January 30, 2011

His Time Has Come

Novak Djokovic has said before that he was born in the wrong era for men's tennis -- that if he were just a few years older or younger he could have won a slew of Grand Slam trophies by now and sat firmly in the top spot in the sport. Instead he had to contend with the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who've combined to win all but two of the last thirty Majors and have together been ranked #1 for almost seven years.

He was criticized for the statement, accused of being too cocky and dismissive, but when you think about it, it's probably not far from the truth. Djokovic had been firmly implanted in the top three for years, even making a jump to #2 for a few weeks here and there. Way before his heart-pounding win over Federer at last year's U.S. Open he had racked up seventeen titles, including four Masters trophies and a year-end championship, producing wins over the elite players to earn them.

Nole also had a championship in Melbourne, of course, but that was eleven Slams ago, and questions were being asked when and whether the next one was coming. He had trouble with his serve early last year and got rid of advisor Todd Martin, who'd he'd brought on about twelve months earlier to help his game. He often seemed to suffer in long, grueling matches, bringing his fitness under fire during five-setters. And yes, he had Major runs ended by Roger and Rafa, but he also lost to Jurgen Melzer, Tommy Haas and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But something changed when he got back Down Under this year. After winning all his matches at the Hopman Cup, Djokovic came to Melbourne a week early and started his main draw firing on all cylinders. He had a slight hiccup against Ivan Dodig in the second round, but was relentless against a tough Nicolas Almagro and unforgiving versus Tomas Berdych, who incidentally ousted him at Wimbledon in 2010. In the semis against Federer, he repeated his performance in New York, but this time never found himself lagging -- after holding serve the entire first set, he didn't allow Roger to serve out the second and held on to his lead in the third for his only straight set win over the defending champ since that maiden title run in 2008.

Djokovic was the on-paper favorite in the finals, and though I knew he'd put up a fight, admittedly I wasn't convinced he'd ultimately prevail. Sure, he was higher-ranked than opponent Andy Murray, had an extra's day rest coming into the match, lead the pair's head-to-head by the slightest of margins. But the Scot had won his last three meetings with Nole, denying him titles in both Cincinnati and Miami, so he had some momentum of his own. He'd been no slouch in his first six matches, dropping only a handful of games early and finding a way to get aggressive when he found himself down against David Ferrer in the semis. He also had some luck on his side -- originally slated to meet Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer if he were to win the title, he'd seen his path cleared by others and seemed rather fresh on Sunday. After two Major final appearances without so much as a set to his name, it looked like it might be his turn to finally capture the Slam.

I'm not sure anyone expected what we got.

The two kept it close to start. An amazing twelve-minute second game gave Djokovic a chance to get the early break, but when Murray eventually held it looked like this would not only go the distance, but it would be a marathon. Eight games later, when Nole converted for the first set, I thought last year's runner-up would raise his game like he did against Ferrer, but in twenty minutes he found himself in a 5-0 hole -- a bit later he was down two sets. There were some astonishing rallies, smart shot-making on both sides of the net, but Murray, usually so quick on his feet, found himself unable to get to balls well within his reach and became visibly and audibly frustrated with himself. Though he fought back to three-all in the third, Djokovic got the deciding break in the set and never looked back.

The win for Djokovic is more important than another feather in his cap. So frequently an also-ran in this sport, he made a statement with this championship, convincingly defeating the best in the game -- three top ten players among them. He's got to know now that he can beat anyone in the sport on any stage, and with the insurance Slam trophy soon to reside securely on his mantle, he is no longer in danger of being dubbed a one-hit wonder.

And his contemporaries notwithstanding, he might just add a few more titles to his name and make a run for that top spot. After all, he's already gotten this year off to the perfect start.

January 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Comebacks

When Kim Clijsters announced a few years ago that she'd be coming out of retirement, I knew it was just a matter of time before her compatriot Justine Henin did the same. The two were long-time rivals, just about splitting their twenty-two matches, each holding the #1 ranking for some time and both making a mark at the Majors. Still, you could argue that with seven Slams and three year-ends at the top of the game, it was the slightly older Henin who was more dominant in their first careers.

Oh what a difference retirement makes.

Just a few weeks after Kim won her second U.S. Open in 2009, Henin made the decision to return to the sport. She started out well, of course, making the finals at her first two tournaments back -- one, the '10 Australian Open -- and even won a couple trophies along the way. But she failed to make quite the impact of her countrywoman, who was making deep runs at the big events almost every time she showed up. When Justine suffered an elbow injury during her fourth round match at Wimbledon -- ironically, against Kim -- it seemed clear their fortunes were heading in different directions.

Since then, of course, Clijsters has won her third Major and her third WTA Championship. Despite a #3 seeding in Melbourne, many picked her as the favorite for the title, while Justine -- the winner here in 2004, again after beating Kim in the final -- was more of an afterthought, and even before her third round dismissal by Svetlana Kuznetsova, I wondered how long she would last. A few days later Henin announced a second retirement, pulled out of Fed Cup, and officially left the sport for good -- or at least for now.

Meanwhile Kim was working her way through the Melbourne draw and fought her way to the final -- the first Major championship match she'd play outside of New York in seven years. There she'd meet a spunky Na Li, her surprise vanquisher just two weeks ago in Sydney -- the Chinese had been down 0-5 in the first set before rebounding in grand style to win the biggest trophy of her career. Proving just how healthy she was, Li battled through her first five matches without dropping a set, dismantling my favorite Victoria Azarenka and coming back against top seed Caroline Wozniacki to go one better than her breakthrough run here last year.

She got off to a good start against Kim in her first Major final -- after losing the first eight points of the match, Li was not intimidated and kept up her aggressive hitting. Before you knew it she was giving the heavy favorite fits and broke her opponent three times to take the first set. They traded service games in the second, and Li was actually the one able to hold first, but it was then that Clijsters was able to up her game. She won three straight to pull even and another two to get the decider off to a good start. Though she dropped her next game, Kim was able to keep her cool, control her errors and finish off the third set in just over half an hour.

It was probably the highest quality women's final we've seen in a long time, and only the second in the past four-plus years that went the distance. But more importantly, it cemented Kim Clijsters as the one to beat in women's tennis -- when she was down she found a way to fight through adversity and prevail like a champion, and a third Slam title since returning to competitive play suddenly makes her second career even more impressive than her first.

All that sure makes the difference between her comeback and Justine's much more dramatic. And though Kim's alluded to the fact that her's might also be coming to an end soon, with the momentum she has it's hard to believe that will be the case -- just about two years into it, she might have several more to go.

January 27, 2011

A Moment, Please, to Appreciate the Magnitude

Let's just take a minute to reflect on what events of the past few days could mean for tennis:

Given recent upsets, ailments, and breakthroughs, there's a real likelihood that we'll see two first-time Grand Slam winners at this Australian Open.

It would be the first time that's happened since the French Open of 2004.

