Monday, January 08, 2007

The Austrlian Open is just a week away

Australian doubles star Sam Stosur is sure to be a major crowd favorite at the 2007 Australian Open

The Australian Open begins a week from today, with qualifying matches set for next weekend. The Rebound Ace court, as bouncy as it can be, has special appeal for some players, and some do not do that well with it. The players' biggest enemy in Australia, however, is always the heat. Though there is a heat rule, it is inadequate, players must frequently be given liquids, and it is not unusual for them to develop heat illness. Anastasia Myskina almost succombed to it last year, and heat exhaustion played a very obvious role in Lindsay Davenport's loss in the 2005 final. Both Martina Hingis and Patty Schnyder have had to withdraw from heat illness in the past.

Players to watch:

Martina Hingis

Last year, Hingis had a low ranking and got stuck with meeting current world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne in the first round of the Sydney warmup tournament. She was eliminated. This year, her ranking was much higher, but she had to face the very talented Jelena Jankovic in the first round. The match was very tight and--judging from the scoreboard--a real thriller. Jankovic prevailed, putting Hingis out in the first round again. She did a lot better at the tournment the week before in Gold Coast, where she was the finalist, losing in three sets to Dinara Safina.

Last year, despite having just returned from a 3 1/2-year hiatus, Hingis managed to get to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, a feat which was admired by almost everyone connected with the tennis world. More is expected of her now, however. During the Year-End Championsips, she impressed me with her much-improved first and second serves, and I noticed she was winning a lot of points off of her second serve during her first round at Sydney. If Hingis continues to play the way she did at the Year-End Championships (where she defeated Nadia Petrova and did very well against defending champion Amelie Mauresmo), she can get to the quarterfinals again. I think she will have to be more aggressive, though, to get beyond the quarters. I would love to see her advance as far as possible, and if her serve continues to improve, we may see a continued steady rise for her in the rankings. Some say the game has passed her by, but my jury is still out.

Samantha Stosur

Sam Stosur is the world's number one doubles player (a title she shares with partner Lisa Raymond), but she is also getting better and better in singles. An Australian, Stosur is the local favorite now that Alicia Molik is still in her comeback stage after a lengthy illness, and she would be a big favorite, anyway. Stosur has one of the best serves--both first and second--on the tour, and she is capable of very good results. She seems to perform better under pressure, however, and, like Hingis, needs to do a better job of taking charge of the match. Last year she made it to the round of 16, where Hingis stopped her.

Jelena Jankovic

Her tour competitors call her the JJ Express because she does everything so quickly, and more than one competitor has asked the umpire to tell Jankovic to slow down before she serves the ball. Jankovic made an impressive showing a few years ago, then slumped in 2005 when she was losing interest in tennis and busy going to college. She considered leaving the tour, and had a disastrous opening season last year. Something inside her clicked, however, and she turned it all around--and how. Jankovic (who is somehow still attending college) made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, where some mental fragility kept her from taking out Henin-Hardenne; one assumes she learned something from that. She won the warmup tournament in Auckland last week, and could give any player on the tour trouble.

Ana Ivanovic

Ivanovic, last Janikovic, made an impressive debut, then slumped. Her problem was her sluggish, awkward movement on the court, but that has improved quite a bit, and Ivanovic's stinging forehand--reminiscent of Graf's--is a powerful weapon. I don't think she is as clever a player as Jankovic, but she, too, can cause trouble.

Nicole Vaidisova

Playing with power and an improved strategy, Vaidisova has lived up to her phenom status and could break through in a bigger way any time. She made it to the semifinals of the French Open (the last Slam where I expected her to do well), and could go far in Melbourne.

Patty Schnyder

Yes, Patty' s game is up and down. She can go from brilliant to slumpy in one tournament--sometimes in one match--and it's exhausting being her fan. Her one Grand Slam semifinal appearance was at the Australian Open--she really likes the Rebound Ace surface. Schnyder has also had an impressive season opening, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Hong Kong exhibition match (where most of the top players were), and losing very respectfully to Kim Clijsters in three sets. If Schnyder is on, her game is a joy to watch, and both her first and second serves are quite under-rated.

Shahar Peer

Peer has a low profile, but her game gets better every tournament, and her mental toughness is impressive.

Anna Chakvetadze
The Russian teenager has had quite a bit of trouble with her emotions on the court, but she appears to be maturing, and she has one hell of a game. Anything can happen.

Serena Williams

The former world number one and two-time Australian Open winner says she is ready to climb back to the top of the rankings, and it always foolish to dismiss a Williams sister, no matter what is going on in her life. Plagued with injury for so long, Williams has been training hard, and the tournament in Melbourne will give us all a good look at how she is doing.

Nadia Petrova

Last year was supposed to be Petrova's big year. The Russian who used to be considered the one most likely to break through took a long time to finally make a splash on the tour, mostly because of mental fragility. When she finally made the splash, it was on the clay courts last year, and she was considered possibly the only woman who could give Henin-Hardenne a run for the French Open title. Then a terrible thing happend: Petrova was injured during a French Open practice session, and consequently lost in the first round. Nothing went too well for her after that, but she appears to be fresh again, and is definitely Slam material. Unfortunately, Petrova is suffering from a thigh strain at the moment, but we all hope she will be okay for Melbourne.

Other players worth watching are Dinara Safina, Na Li, Marion Bartoli (though she seems to be in a bit of a slump), and the always-dangerous Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Top players to watch:

With Lindsay Davenport out of tennis and Justine Henin-Hardenne out of the Australian Open, there are now three top contenders for the title:

Amelie Mauresmo

Mauresmo, the defending champion, had a great year last year, winning both in Australia and at Wimbledon, and defeating Henin-Hardenne both times. She failed to defend her Year-End Championships title, however, losing to Henin-Hardenne in the final. Henin-Hardenne was considered the favorite going into the Australian Open, but now she is not a factor, and Mauresmo has to be considered a top contender. Not many titles are defended in the WTA anymore, but if Mauresmo's bad shoulder doesn't act up, her chances are good.

Kim Clijsters

This is Clijsters' last season to play tennis, which gives her a psychological edge, something she has lacked in the past. She was in Grand Slam final after Grand Slam final for years, losing all of them (most of them to Henin-Hardenne) until she finally won the 2005 U.S. Open. Clijsters is an amazing athlete and a wonderful tennis player. She would probably love to go out with more than one Slam, no matter how much she talks about looking forward to retiring and starting a family. Right now, she is the tour's great under-achiever (not unlike Davenport, but at least she has 3 Slams and an Olympic gold medal), and a win in Australia would be very nice for her. Last year, after defeating Hingis in the quarterfinals, she had to withdraw because of injury.

Maria Sharapova
Sharapova's 2006 U.S. Open win was clean and stylish. She dismissed Henin-Hardenne in straight sets in the final, and--considering her remarkable performance throughout the tournament--probably surprised no one. Having another Slam to her credit has probably taken a lot of pressure off of Sharapova, whose rise to fame after her 2004 Wimbledon win was rapid and dramatic. Her athleticism has improved, as has her court variety. She cannot move around like a Mauresmo or a Clijsters--maybe she never will--but she has a power and focus that can get her out of a lot of tricky situations.


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