Monday, January 15, 2007

The Australian Open pre(?)view

Is it Australian Open time already? Well, very little has changed during the offseason. Injuries have still ravaged the ranks, especially on the women's side. How bad is it? The No. 32 seed is Eleni Daniilidou. Who's that? you may ask. My point exactly, I respond.
Let's get to it.

1. Roger Federer -- So here we go again, with talk that Fed's draw is tough. When it comes to the early rounds, he's practically sleepwalking out there. He'll probably face Novak Djokovic in round four, which could be tough, and Marcos Bagdatis after that, which would be tougher. With Ljubicic relinquishing his quarter, Federer could Safin, Roddick or Ancic in the semis. Yeah, that is tough. But he'll probably win another Australian Open, maybe with one eye open, if even that's necessary. Unless ...
2. Rafael Nadal -- Here's the only guy who can make Federer look downright uncomfortable. The bad news is that since Wimbledon last year, he's had something of a dry spell which includes zero titles and a semifinal loss to Federer in Shanghai. And, truly, Nadal's the one with the tough draw. His first round opponent is Robert Kendrick, who, with a couple more revolutions of the Earth, would have beaten Nadal at the first round in Wimbledon. We'll see how he handles him this time, but as he advances, he'll come upon potential minefields by the names of Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake. With the added problem of an apparent thigh injury, it's hard to see him even getting to Federer.
3. Nikolay Davydenko -- Good to see him all recovered from his "foot injury." In case you didn't know, the third seed withdrew from the Sydney tournament, and said "I don't think nobody cares about here." So, assuming Davydenko is "healthy," he has a cushy little draw, with a projected meeting with Max Mirnyi in round four. But can he advance out of his quarter, past the likes of Tommy Haas or David Nalbandian? Don't think so.
4. Ivan Ljubicic -- That's a damn lot of money to spend on a plane ticket for one match. What's happened to Ljubicic? He's not been the same player since his clash with Nadal at the French Open.
5. James Blake -- The American belle of this ball has been Andy Roddick, with his newfound attacking game and win over Federer in exhibition. Still, I think James Blake is a better player -- for now. He can be a consistent threat to Federer, and I think the former Harvard student can figure out how to adjust his game faster, although he's obviously prone to mental lapses. His first-round match is a run-back of the Sydney final last week, where he edged Carlos Moya. Although the Spaniard is a tough customer, Blake should be OK through the fourth round. Lurking will be Fernando Gonzalez or Lleyton Hewitt. With a 1-7 record against the Annoying Aussie, I'm sure he'd rather see Gonzalez. If he gets out of that, he could meet Nadal. Having never lost to the world No. 2, and not playing on clay, should make James really happy.
6. Andy Roddick -- So you get a new coach to change your game, train hard in the offseason, beat Roger Federer in an exhibition final to start your season, and what do you get? Marat Safin in round three. This, in my mind, is a real problem for Roddick. Everything Roddick has been learning to do from Jimmy Connors, Safin can do naturally. He's a better volleyer and has incredible groundstrokes. The ray of hope for Roddick is Safin's unstable mental status. One bad call, and Roddick could roll right past Safin.
7. Tommy Robredo -- If you think that working hard (and often) means little, meet Tommy Robredo. Last year, he played 27 tournaments, scoring wins over James Blake, David Nalbandian, and Marat Safin. Yes, there is a 'but' here. Robredo has had little success with majors. It's unlikely his luck will change here. Four words: Baghdatis or Gasquet Round Four. Two more words: Federer's quarter.
8. David Nalbandian -- Really, who knows what to expect anymore from this guy? Here's one thing NOT to expect: Nalbandian getting past Tommy Haas.
9. Mario Ancic -- Blahblahblah(ACE)blahblahblah(ACE). Seriously, there's more to Ancic than a wicked serve, but it's hard to tell where that will take him, as far as Grand Slams go. Blahblahblah(GOOD LUCK BEATING SAFIN OR RODDICK)blahblahblah.
10. Fernando Gonzalez -- Another fine player with questionable success at Grand Slams. His game is risky, which often backfires, but also gives other players fits. He could meet Lleyton Hewitt in the third round and James Blake after that. Since I'm picking Blake for the finals, I don't guess I can pick Gonzalez to do well here, too.

Lleyton Hewitt -- He's always a contender, although it's unclear how long that will be true. He comes to his home slam with some injury concerns, no coach and a strong odor of baby food.
Marcos Baghdatis -- Last year's finalist has little chance of coming in under the radar. His second round match against Gael Monfils should be a popcorn match.
Tommy Haas -- Opportunity knocks for the former World No. 3. The highest seed in his quarter is Davydenko, and he's got a sniff at Blake or Nadal in the quarterfinals.
Marat Safin -- He could have a great run here, but he could have a nervous breakdown, too. Here's hoping he didn't forget to pack his sedatives.

Interesting (remaining) first round matches:
Nadal v. Kendrick

How 'bout that second round?:
Baghdatis v. Gael Monfils -- The Frenchman's got a lot of talent, and he's a big guy. He's looking to make that next level, and he could claim a big scalp here.

