I have always been a fan of Rebound Ace. In my mind, the surface seemed to offer more classic, hard-fought battles than any other Grand Slam, year in, year out. But, it was also a unique playing ground, a kind only to be found in Australia, which not in the least bit added to the charm of the Open. Now, with the replacement of the courts by a US-made plexicushion surface, the event lost a bit of its identity along with it. The uniqueness of each Grand Slam with its own surface has vanished. Hard courts now rule the majors, like they have ruled the pro tours for years already.
But the question we’re all asking ourselves is, will the tours’ rulers stand tall over the next two weeks? It’s time for the draw analysis.
If you’re wondering if a lack of match practice could hurt Roger Federer’s chances in this tournament, just think back to Wimbledon last year, when there was such a big fuss going about when Fed decided to skip his yearly warm-up event in Halle and head straight from the Parisian clay to his sacred ground in London. A similar road lies ahead.
Federer will start his 2008 season against Argentine Diego Hartfield. He’ll face a tricky opponent in the second round in either Fabrice “the Magician” Santoro, or the tower of power, John Isner. They’re no serious threats though. That could come in the quarters, where a rematch with last year’s finalist Fernando Gonzalez looms. The Chilean was of course the last player to beat Fed, during the Masters Cup. That’s two reasons to look forward to that one. Still, Federer’s loss to Gonzalez in Shanghai was probably just a one-off.
Semifinalist: Roger Federer
Here we have the fun quarter of the draw. Novak Djokovic is the player to beat as the No. 3 seed, but his path to the semis is hardly a gimme. Djokovic’ section offers the Dazzling Davids (Ferrer & Nalbandian), Marcos Baghdatis, Lleyton Hewitt, Sydney champ Dmitry Tursunov, Juan Carlos Ferrero and the streaky Marat Safin, Radek Stepanek and Xavier Malisse. And there’s US Open breakthrough performer Ernests Gulbis as well. If Nalbandian is ready to play, he and Ferrer will be the two biggest threats to Djokovic out of that bunch. Luckily for the Serb, he’ll just get to face one of them in the fourth round.
Semifinalist: Novak Djokovic
How fit is Andy Murray? Judging from his gasping in the Doha final against Stan Wawrinka, there’s still work to be done. I think Murray will outsmart Richard Gasquet over the long haul in the fourth round, and he seems to be a few levels above Davydenko mentally, to beat the Russian in the quarters. Should he face Youzhny for a spot in the semis, the Scot will be in bigger trouble.
Semifinalist: Andy Murray
Rafael Nadal has definitely not been playing well after losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final, his confidence being further hammered by a crushing 6-0 6-1 loss to Youzhny last week in Chennai. However, the draw has been kind to Rafa, who really shouldn’t be troubled before the quarters. There, he’ll most likely face Andy Roddick, who for once hasn’t been drawn in Federer’s half.
It’s true that Roddick can blow Nadal off the court with his serves, but if the Spaniard gets the ball back in play, his game matches up perfectly with A-Rod’s. Roddick doesn’t hit his groundies as flat, or with as much pace as a Youzhny, Berdych, or Blake, players who cause Nadal a lot of problems. Roddick’s only option is to take the balls early and move into the net. He won’t hit winners off the baseline consistenly. Then again, by coming forward, he gives Nadal a target at the net, and one can’t argue with Rafa’s skill in hitting passing shots. So, even though Nadal may be slumping, he’ll be favored to reach the last four.
Semifinalist: Rafael Nadal
Djokovic came close to beating Federer in the US Open final, even though it went 0-3. He won’t be straight-setted by the Swiss here, but winning more than two sets will still be too much for Nole.
In the other semi, I don’t believe Murray will have enough gas left in the tank to outplay Nadal in a best-of-five match under gruelling conditions. Rafa may have to come from behind here, but he’ll prevail. In the final though, his recent lack of confidence should show against Federer, and we’ll be able to add major number 13 to the Swiss’ résumé.
Champion: Roger Federer
Was anyone still surprised when the draw came out? Justine Henin again faces competition from Jelena Jankovic and Serena Williams in her half. This time though, the Belgian is not scheduled to face either one of them until the semifinals. There are some tough hurdles to clear first though for Henin, starting with Tatiana Golovin in the fourth round. Henin encountered the Frenchwoman in two indoor finals near the end of 2007, losing one set in Stuttgart. Henin was a little shaky in Sydney last week, losing sets to Ivanovic and Kuznetsova. Against Kuzy in the final, she was down 0-3 and faced break point to go down a double break. Henin was struggling with her serve, hitting about 20 double faults combined in her last two matches.
In the quarters, she’ll face a major bump in the road in Maria Sharapova. The Russian came very close to upsetting Henin in the appraised final of the Madrid Championships last season, and that was without any match practice under her belt, and not much more training either. Sharapova seems to have left her shoulder problems behind her and that means she’ll be a legitimate contender again at any Slam other than the French.
Semifinalist: Maria Sharapova
Serena Williams beat Jelena Jankovic en route to the championship last year, and they’re scheduled for a rematch in the quarters. Jankovic has been fading ever since Wimbledon, though she almost beat Venus Williams to reach the US Open semis, and is yet the only player to have beaten Lindsay Davenport after her comeback. Jankovic will be favored to reach the quarters, but in this section of the draw, Serena has the edge.
Semifinalist: Serena Williams
It will take at least one major upset to prevent a quarterfinal showdown between Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic. Venus has to fend off either Marion Bartoli or the resurgent Na Li in the fourth round, while Ivanovic’ toughest opponent looks to be the struggling Dinara Safina. Ivanovic is very likely a future Slam champion, but she still has to grow up some more mentally to beat the elite players.
Semifinalist: Venus Williams
Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze are the highest seeds in the bottom quarter of the draw, but it probably won’t come down to another semifinal clash between the two Russians, like at the US Open. I’m not sure anyone would mind about that.
We all know about the tragic incident involving Chakvetadze over the off-season, who wasn’t going through the best times of her tennis career either. Yes, she reached the semis at the Championships in Madrid, but after her complete meltdown to Kuznetsova in New York, Chakvetadze’s results went downhill. Although Anna C. is a big fighter, she’s very fragile mentally and needs to win consistently to build up confidence. She was routed by Katarina Srebotnik in the first round in Sydney last week and thus heads into the Aussie Open winless. The world No. 6 might not make it into the second week.
Agnes Szavay and Agnieszka Radwanska pose some threat to Kuznetsova, and Daniela Hantuchova might trouble her in the quarters, but the Sydney finalist is looking in solid shape to advance out of this section.
Semifinalist: Svetlana Kuznetsova
Serena Williams will be glad to see Sharapova has done all the hard work for her in taking out Henin. Against Sharapova, in Melbourne, you’ve got to like the defending champion to think back to what happened in ’07 and pull through. In the other semi, I’ll take Venus over Kuzy on a hard court any day of the week. I’ll pick V over her sister as well.
Champion: Venus Williams
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