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Tennis turf wars Down Under

Australian Open kicks off potentially historic 2008

By Wyman Meers
Outsports.com

In a world saturated by pop singers' breakdowns and politicians' pasts, a communal cliché tells us that there is "no such thing as bad publicity" and "any press is good press." Yet, somehow, this flawed philosophy doesn't translate to the world of sports.

Although many of society's gladiators disappoint across the board, from Roger Clemens or Michael Vick to Floyd Landis and Marion Jones, we unwaveringly continue to expect more from our heroes than we do from the rest of popular culture; in fact, often times, we expect more from top athletes than we do from ourselves.

Roger Federer and Venus Williams
Tennis, once deemed the realm of gentlemen and royalty, is no longer immune to scandal. The public reviles cheaters and makes example of athletes who fall below standard. As the last season of professional tennis closed, fan focus had been drawn beyond the lines of the world's most prestigious courts and into the halls of tribunals or the rumor mills of tabloid media. Top players were accused and often punished for match fixing, illegal betting, using steroids, rumored poisonings, and even testing positive for cocaine. Sullied, with headlines dominated by negativity, tennis staggered into 2008.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how tennis was ripe for degradation. The men's tour has been the sole property of one great player for several years, his continually unparalleled achievements becoming so commonplace and taken for granted that they cannot compete with salacious behind-the-scenes gossip. The women's tour is no stronger. Its stars are perpetually ravaged by a beast bourn of injury and ennui, leaving competition levels inconsistent and matches oftentimes uninteresting.

Yet, with a fresh season underway, there is room for hope. The rebirth of the Grand Slam calendar generates renewed interest. The first major of the tennis season, the Australian Open, is set to begin and offers an unexpected but much-needed metaphor for what the tennis season to come can be. That promise can be summed up in one word: Plexicushion.

Plexicushion is the new court surface on which the Australian Open will be contested this year. In an effort to reduce injury, officials made the switch from the rubbery, high-bouncing Rebound Ace surface to the faster, more stable Plexicushion, and they hope it will hold up better beneath the blistering heat of the Australian summer. The warm-up tournaments played on Plexicushion have seen plenty of injuries, so it remains to be seen whether the move was a sound choice. Nonetheless, the decision is now symbolic.

Like the new surface, tennis itself has a test to pass. As with the tournament, so too tennis seeks reestablishment. The Australian Open will be about more than the simple transition from potentially treacherous to promisingly true surface; the move embodies tennis's struggle to redeem its integrity. The first bit of good news is that such a path to integrity is not hard to uncover. As the boiling summer sun rises for the next two weeks over Melbourne, Australia, tennis lovers around the world need only look beneath the surface.

The Men

The surface change in Australia should work in favor of the famed Roger Federer, who can play on anything but prefers faster courts. The holder of 12 major titles, Federer begins this season within striking distance of Pete Sampras's record tally of 14. It is easy to envision the world's best equaling that mark this year, as he's won at least two Slams each of the past four seasons. His impressive run of dominance began when he won his first major at Wimbledon in 2003; including that victory, Federer has raced to the championship title in 12 of the last 17 majors contested. Four of the five he didn't win came on the red clay of Paris, but the rest of the men's field can grasp the slimmest confidence in knowing that the remaining loss was dealt to Roger in Melbourne.

What Federer's peers also know is that the only constant in life is change. Federer is capable of winning every event he plays, but can he continue to win major championships at such an alarming pace? Sooner or later, even the great Roger Federer will have to lose. Several players can look to last season for self-belief. Although he again went 3 for 4 in the Grand Slams, Federer lost more frequently and to a higher variety of players during regular tour events. Perhaps Federer is simply saving his best for when the matches matter most, chasing what seem to be an inevitable coronation as the best player ever to pick up a racquet; however, more than the surface has changed for this year's men's field at the Australian Open. Their attitude has changed as well. Make no mistake; Roger Federer will be challenged.

Chief among Federer's rivals for the biggest titles in tennis and one of the men most likely to play spoiler in Roger's race with history is Serbian world No. 3, Novak Djokovic . The two are projected to clash in the semifinals of this year's Australian Open and youngster has a fluid game and natural shot making abilities. Having finished runner-up at last year's U.S . Open after fighting admirably in a losing effort to Federer in the final, Djokovic is primed to break through and win a Grand Slam title this season. He should be a real threat in Melbourne, as his game is best suited to hard courts and his youthful fire matches even the highest reading on the thermometer in Oz. His fitness has been a question mark in years past and the difficult conditions are cause for concern, but Novak appears to have overcome those issues and will be a legitimate contender in events for many years to come.