The way it'll go down:
Quarterfinals: Federer v. Baghdatis, Ferrer v. Safin, Haas v. Davydenko, Blake v. Nadal
Semifinals: Federer v. Safin, Haas v. Blake
Final: Federer v. Blake
Winner: Duh.

1. Maria Sharapova -- She gets top billing with the withdrawal of Justine Henin-Hardenne. She had a strong finish to 2006, and comes in as the favorite. It helps that she has a soft draw, as she always seems to. Or she makes it look easy. She could get a good workout from Meghann Shaughnessy, then possibly Vera Zvonareva or Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic would be the bigger obstacle, but Sharapova should be fine through the semis, where she could get Martina Hingis or Kim Clijsters.
2. Amelie Mauresmo -- She doesn't have to tackle too many "mental toughness" questions these days, but she hasn't exactly reversed her reputation yet, like Justine Henin-Hardenne did. There's a bit of doubt regarding how she'll respond to a challenge from Elena Dementieva or Nicole Vaidisova in the quarterfinals, or worse yet, Jelena Jankovic or Nadia Petrova in the semis. The other issue is Mauresmo's second round match. Olga Poutchkova played here in Pittsburgh a couple of months ago, and she's got a game, and the confidence to shake Mauresmo.
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova -- Kuznetsova is embedded in a tough part of the draw, with sleepers like Serena Williams, Maria Kirilenko, Shahar Peer and Tatiana Golovin, along with contenders like Petrova and Jankovic. I'd bet on a Kuznetsova/Petrova quarterfinal.
4. Kim Clijsters -- Shame on the Womens Tennis Association for robbing fans of a longer career from Clijsters. If they hadn't waited to tackle the schedule problems (and by extension, the injury issue), she likely wouldn't be talking about quitting after this season. Not only is she one of the most talented players of the last few years, but she's managed to be a fighter and a nice personality in the game. (We'll excuse the fact that she almost married Lleyton Hewitt.) She really shouldn't have only one Grand Slam. OK. I'm putting away the soapbox now. Clijsters has had a good warmup to the Australian with wins over Sharapova and Jankovic. She's also saying that she doesn't have a shot at the title. Although she has no chance of sneaking up on anyone, it's a nice try. She can get out of her quarter by beating Hingis or Dinara Safina. But Sharapova in the semis?
5. Nadia Petrova -- She's in the Kuznetsova quarter of the draw, and she may get to face Serena Williams in round four. Is she up to it? Petrova has struggled with injuries despite her solid game.
6. Martina Hingis -- Last year at this time, Hingis was unseeded, and was stopped by Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals. Well, one year later, she's seeded sixth, and yet, Kim Clijsters is still standing in her way. There's nothing to indicate the results will be any different. And after her inexplicable loss to Virginie Razzano, it's hard to know for sure that she can even beat Nathalie Dechy.
7. Elena Dementieva -- As usual, her downfall will be her shaky service. Of course, the rest of her game can get her very far, even past Vaidisova in the fourth round.
8. Patty Schnyder -- Won't get out the second round, against Shuai Peng.
9. Dinara Safina -- This is her highest ranking at a Slam, which is great. What isn't great is that she's had some big wins against a few of her fellow Russians, but not consistent results. She has an opportunity here with her draw. She'll have a hard time against Na Li, and tougher still against Hingis.
10. Nicole Vaidisova -- After a breakout 2006, Vaidisova finds herself in the top top ten. If she was rusty coming into Australia, withstanding a challenge from Jill Craybas was a good start. (Incidentally, when did Craybas turn into the Incredible Hulk? She's 32 years old, and has muscles bulging out of her muscles. Can somebody say Barry Bonds?) She'd better shake it off in time for Dementieva in round four.

Jelena Jankovic -- I think Jankovic has staying power. I don't see her wilting under pressure of expectations. She may have just missed a top ten ranking, but she can clear the quarters.
Alicia Molik -- The talented Australian has been sidelined since an inner ear infection last year. She's always dangerous if she rediscovers her 2005 success.
Shuai Peng and Na Li -- Is this the Slam where the Chinese players make a Grand Slam singles impact? Shuai could get to the fourth round, if she beats Schnyder. The toughest obstacle Na faces is Safina.
Serena Williams -- In her loss to Sybille Bammer during a warmup event, Williams said "I think she played the match of her life ... You just wish these players would play like this all the time instead of just against me. She played unbelievable." Yes, she's a seven-time Grand Slam champion. She may also on the decline, and better players are cropping up around her all the time. She's still a threat, but Serena should understand that people don't have to play perfect tennis anymore to beat her.

Interesting (remaining) first round matches:
Dechy v. Hingis

How 'bout those second round matches:
Mauresmo v. Pouchkova

The way it'll go down:
Quarterfinals: Sharapova v. Shuai, Clijsters v. Hingis, Jankovic v. Kuznetsova, Vaidisova v. Mauresmo
Semifinals: Sharapova v. Clijsters and Jankovic v. Mauresmo
Final: Sharapova v. Jankovic
Winner: Hmm. Jankovic in three.

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