08 U.S. Open, where Roger rolled over Andy in his first Slam championship match. Will Murray be able to avenge that loss too? He does, after all, hold a 6-4 lead in head-to-heads against the King, and has been playing some of the most impressive tennis in the field, losing only one set this tournament.

But Roger has gone two years without a title Down Under -- the longest stretch he's ever allowed anyone to take what's been so often his. He exacted his own revenge over Nikolay Davydenko two rounds ago and barely had to break a sweat in the semis. From what I've seen he's certainly going to do his best to keep Murray Major-less -- and I have a feeling, he'll be successful.

Before that, though, the women's final on Saturday will feature two more players looking to make up for the past. Serena Williams won her last meeting with Justine Henin in the 2008 Miami quarters, the Belgian's penultimate tournament before retiring, but Justine took their three prior matches, all at Grand Slams. I guarantee that both will come out swinging, and can't help but feel the result will set an interesting tone for the rest of the year.

Here's hoping it's a good one!

January 27, 2010

Two Chinese, a Wildcard and a Defending Champion Walk Onto a Court...

Could the Australian Open women's semifinal be any more random?

Even with all the great tennis we've been seeing over the last several days -- from the most unlikely of sources -- I don't think anyone would have guessed that these are the four women who'd make it to the Final Four: world #1 Serena Williams, 2004 champ Justine Henin and compatriots Jie Zheng and Ni Li will battle tonight for the chance to play for the first Major title of the year. And they've all had somewhat bumpy roads to this point.

Serena is easily the favorite of the group. Last year's
titleholder has made it her mission to win even more Slams and has manifested that mindset since stepping on the court in Melbourne -- until Wednesday she hadn't dropped serve once this entire tournament. In the quarters though she was a bit imperfect against Victoria Azarenka, a woman who had been serving strongly herself this fortnight, and given her performance against the Belarusian, I began to wonder if Serena would advance. But down a set and two breaks in the second, Williams did what she does best, acing herself out of trouble and making the semis here for the fifth time.

The other half of the bracket is headlined by an unseeded Justine Henin trying to make her eleventh Grand Slam final. Despite being a finalist in Brisbane, she's only a wildcard Down Under and has fought through one obstacle after another to emerge from the toughest quarter of the draw. For the past five rounds Justine has displayed the same elegance and power she had in the first part of her career. As one of the tinier players on Tour, it's not surprising that she's struggled a bit on serve and committed more errors than she has winners, but Henin has shown little indication that she can't still compete at the top level, even after a nearly two-year absence.

She will meet another diminutive player in Jie Zheng, ranked thirty-fifth in the world. An accomplished doubles player, this by far is her best singles performance in Melbourne and, really, any tournament for some time -- her last title came in 2006. Jie hasn't met a top-ten player yet this tournament, but she's had sound performances against the second-tier elite, including Marion Bartoli and Alona Bondarenko. Henin will be her toughest competition so far, but she's had the most rest of any woman taking the court on Thursday. I won't hold my breath, or go so far as to call for an upset, but stranger things have happened.

Serena's opponent on Thursday will be Na Li, vanquisher of the elder Williams. She rounds out the first ever Slam semi with two Chinese contenders and next week becomes the first ever woman from that country to break into the top ten. Her last round was a sloppy victory, one with seventeen breaks and second-serve percentages below forty, but a victory nonetheless. After being down a set and 4-5 on her foe's serve, the #17 player in the world found what she needed to stage her best Major performance. Of course to go any further, she'll have to defeat her third favored and most intimidating rival yet. And with less than twenty-four hours since she ended her last match, it's an uphill battle to even dream about an all-China final.

It's a motley crew for several reasons: culturally diverse, rankings all over the map, various levels of experience and title tallies, and probably one of the shortest semis, by height, in history. But it could also set the stage for a pretty good end to the championship -- and will surely result in a story that will endure the year!

January 25, 2010

Time-Out: Aussie Open Reassessment

You might remember that before the start of this year's Australian Open, I made a few predictions for who would make the semis. I made some mistakes, of course -- apparently I gave Maria Sharapova way more credit than I should have, as the 2008 champ went down in the first round. And while there were a few more surprises, I'd say overall I still have a chance to come out with a good score -- if only my March Madness brackets worked out so well!

But with the quarterfinal matches being held over the next two days ultimately determining just how right -- or wrong -- I'll be, I feel it's a good time to regroup and, not change, but alter some of my calls.

That big match-up between Roger Federer and Nikolay Davydenko has manifested in the quarters, and still could create the sparks I was anticipating. Roger has been playing extremely well and looked like a machine against Lleyton Hewitt on Monday, while Davydenko did struggle a bit against Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round. Even still, the Russian is playing great offense, serving well and, for the most part, not making a lot of errors. I'm still picking him for the upset, mostly because I'm aching for some excitement, though I admit I like my chances a little less now.

The other highly-anticipated duel between defending champ Rafael Nadal and fifth seed Andy Murray will be contested on Tuesday, and this one makes me a little nervous. They haven't met at a Major since the two-day ordeal of the 2008 U.S. Open, so it'll be interesting to see what each brings. Though Rafa still has the fight that we've always known him to possess, Murray hasn't dropped a set this whole tournament. And talk about a strong service game -- the Scot's only double faulted seven times in four matches. Nadal's doing well too, playing solid against the guns of Ivo Karlovic in the last round, so I'm hoping that the fact he's been challenged and survived will pull him through to the semis.

In the third quarter Novak Djokovic will reprise his '08 final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who on Monday played his first ever five set match to advance over Nicolas Almagro. The Frenchman actually has the winning record, having beaten the Serb four times after losing back in Melbourne. But Nole's been just as impressive as Murray in the past week, winning more than seventy percent of his first serves and only losing seventeen games in his last nine sets. I think he's also learned a thing or two since his championship run here two years ago, so I'm still in his corner.

The match-up between Andy Roddick and Marin Cilic could be the most interesting of the men's quarters. You might remember that I gave the American a slight edge over Cilic a week ago, and I stand by that. But both men endured monster fourth rounds -- Roddick came back from two sets down against Fernando Gonzalez before the Chilean fell apart at the end of the fourth, while the Croat battle for four hours and thirty-eight minutes before getting past a persistent Juan Martin Del Potro. They've both had a day to rest, but I'm sure both will want to make this a quick day on the courts. But Cilic has been challenged a few times in Melbourne, while Roddick has been sailing relatively smoothly -- my bet's on the American to regroup faster.

