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!

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