Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Scheduling Dominoes

Each year I'm always astonished at how the respective tours put together their schedule.

The ATP has gone to round-robin format, which first received high praise last fall but was given mostly thumbs down following its debut prior to the Australian Open.

On the women's side, Melbourne is preceded by Sydney (a Tier I) and then followed by Tokyo (a Tier I).

What really baffles me is the importance that is placed on the majors by the players, media and the organizations, but that two of the majors (I think you can guess which), have just two weeks of warm-up time before their respective tournaments start.

The one frustration I've had with newly-released ideas for a rearrangement of tour schedules is that no one is willing to do away with a possible December start date. Check this out:
-The season kicks off in mid-December and there are 4-5 weeks of play in SE Asia, New Zealand and Australia prior to the Aussie (which would start one week later).
-The tours then takes a inevitable journey to indoor, random outdoor and clay events before re-focusing in late-March for the beginning of the clay season. Roland Garros would take place two weeks earlier, running through May.
-June would mean grass and northwestern Europe and Britain would host 4 weeks of grasscourt play before Wimbledon took place the first two weeks of July.
-WTT committed players and those in need of a rest would take the second two weeks of July off, giving a much-needed break from the Europe swing of the tour.
-The US Open Series would be alive and well, taking place in August before the US Open, which would start one week later: Labor Day weekend.
-The fall season would be shorter and more tightly-strung. Play a few indoor events leading up to the season-ending championships which would be held at the end of October. This would give the players a healthy two-month break and allow for rest and refuge.

It, of course, is not the perfect plan. The thing that I can't shake out of my head is that three out of the four majors are held in typically bad-weather cities. Paris is frigid in the winter and has an ugly spring; London gets as much or more rain as Seattle and New York is as far north as St. Paul, Minnesota. It's a wonder how a warm-weather sport can end up contesting its most coveted prizes in places that just aren't built for it.

Until the schedule issue is solved, however, we will continue to see rampant injuries, botched top-tier draws and continuous big name absences from the games rough nature.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Guga Returns

With visions of the red-clayed courts of Paris and Gustavo Kuerten in head, I gladly welcome this three-time Roland Garros champion back to the tour. Can't you just see him, lengthy and spent, drawing that iconic giant heart in the middle of Court Chatrier after his '01 win there?

I love that moment, and I love this man. I think everyone's glad to see him back for one last go at things at the tender age of 30.

Final Thoughts: Part two

I really enjoy Jon Wertheim's tidbits from the Aussie. He always comes up with some good stuff.

As suggested by Jon, here's Gonzalez's runner-up speech:

Also, did anyone try to access the WTA website earlier today? I wanted to see how Tokyo was going...but I got the page from last Monday's Aussie. Am I living in a severed world? Maria's into the quarters (of the Aussie) though, if anyone was wondering.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Final Thoughts

The last two weeks - the Aussie kicker for the year - were hopefully a display of what the 2007 season has in store for us.

First, there was Serena Williams. No one expected her to do what she did, yet everyone knew - deep down - that she could. Even with four months away from the game, lingering injuries and an extreme lack of match play, Williams is still one of (if not the) best women's tennis player in the world. I hope we see more of Serena this year. She's a gift whose presence is always welcomed at any WTA event.

As for the men, there's been no cracking Roger Federer since June of last year. The man is brilliant, and his cool, calm destruction of the field this year is a testament to his talent. He ran over his biggest challenger, Andy Roddick, in the semifinals and proved too efficient for big-hitting Fernando Gonzalez in the finals. I'd say that Fed is the biggest story in men's tennis this year: the quest for the Grand Slam. He's certainly capable, we'll just have to see if one of those once-in-awhile Fed hiccups comes at a major.

Just last week I was in one of my journalism classes and a local city planner spoke to us about developing stories around the town. One thing that is happening in Seattle is a certain elimination of public tennis courts around town. "This isn't the 70s," the speaker said. "No one is playing tennis anymore." I'd tend to disagree, but I don't have the numbers, and our nine-month-a-year cloudy skies sure don't help the tennis cause any here either. Yet I'd argue that it's stars like Serena and Roger (and Andy and Venus and James and Rafael)that must continue to prosper in order for the game to get the much-needed lift it deserves. Because I for one know that tennis is a game I want to gift to my children, but I certainly can't do that on private-only courts with a writer's salary to speak of.

An optimist's POV: 2007 is the year of the revolution.

End notes:
Even though Roddick was crushed in the semis, you have to love him in the press conferences, classic!

The Bryan Brothers were entertaining in their AO win. Maybe doubles really does have a place in the game?

This is the story that appears when you click on the Jan-Michael Gambill link on the ATP website. I didn't know JMG turned into a furry teddy while away on injury!

The women are in Tokyo this week. Though I love this tourney, their English website is certainly difficult to navigate.