For the women, we have known for some time that there would be at least have a first-time Melbourne champ -- as soon as Maria Sharapova lost in the fourth round, all previous winners Down Under had been eliminated. Sure three of the top four seeds advanced to the semis with fairly little drama, but of them Kim Clijsters was the only one with a Major to her name -- all three, of course, in New York.

She took on recent foil Vera Zvonareva in the semis, a woman she beat for last year's U.S. Open title but has lost to three other times since returning to the game -- once, even, at that Slam over in London. Neither has played perfectly in Melbourne, and I have to admit I thought the Russian would bring her game a little harder on Thursday. But she lost serve four times during the match and was never able to get a handle on Kim's. Neither committed an inordinate amount of errors, but Clijsters kept her game ever so slightly clearer, and in just over an hour ended Vera's streak of two straight Major finals.

In the other half of the draw, last year's surprise semifinalist Na Li proved that previous performance was no fluke. She followed up an inspiring win in Sydney -- we'll get to that in a second -- by taking all ten sets of her first five matches, and rebounded when trailing top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. She had twice as many errors as her opponent, but four times the number of winners. And though they traded breaks liberally, over more than two-and-a-half hours, Li had earned her first Slam final.

That sets up an unlikely rematch of the championship game from just two weeks ago. Kim was heavily favored there, but a spunky Li astonishingly came back from a 0-5 deficit in the first set and not only won the match, but did it in straights. She'll be the underdog again, maybe by an even bigger margin, as Kim is clearly more comfortable on the grandest of stages. But Li has wins over the Belgian, and has kept all their matches close. Plus this is the Asia-Pacific Slam, so you can't count out the benefit of homecourt advantage -- and nearly twelve years into her career, the big win now would be a breakthrough for the Chinese.

Things on the men's side are even more interesting -- for the first time in three years, and only the second since early 2005, neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer will play in a Grand Slam final.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Though he didn't lose a set early in the tournament, the ailing top seed had been iffy for most of the fortnight and courageously fought but convincingly lost his quarterfinal match against countryman David Ferrer. It was the first time the Spaniard reached the semis in Melbourne, and coming off a trophy-run in Auckland, he is now on a nine-match win streak. To go one better, he'll have to get past last year's runner-up, Andy Murray, who has only lost one set this entire event. He actually lags Ferrer by a slight margin in their career head-to-head, but the Scot's won both their meetings on hard courts, so this won't at all be an easy run to at least repeat.

No matter the results of that match, though, we won't see a rerun of last year's final. Roger Federer, who had won four titles since the U.S. Open, was my early favorite to bring home the title an Open-era record fifth time. And when he met Novak Djokovic in the semis, he was favored by most to avenge that devastating loss in New York. The two kept it close for the first set -- neither allowed a break chance on serve -- and Roger even had a chance to pull even with the second on his racquet, but the three-hour, three-setter ultimately went the way of the Serb.

Novak, of course, is the only remaining player who's ever won in Australia, and he has just slightly positive records on both Murray and Ferrer. But he's by no means dominated either of them, so it's really anyone's game. And if we see an upset on Sunday, it could help usher in a new era of tennis power.

Clearly you have to like the chances of the more experienced player in these situations, and the odds will likely be on Kim and Nole to lift the trophies at the end of the day. But you can't discount the performances of these Australian Cinderellas, who've been just as unstoppable as their favored foes and, more importantly, shown no signs of tiring out.

And with what might be the only chance these guys have at a Major title for quite some time, I expect they'll do what they can to make history.

January 25, 2011

Opportunity for the Underdog

By the time most of us wake up in the morning, the final eight at the Australian Open will have been decided. Some know what it's like to be here, while others are treading on unfamiliar ground. And a very select few have the opportunity to do something great.

Half of the field has already been decided. Current world #1 Caroline Wozniacki has marked her best-yet performance in Melbourne and earned a chance to meet one of last year's surprise semifinalists for a spot in the championship match. And defending titleholder Roger Federer advanced in solid form and will face 2008 winner Novak Djokovic in the semis.

And while you have to give the advantage to the more-experienced players left to fight it out, their opponents are not athletes to be overlooked.

Petra Kvitova has played on the big stage before, making the semis at Wimbledon last year with wins over Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka on the way. She followed up a title in Brisbane with big wins over Sam Stosur and Flavia Pennetta here. She's split her past two meetings with current opponent Vera Zvonareva, and though she began her match with two straight service breaks, she seems to have rebounded nicely and could do some damage if she pulls herself together.

Former top-ten player Aggie Radwanska was one of my picks to prevail in New York last year, but injury kept her from doing the damage I hoped for. Still reeling in recovery, she has been playing better tennis with each round Down Under and though she was taken to three sets in her last match, was only really tested in her opener versus Kimiko Date Krumm. She'll have to raise her game against Kim Clijsters today, of course, but for a girl who's probably desperate to display her potential, she might be able to do it.

It get's a little more interesting for the men. World #46 Alexandr Dolgopolov has beaten one favorite after another en route to his first career quarterfinal, including fourth-seeded Robin Soderling in a long five setter on Monday. He's lost his only match against Andy Murray, who he'll face next, but that was nearly five years ago -- and if the Ukraine has proven anything it's that he's not going to be intimidated by experience.

The player with the best chance at causing an upset, though, might be David Ferrer who last reached the quarters in Melbourne back in 2008. He faces compatriot Rafael Nadal, the top seed here, a man who's won eleven of their fourteen previous matches, but two of Ferrer's wins have come on hard courts -- one at the U.S. Open. He's also coming off a title run in Auckland, a tournament of which he doesn't seem to be feeling any negative effects.

Of course experience will be on the side of each of their opponents, but all these guys have done their part to prove they deserve what they've achieved so far -- I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of them pulled off the unlikely win today.

And who knows what that could lead to?

January 23, 2011

A Different Story

It's often said that real tennis champions always bring their best to the Majors -- Roger, Rafa, Serena even Venus back in the day can all lose match after match at smaller, lead-up tournaments, but somehow they manage to become unstoppable once they hit the courts at the Slams. But a couple performances in Melbourne this past week prove that the same attitude can be seen in other players too.

Flavia Pennetta had once become the first Italian woman to be ranked in the top ten, but over the past year or so she's become much more dominant on the doubles circuit. She lost a couple first rounds in singles late in 2010 and though she defeated Vera Zvonareva a week ago in Sydney, she fell to then-world #77 Bojana Jovanovski the next round in.

But once she arrived in Melbourne, Pennetta turned up the heat -- seeded twenty-second, her lowest in almost three years, she was flawless in her first two rounds and survived a tough Shahar Peer in her third match. She's broken her opponents' serve an intimidating fifteen times and has maintained a solid winner-to-error record. She has never made it to the fourth round here, but with her next match against Petra Kvitova -- a women she's beaten in three of their last four meetings -- she might have earned herself a golden opportunity.

