<Steve's Weblog>

Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Australian Open Preview

The world’s two top ranked competitors will both have to overcome some tough obstacles to earn the right to meet each other in the season’s first major championship. Roger Federer--- seeking to garner a third Australian Open title and a tenth major in the process--- could have some rough opposition starting in the third round. He would then conceivably meet U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny, the No. 25 seed in Melbourne. In the round of 16, Federer might have to confront No. 14 seed Novak Djokovic, a player who improved immensely over the course of 2006. Federer’s potential quarterfinal opponent could be Marcos Baghdatis, the man who gave the world No. 1 such a scare in the 2006 championship match. Or he could take on Richard Gasquet, the gifted Frenchman who is one of only five men to beat Federer over the last two years. Then again, the Swiss could find himself facing Argentina’s Jose Acasuso or Spain’s Tommy Robredo in the quarters.

Be that as it may, Federer is nearly certain to survive any of those clashes. His semifinal test, however, could be a lot harder to pass. In the penultimate round, if all goes according to plan, Federer would take on Andy Roddick, Marat Safin or Ivan Ljubicic. If Ljubicic--- who has a tough first round battle on his hands against the resurgent American Mardy Fish--- is Federer’s semifinal opponent, the view here is that Federer would clearly prevail. But either Safin or Roddick would present larger problems. Safin, of course, has had a terrific record “Down Under”, winning the Australian Open two years ago and reaching the finals in both 2002 and 2004. He is not afraid of Federer.

In fact, Safin courageously overcame Federer in a five set semifinal epic two years ago in this tournament. But for Safin to set up an appointment with Federer, he will need to survive what will inevitably be a bruising confrontation with Roddick in the third round. That one will be enticing to say the least. In 2004--- when Roddick was at the end of his run at No. 1 in the world--- Safin upended the American in five high quality sets at the Australian in the quarterfinals. Recently, Safin toppled Roddick in straight sets when they collided at Moscow in the Davis Cup semifinals, although that was on clay where Safin is much more at home.

Overall, the Safin-Roddick series stands at 3-3. The hope here is that they renew their rivalry at this Australian Open. So much is riding on the outcome for both players. Roddick is coming off an uplifting exhibition win over Federer in their tune up at Melbourne. That match will not count in the record books but it will be a confidence boost for the American who has carved out only one win in 13 career clashes with Federer. I give him a slight--- very slight--- edge over Safin. But if they meet, a five set match is probably in the cards either way and little will separate these two big time players.

What about Nadal? He opens against the relentlessly aggressive American Robert Kendrick, the same man who had the Spaniard down two sets to love at Wimbledon last summer. That was on grass. On the relatively slow hard courts in Australia, Nadal should control the contest more convincingly with his heavy topspin ground game and his ability to prolong the rallies. Where Nadal could run into some trouble is in a potential round of 16 meeting with Britain’s fiercely determined Andy Murray. But the guess here is that Nadal would win that match in four sets because Murray would prefer using his superb counter-attacking style against a bigger hitter with flatter strokes. Nadal should match up quite well against this adversary on hard courts.

If that is the case, he might meet No. 5 seed James Blake in the quarterfinals. Blake, of course, has owned Nadal thus far, defeating the left-hander three times without a loss over the last two years. And all three wins were on important occasions: at the U.S. Open in 2005, at Indian Wells in the spring of 2006 and again in Shanghai last November at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. Blake has played Nadal almost perfectly every time, stifling the Spaniard with the severity of his forehand, holding up surprisingly well off the backhand, rushing Nadal out of rally after rally.

But look for Nadal to exploit the slower conditions in Melbourne if they meet. The courts should be significantly more in his favor than was the case at the other locations. Blake, of course, has to repeat his final round triumph over Spain’s Carlos Moya at Sydney when they meet again in the first round of the initial Grand Slam event of 2007. Assuming Blake manages to do just that, he might have to handle Spain’s rising Nicolas Almagro. Although Almagro is a good deal more comfortable on clay courts, he remains formidable on the hard courts and would like nothing more than to avenge his loss to Blake at the French Open last year. I still see Blake getting through that section of the draw and surviving a difficult round of 16 assignment against either 2005 finalist and former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt or more likely No. 10 seed Fernando Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, a cluster of formidable players will be well worth watching. No. 8 seed David Nalbandian, Sweden’s explosive Robin Soderling, Germany’s Tommy Haas, Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, Dmitry Tursunov of Russia, Xavier Malisse of Belgium and world No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko will all be looking to seal a semifinal slot. Only one of them, of course, will realize that possibility. The potential third round showdowns in that section of the draw are compelling: Soderling vs. Haas; Berdych vs. Tursunov; and Malisse vs. Davydenko. Only a fool would dare to make bold calls on those encounters.