American Madison Brengle, the 16th seed in the juniors, had quite a trip to Melbourne. She lost in the finals to the top seed, but didn't drop a set on her way there and also gave Patty Schnyder all she could handle in the opening round of the main draw. Is there something Capriati-esque about this girl? I think so:

Happy almost-February all. To the obscure indoor slash random hardcourt tournaments we go :)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Word Play

I always like playing with words, especially when it comes to headlines. As for the men's semifinals, try these out for size:

Roddickulous: Fed crunches Andy

Haas-Kicking: Gonzalez steamrolls into finals

Thursday, January 25, 2007

In-form Serena, Sharapova Meet in Finals

The rivalry of two well-storied WTA Tour stars gets rekindled Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova meet for the 2007 Australian Open crown.
While this is Williams' first grand slam final in two years, it will be just the third championship match that Sharapova has competed in in her short career.

Yet history seems to be on Sharapova's side, the Russian teen is 2-0 in slam finals, including her 6-1 6-4 trouncing of Williams at Wimbledon in 2004.

Their rivalry has been anything short of dramatic, with the series tied at 2-2. Their matches have always been hotly contested, with Williams winning the first meeting at Miami '04 before Sharapova won Wimbledon a few months later.

To close out that year, Sharapova took advantage of an injured Serena in the Tour Championships when Williams fizzled her 4-1 third-set lead to give Maria the year-end title 4-6 6-2 6-4.

It was their last meeting, in the semifinals here two years ago that was all a grand slam match could be. Saving match points, an orange-haired Serena won 8-6 in the third to book a spot in the finals and deny Maria a chance at her first title in Australia.

When they meet on Saturday, it will clearly be a battle of two wills: the hungry-comeback-overweight(?)-champion-of-the-past and the eager-sometimes cheating-fiesty teen. Yuri will pump his chest between each point while Oracene will nod in approval and applause with an expression-less face while the two champions grind it out on the hot, sticky court in mid-day Southern hemisphere heat.

What I love about this match up is the hope it gives to 2007. '06 saw Hingis return and Amelie conquer what had haunted her for so long, but it was a relatively down year for the women's tour. This match will reignite a rivalry that the tour desperately needs - and wants - and with the return of Henin in a few weeks, we could see an all-out brawl for #1 if all involved can stay healthy.

So kick back on Saturday and enjoy some high-quality women's tennis. Have the remote nearby, the grunting is sure to get loud...but for the first time in a while, it might be a welcomed sound, one of a game finding its groove once again.

My call: Serena 3-6 6-1 6-4.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Serena Sizzling

There's something very 2005 about Serena Williams' 2007 Australian Open campaign. Ten days into the tournament, the 81st-ranked American finds herself in the semifinals against a European teen, much like her path from two years ago.

A week ago, Serena had set up a third-round encounter with Russian Nadia Petrova, the same player she beat here in '05 in the fourth round. Her 6-3 in-the-third victory last week was, well, almost identical to her 6-3 in-the-third over Petrova last time they met here. Just wait, it gets weirder.

In '05, Williams won her semifinal against Maria Sharapova, an up-and-coming teen with big groundstrokes in '05 8-6 in the third. Yesterday, Williams beat Shahar Peer, an up-and-coming teen with big groundstrokes 8-6 in the third to set up yet another encounter with, you guessed it, an up-and-coming teen with big groundstrokes, Nicole Vaidasova.

And while it was Williams who took out Camille Pin in the opening round of the '05 AO, Sharapova did that dirty work this year, winning 9-7 in the third. Speaking of number one seed - a potential Williams-Sharapova final still looms - she has the chance to beat a fellow Russian in the quarterfinals (Chakvetadze) as she successfully did in '05 (when she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova) to take on a former grand slam champion (Hingis or Clijsters) just like two years ago when she lost to Williams in the semis.

While the similarities run rampant, the play of Williams has been superb over her five won mathces in Melbourne this year. Her needle-and-thread second set against Petrova in the third round was the catalyst that pushed her into champion gear, one she hasn't come out of since. Her drubbing of Jankovic in the fourth round shows her confidence and the 2-6 6-3 8-6 nail-biter over Peer reveals what we all knew about Williams in the first place: she has guts.

Don't Blame Him

Don't blame James Blake, it's not his fault. He played hard, he did his best, he even kept his word on that god-awful beard.

But when Fernando Gonzalez is on, he's on. And there's a reason why he's known as the hardest hitter on the men's tour.

Don't blame James Blake for his not-good-enough performance. Don't blame him for almost coming back in the third set, only to falter in a tie breaker.

Sometimes - especially at the majors - the minor-league champions (well, Gonzalez is the 10 seed) find their range and there's no stopping them. See: Shahar Peer. See: Lucie Safarova.

Yet I give Gonzalez a good chance against Mr. Nadal, who must be completely exhausted from an epic five-setter.

As for James Blake, he's headed home.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Au Revoir, Amelie

Though Amelie Mauresmo was a superb 22-2 in majors last year, the Frenchwoman couldn't keep her much-anticipated title defense alive on Sunday against up-and-comer Lucie Safarova. The teen dominated Mauresmo in their 6-4, 6-3 affair on Rod Laver arena, vaulting the 70th-ranked Safarova into the quarters.