But some players had been a little more in the weeds leading up to this tournament.

Marin Cilic, who'd won two of three tournaments to start off last year and was one of my favorites to close out 2010 at the top of the sport, hadn't put together back-to-back wins since August. The two-time defending champion Chennai not only couldn't reclaim the title earlier in the month, but he lost in the first round.

In Melbourne, though, where he reached the semifinals last year, he's transformed into his old self. He handled Donald Young and a tough Santiago Giraldo to open, and took big-serving John Isner to 9-7 in the fifth set, serving twenty-two aces and three times as many winners. He's got a fourth round date with top-seeded Rafael Nadal, who he beat in their only other meeting. It certainly won't be a walk in the park, but if he's in better shape than the flu-plagued champion, he might be able to pounce again.

Francesca Schiavone has tasted victory, of course, thanks to her unlikely run to the title in Paris almost a year ago. But since then she's struggled to really shine, beating a top ten player only once and having her Roland Garros win over Sam Stosur summarily avenged in Doha. At twenty-nine years of age, I'm not sure anyone gave her a chance in Melbourne.

Of course, Schiavone is the #6 seed, and so hasn't faced the most formidable of opponents -- she was even pushed to three sets in her first two match-ups and needed sixteen games in the decider against Rebecca Marino to get the win. It wasn't until her fourth round against 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova that we saw the kind of mettle that makes her a champions. Saving six match points she emerged the winner in the longest women's match ever at the Australian Open -- four and three-quarters hours -- and made her first ever quarterfinal here. Of course, facing world #1 Caroline Wozniacki won't be easy if she's at all worn out, but Francesca has certainly shown he can hang in against all the odds.

Tomas Berdych had also been struggling since his break-out last year. His amazing run in Miami was topped only by his stellar showing at Wimbledon, where he dismissed Roger Federer in the quarters. But though the Czech is at a career-high ranking, he's only won a handful of matches since the second half of last year, even notching a first round loss at the U.S. Open.

But Berdych seems reinvigorated in Melbourne. He rebounded from a set down against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round, and stayed tough against Richard Gasquet a match later. I have to admit I didn't know what to expect when he faced off against similarly struggling Fernando Verdasco on Sunday -- he just barely leads the career head-to-head, 6-4. But Tomas was surprisingly clean, committing only eight unforced errors while winning every one of his net approaches. I would never have guessed the match would be so one-sided, but after less than two hours, Berdych had earned the right to meet Novak Djokovic in the quarters. He's actually won their only meeting at a Major -- last year at the All England Club -- so you know he's got what it takes to give the former champ some trouble.

It's nice to see these guys, some seasoned veterans, others still-emerging talent, up their game when they get to the big leagues, and it certainly shows how much damage they can cause to their opponents during a fortnight. There are still a couple of even tougher matches left for them to win, but if they keep their fortitude, any of them just might be around come next weekend.

January 21, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

I've been writing about numbers for almost fifteen years, and one thing I've learned is that you can make data say anything you want it to, depending on how you look at things -- and that doesn't make it any more predictive of an outcome.

And that's especially true in sports. How many times have you heard how Team A has never beaten Team B when trailing at the half, on the road, in January, when it's below forty degrees in Houston? Or that Player One has a perfect record against Player Two in games played in the southern hemisphere before noon Pacific Time? Add enough caveats -- no matter how ridiculous -- to an assumption, and you can make a case for any result.

Statistics certainly have the ability to skew our perception, and they don't always tell the true story of how a battle was fought. And all you have to do is look at a couple matches at this year's Australian Open. There are some simple incongruities -- David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt actually scored an equal number of points in their almost-five hour slugfest, while Ivo Karlovic again found a way to lose a match when out-acing his opponent, forty-eight to ten. But it can get more complicated than that.

Dominika Cibulkova lost her third round to top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, but it was the teeny Slovak who came out the aggressor. She barreled off thirty-one winners against the world #1, who only scored eleven of her own. She was a little sloppy -- over forty unforced errors, almost four times Caro's -- but that's more an indication of the chances she took versus a highly favored opponent. While Wozniacki seemed content to knock balls back over the net, it was Cibulkova who came up with the risky, more imaginative play, and maybe should have won the match.

Robin Haase didn't last quite as long, but for the first half against veteran Andy Roddick, you might have thought you were witnessing an upset. The twenty-three year old Dutchman took control early, trapping his opponent at the net and allowing no break chances in the opening set. He won nearly eighty percent of his first serves and about half of Andy's. In the second he kept it close -- the two were equal on both winners and errors, and neither made a dent on the other's serve. When Roddick won that in a tiebreak, though, it was all over for Haase, and he dropped the next two sets in about an hour.

And then you have the surprising match between last year's runner-up Justine Henin and one-time French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. The Russian had a surprisingly poor 2-16 record against her third-round opponent over their eight-plus year history and had never beaten her at a Slam -- in fact her only two wins came in tight three setters. And as one of my friends pointed out, Henin had only lost at the Australian Open to players ranked -- either at the time or at some point -- #1 in the world, and Kuzey topped out at #2.

But it was Sveta who came out firing this time. Though she made slightly fewer errors and a handful more winners, she was cleaner when it counted. She stayed strong after losing a break-lead in the second set and after failing to serve it out. She saved set points and withstood faster serves, and after two hours, Kuznetsova was the one left standing. Maybe she is heading for the #1 ranking...

So what can we learn from all this? Well for one thing, numbers -- whether stats, scorelines or match length -- clearly don't tell the whole story. And for another, past performance is no indication of future results. That's not to say that keeping and monitoring such minute records doesn't have it's place -- but it certainly can't beat watching the darn games!

January 20, 2011

A Chance to Break Through

We've reached that point in the Australian Open where, had there been no upsets, we'd see seeds play seeds across the board. But what fun would it be if there were no upsets? With so many of the sports top players dropping from the start, it's not only wreaked havoc with the draws, but given a couple lesser-known players a real chance to continue their early runs.

Twenty-three year old Monica Niculescu had only won one match in Melbourne before this year, but she downed a tough Timea Bacsinszky in the first round and followed it up by beating Wimbledon standout Tsvetana Pironkova on Wednesday. They might not have been the highest-ranked players, but with a third round match against a wholly beatable Francesca Schiavone, the Romanian might be able to make a big statement. It'll only get harder, of course, as one of two other Grand Slam champions -- Justine Henin or Svetlana Kuznetsova -- will be waiting in the wings, but for someone who's never won more than two matches at a Major, we're sure seeing some signs of progress.

World #46 Alexandr Dolgopolov is making his Australian Open debut, but he's been playing a lot of tennis recently. After making the quarters in Moscow and St. Petersburg to round out 2010, he romped Sam Querrey in Sydney. The Ukranian hasn't faced a seeded player yet -- his previous opponent took care of that for him -- but with a third round date with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man he took to five sets last year at Wimbledon, he's in a similar position to show his strength and potential. Like Niculescu, though, he could meet an even tougher opponent after that -- Robin Soderling should have no trouble advancing -- but if Dolgopolov is going to continue climbing the rankings, he'll have to face the best players.

