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.

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