And for Mauresmo, it's good bye and good luck. Her next stab at a major? The French, in May. I feel as though the demons she seemed so sure to be rid of last year may be creeping back in: her usual delirious performance in Paris and another pressure-filled title defense in London.

Can the girl find her game again?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Win Some, Lose Some

Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish booked a quarterfinal clash on Sunday at the Australian Open while Ashley Harkleroad fell in her third-round match.

Roddick pulled out all the stops in his fourth-round encounter with 9th seeded Mario Ancic of Croatia, winning the match 6-3 3-6 6-1 5-7 6-4 in just over three hours.

Meanwhile, Fish continued his impressive form in Melbourne. The unseeded American, currently ranked 42nd in the world, took out 16th seeded David Ferrer in four sets, 6-1 7-6(4) 2-6 7-5.

Harkleroad did not fare as well, losing to 15th seeded Daniela Hantuchova 6-7(6) 7-5 6-3. The 21-year-old started off the match well, taking the first set and jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the second. Hantuchova surged back, however, breaking Harkleroad's serve at love to even the match at 5-all and winning eight of the next 11 games to advance to the fourth round.

While Roddick and Fish now assure an American birth in the semifinals, James Blake, the 5th seed, takes on Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth round. Should Blake win over the hard-hitting South American, he will face either Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal.

Fish and Roddick are close friends, often hitting together at tournaments and practicing in Florida. The higher-seeded Roddick leads their head-to-head matchups 4-1, but shouldn't look to walk through the quarterfinal with ease. The last time the two met, in Memphis a year ago, Roddick needed a third-set tiebreak to get past Fish.

And while Serena Williams is currently leading Jelena Jankovic 3-0 in their third-round encounter (I love AO Radio), the American flag can fly a little higher today: four still alive and week two upon us.

Friday, January 19, 2007

American Pioneers

For the first time in the Open era, no American woman is seeded in the main draw of a major event. The names of the women who have carried the American flag for so many years - Capriati, Venus, Davenport, Seles - are all absent; one citing injury, another retirement and still others...well, we're not too sure. Yet the truth of the matter is, American women's tennis has become a minor-league contender at this year's opening slam: the girls have gone mediocre.

Through all the hoopla and hollering, two women have been somewhat of a saving grace for the stars and stripes this past week in Melbourne. Serena Williams - the perennial comeback kid - and Ashley Harkleroad, the little "Pebbles" from Rossville, Ga., that is looking to rekindle her teen success of 2003.

Williams played four tournaments in 2006, including a third-round exit at this very tournament to Daniela Hantuchova (who Harkleroad plays today). Before the week began, I predicted Serena would again be a third-round victim. Yesterday Nadia Petrova nearly gave truth to my oracle, taking a 6-1 5-4 lead and serving for the match. Yet Serena Williams, in truly Serena form, screeched out a stirring comeback, blasting Petrova with a 1-6 7-5 6-3 upset.

A win like this is what Williams needed. Her shaky second round win had many questioning her ability to compete with the top players again, and when the critics call, Serena usually answers. Now it will take back-to-back top-caliber wins for Serena to find herself in the quarterfinals: Jelena Jankovic awaits the younger Williams in round four.

And there might be a little revenge in Williams' blood, seeing that it was Jankovic herself that stunned then defending champion Venus at last year's Wimbledon. So if Serena can get her druthers together, clean up her 39 unforced-error mess from round three and use her deadly serve to give her the free points it can, I certainly see a solid future in week to for Williams.

As for Harkleroad, the married 21-year-old is looking to repeat a little history when she matches up with Hantuchova, the 15th seed, in the third round. Harkleroad leads their head-to-head matchups 2-0, both wins coming in the spring of 2003 on clay. The American dispatched the lengthy Czech 6-2 6-1 in the quarterfinals of Charleston before winning 9-7 in the third set of their second round bout at Roland Garros two months later.

Harkleroad brings not only history onto the court today, but quite a bit of confidence as well. After winning her opening-round match, Harkleroad had little trouble with 17th seeded Anna Lena Groenefeld, downing the German 6-2, 6-2.

For the American to get past Hantuchova, she'll have to take lessons from her opponent's recent troubles: the 15th seed needed a 6-4 in the third set performance to get past tricky Frenchwoman Emelie Loit in the second round. A little chop and block from Harkleroad? It just might get her a first-ever fourth round birth in a major.

Seeing American tennis in such a condition, Williams and Harkleroad would truly be American Pioneers - of 2007 - to advance into the second week in Melbourne.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The 90s: A Thing of the Past

With the induction of Pete Sampras and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the 1990s have officially become a thing of the past.

No longer are the games giants from the era of bright colors, short hair (for the women), newly titanium-ed racquets, spandex, long hair (for the men), cross-over celebrity relationships and the birth of the endorsement deal populating the upper echelon of professional tennis.