When I look at the ladies my score, but not necessarily my logic, drops dramatically.

Serena Williams remains the clear favorite in this part of the bracket. Besides being the defending champion, she's the only woman who hasn't been broken this tournament. Her quarterfinal opponent, Victoria Azarenka, could prove to be a little difficult, though. This will be the third straight time the two have met in Melbourne, and the Belarusian actually took a set from Serena in last year's fourth round. Though she eventually retired from that match, Azarenka bounced back with a decisive win in Miami. She's also looked good this year, storming through her first four matches before losing her cool for a set against Vera Zvonareva on Monday. But as much as I'd like to switch my vote, I still have to give Williams the advantage. She's just too tough at these big events.

As I suspected Dinara Safina's back problems weren't completely off the table, and though she did advance farther than I expected, she retired from her fourth round match while trailing 4-5 in the first set. This was the portion of the draw I'd given to Sharapova, and as I already mentioned that dream died early. But her vanquisher, Maria Kirilenko, is still alive, and she'll face a much less intimidating Jie Zheng in the quarters. Kirilenko has only won one of the pair's previous five meetings, but she's been decisive in her play this week. I'll count it as a technical victory if the other twenty-two year old blonde Russian named Maria makes the semis!

The extremely competitive third quarter did not disappoint. The quality of tennis we saw coming out of the Belgian trio and top seeds Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva couldn't help but make you smile. Justine Henin has looked good after a tough second round match, facing and dismissing challenges from her opponents to make her sixth career quarterfinal here. The surprising winner of the section, though, would have to be Nadia Petrova who defeated the reigning U.S. and French Open champs in successive matches. Though she did oust my pick for this bracket, I'm not sure she'll be able to pull off three big upsets in a row. Petrova's only made the semis of a Major once -- in 2005 in Paris -- and she didn't have a particularly strong 2009. I'm thinking the sentimental and on-paper favorite will be Henin.

The last section, I'd said, would be the one in which someone we never expected would emerge. I'd picked Shahar Peer as the spoiler, and even though that didn't work out, my theory still could. I've been surprised with how well Venus Williams is playing -- she hasn't really been a contender at Majors other than Wimbledon for years, but she's barely even blinked this week, only losing one set to Francesca Schiavone before dominating the next two. She'll meet Na Li, who dismantled the top seed in the quarter, Caroline Wozniacki, for a spot in the semis. Venus should be the favorite, but Na's actually won their only meeting at the Beijing Olympics. I'd love to see her pull off the win again and make the semis for the first time at a Slam.

So I'll give myself a grade of B+ for now. Of course Federer, Murray and even Tsonga to an extent could cause me to earn some pretty quick demerits, but I'll keep up hope. In any case we certainly are seeing some of the best tennis we have in a while, in both the men's and women's brackets. And even if all my picks fall in the next few days, I can't really complain -- well, I probably will, but I'll try not to!

Incidentally, you guys called it right. In my poll, sixty percent of you said DelPo was the man least likely to make the semis while Kuznetsova received forty percent of your votes, highest of the women. It sure will be interesting to see if the remaining top seeds are able to pull through!

January 24, 2010

Who Has to Hold?

I hate serving. Always have. When I was kid breaking my opponent was not the issue, and I could almost guarantee that the player who held his serve first was the one who would win. Even now I still find myself playing First-Ball-In or Three-Fault tennis. No one wants to win a match on double faults.

I feel bad about it -- it's frustrating that the one shot in a match over which I really had total control could go just about anywhere it wanted to. But I wrote it off to the fact that 1) I'm pretty short, 2) no one ever taught me proper ball tosses and racquet swings, and 3) I'm only an amateur.

Turns out those three factors don't matter -- the pros, even the tall ones who've trained for years with the best coaches, can't really hold their serve either.

Now that's not totally fair, of course. Rafael Nadal and Ivo Karlovic only broke each other once per set last night, with Rafa happily coming out on top of that battle. And during the marathon, historic Wimbledon final last year, Andy Roddick wasn't broken until the very last, seventy-seventh game -- there were only three breaks total during that four-hour-plus match, and Andy had two of them!

Is it just on the women's side then? Maybe. But even players like Karlovic, who fired off 121 aces in four rounds, can't advance well into the draws of Majors. And typically strong women like Serena Williams can also struggle. In her third round match when she was serving at 5-0 against Carla Suarez Navarro, about to close out an easy first set, she hit nine errors, endured thirteen deuces and faced six break points in a twenty-three minute game that more than doubled the length of that entire set. Serena advanced of course, despite the little hiccup, but others found themselves going through a little more trouble in order to advance.

It shouldn't be surprising that 5'5" Justine Henin has trouble holding her serve -- it's really her beautiful backhands and crushing groundstrokes that have won her seven Grand Slam titles. In her second round match against Elena Dementieva she had two chances to serve for the match and ceded both of them -- more than half of the games actually went to the server. In her fourth round Sunday against fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, Justine was broken four times and even lost the second set 1-6. Wickmayer was not much better, allowing Henin to convert on sixty percent of her break opportunities, including two of two in the deciding set. But mediocre serving aside, the more experienced champion was able to pull through when it mattered, making the quarters in Melbourne for the sixth time in her career.

Earlier in the day world #35 and former top-twenty player Jie Zheng was similarly unimpressive in her service games against Hobart champ Alona Bondarenko. The seeded Ukrainian actually won slightly more on her first attempts -- fifty-one percent to Zheng's even fifty. But the woman who ousted Jelena Jankovic in the previous round was even worse on second tries, winning only a third of those serves versus 56% for the Chinese #2. The ladies traded breaks through the first set -- three a piece -- before Zheng, a shrimpy 5'4", finally won in the tiebreak. The server lost another five games in the second, but Jie was able to hold when it counted, winning the last game of the match for a chance to play in her first ever quarterfinal here.

