Aussie Open ’08 Preview
Contemplating the Australian Open, Todd Martin once spoke to me with trademark candor and a hint of his Midwestern humor. Said Martin, “The great part about Australia is that it’s early in the year and we haven’t gotten too cranky, or lost too much, or upset about what our year has become.”
This year’s Australian Open features a new surface. The Rebound Ace surface that’s been part of the event since 1988 has been replaced by a new acrylic. Supposedly it will retain less heat, hopefully minimizing the semi-gooey qualities of Rebound Ace that on more than one occasion led to twisted body parts. The firmer court surface might also be less high-bouncing than Rebound Ace.
Last year, Roger Federer became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a Slam without the loss of a set.
So what’s to come this year?
On the men’s side, the royal reign of Roger continues. Federer spoke recently about feeling healthy and eager to commence 2008. As has been the case at every Grand Slam save for Roland Garros over the last four years, he arrives in Melbourne a significant favorite. Last year, Federer became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a Slam without the loss of a set.
And oddly enough, I think the freshness of Federer’s rivals enhances his chances. Why? Because his rivals feel they can pretty much play the way they want rather than necessarily think of how they can make Federer play badly.
If you’re Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer or Andy Roddick – just to name a few potential Federer rivals -- January is not the time to experiment with alternative tactics that would disrupt the mighty Fed. January is the time to open strongly with your own guns blazing – even if recent history reveals that these guns haven’t been potent enough. But let’s view the men more in distinctive groups.
Young, Still Rising
Nadal sits at the head of a cadre of players 22 years old and younger that likely have their best tennis ahead of them: Djokovic, Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray and, to a slightly lesser degree, Tomas Berdych, Marcos Baghdatis, Juan Martin del Potro and, perhaps, if he can discover his true game, Gael Monfils.
Each of these players can play compelling, textured tennis, ranging from the versatile Djokovic to the Hingis-like guile shown by Murray to the electric shotmaking of the artful Gasquet, the physical Nadal and the fluid Baghdatis.
But what’s also telling is that, save for del Potro, none of these players has a reliably big serve. In large part, this is a generation of engaging counterpunchers – physical, yes, but also reactive and grinding in a way that makes it rough to sustain top-rate play over the course of seven hardcourt matches in Australian temperatures that regularly exceed 90 degrees. The wear-and-tear that makes Nadal so effective on clay has yet to surface vividly on a hardcourt. Now that Djokovic is nipping at the very top, it will be interesting to see how he continues to enhance his game. I’m also intrigued by Murray. His game is so versatile, but does he have a bit too much of the artist’s temperament? He can go quite dark and get too tentative. Hopefully, good health and a new coach will set him on an upward path right away in Melbourne.
I’ve yet to be sold that Gasquet can build a top five career around a beautiful one-handed backhand. This was the same rap I had five years ago on Justine Henin – who soon enough enhanced everything from her forehand to her mental and physical fitness.
The Older Group – Jaded or Faded?
Tennis years move so swiftly that if you’re between 25 and 28 the urgency begins to surface. Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, David Ferrer, David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Gonzalez and James Blake all fall into this category.
Nalbandian’s the most intriguing. At the end of ’07 he twice knocked off Federer and Nadal to win back-to-back Masters Series events. His game is diverse, powerful and disruptive. The downside is that he can compete indifferently when it matters most. Two years ago he served for a spot in the finals versus Baghdatis. At the ’03 U.S. Open he held match point on Roddick. At many other events he’s looked vexed for reasons no one quite knows.
Nalbandian may be the most intriguing of the seasoned veterans but too often he can compete indifferently when it matters most.
Having brought Tony Roche on-board last August, Hewitt figures to make a big push to take his national title. If the heart’s boundless, the weapons are not. Ditto for the even more impressive Ferrer.
As for Roddick, let’s say the draw is critical. He worked very hard last year to win tight matches versus Mario Ancic and Marat Safin. Though perhaps the pummeling Federer gave Roddick in the semis might not have been so bad, maybe a refreshed Roddick will be able to offer more. The rub is that for all his weaponry on the serve and forehand, Roddick typically expends a lot of energy to win all of his matches. I’ll be intrigued to see if he looks for ways to shorten points early on in Australia – either through bold returning or more sorties to the net.
Gonzalez and Blake have each played their share of breathtaking tennis. But there are times when tennis matches are won less with great shotmaking and more with meat-and-potatoes consistency. Gonzalez showed this quite well when he made it to the finals last year. But at heart, with both these guys the viewing can be quite the rollercoaster.
Mardy Fish: Reached quarters last year, beating Ivan Ljubicic and Ferrer. Now is time to bring the serve, backhand, and aggression to the table on a year-long basis.
- Tommy Robredo: A lesser Davydenko. Prosaic -- but a top tenner the last two years.
- Ivo Karlovic: Big serve can take him far.
- Marat Safin: Enough already.
- Mikhail Youzhny: Always surprising why this elegant Russian doesn’t go deep more often at Slams.
- Radek Stepanek: Disrupter par excellence – chips, dips, attack -- could make life miserable for a favorite.
- Sam Querrey and John Isner: See Karlovic.
Women: Scramble At the Top?
Justine Henin is the WTA's top player but she's not quite the odds on favorite that Federer is.
