On the Up, Down Under
The first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open kicks off on Monday and in many ways both draws are wide open.
In the Men's draw, many people aren't looking beyond the big four: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray. Are they the only contenders? Well, based on form and on recent years - you'd have to agree.
Nadal is the big player on the tour and could match Agassi's achievement of winning Grand Slams on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard). Nadal does seem vulnerable though and his potential third-round matchup with Tommy Haas is an interesting one.
Federer is always favourite for me and his win at the Kooyong build up event seems to cement that. He exudes style, grace and form each time he plays. But Federer again has been vulnerable for a while and it may take exits for the other big four for him to win it. Federer should meet Safin in Round Three. Another belter.
Djokovic comes as defending champion yet has a champion ever returned to less hype? He's a big threat and should make the semi's but he will have to overcome Nieminen to get there. If he does though, from there who knows.
Then there's Murray. Here in the UK he's being talked about as favourite and the hype is ridiculous. The talk of his bulking up too, accompanied by bare-torso shots of him playing are getting on my nerves a bit.
But Murray is class and he is arguably the form playing coming in, with two tournament wins already and victories against Nadal and Federer. It's easy to forget though that he hasn't progressed far in previous Australians and crashed out to Tsonga in round 1 last year. He has a tough route, with Meltzer, Stepanek and Blake/Tsonga in his way.
The delight of Grand Slam tennis is that surprises always happen. So here's a few ideas to mark your cards:
- Nalbandian. Winner of the ATP in Sydney and a massive talent. Tends to beat Murray too.
- Monfils. Winner against Nadal last year and now 6th seed. Decent possible draw too.
- Robin Soderling. I love Soderling, a classy player with a good record and an interesting draw.
- Niemenen. Runner up in Sydney and a great player to be unseeded. I wonder whether he might make an impression.
- Tommy Haas. Unseeded and due to meet Nadal in Round 3.
- James Blake - we're still waiting for a Grand Slam breakthrough for this talented and precocious American. I have a feeling Blake could make an impact here.
Then there's Hewitt. Surely too old to win the thing, but always due an emotional and epic five-set classic here. He's a legend and I hope he does well.
So a prediction? I'd suggest the following semi's:
Monfils vs Murray. Murray to win in five.
Djokovic vs Federer. Federer in four.
Much as I want Murray to win this one, I do believe Federer will still be stronger in a Slam and I'd expect him to win in four sets. Let's get ready for Murray to win the US Open in September—I suspect that'll be his breakthrough, though I hope to be proved wrong with an earlier success.
Women's tour tennis is extremely open right now, and maybe eight to 10 women could realistically win the event. I had a feeling though that this will be Jelena Jankovic's year. She has been growing as a player, has a decent draw and suits this surface. Come finals day I expect Jankovic to be lifting the trophy.
Her rivals are many, the Williams sisters are enigma's and if they show form, the rest of the field will be saying their prayers. Safina consistently performs in Slam's and I'd expect her to be close. Ivanovic too should show strongly. The missing Sharapova would have been a contender I'm sure.
Outside the big players I'd suggest these three women to make an impact.
Wozniaki. The Dane has been one of the improving players of the tour, she is seeded 11 and I expect her to get beyond her seeding, maybe to a Quarter or even a Semi.
Vaidisova. Given the strength of the women's draw, Vaidisova isn't seeded and I expect her to ruffle some feathers. Maybe even reach the quarters.
Keothavong. Talk about a breakthrough for British women's tennis. Four girls in the draw and Keothavong just outside the top 50. She has a tough first round in Marion Bartoli but if she can beat her, which I think she will.
I think we may see the best performance by a British girl in a Slam since the days of Jo Durie.
So my final is Jankovic vs Ivanovic with Jelena Jankovic to win in three.
Still as they say, only the fool predicts the unpredictable, so I am sure that in two weeks time I'll be saying I was very very wrong. Roll on the tournament.
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