They weren't the only ones. Five-foot-ten Nadia Petrova lost her serve three times in her defeat of reigning French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva traded breaks with Gisela Dulko five times in the second set of their third round match. Apparently, it would seem, losing your serve doesn't guarantee your opponent a win, a hard lesson Alexandra Dulgheru learned when she broke a six-foot-tall Wickmayer nine times in the first round and still lost.

Of course, this isn't an argument that players shouldn't work on improving their first serve percentage, or that having the ability to bomb ace after ace won't serve you in the long run. But it is amusing that the usual race-to-break mentality of tennis can be so easily turned on its head. And it highlights just how important an all-around game is on Tour. Maybe when we start to see some real, legitimate big servers or even -- God forbid! -- serve-and-volleyers, especially on the women's side, we could start to see a whole new style of tennis, and a new crop of champions emerge.

Until then, I'll continue to harbor delusions of being able to compete with the pros with my dinky little serve! Hey, if they can do it, so can I!

January 21, 2010

Digging Out of a Hole

A funny thing happens during Grand Slams -- every year, almost without fail, as I watch the men play, I'm amazed by how many five set matches we see. And every year I wonder if we've set the record for time on court or games played. This time I feel it has to be true!

It's a testament to the fitness and ability of these athletes that they can put forth so much effort for three, even four, straight hours -- and a bigger testament to their mental toughness that they can pull themselves together and come back in a match they would have lost in any other tournament.

Take for example the marathon second round between U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro and my dear James Blake which lasted four and a quarter hours. Blake led the thing two sets to one, and at a non-Major would have been off the court -- with a wholly different result -- more than a hundred minutes sooner. While I personally was rooting for the American to pull off the upset, I have to hand it to DelPo for continuing to show the perseverance of a champion and once again quieting critics who say he isn't fit enough to be a contender.

Even more impressive, though, were a couple of matches contested on Thursday.

Thirtieth seed Juan Monaco, once ranked #14 in the world, has been clawing himself back from a rough 2009. He should have been a heavy favorite against Frenchman Michael Llodra, who hadn't passed the first round of the Australian Open since 2000. But after just over an hour, Monaco inexplicably found himself in a two set deficit. The two men traded breaks in the third, ultimately forcing a tiebreak, but then it was all Argentine. Juan won almost two of three points for the rest of the game and actually took every point on his first serve in the fourth set. Somehow he was able to regroup just in time to pull off the victory.

Spain's Albert Montanes found himself in a similar predicament while facing #104 Stephane Robert. The two had met twice before in Challenger events way back in 2004, but Montanes has clearly had the better career since then. A titlist in Bucharest and Estoril last year, he claimed the thirty-first seed in Melbourne, but after losing the second set tiebreak he was in trouble, too. He might have benefited from his less-experienced opponent losing steam, though, as the next three sets combined took less time than the first two put together -- Montanes upped the quality of his serve while Robert's fell apart and only allowed one break opportunity from that point on.

One seeded player, though, wasn't able to avoid the upset. Veterans, David Ferrer and Marcos Baghdatis have been around for years and the Spaniard won their two previous meetings in straight sets. He would have here, too, had this only been a best-of-three tournament. But Baghdatis, the winner in Sydney last week and the '06 finalist at the Open, tends to do well Down Under. He was unable to convert on any of five break chances in the first set, but like Monaco he rallied in the third-set tiebreak. And after averaging only sixty-three percent on first serve in the opening two sets, he improved to 87.5% in the last two. The Cypriot closed out the four-plus hour match with a 6-1 set to make the third round for the fifth time in his career.

Playing five sets is clearly a test of physical endurance, but even more so of mental maturity. And when players do everything they can to secure a straight-set victory only to find themselves still trying to smack forehands and fire off serves hours later, it's easy to see how even the best players can let big leads crumble -- Blake, after all, had been infamous for an eleven match losing streak in five-setters. But hats off to those who are able to stay with it, and even play better as the match wears on. Of course it remains to be seen if any of these players can follow up their recent wins, or if they'll be too exhausted to even lift a racket in their next match. But at least they've proven they shouldn't be counted out too soon.

And that maybe they should be considered even more of a threat now.

January 19, 2010

Opening With a Bang

Hold your breath -- you're about to witness what could be the best early round match ever contested at a Grand Slam.

Well, that might not be entirely true -- you could easily argue that the five-setter that Mikhail Youzhny just endured displayed some high-quality shot-making that makes it worthy of that distinction. But in a draw where several seeds are slated to meet such formidable opponents right out the gate, pundits are hyping tonight's women's match pretty heavily. At 7pm Melbourne time, about 3am for us New Yorkers, fifth seed Elena Dementieva will take the court against former #1 and 2004 Australian Open champ Justine Henin in just the second round of the tournament.

It's a weird and unfortunate twist of fate that put two players riding such waves of momentum in the same part of the bracket. Elena is coming off a solid victory in Sydney, where she repeated her title run from last year by easily rolling through Serena Williams on Friday. And Justine made the finals down in Brisbane, putting on a much-anticipated show against Kim Clijsters before falling to last year's U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters in three sets. It doesn't seem fair that one of them has to leave so early.

The two are veterans, having done their time on Tour for more than a decade each, and as such, they've met eleven times already, with Elena only coming out on top twice. The Russian peaked at #3 in the world last year, and despite tumbling a few spots, she still looks to be in top form. Henin won't be ranked until she competes in one more tournament, despite the fact that she retired while #1.

Both have their Achilles' heel -- Justine withdrew from Sydney due to a leg injury she sustained in Brisbane while Dementieva's serve has the annoying habit of breaking down on her. But they're certainly both fighters -- the Belgian returned to the Tour this year as if she'd never left, while Dementieva has earned herself the annoying honorific of being the best player to never have won a Major.

So what's in store for the winner of this match? In the third round she'll meet the winner of the duel between Sorana Cirstea, the surprise quarterfinalist at last year's French Open, and Alisa Kleybanova, a woman who beat Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic last year. More importantly, she'll be able to say she's already faced and vanquished one big threat for the title. I said earlier that I wouldn't be surprised if the eventual champion came out of this bracket, and a win on Wednesday would go a long way to proving that.

