Australian Open Preview

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THE MEN

TOP HALF

Was it really a year ago that Rafa Nadal comforted a despondent Roger Federer after the Swiss came up short in five sets (7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2) in Melbourne?  So much has happened since.  Sir Roger eventually put an end to a seven-month title drought.  He (finally) conquered the terre battue of Roland Garros and thus clinched a career Grand Slam.  He leapfrogged Pete Sampras in the record books at Wimbledon, and can now legitimately be called The All-Time Slam King.  He became a dad, welcoming twin daughters Myla and Charlene into his life.  And despite surrendering a two-sets-to-one lead against Juan Martin Del Potro in the USO final, he finished the year No. 1 for the fifth time in six years.  Meanwhile, Nadal experienced some ups and downs of his own.  After capturing his sixth Slam at the ’09 AO, the Majorcan was dethroned at Roland Garros (after 31 straight wins).  He was slowed by knee problems and fell off the No. 1 perch he had snatched from Fed in August ’08.  He endured the split of his parents.

Once again, the best-in-show rivals find themselves on opposite sides of the Aussie Open draw.  The top-seeded Federer has been handed a somewhat favorable shakedown, his toughest obstacles being a potential fourth-round confrontation with either home-country favorite Lleyton Hewitt (whom Federer has defeated in their last 14 head-to-head outings) or Gilles Simon, and a quarterfinal meeting with either No. 9 Fernando Verdasco or No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko.  Federer didn’t exactly finish ’09 on a tear, having sputtered out with losses to Novak Djokovic in Basel, Julien Benneteau in Paris and both JMDP and Davydenko in London.  Davydenko, meanwhile, enjoyed one of the ATP’s hottest post-USO runs. The Russian struggled with injuries early on in ’09 (he was limited to five tournaments through April and even briefly fell out of the top 10 for the first time in four years), but with his did-he-or-didn’t-he match-fixing days seemingly behind him, he turned what had all the makings of an unremarkable campaign into a year to remember, scalping Nadal in the Shanghai final and dropping Nadal, Robin Soderling, Federer and Del Potro in quick order to win the year-end ATP Tour Finals.  Most recently, he topped both Federer AND Nadal en route to the Doha final.  But Federer still holds a favorable 12-2 career mark against the Russian (including a quarterfinal win at the AO in ’06) and should (at least) reach the semis.

OUR PICK: ROGER FERERER

If Davydenko was the fall/winter campaign’s standout performer, Djokovic wasn’t far behind.  Under the savvy eye of Todd Martin, the world No. 3 turned a ho-hum start into a successful (albeit Slamless) year. Tagged by some as delicate (he’s thrice retired at Slams with various ailments), Nole played with a newfound gusto (and fitness), upending Fededer in the final of the Swiss’ hometown tourney of Basel, and topping Frenchman Gael Monfils to win the Paris Masters.  Also in the top half of the draw, the Serb and surging Swede Soderling sandwich a talent-laden quarter that features the likes of France’s Jeremy Chardy, Mikhail Youzhny, Tommy Robredo, ’08 AO finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and a not-quite-ready-to-wilt Tommy Haas.  While Soderling may have pulled off the biggest upset of ’09 with his win over Nadal in Paris (where the Swede reached his first-ever Slam final), his career-year should be all but impossible to duplicate.  Should Tsonga stay injury-free, look for the Ali-look-alike to take down Soderling in Round No. 4 to set up an enticing, anybody’s-guess Djokovic vs. Tsonga quarterfinal (a rematch of the ’08 final).

OUR PICK: JO-WILFRIED TSONGA

BOTTOM HALF

Fresh of his announcement that he won’t play Davis Cup in ’10 (in an effort to preserve his suddenly vulnerable knees), Andy Roddick will surely be tested in Melbourne.  The No. 7-ranked Texan’s quarter in the bottom half of the men’s draw will be anything but easy to circumnavigate.  But if his kickoff win in Brisbane (where he downed Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek) is any indication, the 27-year-old is up for the challenge.  A-Rod could face fellow American Sam Querrey (he of the freak glass-table incident) in the third round, and would then face potential showdowns with Fernando Gonzalez, Marin Cilic or Stan Wawrinka to reach the quarters.  Should he get there, he’d likely face either pal James Blake or USO titlist Del Potro.  Considering that Andy has never beaten the towering Argentine, to paraphrase the Magic 8-Ball, his chances of reaching the semis are: “Outlook Not So Good.”