Yet for all of Djokovic's potential, it is not Novak who owns the hottest start to the 2008 season. Britain's best, Andy Murray, has been inconsistent in his young career so far, but he has looked like the real deal in the weeks leading up to the first Grand Slam of the season. He won the Qatar Open and, in the process, returned to the men's top ten for the first time in a year and a half. Murray's draw at the Australian Open is not an easy one, including his first-round clash with tough Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but Murray should come through that match and the Scot is another man who owns a victory over Federer from last year. If he can play his best consistently, the Australian Open could mark Murray's true arrival as a top player.

Second-ranked Rafael Nadal has historically played his finest tennis during the first half of the season each year, before his extremely physical style of play takes its toll in the late summer and into the fall. A fresh and injury-free Nadal has the determination required to advance deep into the Australian Open's second week. More than any other player, Nadal gives Federer fits and could be real trouble should the two face off in the final.

Yet Nadal has several obstacles to overcome if he is to reach the final. The biggest challenge Nadal may face in Melbourne is a potential fourth-round match against his mentor and friend, Carlos Moya, a former finalist in Oz and the player who knows Nadal's game better than any other. Nadal and Moya played a semifinal to remember at the warm-up event in Chennai, with Nadal escaping match points in a 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-1) win. The triumph left Nadal spent, however, and he was trounced by another player to watch - Russia's Mikhail Youzny - in the championship match. The two could potentially meet in the semifinals.

That match-up also depends on how much of a challenge sixth-seeded American Andy Roddick can mount in his Australian Open campaign. A possible quarterfinal with Nadal would be a true test of whether or not Roddick is still capable of winning the game's biggest prizes. The surface change should favor the former U.S. Open champion, however, and Andy is desperate to be known as more than a One Slam Wonder. Roddick has often played fine tennis Down Under and has a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals. Residing in the bottom half of the draw, Roddick would not have to play nemesis Federer until the final. If another player takes out Federer in the earlier rounds, Andy Roddick could serve his way to a second major title.

Argentina's David Nalbandian may add another resurgent element to the Aussie Open this year. Once the only player in the game who could trouble Federer, Nalbandian lost his fitness and his way until late last year when he stormed through the indoor circuit – beating Federer twice in consecutive tournaments – and his return to form could not be more welcome. Given Djokovic's youth and promise, Nalbandian wears the tag of best male player not to have won a Grand Slam title. If he continues the form that closed out last season, renewed self-confidence and an adaptable game make Nalbandian a serious threat.

Other than Federer, there are only two former Australian Open champions in the men's field: the erratic and enigmatic Russian powerhouse, Marat Safin, and Sweden's Thomas Johansson. Johansson defeated Safin in the 2002 final -- undoubtedly the finest moment of his career - and they could potentially face off in a second round rematch of that shocking final. Although former finalist Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus is Johansson's first round opponent and he surely hopes to relive his finest moments from Down Under as well.

In fact, although few former champions reside in this year's draw, several former finalists populate the men's field. Chief among them is Australia's lone hope, Lleyton Hewitt . Yet a solid run by the hometown hero seems unlikely. The sad irony is that Hewitt all but begged Australian officials to change the court surface to suit a more aggressive style of play when he was a top contender. The switch comes too late for the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, whose court speed has diminished and power has been surpassed. Other former finalists include last year's runner-up, Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, and forgotten Frenchman Arnuad Clement. And don't overlook Spaniard David Ferrer, a semifinalist at last year's U.S. Open who will look for sustained Slam success in 2008.


The Women

While Roger Federer fights off the field in a quest to become the greatest player of all time, two top women will use the Australian Open as the kick-off to a renewed rivalry that the sport desperately needs. Defending champ Serena Williams and reigning No. 1 Justine Henin appear set to do battle throughout the year to establish authority and possibly decide which of them is the best player of their generation. There is little doubt that, at her best, Serena has been the superior player. Yet Justine owns the most fluid and effective game in women's tennis and, through sustained professionalism and self-improvement, she has created a legacy of her own and staked a claim at territory once thought to be Serena's destiny.

One year ago, Serena Williams entered the Australian Open as the 81st-ranked player in the world and was written off as out of shape and past her prime. She answered her critics by playing her way into the tournament and storming through the late rounds to win her eighth major title. The Serena of old was back and ready to reclaim her rightful spot at the top of women's tennis, but there was one thing that Serena didn't count on: an equally feisty Belgian dynamo that skipped last year's event during a time of personal crisis.