But what the match-up says about the overall strength of the field this year is even more heartening. There really are no clear-cut favorites in almost any match. There have been plenty of first round battles between players ranked only a few positions apart -- and one-time favorites like Robin Soderling can be upset by players ranked in the triple digits like Marcel Granollers. It's disappointing, sure, but not necessarily a bad thing -- it's certainly not an indication that players are doing poorly but, quite the contrary, that there's so much talent out there that no one is really an underdog.

So with just two days of play knocked out, we can see signs that this is going to be a great year for tennis. Hopefully, it'll end just as it's starting!

January 17, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: Australian Open

The draws for the 2010 Australian Open were released on Friday, and it looks like we're already in for a few big matches over the next fortnight.

And this year I've decided to preview each tournament with my predictions for the player in each quarter most likely to reach the semifinals. But the draws are interesting this year, and some bets that might have been easy to make a few weeks ago aren't quite sure things anymore. And we know that the top four seeds seldom all make it as far as they should -- I doubt this year will be any different. And, after all, isn't it more fun when there are big upsets?

So let's dive right in.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Well of course top-seeded Roger Federer will make it through his quarter unscathed, right? Right? I mean, can you remember the last time he didn't make the Final Four of a Major?*

It's funny, though -- the same year that brought him a career Grand Slam and put his name in the record books also proved just how vulnerable Roger is. In the last few months he's lost twice in a row to Juan Martin Del Potro, and ended a twelve-match win streak against Robin Soderling at an Abu Dhabi exhibition. He also hasn't won a title since Cincinnati.

Sure, he always brings his A-game to the Majors, and when you're talking about a best-of-five match, there aren't many to whom you'd give the edge. But Roger also has to contend with a big bracket -- he'll face #36 Igor Andreev in the first round and could get Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth.

Most intimidating has to be Nikolay Davydenko, who looms large in the quarters. The Russian notched his first victory over Federer in the London semis, and then shocked him again a week ago in Doha. More importantly, Nikolay is playing better than he has in a long time. He regrouped after being bagelled by Rafael Nadal in the first set last Sunday and ultimately won the title after almost three hours of play.

The biggest on-paper threat in the early part of Davydenko's bracket would be Juan Carlos Ferrero who withdrew from Auckland this past week after rolling his ankle. After that it's clear sailing until he presumably meets Fernando Verdasco early in the second week. While I can't discount last year's semifinalist, Davydenko has been on too strong a roll to falter here.

Predicted Semifinalist: I'm going to go out on a limb here and actually send Roger home early -- well, early for him. Davydenko is making the semis this year.

Second Quarter

Second seed Rafael Nadal is the lucky contestant to draw Andy Murray as a potential quarterfinal opponent, so this section could get interesting.

Nadal has been doing well in the weeks leading up to the Australian Open. While I began the year worried that the defending champion wouldn't be up to snuff so soon, a trophy at the Capitala exhibition in Abu Dhabi and the runner-up prize in Doha have somewhat allayed my fears.

Hard courts aren't necessarily Nadal's strongest surface, though, and he does face a spirited Peter Luczak in the first round. There's also the possibility of a third round against John Isner, who picked a good time to win his first title in Auckland this past week -- let's not forget how John stunned Andy Roddick back in New York. The American just missed being seeded for the Slam, so he shouldn't be overlooked.

On the other side Andy Murray benefits from early rounds full of qualifiers. The potential fourth round versus Gael Monfils could pose a bit of an obstacle, as the Frenchman faced and passed a few challenges in Brisbane before losing in the semis, and he's actually won the pair's only five-set match at Roland Garros in 2006. But Murray will be determined to prove he deserved a higher seed, and should set up the quarters with Rafa.

And that round should be as exciting as we'd expect -- the Brit had begun to get momentum against Nadal early last year before losing to him twice in a row, once on a hard court. But they haven't met since the Spaniard's knee injury took him out of Wimbledon, so I'll be curious to see what dynamic develops between them now.

Predicted Semifinalist: Bad luck of the draw notwithstanding, Rafa's no slouch. I have a feeling he'll pull it out, even if he has to face Murray in the quarters.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic might have learned something since his last trip Down Under. In 2008 he came to Melbourne fresh and rested and ended up defeating Federer in straight sets before claiming his first Grand Slam with a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Last year he tried to get an early start but lost in the first round at Brisbane and the semis in Sydney. Needless to say, he did not repeat. The twenty-two year old Serb hasn't competed yet in 2010, but you can bet his new coach has been getting him more than ready during the off-season. He's got a relatively easy first few rounds, with his biggest threat coming from 2008 quarterfinalist Mikhail Youzhny -- Nole should advance without too much ado.

The other half of the section is a little more interesting and could result in a pretty good quarterfinal match. Robin Soderling had a great finish to last year and began this one with his first career win over Federer. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been quietly plodding away on his own -- after staging a huge comeback to beat Roger in Montreal last year, he's put together some impressive wins in the Kooyong exhibition in Melbourne. These days I might pick him to meet Nole in the Elite Eight, a rematch of the 2008 championship game.

Predicted Semifinalist: Novak easily has the most experience of anyone in this part of the draw -- he may lose a set or two, but this semi is his to lose.

Fourth Quarter

Juan Martin Del Potro silenced nay-sayers last September when the tall, lanky Argentine proved he was fit enough to survive the heat of a tough five-setter, and he comes to Australia with a newly minted #4 ranking, his highest ever. But DelPo retired from the semifinals at the Kooyong exhibition with a wrist injury, the third time he's withdrawn from a tournament in the last two months -- that doesn't exactly bode well for him in the early rounds.

Plus he's got some big competition for that last semifinal spot -- spunky Viktor Troicki is a possible third round opponent, and Marin Cilic, who repeated his championship run Chennai earlier this month, looms in the fourth. Cilic, you might remember, cleared the way for DelPo at the U.S. Open by taking care of Andy Murray for him, so he could pose a bit of a threat.

As could Andy Roddick, a man who has somewhat surprisingly lost all three of his meetings with Del Potro. He started off the year on the right foot, though, defeating defending Brisbane champ Radek Stepanek for that title. Unfortunately it looks like the knee injury that kept him out of the year-end championships is still bugging him, as he's chosen not to play for the U.S. Davis Cup to avoid further stress, but hopefully he can advance through the early rounds with little trouble.