For the first seven years of this new millenium the games great from an era past still were hanging around. Davenport ushered the 2000s with a win at Melbourne Park before Agassi took the Australian in '01 while Capriati denied a teen for the title in France and Sampras put icing on his career cake with an '02 USO win.

Since then, the darlings of the nineties have only been ghosts of their former selves. Seles glittered at the '02 Aussie only to lose in the semis while Courier called it quits as did Graf, Hingis (for a bit), Sanchez Vicario, Navratilova, Sampras, Chang, and finally, Agassi and Davenport.

Though the game continues to be blazing with popularity, I can't help but feel a little lonely without a few of the greats hanging around. While Capriati, Seles and Davenport have all left the door cracked open, it is unlikely we will see any sort of return from any of them. Sampras tried his luck at Team Tennis, a far cry from Centre Court at the All England, and Agassi seems quite content being Dad, playing philanthropist and giving his worked-over body a little rest.

In the last two years, the grand slam winners were barely into their teens during the '90s, showing a gap between the generations of the court. Nadal was seven when Agassi won Wimbledon with his hair, while Henin watched Seles down Graf in the epic '92 final from the stands as a girl.

And though the champions of the past now can now enjoy the world of retirement, a few names of the nineties are still lurking on the tour:
Amy Frazier, currently ranked 143 in the WTA rankings, has played 20 straight US Opens and has been a mainstay on the tour since the early '90s. She has won eight tour titles and has been as high as #14 in the world. Though she didn't make the trip to Melbourne this year, the St. Louis native is still actively practicing.
Nicole Pratt, the 33-year-old Australian is still a top-60 player and lost in a tough three setter to Virginie Razzano in the opening round of the AO this year. This 5'4 speedster has one tour title (Hyberdad '04) to her credit and has been ranked as high as #46 in the world.
Wayne Arthurs, the towering Australian is 35 and into the third round of his 15th Australian Open. The 6-3 big server has one tour win and is better known for his doubles expertise. Ranked as high as #44 in the world, Arthurs reached the fourth round of the 2000 USO by beating then #2 Gustavo Kuerten.

While we appreciate the game and grind of all these veterans, the torch has certainly been passed in the world of tennis. No long is it Gabby, Michael and Steffi, but instead Roger, Amelie and Rafa. While some would say this is bad for the game, I would argue that a sort of 'new energy' is upon the tour, a game full of past-appreciating, fast-rising champions are the new a wave of the game.

I hope Pete and Arantxa are proud.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Molik, Hewitt Hot in Night Session

Lleyton Hewitt capped off a successful night for Tennis Australia, downing American Michael Russell well after midnight following Alicia Molik's winning to return Rod Laver Arena in the night session.

Molik struggled briefly, but came through in straights, winning 6-4, 7-6(2) against Yung Jan-Chan of China. Hewitt, on the other hand, had to pull out all his cards to get through a grueling 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win over Russell.

It was a catastrophic night for both players, who hadn't seen glory on the stadium court since the 2005 AO. Last year, Molik was out with a nasty inner-ear infection and Hewitt won his opening match (on Vodafone) before losing in round two.

The buzz around the court following both wins was certainly one of wishful thinking: can the hometown girl get back to the top where she belongs? Are Hewitt's glory days not yet over?

It's hard to say about either. Hewitt had many talking in '05 when he charged all the way through to the finals, only to fall to Safin and evaporate back into the middle of the pack later that year. Meanwhile, Molik was hit and miss for much of her comeback last year, barely able to string two wins together following her maiden voyage to a major quarterfinal in 2005.

Yet with a little Aussie encouragement and the glow of the summer night at Melbourne Park, both these mid-20s 'veterans' certainly have the chance to give it another go in week two of their home slam.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nearly Pin-possible

Camille Pin, the 25-year-old Frenchwoman, nearly took out first-seeded Maria Sharapova in the second day of the Australian Open. The Russian teen took the 2 hour, 53 minute match 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 in stifling Melbourne heat.

Sharapova breezed through the opening set 6-3 before the diminutive Pin's retrieving game got to the US Open champ in the second, taking the set 6-4.

In the third, Sharapova jumped out to an immediate 5-0 lead and a desperate failed line call challenge by Pin seemed to be the nail in the coffin. Yet the veteran dug deep and held serve for 1-5, then reeled off the next four games, stopping match points from Sharapova twice and evening the match at 5 all.

The two would trade holds for 6-6 and when Sharapova lost her opening service point in that game, she tapped a ball over the net to Pin's side, in obvious confidence that she was in a third-set tiebreak. But at the AO, the third sets are played out, and the chair judge quickly reminded Sharapova, who promptly dropped her service game and fell behind 6-7, 15-30.

It was do-or-die for the two-slam winner at that point, and Sharapova came up with a splendid down-the-line forehand and a whizzing cross-court winner back-to-back to take a 30-40 lead. From that point on, it was all Sharapova. Pin double faulted to give the break back and Sharapova won the next two games and the match, 9-7.