Julia Goerges is ranked just outside of seeding territory, so it's not the biggest surprise that she's made it this far. But though she's riding a wave of momentum that scored her wins over Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic and Sam Stosur since the U.S. Open and even earned her first Tour trophy in Bad Gastein, she's never had much success at the big events. That could change though, as her next opponent, 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, is not looking quite as sharp as she once was. And with Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic likely to wear each other out to make the fourth round, it might be Julia's turn to pounce.

Japan's Kei Nishikori has been building himself back up, having dropped clear off the rankings when an elbow injury took him out of contention in 2009. He survived a feisty Fabio Fognini in his first round and withstood a bagel in the third set against Florian Mayer on Wednesday to lock in his best performance yet in Melbourne. And though he's got two top-ten players coming up -- Fernando Verdasco followed potentially by Tomas Berdych -- neither is playing his best tennis these days, and might be surprised in their runs.

The biggest on-paper upset so far this tournament has come from twenty-five year old Shuai Peng who withstood several comeback attempts from seventh-seeded Jelena Jankovic yesterday to make the third round Down Under. And for her efforts, she's rewarded with what could be the best prospects of the underdogs -- she owns a solid two-to-one career record over Ayumi Morita, who she'll face next, and could face either an ailing Aggie Radwanska or former Juniors champ Simona Halep after that. Despite her ten-plus years on Tour, Peng's never made the quarterfinals at a Slam, and I've got to like her chances now.

It's always nice -- and sometimes commonplace -- to see some new faces emerge at the Majors, but these guys in particular have the added fortune of a fairly clear path for at least the next few rounds. I'm not saying they'll win the whole thing, but it sure is a great way to start the year.

January 18, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With only two days of play in the books for the 2011 Australian Open, we've already gotten a glimpse of what we might expect for the rest of the tournament and -- dare I say? -- at least the next few months of the year. Some of it is encouraging, some less so -- and the rest, well, I'll be generous and hold off my final judgment for now.

The Good

Let's start with the highlights -- the top seeds all had an easy time with their first rounds. Among the top ten men, only one lost a set, and the women were similarly impressive with Kim Clijsters and Marion Bartoli both serving up double bagels.

But we saw some inspired play from others as well. More than a couple seeds -- Mardy Fish, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- dug themselves out of two set deficits when they were all but out of contention. And 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro made a winning start in his return to the Slams, while fellow Argentine David Nalbandian survived probably the toughest first round opponent in Lleyton Hewitt in a nearly five-hour, early morning slugfest.

For the ladies Yanina Wickmayer, stuck with a tough opener against Hobart champion Jarmila Groth, survived her first test, while Aggie Radwanska, playing uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm stayed strong even when the crowd, her body and her racket all seemed to be against her. And Sorana Cirstea, once ranked in the top twenty-five, won her first main draw match since Copenhagen in August by beating a tough Mirjana Lucic in straight sets.

And if you want some bright signs for the future of the sport, check out Australian wildcard Bernard Tomic, and eighteen year old who took advantage of a spotty Jeremy Chardy to make the second round. Or qualifier Simona Halep, making her main draw debut in Melbourne -- she hung in for three sets and almost two hours against veteran Anne Kremer of Luxembourg. The young Romanian may rival Serbian #3 Bojana Jovanovski for the Newcomer of the Year award.

The Bad

Of course, for every good there is a not-so-good. Ana Ivanovic didn't make it out of her first round, but it wasn't for lack of trying. She pulled out a stellar performance against a simply more aggressive, more lethal Ekaterina Makarova on Tuesday, marking her earliest exit from the Australian Open. Sure, it's tough luck for the rebuilding Ivanovic, but we shouldn't take credit away from Makarova, who earned the win on her own merit.

Marcos Baghdatis was slightly more lucky than his counterpart, but it still took him five sets to take care of world #141 Grega Zemlja. He allowed the qualifier to break him four times and barely got half of his first serves in. I know the 2006 runner-up is injured, but the way he played, and especially facing Del Potro in the next round, I'm not sure he'll make another run in Australia this year.

The Ugly

Though their performances may not have been the strongest, I'm not ready to write off Ivanovic or Baghdatis yet. I'm a little more wary of the prospects for some others, though.

I came into this Open watching Aravane Rezai closely -- the Frenchwoman kicked off 2010 with a bang, having won the Bali championships the prior season and stunning Venus Williams in the Madrid finals, but hasn't made the third round of a tournament since July. She clung to a seventeenth seed in Melbourne, but fell in the first day to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, getting blanked in the opening set. Now with only one fourth round Major appearance in the last four years, she'll be hard-pressed to stay among the sport's elite.

And Sam Querrey may also be riding a career-high ranking, but he won only one match since the U.S. Open. He took a two-set-to-one lead on world #72 Lukasz Kubot, but failed to close out his match. After more than three hours of play, he earned the dubious honor of being the first seed to get booted, and has now lost his Melbourne opener for three straight years. It's not the best record for a man I once called the future of American tennis.

Speaking of the country's next-generation stars, Melanie Oudin has only won two Major matches since that glorious run in New York over a year ago. On Tuesday she notched her second loss in as many weeks to the Czech Republic's Klara Zakopalova. She dropped serve nine times in this most recent match, and won a measly thirty percent of her second serve points. Of course, at nineteen years of age she has plenty of time to climb back out of the hole -- but it sure would be a shame for her to have peaked so early.

With any tournament it's a given that we'll see some upsets and a couple standouts. But it sure feels like the early matches in Australia have given us a few extras to talk about this time around. We'll see if we if the top champions can fare as well in the later rounds, or if the nascent talent can keep its momentum going.

And it sure looks like it's only getting more exciting from here.

January 16, 2011

Blogcast: 2011 Australian Open Preview

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

And check out my related content, including my New Year's predictions for the man and woman I picked to win the Open, and the first round matches I'll be watching particularly closely.

January 15, 2011

Australian Open: First Round Matches to Watch

The first serves of the 2011 Australian Open's main draws will be hit in just a day and, as always, I feel we can expect the fireworks to start right at the get-go.

Now last year I tried to be bold and predict the players who'd get farthest in each of their quarters, but some early upsets and a few stellar Cinderella performances gave me a pretty bad record on the year. So I've decided to set my sights a little closer to kick-off and highlight a couple of opening round matches that could really set the tone for the tournament.

Some might be the site of big upsets, others could lay the foundation for a valiant comeback, while the rest may launch the careers of a couple next-generation stars. Whatever the case, I hope these matches are as fun to watch as those we've seen in the past -- and maybe provide us a bit of a glimpse into the future.