Predicted Semifinalist: With the top two players in the section dealing with injuries, it's a tough call, but I'm giving Andy the slight edge, with Cilic coming in a close second.

The Women

First Quarter

Defending champion Serena Williams has a habit of winning the Australian Open in odd-numbered years -- she's done so since 2003 when, as the top seed, she beat her second-ranked sister in three sets -- so this being 2010, some might say it's not her year. Then again, she's never lost the tournament while ranked #1. And, like Roger, she seems to play her best at the Majors -- though she hasn't won a non-Slam in almost two years, she's contested four championship matches in the last eighteen months and won her first Tour championship since 2001 last November.

But she was handily beaten by Elena Dementieva in the Sydney finals on Friday, her fifth loss in her last eight meetings with the Russian. In fact, she lost her serve five times during that match, a statistic unusual for her. Serena has a couple of challenges in her bracket, too. Victoria Azarenka, who challenged Williams in the fourth round last year and avenged that ultimate loss, is playing well again, and even Ana Ivanovic is showing traces of her championship self. And the hometown crowd is likely going to be cheering Sam Stosur through as well.

Predicted Semifinalist: Obstacles aside there are few serious threats to Serena's run. She should be able to make it through again.

Second Quarter

Dinara Safina headlines this portion of the bracket, but her chances of making the Final Four, I'm afraid to say, might be worst of all the top players. She won her first match back in Sydney, but after being broken five times in the quarters by Elena Dementieva, I stand by my statement that her first round performance in Melbourne will be a crucial gauge of her viability. There she'll face last year's Birmingham champ Magdalena Rybarikova, who she beat in the French Open a few years back. She should be able to do so again, but that's only the start of her problems.

Both Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko are in this quarter, the elder of whom just won her first Tour title in Hobart, and Dominika Cibulkova has been putting together a couple of wins of her own. Then there's Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champ who never got a chance to defend her title last year. Since returning to the game last May, she hasn't had a lot of early exits, and after taking the title in Tokyo thanks to a retirement by Jelena Jankovic, she's going to want to prove she can win based on her own merits.

Predicted Semifinalist: While there are a couple players in this quarter who have the ability to put together a string of wins, I think Maria's got the talent and the motivation to get to the semis. And it will be good o see her back!

Third Quarter

This might be the quarter where we see the most fireworks this year -- Grand Slam titlists, former #1's, momentum players, and an inordinate number of contenders in the top-twenty, this section has it all.

At the top is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has a couple of hard court titles to her name, including the 2004 U.S. Open, but she didn't quite seem to be at her best in Sydney. After a first round scare from a feisty Alisa Kleybanova, she lost her next match to Dominika Cibulkova, which isn't the most promising sign. Of course she's a strong player, so she'll pose a threat to anyone she faces.

But she's got early dates with Aravane Rezai, who took Serena to three sets this past week, and Kim Clijsters, who already won her first battle with long-time rival Justine Henin in Brisbane. And then there's Elena Dementieva, who was nearly flawless in defense of her Sydney title. She beat three seeded players in straight sets, and took just seventy-five minutes to dismiss Serena in the finals. In Melbourne, though, she'll have little breathing room, as 2004 champ Henin will probably be waiting in the second round for her.

And let's talk for just a minute about Yanina Wickmayer, the Auckland champ who had to play the qualifying rounds in Melbourne because her WADA ban was lifted too late for her to enter the main draw. She got Alexandra Dulgheru for her first match, but the world #16 could face #12 Flavia Pennetta in the second round and Dementieva in the fourth.

It's one thing that this quarter has so many good players, but another altogether that they're all doing so well. I wouldn't be surprised if the eventual winner came out of this bracket -- and if we're still talking about some of these matches as the defining moments of the year come December.

Predicted Semifinalist: I'm so conflicted here -- my heart says Elena, but my head is going with Kim.

Fourth Quarter

This is probably the hardest quarter to call, not because it's as stacked as the previous one, but because no one really stands out.

U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki comes to Melbourne with her highest seed at a Major. But she retired from her last two tournaments of 2009 and was upset in the first round at Sydney. I'm not saying she's peaked yet, but it might be asking too much for the nineteen year old to make two consecutive Grand Slam semis. And Venus Williams has been spotty in recent months, despite a second straight appearance at the year-end finals. She hasn't won a hard court Major since 2001.

That leaves this section wide open, creating opportunities for players like Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone, both of whom have gotten in some action in the preseason. Melanie Oudin is also in this part of the bracket, and we now know better than to count her out of any match.

There are also plenty of players who've fallen by the wayside, and can really use the next two weeks to get their tennis careers back on track. Remember when Sybille Bammer downed Serena Williams last August in Cincinnati? Or when Alize Cornet was ranked eleventh in the world? That was less than a year ago! Any of these ladies have a chance to get through, and I would love to see this be the quarter where an unknown finally makes a stand.

Predicted Semifinalist: I actually think Shahar Peer is playing some of the most impressive tennis in this part of the bracket -- the semis in Auckland and a runner-up trophy in Hobart could help propel her to her best ever showing at a Major.

So with the first serves of the 2010 Australian Open just a few hours away, I have high hopes for this season. It will be exciting to see who emerges as the new face of tennis and who captures our hearts as the breakthrough of the tournament. It certainly looks like we're on the verge of some big changes in the sport -- and it sure will be fun to watch!

* At the 2004 French Open, King Roger was eliminated in the third round by Gustavo Kuerten.

January 14, 2010

The Importance of Defense: Part 2

Earlier this week I pointed out how Andy Murray's decision not to defend his title in Doha last week might have some interesting consequences for the Australian Open draws released on Friday.

A similar situation is fomenting in Sydney this week. You might remember that 2009 champ Elena Dementieva won this trophy as part of a fifteen-match win streak. But this year she didn't go back to Auckland to defend that first title, so she's dropping points from her ranking regardless of her showing in Sydney.