Serena was openly talking about winning the Grand Slam by taking all four majors in one calendar year, but she would face and be defeated by Henin in the quarterfinals of all three remaining major tournaments in 2007. Henin won two of those three tournaments and holds a total of seven major singles championships, only one shy of Williams' tally. Moreover, they are the two favorites for the title in Melbourne. If Williams or Henin takes the crown, it will be a statement directed squarely at the other. Should they advance, the hottest rivalry in women's tennis will be renewed in a semifinal that could be the most dramatic match of the tournament.

Maria Sharapova, who was embarrassed by Serena in last year's final, hopes to stop the Williams-Henin hype before it happens. A disastrous year in the majors has dropped her ranking to fifth in the world and Sharapova has something to prove about her ability to compete with the best women in the game. Maria's one dimensional power game fell apart after she suffered a shoulder injury that impacted both her serve and confidence, and she lost easily to the other women ranked in the top ten throughout 2007. Sharapova's return to the final would be well-earned, particularly if she goes through Henin in the quarters and Serena in the semifinals to get there. A reappearance in the final rounds seems unlikely, though, and not only because of the projected later rounds. Sharapova may very well face former champion Lindsay Davenport in the second round. Davenport has returned to professional tennis after giving birth to her first child last year, owning the lower level tournaments that launched her comeback. Davenport's power and experience will be a real test for Sharapova's state of game and mind.

Another former Oz Open champion trying to make a comeback is Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo. Two years ago, Mauresmo won in Australia and then at Wimbledon while on her way to being ranked No. 1 in the world. Surprisingly, it has been all downhill for MoMo since that victory in London. Owing in equal parts to injury and lack of motivation, her 2007 campaign was nothing short of miserable. Seeded 18th, Mauresmo's draw shows continued misfortune, as she could face troublesome lefty Patty Schnyder early. Schnyder has beaten Mauresmo at the Australian Open before and took Amelie out of the Australian Hardcourt Championships earlier this year. Mauresmo is in Serena Williams' quarter of the draw and would likely have to beat third-ranked Jelena Jankovic to meet Serena. Jankovic and fellow Serbian Ana Ivanovic are hoping to build on their break out seasons. Neither of the Serbian women played particularly well in warm-up events preceding the Australian Open. Their questionable form could open the door for opportune lower-ranked women.

Ivanovic resides in the less impressive bottom half of the women's draw. She shares her quarter with another former finalist her and the reigning Wimbledon queen, Venus Williams . Venus has an excellent draw and the faster surface will suit her game nicely. She looks to be the favorite to emerge from the bottom half. Venus's semifinal opponent would presumably be the underwhelming Anna Chakvedatze or No. 2 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova , she of the deceptively inflated ranking. This tournament is a real opportunity for Venus to win her first Australian Open title and add her voice to the history that Serena and Justine currently claim.

The Australian Open takes place so suddenly at the start of the tennis season that it is usually good for a few surprises. Top players, rusty from the off-season, are more vulnerable to being upset. Hungary's Agnes Szavay is a popular dark horse pick, and other young players like Lucie Safarova, Victoria Azarenka, and Tatiana Paznek are looking for a breakout event as well. Hovering between these newcomers and the top contenders are middle-of-the-pack women who will do their best not to be lost in the shuffle, such as beauties Nicole Vaidisova, Elena Dementieva and Daniela Hantuchova; Marat Safin's younger sister, Dinara Safina; former top ten player Nadia Petrova; and hometown favorite Alicia Molik.

Only the Strong Survive

There is more at stake this Australian Open than wins and losses. The sport of tennis needs its best players to fully compete and turn potential excitement into enthralling suspense. The time is right for tennis to shed its negative publicity in favor of the game's greatest glories. In a year where so much history is on the line, lovers of the game deserve a chance to relish drama on the court. From Federer to the Williams Sisters to tennis itself, the 2008 Australian Open will be a battle for bragging rights and the action displayed over the next two weeks will set the tone for the rest of the season.

Yet, despite all of the symbolic implications and rigorous prognostication, the basic quest remains the ultimate quest: to be crowned the Australian Open champion. The road to triumph will lead two players to personal greatness and the game of tennis to redemption.

Predictions:

Men's semifinals
Roger Federer over David Ferrer; Andy Roddick over Nikolay Davydenko

Men's final
Roger Federer over Andy Roddick

Women's semifinals
S. Williams over Justine Henin; V. Williams over Svetlana Kuznetsova

Women's final
Venus Williams over Serena Williams