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Scoping out the Australian Open

Four players dominate the men's draw, while the women's field is in flux.

By Rich Rodriguez
For Outsports.com


The tennis season has barely begun and we’re already arrived at the first major of 2009: the Australian Open! Which ballers will overcome the oppressive heat and more oppressive competition to grab the first Grand Slam of the season? Let’s take a look.

On the boys’ side, a quartet has by and large separated themselves from the pack to stake their claim as the top contenders for the crown. The world’s top baller, Rafael Nadal had one of the best seasons in tennis history last year but has never reached a hard-court major. The closest he came was last season when the Mallorcan Matador reached both the Aussie and US Open semifinals. But his desire and intensity is never in question and those qualities could bring him a sixth major title.

Andy Murray has trimmed his hair a bit since this photo was taken, but it hasn't slowed down his game.
Roger Federer isn’t used to playing second fiddle to anyone but since he lost his Wimbledon crown and top ranking to Nadal last season, life hasn’t been the same for Regal Rog. But who can argue with the facts: in the last five years Fed has gone 3-0 when reaching the final and has made the semifinals twice, including the classic battle against Marat Safin in 2005 when he lost 9-7 in the fifth. Not too shabby.

The defending champ, Novak Djokovic, came full circle last season capturing his maiden major in Australia and then capped off the year with his first Masters Cup title. But the sexy Serb struggled in between and began 2009 losing his first round match to Latvian Ernests Gulbis in Queensland. Can he repeat the Melbourne magic?

Brit baller Andy Murray has been tearing up the ATP World Tour since his breakthrough at Wimbledon last season when he came back from 2-sets to love down against Frenchie Richard Gasquet. Since then the 21-year old reached his first major final at the U.S. Open (losing to Fed) and has collected four titles including two Masters Series shields (Cincinnati, Madrid). Now comes the tough part: can he shoulder the expectations and prove his champion’s mettle?

Others to watch include:

Andy Roddick – The American is all about change right now opting for a new coach in the much-heralded Larry Stefanki and a leaned-down but still muscular build. The former U.S. Open champ reached the final in Doha last week falling to Andy Murray (who hasn’t lately?) so he’ll be feeling good about his chances.

Marin Cilic – The towering 20-year old Croat just won his second career title in Chennai last week and will be entering Melbourne with confidence.

Juan Martin del Potro – Another towering 20-year old by way of Argentina, this baller made history last season by winning his first four tourneys in a row on two different surfaces (clay, hard). J. Martin’s already reached the semifinals in Auckland, his first tourney of the year.

The WTA Tour has been in flux ever since Justine Henin’s sudden retirement last season. Case in point: In 2008 the Tour saw four different ladies hoist Grand Slam trophies while five different World No.1’s were anointed. Moreover, defending champion Maria Sharapova is still on injured-reserve (since last August) and won’t be making the trip to Melbourne. So the act of picking faves for the ladies’ crown is a challenging one at best but let’s try, shall we?

Without the afore mentioned lady ballers, all talk of non-clay Grand Slam championship runs begins and ends with the Williams sisters, and for good reason. The sisters own a combined 16 majors between them and have both been ranked No1. Lil’s sis Serena is a three-time champ in Melbourne and seems to thrive in the sultry Aussie summer. She fell in last year’s quarterfinals but with a new U.S. Open title under her Nike belt (and a surprising but short stint at No.1 afterwards), her confidence will be high – and that spells trouble for the entire field including…

Venus’ lone trip to the Aussie final was in 2003 when she lost to her sister in a three-set tussle. She’s traditionally a slow starter and doesn’t really get going until she steps onto her beloved grass at Wimbledon where she won her fifth title last summer. V capped off the season in style with her first year-end WTA Championship and will look to carry that momentum to her first Aussie Open crown.

The top lady in the world, Jelena Jankovic, holds the distinct “honor” of being the first and only baller to end the year at No.1 without winning a Grand Slam. But the slidin’ Serb made her first major final losing to Serena at the U.S. Open last year and will surely be hungry for more. The 22-year old spent time this off-season in Mexico and South Florida working on her fitness and endurance so the Aussie heat shouldn’t be an issue. What could be an issue is JJ’s belief in the key moments of a big match. Can she finally break through and win her maiden Slam?

Sister Serb Ana Ivanovic, last year’s Aussie Open runner-up to Maria Sharapova, already has her first major defeating JJ on her way to the Roland Garros crown and the top ranking last spring. Unfortunately for her, it was all downhill from there: she fell early at Wimbledon and then suffered a thumb injury that derailed the rest of her season (and seemingly her confidence along the way.) The 21-year old owns the biggest forehand on the Tour and if she can find it over the fortnight, a first Aussie Open crown will be within her grasp.

Other lady ballers to keep an eye out for include:

Dinara Safina – A breakthrough 2008 season, including a runner-up finish to Ana at Roland Garros, propelled Marat’s little sister to a career high No.2 ranking last year. But, like JJ, the Russian’s yet to prove she can take that next step.

Elena Dementieva – Another one of the many Russians on the Tour, Elena grabbed the gold medal in Beijing last summer defeating Serena and Dinara along the way. She’s also a former Roland Garros and U.S. Open finalist and has been on a hot streak already this season, winning in Auckland last week and reaching the final of Sydney.

Victoria Azarenka – This former junior No.1 has been touted as a future champion ever since hitting the professional ranks. The Belarusian’s powerful baseline game is rounding into form right on time as evidenced by her championship run in Queensland last week, her first career title.

Picks

The Boys

Semis
Djokovic vs. Federer
Nadal vs. Murray

Final
Murray over Federer

The Ladies:
Semis

Serena Williams vs. Dementieva
Jankovic vs. Safina

Final
Dementieva over Safina

Rich Rodriguez writes the Down The Line tennis blog.