She's doing well at this tournament so far. With a 6-3, 6-1 win over Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, Elena clinched her spot in the finals for a second straight year. There she'll meet Serena Williams who actually struggled in her semifinal match against Bali champ Aravane Rezai, and found herself two points from elimination before rallying for the win. Serena is certainly a formidable opponent to face -- if the Russian doesn't pull off the victory tomorrow, she'll close the gap between herself and world #6 Venus Williams.

Of course her situation isn't quite as crucial as Andy Murray's. Win or lose tomorrow, she'll still be ranked fifth in the world, one spot lower than she was at this time last year, so her potential draws won't be affected. More important than her point score, though, is what a successful defense would do to raise her profile. She's one of the most consistent players out there, having been ranked in the top ten for the better part of the last decade -- but she's often overlooked as a threat at the Majors, and it's easy to forget that she's actually played in two Slam finals. Adding another victory to her record would certainly get pundits talking about her again.

Dementieva has a decent record against Williams, having won most of their matches in the last five years, so her chances of repeating aren't that bad. And knocking off a top seed, whatever the circumstances, will always serve as a huge confidence booster. The timing of a potential win wouldn't hurt either -- as the last thing she remembers before going into the first Grand Slam of the year, momentum would certainly be on Elena's side.

It might not be the safest best, but I'm putting my money -- and hopes -- on an upset tomorrow -- after all, it would be fun to shake things up a little, wouldn't it?

January 10, 2010

The Importance of Defense

It's been a weird week for Andy Murray.

Now I know that I've never been his biggest fan, but some funky math has made his Australian Open chances a little hairier. Don't get me wrong, he's still one of the favorites -- it's just that his draw just got a bit tougher, almost through no fault of his own.

Murray spent the week in Perth, Australia, where he and compatriot Laura Robson were fighting for the Hyundai Hopman Cup -- a sort of combination between Davis and Fed Cup competition, and the only non-Major tournament with a mixed doubles category. He did fairly well, winning all of his Round Robin singles matches and helping his team to reach the finals against Spaniards Tommy Robredo and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

That's where he began to struggle a bit. After taking the first set from Robredo, 6-1, Murray found himself under pressure on his service game in the second, and ultimately dropped the match, 6-1, 4-6, 3-6, his first loss to the Spaniard since 2007. When Robredo and Sanchez Martinez then coupled for the doubles win too, Great Britain -- and Andy -- ceded the trophy to the now three-time champions.

That wasn't necessarily the worst result, but because players aren't awarded ranking points for their appearances at the Hopman Cup, all of Murray's wins earlier in the week do nothing for his position. And when you consider that a year ago he'd won the title in Doha -- not the biggest tournament, but certainly one that attracts the top talent -- he was actually losing points this weeks, regardless of his results Down Under.

And that means when the latest rankings come out tomorrow, former world #2 Andy Murray will now be in fifth place, just five points behind U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, a man he's beaten in all but one of their six meetings. And now that he's out of the top four -- the first time since August, 2008 -- he could face Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the quarters in Melbourne!

Even I admit that somehow, it doesn't seem right.

Just one match win in Qatar would have kept him where he was, but because Murray didn't defend his title, his road to the Final Four isn't quite so clear. Of course, brackets seldom progress as seeds suggest they should, and there's no reason anyone should not consider Andy a threat. But things certainly have gotten a little more interesting as we head to the first Grand Slam of the year.

And I have a feeling we're in for a few more surprises!

January 8, 2010

A Little Encouragement, a Bigger Surprise

While some are preparing for the Australian Open Down Under, a couple of the top men's players have been battling it out on the courts in Doha at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open.

Top ranked Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were joined by Nikolay Davydenko, Ivo Karlovic and others for their first tournament of the New Year, and while much of the early round action progressed as you might expect, the semifinals held a few surprises.

Rafa was coming off a nice victory at the Capitala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi last week, the first sign that he might be back to form after a rough second half of 2009. And this week served as even more proof -- he didn't drop a set on his way to the semifinals, where he met fifth seed Viktor Troicki. I thought the Serb might pose a bit of a challenge, but Nadal got off to a good start, breaking his opponent three times in the first set and barely taking an hour to finish him off. His performance so far certainly bodes well for Melbourne.

It was a different story in the other half of the draw where world #1 Roger Federer met Nikolay Davydenko, a man who won their last match-up on his way to claim the London championship in November.

Roger should have been the clear favorite today, having handily defeated the Russian on their previous twelve meetings. But Nikolay was one of the strongest finishers of last year, capturing three titles in two months, and he brought his A-game to Doha. He got every one of his first serves in during the opening set and earned the only break in the second to notch another win over Federer.

For his efforts Davydenko earns a ticket to the finals tomorrow. He should like his chances against Nadal, having won their last two matches. He's also been the victor in the only two finals they've contested -- last year in Shanghai and in Miami back in 2008. Head-to-head they're tied at four all, though, so you know both men are going to put up a fight -- and the eventual winner will surely make a big case for himself at the Australian Open.

Can't wait to watch it!

January 6, 2010

The Thrill of (Early) Victory

Okay, my excitement might be a bit premature, but I can't help being enthused by the early results we've seen Down Under. With most of the first and second round matches in the books at the Brisbane International, even the so-called upsets actually seem to set things right.

Let's start on the men's side, where my dear James Blake has posted some of his best results in months. After scoring a technical upset over fifth-seeded compatriot Sam Querrey in the first round -- I say "technical" because Blake led the series against the second best American player 5-1 -- he followed up with a solid victory over Frenchman Marc Gicquel. After splitting the first two sets and facing a break down in the third, Blake saved three match points before finally winning the tiebreak 10-8.

In the quarterfinals -- the first time he's advanced this far in a tournament since Queen's Club last June -- he'll face third seed Gael Monfils, who's fought a couple of hard-won battles himself. James leads their head-to-head history as well, but the pair haven't met in more than two years, and the much-improved six-foot-four, all-muscle man could be a bigger threat now. Of course, I'm hoping Blake can pull off the win and make the semis, and I'm taking the stance that another presumed three-setter will just serve to give him more match practice going forward.

Top-seeded Andy Roddick has had an interesting road to the quarters himself, facing minor threats from his opponents in both first sets before breezing through in the second. He eventually defeated the two Australians Peter Luczak and wildcard Carsten Ball in less than ninety minutes each, though. Next up, he'll meet Richard Gasquet, who should be way over her three-month doping ban by now. They last played a long, tough match at Wimbledon in 2007 which Gasquet won, 8-6 in the fifth, so this could be a fun one.