It surely wasn't the start Sharapova and others had anticipated. Pin was a dismal 2-14 in grand slam matches coming into the day, and hadn't been to the second round of a major since last year's Aussie.

But the little speedster from Nice gave Sharapova all the trouble she could handle for the second two sets. Sharapova often looked exhausted, slumping her shoulders and taking refuge in the shade near the back of the court in 90-degree weather.

In the end it was the younger, more powerful Sharapova who was able to come out with the win. Hitting the big shots when she needed to and forcing her opponent to scramble meters behind the baseline. Unlike her meltdown at last year's French to Dinara Safina, in which Sharapova led 5-1 and lost 5-7 in the third, the Russian was able to dig deep and chalk up her first win of 2007.

Ah, The Wonders of the Web

Since June I've been without a television. It was mostly a choice. As a college student, you make decisions - sacrifices - about you have access to and what you don't. Living with four other people, three of which don't watch TV in the first place, it was an easy vote when the TV issue came up at our first house meeting. No cable in the house, which means no tennis for me.

But come Wimbledon it was a little too much for me. I used to savor getting up every summer morning growing up, finishing my paper route and settling in front of the tube for Breakfast at Wimbledon. Luckily with the invention of our good friend the internet, it's almost impossible to miss a beat at the year's majors.

Yesterday I watched Roddick in his epic tie-breaker. Digging himself a hole (6-7, 2-5) and climbing right back out. That was courtesy of ESPN 360. I listened to Mauresmo struggle, but get through Shenay Perry to open the day and fell asleep to the sounds of Aussie commentators chatting about Serena's over-sized earrings and surprising lack of errors.

My favorite feature of the Australian Open website is their radio section. Though the feed is delayed a minute or so, the commentators are a nice break from the dreariness of Mary Carillo and the predictability of Tracey Austin, etc. The accents are to die for and the voices remind you that this really is an Aussie event...something I think we tend to forget through our glowing boxes via ESPN.

It's incredible the accessibility I can have online. I can watch on 360, listen on RA, watch the live scoreboard from AO and look at pictures, read analyses, and low and about all of it when I'm through. Am I a full-functioning product of the 21st century, and though sometimes that scares and disgusts me, it's what I do best.

Day two brings Stosur, Hewitt and Molik. A truly Australian day at the Aussie Open, one that I'll enjoy from the comfort of my Seattle home.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Aus-mas? Au-nnukah? Aus-giving?

This is the time of the year that I really feel like a kid at Christmas: checking websites for scores, re-checking for their TV schedule, calling friends to re-arrange plans to hang out, writing down when and where I'll be watching in my schdule...if only eggnog and a decorated tree were apart of my Aussie habits then it'd be a full-fledged holiday.

But that's what the Australian Open is, and always has been about - a holiday after the holidays. It's a slam that sits alone on the calendar, four months after the US Open and five months before Roland Garros. For tennis fans - especially in America - it's a mid-winter break that kind of feels like a beach front vacation. The television glows of humid green courts and fans sip their Heinekens under umbrellas while players dash across the MELBOURNE-laiden court.


The Ones to Watch: Men
A few days ago I wrote in-depth about three men and three women who I think are all going to be players to watch Down Under this year. The draw is set and in a few hours the first ball will be tossed and the 2007 edition of the Australian Open will be under way. Aside from Federer, Nadal and Blake, there is a barrage of men that I am itching to watch in this first major of the New Year.

Andy Roddick's improbable run at Kooyong this past week was certainly impressive. Though his ATP media file still reads 1-12 against Fed, this mental boost really will help the always head-weary Roddick. I thought that a Connors-less Aussie would mean a week one exit, but A-Rod certainly proved this last week that he is a big boy and can play on his own. If he can get his first couple matches out of the way (including a third-round encounter with Mr. Moody himself: Safin) then I really see Roddick going far, real far. A quarterfinal clash is expected against Ljubicic, but I don't know if the Croatian can get past Mardy Fish in the opening round. Both tournament organizers and I would love to see a Roddick-Federer blockbuster semi.

Novak Djokovic isn't a player that anyone knew of a year ago. Well, very few new of him anyway. His explosion at the French Open (he made the quarters) and a solid finish to 2006 launched him into the top 20 by year end. Now the teenager from Serbia has won his opening tournament of '07 in Australia and is looming in the fourth round for Mr. Federer. Though this youngster can be streaky, he is a validated opponent for King Fed. Not only will he win a set off Federer, but perhaps even two. Beat him? Probably not. But the future of tenis always gives a good show in the mid-week of a major.