OUR PICK: JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO

Bookending the very bottom of the draw are Nadal and No. 5 Andy Murray, who won an ATP Tour-best six titles in ’09 and became the first Brit to ascend to No. 2.  But the at-times-dominating Scot just didn’t get it done at the Slams, where many expected him to flourish.  He simply couldn’t shoulder the Henmanian hopes thrust upon him at Wimbledon (where he stalled in the semis against Roddick) and despite emerging as the thinking man’s pick in Flushing Meadows came out flat in a fourth-round loss to Cilic.  So look for the 22-year-old to come out firing with a sense of urgency in Melbourne, where he should all but glide into the quarters (his most legitimate challenger, Monfils, did reach the Brisbane semis, but has been nursing a sore shoulder and is not 100 percent).  Waiting for the Brit will most likely be Nadal, who could face big-serving John Isner or Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round, and Stepanek, Ivo Karlovic, Benneteau, Mardy Fish or Ivan Ljubicic in Round 4.

OUR PICK: ANDY MURRAY

SEMIS: FEDERER DEF. TSONGA, MURRAY DEF. DEL POTRO

FINAL: MURRAY DEF. FEDERER

FIRST-ROUNDERS TO WATCH:

Mikhail Youzhny vs. Richard Gasquet

Ryan Harrison vs. Janko Tipsarevic

Rainer Schuettler vs. Sam Querrey

Marin Cilic vs. Fabrice Santoro

James Blake vs. Arnaud Clement

Radek Stepanek vs. Ivo Karlovic

John Isner vs. Wayne Odesnik

THE WOMEN

TOP HALF

Andre Agassi‘s crystal meth revelations and Roger Federer‘s history-making No. 15 aside, Serena Williams‘ verbal attack on the as-of-yet-named USO lineswoman was the talk of the sport in ’09.  What got lost in all of the hullabaloo was that, although Williams managed just three titles on the year, all three were ginormous — enough to propel the Floridian past Dinara Safina for only the second year-end No. 1 ranking of her career.  Serena grabbed her fourth AO title by obliterating Safina in a lopsided 6-0, 6-3 final; at Wimbledon, she dethroned sister Venus; and she clinched the top spot by capturing the WTA Tour Championships.  Having (willingly or unwillingly) digested the ITF’s record $82,500 fine, Williams will be in a position to play some distraction-free tennis in Melbourne, where the event’s top seed opens against the younger of the Radwanska sisters, Urszula.  Beyond the rising Pole, Serena could face Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round, Sabine Lisicki or Sam Stosur in the fourth round, and either Vera Zvonareva, Ana Ivanovic, Elena Vesnina or Victoria Azarenka in the quarters. The steadily-improving Azarenka’s 6-3, 6-1 pasting of Serena in the ’09 Sony Ericsson final was the high point in a year that saw the Belarusian more often than not falter at crunch time against her fellow top 10ers.  But should the fiery Vika get a handle her on-court outbursts (the kind we saw flare up in Flushing Meadows, where she sent rackets flying in all directions in a disappointing third-round loss to Francesca Schiavone), she certainly has what it takes to give Serena a run for her money.

OUR PICK: SERENA WILLIAMS

Venus Williams finds herself on the same side of the draw as younger sis Serena, but an all-Williams semi may not be in the cards.  Filling out Venus’ own grupo del muerto are Caroline Wozniacki, Aleksandra Wozniak, Daniela Hantuchova, Agnes Savay, Na Li, Agnieszka Radwanska, Melanie Oudin, Schiavone, Anabel Medina Garrigues and Lucie Safarova, whom Williams will encounter in the opening round. Fifteen title-filled years into a Hall of Fame career, Williams is no longer the player who once served her opponents into oblivion. Last year, she failed to win a title beyond February and fell short in a bid for her third straight Venus Rosewater Dish at the All England Club.  She may have another Wimbledon title in her, but given that she hasn’t won a non-grass-court Slam since ’01, the AO crown is likely out of reach. Wozniacki, meanwhile, is on the upswing. The Dane’s ear-to-ear grin in the if-you-can-make-it-here-you-can-make-it-anywhere glow of the Ashe Stadium lights was one of the most indelible images of ’09.  The 19-year-old breath of fresh air was the only teen to finish inside the top 10. While she’s winless against Venus in four meetings, should the two meet in the AO quarters, youth should eclipse experience.

