Saturday, January 13, 2007

Australian Open Preview

The first Grand Slam Event of the 2007 tennis season, the Australian Open, begins soon, and with both the Men's and Women's draws in hand, let's play the role of prognosticator and analyze the field. As we did for our US Open preview, we'll note a player's seeding in parentheses, and we'll also refer to each quarter of the draw by the highest seeded player in that section.

For the men, the top four seeds are:
  1. Roger Federer
  2. Rafael Nadal
  3. Nikolay Davydenko
  4. Ivan Ljubicic
At first glance defending champion Roger Federer's quarter doesn't look overly troubling as the next highest seed is Tommy Robredo (7). However, there are 4 talented and inconsistent youngsters in this section: Marcos Baghdatis (11), Novak Djokovic (14), Richard Gasquet (18) and Gael Monfils. All four of these men can perform brilliantly at times, but other than Baghdatis' run at last year's Aussie Open, they haven't been able to seriously challenge for a Grand Slam title and it says here that they won't have any more success in trying at Melbourne in 2007. Some intriguing potential match-ups:

Second Round - Baghdatis vs. Monfils
Third Round - the Baghdatis/Monfils winner vs. Gasquet: the winner of this match would probably play Tommy Robredo.
Third Round - Djokovic vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero (24): Ferrero isn't the same player who won the French Open in 2003, but he could still give the enigmatic Djokovic a tough time on the Rebound Ace surface.

Federer's first tough match looks like Mikhail Youzhny (25) in the third round. Youzhny conquered Rafael Nadal at the 2006 US Open before falling to Andy Roddick in the semi-finals, but he should not trouble the world number one. The pick for this quarter: Roger Federer (shocking, I know).

The next quarter of the draw is the Ivan Ljubicic quarter and this one looks rather competitive. Some of the other seeds here are: Andy Roddick (6), Mario Ancic (9), David Ferrer (16), Radek Stepanek (20), and Marat Safin (26). The hard-serving Aussie, Wayne Arthurs is also lurking in this portion of the draw. On recent form, Roddick is the player to beat here, but let's look at some of the potential encounters before declaring a pick for this quarter.

First Round - Ljubicic vs. Mardy Fish: Fish has played well so far in 2007 and if there is a vulnerability in the Ljubicic game it seems to be his underwhelming performances in Grand Slams. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Fish win this one.
Third Round - Ferrer vs. Stepanek
Third Round - Ancic vs. Dominik Hrbaty (22)
Third Round - Roddick vs. Safin
Fourth Round - Ancic vs. Roddick/Safin winner

Athough Andy Roddick seems to be playing very well at the moment, he has a potential killer draw starting with the third round. If all of the seeds were to hold, he would play Safin, Ancic, Ljubicic, and then Federer in the semis. Tournament play is not only about winning matches, it's also about taking the path of least resistance to the title. With the amount of effort required to get out of this section, it's difficult to pick Andy to win the tournament, but we think he emerges from this quarter to face Federer in the semifinals.

Next up is the Davydenko Quarter. This doesn't look like one of the stronger quarters of the draw, but it's not terrible either. Aside from Davydenko, other seeds are: David Nalbandian (8), Tommy Haas (12), Tomas Berdych (13), and Xavier Malisse (29). Davydenko recently pulled out of Sydney with a foot ailment and told the world that no one cares about the Sydney tournament. Sounds like he's saving himself for Melbourne so I don't think his injury will be an issue. Malisse won his first event of 2007 which included a win over world number 2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. The X-Man has always been known as a talented player who can beat anyone at anytime. We'll have to see how far that actually carries him in this tournament as there are times when he can be as bad as he can be good. Here are some potential matches in this quarter.

Fourth Round - Nalbandian vs. Haas
Third Round - Malisse vs. Davydenko
Fourth Round - Berdych vs. Malisse/Davydenko winner

This is one of the tougher quarters to pick as there is no obvious choice and the health of the number 3 seed Davydenko is a bit of question. Let's go out on a limb on this one: Tommy Haas!

The last quarter of the draw is topped by Rafael Nadal, the number 2 seed, but the best player at the moment in this section is probably James Blake (5). However, Blake has a tough opening round match versus the man he beat today in the Sydney final in three sets, Carlos Moya of Spain. Wouldn't Nadal be grateful if his compatriot from Mallorca could eliminate his nemesis? It's certainly possible, but we think it's unlikely. Other seeds in this quarter:

Lleyton Hewitt (19) - the Aussie is going though a rough patch at the moment as he recently split with his coach Roger Rasheed and may have a slight muscle tear in his calf. On the bright side, the Open tournament committee might have made the courts a bit faster per Hewitt's liking although the verdict on this seems to be mixed.
Andy Murray (15) - fans around the world are waiting for the Brad Gilbert magic potion to take affect on his latest charge. Will it happen in Melbourne in '07? Will it ever happen?
Fernando Gonzalez (10) - Gonzo has been playing better tennis over the last year and is playing smarter. His forehand is as dangerous as any in the game so he simply cannot be overlooked.