Marcos Bagdahtis was the Mr. Sensational of the 2006 AO. He shared the title of crowd favorite with Martina Hingis and rid his guile, gut and hustle to a dramatic finals with Federer. Though many thought the Cypriot would faulter following his performance in Melbourne last year, he had a respectable rest of the year and enters the tournament as the 14th seed. Lurking in the third round is a possible encounter with fellow-under 21 club member Richard Gasquet. Consistency will be the name of the game for these two. Whomever can control their cannons better (oh how I love the Gasquet backhand) will find himself in a quarterfinal match-up with the defending champ himself.

Dmitry Tursonov is in the top quarter of the bottom half of the draw, AKA the Soft Zone. Davydenko is the projected semifinalist in this quarter and Nalbandian the eighth seed. Though both those veterans make viable candidates for a final four birth, the charismatic Russian-turned-American Tursonov is a fun one to watch. He carried Russia on his shoulders to win the Davis Cup title last fall, going 4-0 in singles including his monumental 17-15 in the fifth win over Roddick in Moscow. His game is as quirky as his blog, but if he can gain some consistency through his opening two matches I see him as a threat to go deep.

Andy Murray is no longer Britain's hope for the future, he is now their present. The Scot made his debut at Wimbledon in 2005 and has followed his success there with a well-thought out schedule and execution. The acquisition of new coach Brad Gilbert means we will all be spaired of Gilbert's mostly confusing commentary on ESPN, but the move by Murray was certainly a good one. He placed third in the Kooyong exhibition, losing to Roddick but beating Safin in the consolation round. He has no points to defend in Melbourne and could be a fourth-round threat to Mr. Speed himself, Rafael Nadal. Though Murray will have to be ball striking'ly brilliant to overcome Nadal, it is certainly possible.

My predictions: Quarterfinals - Federer def. Bagdhatis(5 sets); Roddick def. Ferrer(3); Nalbandian def. Tursonov(4); Blake def. Nadal(4).
Semifinals - Roddick def. Federer(5); Blake def. Nalbandian(4).
Finals - Blake def. Roddick 6-2, 5-7, 7-6(1), 6-3.

The Ones to Watch: Women
Maria Sharapova is the top seed at a major for the first time in her life. Sharapova has always had good results in Melbourne, including her epic semifinal last year against JHH in which she got robbed (literally) on two bad line calls. Though the Capriati-Williams match will always be remembered as the moment that gave us instant replay, both calls that went against Sharapova in the third were on game points...meaning she should've been up 4-2 in the third, not Henin. Regardless, Sharapova comes into this slam a little mysterious. She didn't play an official warm up, rather opting for Hong Kong and playing decent tennis there. No one gets more emotionally motivated for the majors, however, and the reigning US Open champ will be sure to bring her "A" game.

Aravane Rezai is a French tennager who has risen from No. 497 in the world in 2004 to 40th in the rankings this week. Last year she played a bundle of satellite tournaments before quafifying for the French. She won two matches, including a three-set victory over 22nd seeded Sugiyama before losing to eventual semifinalist Vaidisova in the 3rd round. She failed to qualify for Wimbledon and went back to the challenger circuit, winning a few matches and gaining direct entry to the US where she went all the way to the fouth round. This fiesty teen has a solid baseline game and enough family trouble to motivate her to do well on the court. Wins over Sprem, Kirilenko, Krajicek and Groenfeld (twice) certainly boosted her confidence last fall as well. If she can get past the bizarre play of countrywoman Emelie Loit in the opening round, I think she can prove to be a major force through the fourth round...perhaps giving Clijsters a little trouble there.

Martina Hingis was the kid in the candy store last year at the Australian Open. She smiled almost after every point, waived to the crowds, curtsed, bowed and blew kisses. A year later Hingis is back in reality, a still legitimate top-ten player...but is she anything more? She compiled wins over most of the top names last year, won a couple titles, but was just 3-2 at the majors following the French. Another quarterfinal loss to Clijsters (Hingis' new found nemesis) will prove to be, well, disappointing.

Serena Williams. Oh, Serena Williams. She was ranked 95th to end '06, her worst year-end ranking since '97, when she was 16. Her loss her last year (as then defending champion) to Daniela Hantuchova was in an eerily familiar scenario: "I was injured, but now I'm back...and no one can touch me." But already she's been touched: Sybille Bammer knocked her out in Hobart and her draw is anything but favorable. First, 27th ranked Mara Santangelo and then potential match ups with Michaella Krajicek, Nadia Petrova and Jelena Jankovic. A repeat performance for Serena again this year? I think so.

Jelena Jankovic is the hottest player on the WTA Tour right now. Though she lost to Clijsters in the finals of Sydney (blew a championship point in the second set), the Serb beat Hingis, Mauresmo and Vaidisova on the way to the finals. She has an 8-1 record so far this season and is improving her mental game (remember the US Open semis?) with every tournament. The thing I love abou this girl is how much you can tell she is loving playing on the tour, tennis is her passion and passionate people do well in what they love. Her no-woman's-land part of the draw is certainly favorable, too.