So let's get right to it.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal might have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his section of the draw. The 2009 Melbourne champion shouldn't face any big threats in the early rounds. But elsewhere in his bracket, his colleagues may tell different stories.

World #7 and Auckland champion David Ferrer drew a resurging Jarkko Nieminen for his opener. Though they've both been around more than a decade, they've never met on the pro Tour -- the Finn won their only match at a Challenger event back in 2001. Once a top-fifteen player, Niemenen struggled with a wrist injury in '09 but started climbing out of the hole last year. He beat Gilles Simon in Hamburg and Tomas Berdych in Stockholm, but his year was highlighted by a runner's-up trophy in Bangkok. It wouldn't be out of the question to see an upset here, especially if the Spaniard is all all worn down by his title run this past week.

Elsewhere Feliciano Lopez meets Alejandro Falla, inexplicably ranked out of the top hundred, in his first match. The two are ostensibly clay court specialists, but remember that Falla was up two sets and a break against Roger Federer last year at Wimbledon, so he could be a threat on other surfaces too. He hasn't won a lot recently, but he just might surprise us here. And Michael Llodra, at his highest career ranking at thirty years of age, drew former #15 Juan Ignacio Chela to start -- in the battle of two veterans, I'm not sure I'd pick the seeded Frenchman to win.

But possibly the most intriguing match in this quarter will be between Kooyong exhibition winner Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, who took home the second place trophy in Auckland. The Australian has fallen out of the top fifty, but he's still cuts an intimidating figure in the sport. He leads the pair's head-to-head, but Nalbandian won their only match in the last five years. Given the way the Argentine has played during his comeback, I like his chances to win, but it could be a long couple sets before anything is decided.

The late-round match-to-watch: If seeds progress as they should, John Isner will meet Marin Cilic in the third round, two big men with big serves. I'm not sure either will get there -- Cilic has been struggling recently, while Isner is really only pulling out decisive wins over much-lower ranked players. But the winner of this potential match-up will at least boost his confidence for the rest of the year.

Second Quarter

While Rafa may have been dealt an easy first week, Roger Federer may have been dealt the opposite -- he could face Sydney champion Gilles Simon, in the top ten just about a year ago, or Yen-Hsun Lu, last year a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, in the second round. Then there's the match between Mardy Fish, one of my favorites to shine at the past U.S. Open, and Victor Hanescu. The Romanian can be tricky, and if Fish isn't fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered at the end of last year, he might have some trouble.

One match in which the chance for an upset is pretty high will be the one between Sam Querrey and Lukasz Kubot. Even though he's at an all-time career high ranking, the American has only won one match since the U.S. Open, squandering a top seed in Sydney this past week by falling in his opener. Kubot is ranked lower than anyone Sam's lost to recently, but that doesn't mean he won't set a new precedent. I'm hoping he gets it together to advance here, but I'm cautious on that prediction.

The late-round match-to-watch: Roger and Mardy are set up for a fourth round meeting, and if they both get there it would be fun to see a rematch of the Cincy finals. And if both Federer and Andy Roddick make good on their seedings, they could put forth a spectacular quarter.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic leads this section of the draw and might face his first test in the second round versus big-serving Ivo Karlovic, while sixth seed Tomas Berdych may have received a pass by receiving a qualifier in the first round.

But I'll be watching young American hopeful Ryan Harrison, who received the U.S. wildcard into the tournament. He displayed some promising signs of talent in New York last year, and I'd love to see him continue that momemtum. But the eighteen-year-old drew Auckland quarterfinalist Adrian Mannarino in the first round, and we certainly know he's capable of pulling off some upsets.

The match-up between Fabio Fognini and Kei Nishikori could also set off some sparks. Fognini has been slowly climbing the ranks, while Nishikori is trying to recapture the momentum he had before an elbow injury ended his run in 2009. They've both been pushed to fifth sets, and know how to hang in when needed, but if the man from Japan can get the win, I like the tone it would set for his year.

A bigger potential for a spoiler, though, might come from Davis Cup champ Viktor Troicki and Dmitry Tursunov, another rebuilding story. Sparse action from the Russian last year pushed him out of the top five hundred, but he's capable of doing damage at his best. He played some nice matches during his Asia circuit in 2010, and if Troicki's final run in Sydney this past week left him burnt out, it could present an opportunity for Tursunov to pounce.

The late-round match-to-watch: Nikolay Davydenko is seeded well below his talent level and, when playing at his best, he's far better than most of the men in his part of the draw. He might set up a quarterfinal with Djokovic that could hold a few surprises.

Fourth Quarter

Robin Soderling and Andy Murray have been trading off the #4 and #5 ranking the in sport for the past few months, so it's only fitting they end up in the same quarter in Melbourne. Though they both may get a few challenges from their early round opponents, neither should have too much trouble advancing.

I'm not sure the same can be said for thirteenth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who'll face an under-ranked Phillipp Petzschner for the second round. Another pair who've only met once in the Challengers, they could spend a long first day on the court. Tsonga made a nice run to the semis in Doha, so he seems to be back in playing shape, but the German has been known to take advantage of his opponents in the past and may not let the on-paper favorite get that far.

And Ernests Gulbis, who played well against Nadal in Doha and made the semis in Sydney, is one of those feisty up-and-comers who is just begging for a chance to impress at a Major. He'll first have to get through Benjamin Becker, a tricky player who has beaten higher ranks -- Nikolay Davydenko in Halle, Fernando Verdasco in Brisbane -- so it might not be the easiest walk in Melbourne Park. I'm not entirely encouraged by the Latvian's display of frustration at losing the lead against Gilles Simon this past week, but I'd like to see him really show what he's got on a big stage.

The late-round match-to-watch: 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro may have his comeback attempt thwarted early, as he has a second round date with Marcos Baghdatis. But the 2006 runner-up from Cyprus pulled out of Sydney with a groin injury, and if he's not up to snuff, it may work in the Argentine's favor.

The Women

First Quarter

If you're looking for first round upsets, this might be the quarter for them. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki drew top-ranked doubles player Gisela Dulko for her opener, while Hobart champion Jarmila Groth gets Auckland runner-up and twenty-first seed Yanina Wickmayer. I'm not sure the on-paper favorites will get out of either of those matches, though I'd love at least Caroline to prove me wrong.

I'll also be watching for follow-through from Dominika Cibulkova, who pulled off the upset of her young career when she beat Wozniacki handily in the second round of Sydney. She drew Angelique Kerber, who she's beaten in their only previous meeting. But the German defeated higher-ranked players throughout the back half of last year -- Shahar Peer at Wimbledon, Aggie Radwanska in Beijing, Daniela Hantuchova in Luxembourg -- so she might be able to handle the diminutive Slovak, who can be spotty if she loses focus.

The late-round match-to-watch: I don't know that we'd reach this point, but if the scores follow the seedings, last year's runner-up Justine Henin would face French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone for the quarterfinals. It could be fun to watch a grudge match between the four-time Roland Garros champ and the woman who took her place.