OUR PICK: CAROLINE WOZNIACKI

BOTTOM HALF

Given how much Elena Dementieva has improved over the past three years it’s a miracle (or is it a curse?) that she has yet to pocket a Slam title.  The Olympic gold medalist fell to longtime nemesis Serena in both the ’09 AO AND Wimbledon semis. But the 28-year-old Russian recently jumpstarted her ’10 Aussie Open preparation with a decisive 6-3, 6-2 win over Serena in the Sydney final.  Question is, is she capable of doing the same in a big-stage Laver Arena moment?  If she were to meet Serena in Melbourne, it would only be in a final, as the two landed on opposite sides of the draw.  But the long-legged baseliner surely won’t get ahead of herself, as she opens against fellow Russian Vera Dushevina and, should she advance, would meet none other than the recently un-retired Justine Henin in Round No. 2. In just her first event of ’10, Henin picked up where she left off by reaching the Brisbane final, pushing Kim Clijsters to three sets in an all-Belgian smackdown.  Henin may just have another crack at Clijsters (in the quarters), should she emerge victorious from potential matchups with Dementieva and Flavia Pennetta.  And for her part, Clijsters would have to survive potential pairings with Nadia Petrova, Aravane Rezai and No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who last year proved she’s still got game by taking down Serena en route to the Roland Garros final, where she dispatched then-No. 1 Safina in straight sets. Sveta’s no longer a one-Slam wonder, but her recent WTA push-and-shove may prove a distraction.

OUR PICK: KIM CLIJSTERS

Ana Ivanovic aside, three of the AO’s biggest question marks reside in the same quarter in the bottom half of the draw – Jelena Jankovic, Safina and Maria Sharapova. Last year, Safina proved she’s much more than just Marat’s baby sis by occupying the No. 1 slot for much of the year.  But the Russian was forever dogged by the doubters, who wondered aloud: “Is she worthy?”  In the end, the answer was a resounding “No.”  She may have been one of the WTA’s most consistent performers (she went 55-16 on the year, bagging three titles), but she looked downright out-of her league at the Slams, losing 6-0, 6-3 to Serena in the Aussie final; 6-4, 6-2 to Kuznetsova in the French final; and 6-1, 6-0 to Venus in the Wimbledon semis.  By September, Serena’s claim that “we all know who the real No. 1 is” seemed more truth-telling than mere baseline bravado.  Given that Safina’s struggled with a back injury, a return trip to the final appears all but a pipedream. The former No. 1 Jankovic is still searching for her once rock-steady form and, coupled with fellow Serb Ivanovic’s woes, has tennis fans wondering if the Belgrade Bubble has burst.  Sharapova continues to work through her serving issues and may well have as good a shot as anyone to reach the semis, but given that enigmatic troika’s uneven play, so do Marion Bartoli, Alona Bondarenko, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Dominika Cibulkova.

OUR PICK: MARIA SHARAPOVA

SEMIS: WILLIAMS DEF. WOZNIACKI, CLIJSTERS DEF. SHARAPOVA

FINAL: WILLIAMS DEF. CLIJSTERS

FIRST-ROUNDERS TO WATCH:

Carolina Wozniacki vs. Aleksandra Wozniak

Melanie Oudin vs. Alla Kudryavtseva

Alize Cornet vs. Francesca Schiavone

Lucie Safarova vs. Venus Williams

Elena Dementieva vs. Vera Dushevina

Kirsten Flipkens vs. Justine Henin

Jelena Dokic vs. Alisa Kleybanova

Jie Zheng vs. Shuai Peng

Maria Sharapova vs. Maria Kirilenko

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