Predictions: Quarterfinals - Sharapova def. Molik(2 sets); Clijsters def. Hingis(3); Jankovic def. Golovin(3); Mauresmo def. Vaidisova(2).
Semifinals - Clijsters def. Sharapova(3); Mauresmo def. Jankovic(3).
Final - Clijsters def. Mauresmo 6-4, 6-2.

Happy Aus-mas/Au-nnukah/Aus-giving everyone!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Just Re-Jenn-erating?

I can't resist the opportunity to blog about my favorite player of all time: Jennifer Capriati, when news of her surfaces. From the time she made her unpredictable and unprecedented comeback in 2001, I have been a huge fan of this former teen phenom. Though I was too young to remember much of her golden days, (I was four when she debuted in Miami in '90), watching old matches through YouTube and ESPNClassic I can see why Capriati captured the hearts of so many tennis enthusiasts.

Capriati has been a ghost on the WTA Tour for the last two calendar years, last competing in the fall of 2004 following her tremendous run to the US Open semifinals (including the dramatic "Wow, that ball was so far in" win over Serena Williams). Injuries have always hampered Capriati in one way or another, but a bad shoulder have kept her at bay for 27 months and rumors have circled time and again that she is thinking about anything but a return to the court.
Yet Capriati made a special appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday, appearing on behalf of Sony Ericsson...a sure sign that the game's diva of divas in fact may not be finished.

In fact, she talked candidly (though non-committal) about her attempts to return to the game in an interview with Variety TV. What I have always loved about Jennifer Capriati is her ability to hint at things without really giving much information. She has always been personal with the media in a disconnected sort of way (remember the Matthew Perry debacle?)...and always ready to ask for her space.

A Capriati prediction? I just don't know. I'd love to see her back late spring to prepare for the French, but the way she hesitated to say she was only "working out" and not "practicing" means to me that she hasn't been hitting the court hard yet and might be back on the tour by summer at the earliest.

Until then, I'll continue to watch replays of my favorite Jen moments: her freaking out at the umpire in the 2002 Aussie Final (she got the linesman removed) and her "I didn't see the ball, so just keep playing, Serena!" attitude during the infamous line call at the US Open in '04. Now that's good tennis...or maybe just good tempers?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Blogging on Blogs

The award for best female website went to Maria Sharapova, and I think I'll have to award the male version of this coveted prize to Mr. Rafael Nadal. Check out his Web site for up-to-date stats, tons of pictures of Nadal and videos, blogs and special features that you can't find anywhere else.

If you're not into quality and would prefer - um - not quality, then I would recommend the website and blog of teenager Caroline Wozniacki. This girl has a solid future on the court, and has been a mainstay on the junior circuit for a couple years while getting her feet wet on the pro tour. She has just made the official leap to the pros, but that doesn't say anything of her blogging ability. Check out page 4 of her blog to hear her side of the scandal at the US Open that eventually got her defaulted.

Basically if you're in the mood for lots of:

  • :)
  • !
  • "Hey everybody!"

Then check out Wozniacki's site.

I really like the blogs that both the WTA Tour and the ATP are putting on their sites during the season. It's great to read about the players day-to-days and really see what's going through their heads...though I could've gone without the awkward pictures that Kristof Vliegen posted from Auckland.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Coaching Matters

Justine Henin (now minus the 'Hardenne'?) won't be joining the field at the Aussie next week. She cited pesonal reasons for her withdrawal and requested that the media "respect her privacy." Yet the loner personality of Henin has brought about rumors - that Justine has not denied - that she and husband Pierre have split.

Joel Drucker's piece on what he calls Justine's "only man" is insightful and well written. Check this article out, I highly recommend it.

And while one coach may have been a catalyst of a shortened marriage another is staying half-way around the world from his pupil. Andy Roddick announced in Kooyong today that he "doubts" Jimmy Connors will join him in Australia following the death of Connors' mother yesterday. While Connors attends to family matters, can Roddick make way on his uphill battle as the Comeback Kid?

Woes of The Williamses

Ut oh. Serena Williams flamed out of Hobart today. Is three matches enough to get Serena ready for the Aussie? A little match play certainly helps Williams' chances...but historically we've seen that Williams needs to be more match-tough than fit to win titles. (See "The Serena Slam": a nine-month span that was injury-free for Williams.)

In other news, Venus says the AO is a

Is one Williams enough to carry the family flag in Melbourne?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A Weighty Issue

Serena Williams has not looked anything like her former slam-winning self this past week in Hobart. Her fitness and her play will certainly be tested at Melbourne starting Monday. Can the former Queen of the Court return to her dominance?

AO Full-Field Preview: Sunday, January 14th.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Season Oh Seven Is Upon Us

Coming out of the holiday season always means one thing for the general public: trim down and shape up. Whether it's weight we've gained through Christmas cookies or excessive eggnog, we are all hoping to shed some of our winter extras through a variety of New Year's pledges that most of the time never tend to stick around. Going to the gym today certainly put that truth on display for me. Every cardio machine was taken, and while I am never one to be impatient, I didn't feel like it was fair that I (a hard-working eliptical user) had to wait while a young woman in green dress pants chatted away on her cell phone and skimmed through the pages of Vanity Fair while I waited.