So how do things seem to shape up for the semifinals? I look for Federer to play Roddick and Nadal to come up against Davydenko. Although both men should be thoroughly tested, Federer and Nadal should set up their third final round meeting at a major. This one will probably be their very best on a surface favorable to both men, but Federer will prevail in five engrossing sets.

And what of the women?

It is a shame that world No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne--- the disciplined Belgian who reached every Grand Slam singles final in 2006--- will not be back in Melbourne to seek a second singles title. She withdrew for personal reasons, leaving Maria Sharapova as the leading candidate to take the title. Sharapova has played the finest tennis of her life since the middle of last year and is looking for a second major crown in a row after commandingly securing the U.S. Open championship last September. Sharapova might take on Italy’s Tathiana Garbin in the third round and then will need to be at or near her best to topple the Serbian Ana Ivanovic in the round of 16. Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder is a potential quarterfinal opponent for Sharapova, with Kim Clijsters, Dinara Safina or Martina Hingis all capable of coming through to meet the Russian in the semifinals.

Sharapova knows she has her work cut out for her but she should be ready to accept the challenge. The intriguing business will be played out by the likes of Clijsters, Hingis and Safina. Hingis lost a hard fought, three set final to Safina in Adelaide. If she manages to reverse that result this time around in the round of 16, she would then probably face Clijsters yet again. Clijsters ousted Hingis in both the Australian and French Opens last year and seems to have her number. Clijsters is the woman who should face Sharapova in the semifinals. Her draw is not unkind. The Belgian has a possible round of 16 appointment with either Anna-Lena Groenefeld (the No. 17 seed), or No. 15 seed Daniela Hantuchova. On current form, Clijsters should prosper. She won Sydney this past week in a stirring final with the surging Jelena Jankovic and she has one major in her collection along with four other appearances in Grand Slam tournament finals.

So I look for Sharapova and Clijsters to get through to the semifinals on their half of the draw. The other half is much harder to forecast. With Henin-Hardenne absent, anything is possible. Mauresmo is seeded second and is the defending champion but has not played well coming into this event. She could well lose to Nicole Vaidisova--- who beat her twice last year--- in the round of 16 if they both get there. The always dangerous Elena Dementieva is in that same quarter of the draw. Up above, the player to watch is clearly Jankovic, who had captured nine consecutive matches before squandering a match point against Clijsters in a stirring Sydney final.

Jankovic—coming off an impressive semifinal showing at the U.S. Open in September--- is brimming with confidence at the moment. Seeded No. 11 in Melbourne, she could meet No. 5 seed Nadia Petrova in the round of 16. Petrova has been beset by injuries since the French Open last year. She got hurt again recently. All things considered, Jankovic should win if they clash. In the mean time, a pair of sparkling competitors figure to do battle in the third round with Israel’s Shahar Peer (the No. 16 seed) potentially colliding with No. 20 seed Tatiana Golovin of France. The winner of that one would conceivably take on the victor in the possible skirmish between the Russians Maria Kirilenko and No. 3 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Where does it all lead? The guess here is that Jankovic will beat either Kuznetsova or Golovin in the quarters and then topple either Vaidisova or Dementieva in the semifinals. Jankovic has prepared perfectly for this tournament with one tournament win followed by a final round appearance in Sydney. She will make it to her first major final. I expect Sharapova and Clijsters to stage a stupendous semifinal confrontation with Sharapova narrowly escaping defeat and surviving in three tumultuous sets. In the final, Sharapova would be hard pressed throughout but in the end she survives and beats Jankovic in three hard sets for her second straight major title.

Remember: these are long range forecasts. I will be back with regular analysis throughout the tournament, and more predictions as the event progresses. I am looking forward to it all.


Post a Comment

<< Home