Interestingly Blake and Roddick also teamed up in the doubles draw, beating specialists Travis Parrott and Jaroslav Levinsky in the first round and fourth-seeded Brazilians Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares to make the semis. You might remember, too, that James made the semis at the All England Club last year with Mardy Fish, where the duo ultimately lost to #2 team Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic after a three and a half hour five-setter. Of course neither American uses his doubles winnings to put food on the table, but it is nice to see top players branching out.

The women's action in Brisbane has been just as exciting. Top seed Kim Clijsters, fresh off her U.S. Open coup has only lost six games in her first two rounds, and could be on course for a meeting in the finals with long-time rival Justine Henin. The wildcard dropped #2 seed Nadia Petrova on Monday and qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva today. Despite this being her first true tournament since coming out of retirement, she's clearly the favorite in the bottom half of the draw.

Kind of makes you wonder if the tournament officials planned all along for an all-Belgian championship match when they sketched out the draw, doesn't it?

In any case, these are important results leading up to the decade's first Grand Slam -- with less than two weeks left before the 2010 Australian Open begins, players have got to make their statements now. Blake is in desperate need of some big wins to resurrect his career, and Justine -- who beat Kim in the Melbourne finals back in 2004 -- could easily make an early play for a top-ten ranking before spring thaw.

We'll see what the next few days hold in store for the Brisbane tournament, but I'm betting there will be a lot of fireworks this week.

Here's hoping these guys and gals can keep up the excitement!

January 2, 2010

And So It Begins...

The year's barely even started yet and already we've got a couple of great exhibition match results to speak of -- and, not that I'm gloating, but some of the results this weekend bode well for the list of fantasy matches I hope to see this year.

First in Thailand, two former #1's faced off in the brutal heat with a somewhat surprising result. Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova last met at the Bank of the West Classic this past July with the American barreling through their quarterfinal matchup, 6-2, 6-2. Though Maria proved to be no match for Williams that day, it was a much different story in today's meeting. Now ranked #14 in the world, Sharapova has certainly looked to be in solid form in the few months since returning to the Tour. But her ninety-minute victory over the current #6 was clearly her biggest win in the last twelve months. If she continues to hit such solid groundstrokes and is able to hold serve, it could be a good sign when she returns to Australia -- the Slam her shoulder injury prevented her from defending last year.

More impressive was the showing at the Capitala Invitational in Abu Dhabi where eight six of the top men's players were on hand to showcase their talents before the official start of the season. Robin Soderling, who is coming fresh off the best year of his career, began by finally living up to the standard he set for himself back in May -- after twelve straight losses to year-end #1 Roger Federer, he finally pulled off the win. Though neither was able to break for the first two sets, the twenty-five year old Swede won three games on Federer's serve in the deciding set, making the finals to face another nemesis, Rafael Nadal.

I admit I was a little nervous to see my French Open fantasy play out so soon, as Rafa has lost their last two match-ups pretty soundly. And Soderling was clearly on a role, having beaten so many of the top players in some major tournaments. But again I was in for a pleasant surprise -- after another set with no breaks of serve, Rafa ultimately took the early lead and followed it up by finally taking the advantage in the second and winning the match, 7-6, 7-5. It was an important win for him, not just to improve their head-to-head score, but to boost Nadal's morale going into next week's Qatar Open and into Melbourne, where he is, after all, the defending champion.

Here's hoping these exhibition results are just a sampling of a great few months to come!

January 1, 2010

A Glimpse Into the Future

The 2010 tennis season is just a few days away, and already there's a lot to look forward to. I've mentioned some of the things that top my list: the return of Justine Henin, the comeback of a healthy Rafael Nadal, the emergence of a new crop of young men and women all ready to make a name for themselves this year.

But rather than running through the traditional "Things to Watch" stuff, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the potential, fantasy match-ups which could prove to be make-or-break for the players involved. Of course these pairings are wholly ficticious, as draws for even the Australian Open are weeks away from being nailed down, and performance over the coming months could preclude any of these possibilities. But, just for fun, let's see what could happen.

Australian Open, January 18-31

First Round: Dinara Safina vs. Anyone

The Australian Open is a clutch tournament for the former #1. Last year's runner-up practically folded at the hands of Serena Williams in the 2009 finals, and despite holding the #1 ranking for half the year, Dinara Safina really seemed to bow under the pressure of the big stage. She retired from her first Round Robin match in the year-end championships with a back injury and announced last month that she'd skip the warm-up tournament in Brisbane. She might not be in top form when she heads down to Melbourne, but a few solid performances in the early rounds could give her a bit of confidence if she wants to reclaim the top spot. A premature exit, on the other hand, could prove to be more than disheartening -- it could signal a fall out of the sport's elite and confirm some critic's complaints that she never really belonged there in the first place.

She might be able to put up a fight, but I fear if Safina makes it through this round, she won't be able to last much longer.

Semifinals: Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Novak Djokovic

The only two men who've won Grand Slams, besides Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in the back half of the 2000s are playing in top form these days. Del Potro, of course, silenced naysayers who argued he wasn't fit enough to last through a greuling five-set match when he won the U.S. Open. And Novak himself won five titles last year, including a Masters event in Paris, and beat both Roger and Rafa in consecutive weeks. DelPo and Nole have met three times in the past, with Djokovic winning all three head-to-heads -- in fact, winning every set. But now that both can boast some big upsets over the last twelve months, pitting the two youngsters against each other could create some fireworks.

My money would be on the Serb to win, but it'll be tight and might go the distance.

French Open, May 23 - June 6

Third Round: Justine Henin vs. Kim Clijsters

A few years ago it would have been scandalous to suggest these two champions could possibly meet at any point in a tournament before the semifinals -- in their twenty-two match-ups, they've only met before the quarters once. But with both building their careers back up in 2010, the Belgians might face each other earlier than usual -- and that could spark some exciting opening round matches. Watching them spar in Paris, where Justine has ruled for years, would be the most fitting backdrop.