In Henin, the women’s game also has a stylish top player. But unlike Federer, it’s not so easy to consider her a dominant force. All too often over the last decade, whoever has emerged as the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour’s number one player is more survivor than conqueror, clawing her way out from the rubble of injuries, withdrawal and failure to sustain excellent play.
Henin returns to the Australia for the first time since she retired mid-final in 2006. As Henin has shown repeatedly, tennis is less a game of strength and more one of timing and movement. But at the Slams it’s also a sport of stamina. I see her competing in fine form, hoping most of all to whip through the early rounds, stay hydrated and be fresh for the invariable battles with players who are technically bigger but not necessarily stronger than the Belgian.
Sisters: Another Rabbit Out of the Hat?
The champion’s aura. Joe Louis in boxing, Michael Jordan in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf – and no one, including Roger Federer, has swaggered more opponents into submission than Serena Williams. Over the last three years she’s only won three tournaments – two at the Australian Open, including in ’07 when she showed exemplary power and poise. Venus has hardly been better, winning five events since ’05 – and two Wimbledons.
I’ll concede I’m vexed by the in-and-out approach to competition taken by these two. I’ve always been more a fan of those who go to class every day and study diligently rather than those who cram for the final. Were tennis a team sport, Venus and Serena would be viewed harshly by their teammates. But it’s not, and so each is free to do as she wishes. Then again, I can never dare say neither can win again. At this point, each still has superb weaponry.
I’ll concede I’m vexed by the in-and-out approach to competition taken Venus and Serena.
But this I will say: They have each manipulated circumstances to leave them safe from the pain of defeat and passionate commitment. A win is of course outstanding. A loss can trigger self-preserving thoughts: If I really gave tennis my all, maybe I’d have done better. But between injuries and off-court interests and odd training habits and lack of input from wise coaches, Serena and Venus will never know what it meant to utterly throw themselves into tennis the way, say, Henin, Steffi Graf, or Pete Sampras did.
Sharapova at The Crossroads
Australia will give an early indication of Maria Sharapova’s ’07 woes were merely physical or a sign that her game indeed has deep limitations in the skill department – particularly her movement.
First, as I see it Sharapova is only a Russian by birth. Nearly the same holds true for Svetlana Kuznetsova, who honed much of her game in Barcelona and plays more like a beefed-up version of her mentor, Spanish legend Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
My sense is that the players from this nation are at heart much better at composition than literature: fine ballstrikers, hard workers, but lacking much creative inspiration or competitive will at the very late stages of a Slam that shape a player’s resume.
In large part, the Russians take the opposite of the Williams’ approach, conducting themselves with an odd form of fatalism that suggests these Russians don’t have enough illogical confidence and bravado to win big (I feel the same way about road warrior Nikolay Davydenko).
I’m not saying she’s better the better player but I find Ana Ivanovic (right) more intriguing.
Yes, I tip my hat to Nadia Petrova (who’s also fine-tuned her game in many countries), Elena Dementieva and the latest homegrown product, adroit Anna Chakvetadze. But I just think too many players from this country overplay and don’t do enough to refine their games. The results are solid, but tough to see them jockeying into the top echelon.
A few years ago a pair of Belgians surfaced. Now it’s the Serbs. As a personality, I’m drawn to the goofy irreverence and all-court prowess of Jelena Jankovic. But I’m not sure how much better she can get, and don’t know if Australia will be the place for her to demonstrate any improvements. She seems to just play week in and week out rather than pause for time in the lab.
I’m more intrigued tennis-wise by Ana Ivanovic, who’s a couple of years younger than Jankovic and strikes the ball with pleasing proficiency and power. I’m not saying she’s better than Jankovic, or that she’ll win more Slams. But this year’s Australian will show more about how she handles being the hunted.
Rounding Out the Field
- Lindsay Davenport: Wouldn’t be surprising if she even won the tournament. Certainly seems eager. Fascinating to see her take on Venus, Serena or Henin.
- Time to step up: Nicole Vaidisova, Tatiana Golovin, Shahar Peer – Each has nibbled their way upward, showing skill and, yet, odd yips on big occasions. Vaidisova has lots of skills, not the best mover. Impressive, though, to see Golovin working with great brain Mats Wilander and Peer drawing on wisdom of Jose Higueras.
- Rising stars: Agnes Savay, Agnieska Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka all sound like the name of a Marx Brothers law firm – let’s see who’s ready to make a big leap.
- Amelie Mauresmo: Your guess is as good as mine.
Yet despite all these great potential story lines, to me the biggest shame of the Australian Open is its January timing. A decade ago I wrote a story for Tennis Magazine suggesting the Australian Open be played in March. Two benefits: There’d be the chance for the tennis year’s plot line to build. And second, the results would be more closely linked to the thick part of the calendar. Though others such as Brad Gilbert and John McEnroe argue similarly, change appears unlikely.
I also think there would be far more early-round intrigue if the Slams were to abandon seeding 32 players. This was done many years ago to accommodate the whining of a number of Spanish men who felt Wimbledon was discounting their year-round prowess. It’s a complete mystery to me why this form of protectionism is necessary.
As you can tell, my clout in tennis is negligible. But I’ll continue tilting at those windmills.
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