This time of year means something completely different for the touring tennis players of the WTA and ATP tours. While they don't have to stand in any such cardio lines waiting for Miss Social to finish her conversation slash "workout", the pros of the men's and women's tours should have already put in their time at the gym. Following their respective tour ending tournaments (usually in early/mid November) players take a vacation for a week or two before hitting the weights and running their sprint drills to get in top form for the year's most grueling grand slam.

The Australian Open has always been - to me - the most difficult slam for this reason alone. Coming out of the off season, players not only need to be able to shake off their early-season rust but also must be in great shape to win seven straight matches in the mid-summer heat of Melbourne. Look at what the past has proven: Agassi, Capriati, Henin-Hardenne and Federer are all players that took not only their tennis but their fitness seriously and reaped the benefits of an early-year slam victory.

So true is this statement in 2007. Global warming is no joke my friends; our friends Down Under are in for some serious heat on the court. Here's a look at my top prospects on both the men's and women's side of the draw:

Roger Federer (SUI) - The three-slam sultan from 06 is back this year for the piece of history he is yet to claim: The Grand Slam. Federer conquered everything but the clay last year and barring any sort of Murray in Montreal repeats, the Fed has a legitimate shot. He won the season-ending championships with ease following his three-set match-points down win over Roddick in the round robin and consistently arrives in Australia in top condition both physically and mentally. The thing I love about Fed is how cool and calm he is: he understands that his time off is important and uses it not only to rest his batteries, but to recharge them.

Rafael Nadal (ESP) - The two-time French champ needs to start to figure his game out off the clay in order to continue what has been an impressive rivalry with Federer the past two years. Following his loss to Fed in the finals at Wimbledon, Rafa had a poor summer hardcourt season that ended with a quarterfinal loss to Youzhny at the Open. The fall didn't treat our ferocious Spaniard friend much better, he didn't reach a final in three Masters Series events and lost in straights to Fed to end an extremely average (minus Rome and Paris) year. The thing I love about Nadal is his ability to bounce back, both physically and mentally. Look for him to show up in Melbourne with biceps bulging and hungry for his first non-clay slam title.

James Blake (USA) - The sentimental favorite of 2006 could become the odds makers favorite of 2007. James Blake has consistently gotten stronger since his disastrous 2004 when he lost his father, fell ill to shingles and suffered a broken bone. 2006 saw this former Yale student stand up to the big guns with his huge forehand and beautiful backhand. His performance at the season ending championships (a round robin win over Nadal and runner-up to Federer) is one reason why I see 07 being such a good year for Blake, but it's also his commitment to his fitness and overall health. I got to see Blake up close at a movie theatre in Manhattan and you can tell this guy is a real athlete, smooth and agile. If he can stand the Australian heat, I see him going far.

Amelie Mauresmo (FRA) - The most intriguing story of the women's tour in 2006 (over Martina Hingis' comeback) was Mauresmo and her defeat of the Choke Demon. Her storyline couldn't have been more ironic: the girl who always came up short, never won the big one...on the brink of slam greatness at the Australian and both her semifinal and final opponents retire before she can conquer the thing that has haunted her for so long. How much sweeter Melbourne made London in this case. Mauresmo had a stellar year, winning two slams, playing the "match of the year" against Henin in the Wimbledon final and steering through the latter part of the season with still as much courage and motivation as she did prior to her grand slam glory. Maybe she can rekindle some of her Melbourne magic from 99 and 06 to add a third title to her case.

Kim Clijsters (BEL) - I can't help but be frustrated slash angry with Kim Clijsters. Retiring? Retiring? Didn't she pay any attention to the Martina Hingis Comeback Tour? Hasn't she the brain power to figure out a schedule that will take less toll on her body but still employ her as a part-time WTA champion? I guess not. And that's why Clijsters turned down an offer from the Belgium tennis federation to represent the country in the 2008 olympics. Though Clijsters motivations remain mysterious to me (Children?!? Marriage?!?) I don't see her doing much in 2007. She had a mediocre finish to 06, but certainly was handicapped by a lack of match play at the end of the year. Will she wilt away into tennis could-have-beens? Or will Clijsters go out without the one-slam wonder tag attached to her name? I pick the former. Yet she's always fared well in Australia...

Alicia Molik (AUS) - My Martina Hingis of 2007. Alicia Molik spent much of last year on the challenger circuit, taking wild cards into main events, losing often and training hard. Though the second half of 06 was technically her comeback, I expect to see the former Australian Open quarterfinalist in full force at this year's tournament. Remember 05? The Aussie fans were loving this girl. She drilled Venus in straights in the Round of 16 inside Laver before stretching Davenport to an epic 9-7 in the third match that could've gone either way. With her ear infection (nasty thing, huh?) seemingly completely shaken, I like this wild card going far in the draw.