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!

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