It's really Henin's match to lose -- with twelve clay court titles and four at Roland Garros, she's the technical favorite. And in the exhibitions she's palyed over the last few weeks -- beating Flavia Pennetta in straight sets last month -- she's looked as strong as she had been when she retired. But Clijsters ended 2009 on a high note and has given herself a nice jumpstart on her long-time rival. She's twice lost in the finals at Paris, so she's no slouch on the red surface either. While they could of course meet before France, I kind of hope we get our first taste of this renewed competition on a stage that can do it justice.

This time, I'd go with Justine in a long third set.

Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal vs. Robin Soderling

In the potential repeat of last year's fourth round match, Rafael Nadal will be out for revenge. Until he faced Soderling in 2009, he'd been undefeated at Roland Garros -- and that fateful meeting had very opposite effects on the rest of their years. Rafa struggled through one injury after another and didn't claim a single title after Paris. Soderling, on the other hand, made his very first Major final that fortnight and followed it up with an impressive showing in London and a career high year-end ranking. Nadal has actually lost their last two meetings, and now that Soderling is in the top ten, they'll face each other later in the tournament than they would have just a few months ago.

Nadal might struggle early in the year, as he's proven to be slightly vulnerable in the last few months. But by the time the clay court season rolls around, he should feel back at home -- he only lost two matches on the surface last year, ending with a couple straight set wins in the Davis Cup finals. And even though Soderling improved his game greatly in 2009, you can't believe lightning will strike twice in France. Combining his prowess on the surface with his quest for redemption, it's going to be hard to beat Rafa at Roland Garros this year.

He might drop a set, but I'd take Nadal in four.

Wimbledon, June 21 - July 4

Third Round: Andy Roddick vs. James Blake

For some reason, American men seem to thrive on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Of course, Pete Sampras ruled over the All England Club in the Nineties, and Roddick has had his share of success this decade, making the finals three times. James hasn't had the best results at this Slam, but he did make the finals at Queen's Club last year, proving he does have some ability on the surface.

Blake actually has won the pair's last three meetings -- most recently due to a retirement when Andy suffered an ankle injury in London last year. But it's been a while since they've played a full match, and Roddick certainly looks to be the more fit player these days. On the other hand, James has a little bit to prove -- it's been more than two years since he claimed his last title. But, he's put up a couple of good fights recently, taking Andy Murray and Nadal to three sets a few times last year. If he can gain just a little bit of traction in 2010, my fears that he's nearing the end of his career would be slightly allayed.

Sadly, Andy in straights -- but I hope at least one would go to a tiebreak.

Fourth Round: Venus Williams vs. Melanie Oudin

Melanie Oudin had her first success last year in her third round in London, when she beat Jelena Jankovic in a tough three-setter, proving that she was more than comfortable on the surface. But now, a whole year older and several years more experienced, the eighteen-year-old from Georgia won't be considered the underdog in her early rounds.

But Venus Williams is always a formidable opponent, especially on grass, no matter how she's done the rest of the year. Though she had some spotty results in 2009, let's not forget that she won in England in '05 when she was ranked sixteenth and again two years later at #31. She's played in the finals eight times, taking five championships.

In her short career, Oudin hasn't played either of the Williams sisters yet, but it's only a matter of time. And what better place to meet her role model than at the All England Club? It won't be a cakewalk by any means, but Melanie has shown time and again that she's able to hit with the big guns. And she's got all sorts of stamina -- she spent just shy of eleven hours on the court in New York. The spunky teenager isn't likely to just roll over.

I'd bet on, or at least hope for, another upset -- Oudin could deal Venus her earliest Wimbledon exit since 2006.

U.S. Open, August 30 - September 12

Quarterfinals: Maria Sharapova vs. Serena Williams

Almost six years ago a teenager named Maria Sharapova stunned a much more experienced Serena Williams at the Wimbledon finals. They've met a few times since then, but not nearly as often as you might expect for two tennis greats -- and they haven't stood on opposite sides of the court since April, 2008. This year could be one in which the two do some serious battle, though, now that Maria seems to be healthy and Serena is once again at the top of the sport.

This match-up could be a good one -- Maria has done well in the seven months since her return, climbing all the way up to #14 after dropping briefly into the triple-digits. She's beaten more than a few top-ten players and even won a title in Tokyo. For her part, of course, Serena won two Grand Slams and the year-end championships -- she was also named the AP Female Athlete of the Year. Both girls are obvious fighters.

My prediction is that Serena would extend her lead over Sharapova, but I think Maria will get a few of her own shots in.

Finals: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

Roger and Rafa have met in the championship round of every Major except the U.S. Open. It's not the most surprising tidbit -- after all, no one really thought of Nadal as a hard court force until he won the Australian Open last year. But he's been consistent in New York, making the semis on his last two attempts. While I'm not sure Nadal will be up to the task of repeating in Australia, by the time the summer season rolls around, he should be back on solid footing. Then there's Roger, the real King of Queens. After a five-year, uninterrupted rule, he was so unceremoniously dethroned last September, and you know he wants to climb back on top.

A Roger/Rafa showdown in Arthur Ashe would be epic for so many reasons -- first, and I admit I'm a bit biased, it's New York! And secondly, it would mark a whole different kind of Grand Slam -- the potential for one man to beat Federer in every single Major, and for the title, besides. Both men will face ample challenges on their road to the finals in Flushing, but if they play up to the standard we've come to expect from them, they could put on quite a show for us!

As with all their meetings, this one would be a fight. But I have a feeling Roger would bring the title back to Switzerland. Rafa's still young and strong, though -- hopefully 2011 will be his.

We already know there will be plenty of excitement and action in the New Year, and while I realize that the aforementioned matches are just fantasy, it is an indication of just how much fun the next few months of tennis could be. I've already made a few predictions for how 2010 might end, but that says nothing of what I'm hoping for.

For one thing, I'd love to see Nadal make another play for #1. I'd love to see Maria win another Major. I'd love to see Roddick finally defeat Federer. I'd love to see Justine win the career Grand Slam. It's a lot to wish for, I know, but at this dawn of a new era it doesn't hurt to dream big, does it?

Hope you all are doing the same!

Happy New Year, everyone!