Second Quarter

Vera Zvonareva held on to the second seed -- and ranking -- by the slimmest of margins coming into the Australian Open, and she wasn't rewarded with an easy draw. She could face Sydney stand-out Bojana Jovanovski in the second round and any one of a host of potential threats -- Melanie Oudin, Klara Zakopalova, Lucie Safarova -- in the third.

More immediately, I'll be watching the early progress of top-ranked teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and last year's quarterfinalist Maria Kirilenko, both in this section. Pavs is the youngest seeded player in Melbourne, and though she retired from Hobart, it came on the heels of a semifinal run in Brisbane. And Kirilenko's 2010 performance in Melbourne launched her into the top echelons of the sport for the remainder of the year. Both will want to kick off their Major campaign on a good note and prove recent results were no fluke.

And I continue to root for the return of Anna Chakvetadze, who's pitted against Olga Govortsova in her first round. Anna's been ranked as high as #5 in the world and made the quarters in Australia back in 2007, but she's only won three Grand Slam matches in the last two years. If she's serious about reestablishing herself, she'll need to win at least a couple here.

The late-round match-to-watch: Fifth seed Sam Stosur didn't have the best start to the year, and with a potential third round match against Brisbane titleist Petra Kvitova -- who won their only previous meeting, albeit when neither was playing at her best -- she might be challenged to improve on it here. But I'm confident both will put up a fight for the win, and it could set an impressive stage for the rest of the year.

Third Quarter

In quite possibly the most interesting first round in either draw, two former #1's -- U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters and 2009 Australian runner-up Dinara Safina -- kick off play with their opener. Clijsters, who could have climbed to second in the world had she won her final against Na Li in Sydney, won this pair's most recent meeting last year in Cincinnati and leads their head-to-head by an intimidating 7-2 margin. Safina has the motivation to get back on a winning track, though -- she hasn't won a match since September, though to be fair she's been handed some pretty ugly draws -- and if Kim hasn't gotten over the emotionally frustrating loss on Friday, the Russian could take advantage.

Also in this quarter is another player once ranked at the top of the sport -- Ana Ivanovic has a rematch of her U.S. Open opener with Ekaterina Makarova and should dismiss her easily again. Then there's super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who faces an injured Aggie Radwanska to start, and could win her first main draw match in Melbourne since 1996. On the opposite side of the experience scale is nineteen-year-old former Junior star Simona Halep, a quarterfinalist in Auckland. She faces a qualifier in her Australian Open debut, and that could be a big opportunity for the youngster.

The late-round match-to-watch: One more former #1, Jelena Jankovic, could meet Sydney semifinalist Alisa Kleybanova for a spot in the quarters. The two have met a handful of times over the last twenty-four months and the lower seed actually has the advantage -- if they both make it that far, my money's on Kleybanova to extend her lead.

Fourth Quarter

Venus Williams leads this section of the draw, but battling injury, she might not be the biggest force in Australia. I don't know that she'll have a lot of trouble in her opener versus Sara Errani, but the Italian certainly has a chance. The bigger threat could come a few matches later, where she may run into Brisbane finalist Andrea Petkovic. And 2008 champ Maria Sharapova should have a relatively easy time against veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn, a woman to whom she's never dropped a set, and make it at least a few rounds further than she did last year.

I'm more interested in the outcome of the match between Aravane Rezai and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. The Frenchwoman did pull off an upset of Jelena Jankovic in Sydney, but hasn't made the third round of any tournament since July. Zahlavova, meanwhile, made the quarters in Brisbane and beat Nadia Petrova handily last week. This could be a match that either reestablishes a talent or sets the tone for a new one.

Waiting for the winner of that one could be 2009 quarterfinalist Jelena Dokic, who's been trying to mount a sustained comeback for the better part of two years. But she first has to get through thirty-year-old Zuzana Ondraskova, a been pro for over fifteen years who's never made a real dent on Tour. The winner of twenty ITF titles hasn't played the main draw in Melbourne in four years, and this could be a golden opportunity to finally advance.

The late-round match-to-watch: Victoria Azarenka, my early pick to win the title won't have to face Serena Williams for the fourth straight time in Melbourne, but she could face her sister for that elusive semi spot. But look out one round earlier than that, where Vika is slated to face Sydney champion and last year's surprise semifinalist Na Li. They've had three close matches in their previous meetings, and Li could pose a big obstacle for my prediction to ultimately come through.

With draws like these, it seems clear that almost anything can happen Down Under, and I'm sure we'll see far more surprises over the next two weeks than I've laid out here. Of course for every upset there has to be upsetter, so we shouldn't be too disappointed if our favorites don't make it out of the early rounds -- it only means that someone else has emerged as a new talent, at least for the time being.

And all we can do is cheer them on and hope they keep the excitement going.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I blogcast my full preview of the Australian Open and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's first Grand Slam.

January 12, 2011

The Survivors

It's been a crazy couple of weeks in Australia for tennis stars, with some of sport's elite struggling to get their footing just ahead of the Australian Open. But while some sort of upset-bug seems to be claiming so many of their peers, a few ladies have stayed focused and still have their eyes on the prize.

The women's draw at the Medibank International boasted a solid roster of talent with seven of the top ten athletes -- twelve of the top twenty -- entered in the action. But almost immediately the seeds began to drop. Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic lost their first round matches while Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Sam Stosur all failed to get out of the second round. And now with only four players left, we're starting to see who might be the real threat in Melbourne.

Na Li, the eighth seed in Sydney, has battled through some tough matches -- she lost sets to both Virginie Razzano and Svetlana Kuznetsova before advancing. The diminutive Chinese has been a bit quiet recently, making a mark at really only one tournament in the back half of 2010, but let's not forget her inspiring run to the Australian semis last year. She had powered through Caroline and stunned Venus Williams before taking Serena to two tiebreakers in defeat. She might fly under the radar, but the twenty-eight year old vet certainly has the talent to again advance deep into the draw.

More center-stage is Kim Clijsters, the top seed remaining in Sydney. She's only lost a handful of games this week, and is the clear-cut favorite to take the title. Of course, this might not mean much -- after winning Brisbane last year, she went on the suffer an uncharacteristic, and somewhat embarrassing, drubbing in Melbourne. I doubt that will be the case this time around, though, as the 2010 U.S. Open and Doha champion is producing some of the most accurate and powerful shots on tour. As long as she stays healthy, you have to count her as one of the favorites for another Major.

It's never easy to stay calm when you see so much frenetic action going on around you, but both Li and Clijsters have kept their heads while so many others have seemed to lose theirs this week.

And with the Australian Open beginning in just a few days, it couldn't happen at a better time.

January 9, 2011

The Princes & The Cinderellas

The first week of tournament play of the new year has certainly yielded some interesting results -- while so many of the top women in the sport fell early in their events making way for a couple fairy tale runs, the men brought their game all week and several of the sport's best advanced all the way to the championship rounds.

The first men's trophy of 2011 went, not surprisingly, to Roger Federer who ousted a resurgent Nikolay Davydenko in Doha. It was the world #2's third title in the desert after a five-year drought but, more importantly, it was his fourth title in his last five tournaments -- his fifth since Wimbledon. If the rest of the field didn't already have reason to fear Fed in Melbourne, they certainly do now.

But some no-less-important statements were made a little further east.

Over in Chennai, India, two-time defending champ Marin Cilic was dismissed early, but most of the other seeds advanced without too much drama. Sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych, who hadn't played very well to end the year, finally put together back-to-back wins again to reach the semifinals where he was eventually dismissed by Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets. In the other half of the draw, a tough Xavier Malisse, who's been climbing his way back after a wrist injury that largely kept him out of contention for the last three years, advanced easily, only dropping one set in the semis to Janko Tipsarevic before making his first final since 2007.

Third-seeded Wawrinka found himself in a deficit early on Sunday, though, down 2-4 in the first set before knocking of wins in five of the next six games to capture the lead. But the Belgian raised his level in the second, winning every one of his first serve points, and only dropping two of his second attempts. He made good on his only break opportunity and was able to force the match into a decider.

But the third was all about the Swiss -- this time it was Wawrinka who displayed the superior serves, ceding only one receiving point to Malisse, and breaking his opponent twice to run off with the championship after more than two hours of play. It was Stan's third career title, and his first on a hardcourt -- certainly a good result as the world #21 tries to make a big mark at the Majors.

A little closer to Melbourne it was the very top seeds that made it to the finals at the Brisbane International. Defending champ Andy Roddick looked to be playing near his prime, surviving tough opponents in fifth seeded Marcos Baghdatis and big-serving Kevin Anderson to make the title match again. Meanwhile Robin Soderling, who'd only dropped serve once in his first four matches made good on his top billing and advanced to his seventeenth career final.

The Swede got off to a good start, breaking Andy early and winning the first set in just over half an hour. Things were tighter in the second, as the American saved a handful of break points early and kept his cool after a scuffle with officials over the rain. Eventually though, serving his sixteenth ace of the match, it was the tournament favorite -- now ranked fourth in the world -- who captured the crown. He won an amazing ninety percent of his first serves during the match and never faced a break point, securing his best-ever seeding at a Grand Slam.

But while the higher seeds lived up to expectations on the men's side, it was anything but for the ladies. In Brisbane none of the top three seeds made it out of the second round and the two eventual finalists took care of numbers four and five in the semis. Unseeded Andrea Petkovic made it through the top half of the draw without losing a set while Petra Kvitova, ranked just two spots below the German, took out big threats including Nadia Petrova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Dominika Cibulkova on the way to her third career final.

The two unlikely opponents had faced each other four times before, splitting their meetings, with Petkovic winning the last two. But Kvitova, a surprise semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, came out firing and broke Andrea in the first game of the match. She took advantage of weak serving from Petkovic -- both actually won more returning points than service points in the first set -- and took the opener in just over half an hour. Petko climbed out of an early hole in the second set, but the twenty-year-old Czech came back roaring and broke right back to close out her title.

And while it was a story of youth in Australia, it was a thirty-one year old veteran who triumphed down in New Zealand. Greta Arn took out three seeds in a row, including 2008 Australian Open champ Maria Sharapova, to make her first final since 2007. She earned the right to meet defending champion Yanina Wickmayer for the title, the only seeded woman to make a final this weekend.

But here again, the results were not to be expected. Arn who wasn't supposed to play in Auckland at all -- she only made it in the main draw after a couple higher-ranked players withdrew and saved five match points against Sophie Arvidsson in the second round -- was the better server all match, winning a much higher percent of her first serves and saving both break points she faced. Wickmayer, who struggled in Tour play at the end of last year, was out-maneuvered by the more experienced Hungarian and failed to defend her title after less than ninety minutes of play.

They were obviously solid wins for all players involved -- the top men re-established themselves as ones to watch Down Under, while some new faces emerged on the women's side as potential spoilers. Of course it's too early to tell how long these Cinderella runs and princely reigns will last, but if the action this week is any indication, we're in for a year of some great and exciting tennis.

January 7, 2011

Well Isn't This Interesting...?

While many of the world's top players packed up their suitcases to head Down Under in preparation for the Australian Open, a couple of the most elite stayed in the Western hemisphere to fight amid the desert in Doha. And with both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer entered in the ExxonMobil Open in Qatar, us fans started to get excited about the possibility of another match-up between the two greats.

We'll have to wait a bit longer.

For most of the week the seedings in Doha played out as expected. Seven of the eight top players made the quarters and the first four all reached the semis -- Rafa and Roger were joined by Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and defending champ Nikolay Davydenko. But despite their rankings, the ascent of the latter two was a bit surprising -- a knee injury took Tsonga out of contention after Monpellier while a nagging wrist fracture derailed what should have been a strong 2010 for the Russian and dropped him out of the top twenty for the first time in almost six years.

A promising run for Tsonga ended Friday when Federer took their semifinal match in less than an hour and a half. But Davydenko delivered the shock of the tournament a few hours later when he took on world #1 Nadal. He capitalized on weak serving by the Spaniard and broke his opponent's serve an amazing five times. He built a 5-0 lead in the second set and, though he allowed an ailing Rafa to get one break back and four more chances to even the set in the ninth game, the Russian eventually closed out the match in under ninety minutes.

It was the second straight time Davydenko had beaten Nadal in Doha -- they played the finals here last year -- and the third win in a row he's notched against the Spaniard. To successfully defend his title, of course, he still has to battle through a renewed Roger, though he's pulled off the one-two punch of beating both champions before -- and if he's healthy, he could very well do it again.

But whatever the result tomorrow, Nikolay has certainly put himself back on the radar for the Australian Open, which kicks off in just over a week. Ranked well below his ability, he could be in a position to pull off quite a few upsets and wreak havoc with the draw.

And I don't think anyone will be comfortable with Nikolay Davydenko in his path.

January 4, 2011

For Love of Country

We don't waste any time in tennis, do we? The New Year barely even started before eight teams of players traveled Down Under to represent their countries at the Hyundai Hopman Cup. And so far we've had some pretty interesting -- and encouraging -- results.

For those unfamiliar with the action in Perth, it's not your usual Davis Cup/Fed Cup play. Until the Olympics adopt the discipline next year, it's the only professional, non-Slam event which includes mixed doubles -- and probably the only one in which it plays a Major part. Players endure a series of Round Robin ties which include men's and women's singles and mixed doubles, and every match, every set, every game carries equal weight. It's sort of like World Team Tennis, all smashed into one week -- but there's a bit more of a nation's pride on the line.

The unique format emphasizes the team aspect in a sport which is so centered around the individual. And while players don't earn any ranking points at the tournament, it's nevertheless been able to attract some of the world's greats from Steffi Graf to Serena Williams to Roger Federer, each of whom paired with a compatriot to bring home the trophy.

This year's field boasts three top-ten athletes and another three former #1's. Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic headline the top-seeded Serbian team, with Andy Murray, Francesca Schiavone, Justine Henin and Lleyton Hewitt each leading their own pairs. And while it shouldn't be too surprising that the Serbs have so far compiled a perfect record, a bit more shocking is that the unseeded Americans John Isner and Bethanie Mattek-Sands currently lead Group B with a tidy 3-0 record.

But it only gets harder from here. Ivanovic faces her first big test since staging her recent comeback when she faces Justine Henin, a woman she's never beaten, and Mattek-Sands should have a much tougher time against French Open and Fed Cup champion Schiavone. And though Isner has beaten top-ten players in the past, he's only faced Murray once before and hasn't taken a set off him.

Of course there's a lot of game left to be played, but early results sure must give these two nations -- both of which have been struggling in the sport in one way or another the last few years -- a little bit of hope. And what better way is there to kick off a new year?

January 1, 2011

A Couple Major Calls

Well here we are at the start of another year, and already I'm about to break one of my resolutions.

Now I know I said I'd hold off before making any lofty predictions about how this year's Majors would turn out, but here I am all aglow in the potential of a new year and I just can't help myself. I'll try to keep it relatively brief though, as I'm still working off the morning's hangover.

So here you have it -- my completely unsubstantiated (so far) calls for the four men and women who will win the Grand Slams this year.

Australian Open

The Women

This one could get interesting -- with two-time defending champion Serena Williams out of the mix, it'll be the first odd-numbered year in a decade where she won't claim the title. And yes, that will open the door for other players to pounce early -- Caroline Wozniacki as the year-end #1, Kim Clijsters as the Doha winner, Ana Ivanovic as a resurgent star.

But I'm giving this first Major to Victoria Azarenka, who had her previous two attempts in Melbourne heart-breakingly stopped at the hands of the eventual champion. Traditionally she's had her most success early in the year, and if she's able to retain the momentum she captured during her Asian tour, she'll already be a step ahead Down Under.

The Men

In situations like this -- hard courts, best-of-five matches, the experience of a champion -- you have to favor Roger Federer, and I do. Sure Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have both tasted victory on these grounds, and Andy Murray made a solid run to the finals here last year. But the record Roger piled up in the last three months of the season proves you can never count him out -- and with four trophies to his name already, no one knows better how to win in Melbourne.

French Open

The Women

By the time spring rolls around, I think we're all hoping Serena will be back and battle-ready. But this has never been her best Slam, and with her last semifinal appearance coming in 2003, I would wait a bit before she makes her biggest impact on Tour. Defending champ Francesca Schiavone put up an amazing fight to claim her first Major title last year, but I'm not sure she's quite up to repeating this time around.

The woman she beat in the 2010 finals, though, might just be ready to go one better. Sam Stosur had a stellar clay court season this past spring, but more importantly, rebounded nicely post injury to make the semis at her first year-end championship. Some may say she has to work on her backhand, but the sheer power in her groundstrokes makes her just as formidable an opponent as either of the Williams sisters, and her first Major could be just around the corner.

The Men

All evidence points to another Nadal victory, and chances are that will be the case yet again. The five-time champ in Paris has only ever lost one match here, and his runs to the U.S. Open title and the finals in London prove that his game is not peaking, but actually getting better.

Still all streaks must come to an end some time, and on the tricky clay we know anything can happen. Players like Robin Soderling, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco have all shown they can keep up with the big guns on the terre battue and might be able to pull off an upset. But as much as I'd love to call for one of these guys to make this their breakout tournament, my good sense tells me Rafa still has at least one more title left in him, and he'll chalk up Roland Garros #6 in June.


The Women

The Williams sisters have dominated the Championships for the better part of the decade -- at least one of the pair has appeared in the finals every year since 2000, and only twice did neither of them win it. And if you're thinking that both will be coming off injuries and neither will be ranked quite at the top of her game, let's not forget that Serena made the 2008 finals when ranked sixth and Venus won in '07 while only 31st in the world. We all know better than to count either of them out, but with her career ever-so-slightly closer to its end, I'll give the advantage to the elder sister this time.

The Men

Okay, here's where I make my sacrilegious bet. Of course Roger and Rafa are the favorites, Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray have proven their mettle on the grass courts of the All England Club. But us Americans have been patiently waiting for the next big force to emerge in the men's game, and I think this might be the time for that to happen.

Andy Roddick has come so close so many times, but some less-than-inspiring performances to round out 2010 make me less sure about his prospects. Sam Querrey was once my favorite to take over the reins, but with only one win since the U.S. Open I'm a little more sanguine. So I'm pinning my hopes on the big guy -- six-foot-nine John Isner spent almost as much time on the lawn in his first round epic last year as Nadal did in his seven matches to the title. As long as he doesn't concentrate all his effort on one opponent this time, I think he could make a solid run in this Major.

U.S. Open

The Women

Kim Clijsters has now won this title two years in a row, and the last three times she's played. I wouldn't be surprised to see her take it again, but she has been known to deliver some surprising matches in the past. Remember last year's Australian Open where she won only a single game against Nadia Petrova in the third round? Of course this is practically her home court, though, so she'll more than bring the fire, but that doesn't mean she won't be caught off guard.

In fact I think we'll see another first-time Major winner this year in New York. With all of my heart I hope it's Vera Zvonareva -- for all the effort she put in during 2010 I feel she needs a payoff immediately. Still plucky Caroline Wozniacki spent the entire fall proving she deserves the #1 ranking, and I think she'll be spending the next nine months doing the same. She may not be able to defend all of the titles she earned this past year -- some of those tournaments won't even exist in the new year -- but I think she's ripe for a Slam before year end.

The Men

It's likely the men too might give us some surprises in New York this year. Twice in a row we've seen the previous King of Queens dismissed -- albeit in grand style -- by Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 and then by Novak Djokovic this past September. I wouldn't count Federer out, of course, but we have seen signs that he might be ready to pass the torch.

Nadal's title run last year was inspiring, but I'm not sure he has it in him to repeat so quickly on his worst surface. Andy Murray has made a few valiant attempts here, but unless we see his emotional game mature this year, I think it's still too early to call for the win. Instead, I'm giving this year's U.S. Open to two-time finalist Djokovic whose game just gets more mature over time. If he's going to make a real run to #1, this could be his opportunity to do it.

Of course the lead up tournaments to each of the Majors will give us a better idea of who's most fit going into each of these events, so all these predictions could change on a dime. But with little certainty as to how things will turn out in the next twelve months, I've done my best with the existing evidence. Who knows, it could happen -- otherwise I may be forced to put away my crystal ball for good.

Anyway, here's hoping I do better with my other resolutions -- in fact, I'm heading to the gym right now.