Intriguing potential matches:

First Round: Moya vs. Blake
Third Round: Hewitt vs. Gonzalez
Fourth Round: Gonzalez vs. Blake
Fourth Round: Nadal vs. Murray

The pick for this quarter is James Blake. I don't want to pick against my boy Rafa, but I don't have a good vibe about his game right now. I hope that I'm wrong, but I don't know if he has figured out how to combat Blake's strategy against him. If the courts are faster, that's an advantage for James, but the high bounces that come off of the Rebound Ace surface favor Nadal. I'm just not sure that's enough of an advantage for Nadal to stifle Blake's power game.

So our semifinal matches are Roger Federer (1) vs. Andy Roddick (6) and Tommy Haas (12) vs. James Blake (5).

Federer vs. Roddick - Although Roddick beat Federer in Kooyong today in the final of an exhibition tournament, I give that result very little weight. Attaching any significance to this loss for Federer is directly parallel to those who read something into Roger's defeat versus Andy Murray last summer in Cicninnati. There's nothing there to read, and as Nikolay Davydenko so eloquently stated earlier this week in Sydney, the player's don't really care about these events when there is a Grand Slam on the horizon. With that being said, Andy Roddick does seem to be playing better tennis these days, but as we stated earlier, the path through a draw is a significant factor in determining the champion. Unfortunately for Roddick, his path looks too tough and I expect him to be a little fatigued by the time he reaches this match. Federer in 4 sets.

Haas vs. Blake - Tommy Haas is my darkhorse in this event, but his run ends in the semis. Blake takes him down to move into his first Grand Slam final.

Federer vs. Blake - This is simply a bad match-up for James Blake, and he knows it - kind of similar to Blake being a bad match-up for Nadal. Blake's game doesn't have the same affect on Roger that it has on other player's and James doesn't handle that well mentally. While this match may be competitive at the outset, Federer will eventually take control and win another Grand Slam title.

The top four seeds in the Women's draw are:
  1. Maria Sharapova
  2. Amelie Mauresmo
  3. Svetlana Kuznetsova
  4. Kim Clijsters

Three missing players of note are the 2006 finalist, Justine Henin-Hardenne (personal reasons), Venus Williams (wrist injury), and Lindsay Davenport (retired). Even with those ladies not in the draw, the 2007 Australian Open Women's Singles is still a very interesting tournament. The tournament will also be somewhat special for the fans as 2007 is Kim Clijsters' final season on the WTA Tour and this will be her last appearance in Melbourne as a player.

The Sharapova Quarter
Maria Sharapova is at the top of the draw, and her quarter looks relatively straight-forward. The next highest seed in this section is Patty Schnyder (8), but she could have a difficult Fourth Round match against Anna Chakvetadze (12). A couple of other players of note in this section are Ana Ivanovic (13), Samantha Stosur (24), and Alicia Molik. Stosur and Molik will be sure to have the hometown support throughout, but Sharapova emerges from this quarter with little resistance.

The Clijsters Quarter
In her final Australian Open, Kim Clijsters is seeded fourth and has been presented with a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals. Who she meets in the quarters is very open to debate. Some of the possible matches to watch in that section of this quarter are:

Third Round - Na Li (19) vs. Dinara Safina (9)
Third Round - Sania Mirza vs. Hingis (word is that Mirza may be playing better again after a dismal 2006)

The winners of these 2 matches would meet in the fourth round, and would most likely be playing for a chance to tackle Clijsters in the quarters. Based on her performances in Sydney, Clijsters is the pick in this quarter.

The Kuznetsova Quarter
This quarter of the draw appears to be the most wide open of the four. Aside from Kuznetsova, other notable players are Nadia Petrova (5), Jelena Jankovic (11), Shahar Peer (16), Tatiana Golovin (20), and Serena Williams. It may seem strange that I included Serena in this list, but I did so only because of her past accomplishments and for her ability to bring attention to herself. Potential matches in this quarter are:

Third Round - Petrova vs. S. Williams
Fourth Round - Petrova vs. Jankovic
Third Round - Golovin vs. Peer
Fourth Round - Kuznetsova vs. Golovin/Peer winner

I expect that the quarterfinal match-up here will be Jelena Jankovic vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. The pick here is Jankovic. We love her game. Her groundstrokes, athleticism and court movement tell us that she has a chance to be a great player.

The Mauresmo Quarter
This quarter isn't that deep, but there are three players with a legitimate chance of advancing to the semi-finals: Amelie Mauresmo (2), Elena Dementieva (7), and Nicole Vaidisova (10). Vaidisova and Dementieva are scheduled to meet in the fourth round with the winner most likely taking on Mauresmo. Our pick for this quarter is Nicole Vaidisova.

The semi-final matches are Maria Sharapova (1) vs. Kim Clijsters (4) and Jelena Jankovic (11) vs. Nicole Vaidisova (10).

Sharapova vs. Clijsters - The sentimental pick will be for Kim in her final tournament Down Under. Based on her current form, the sentimental pick seems to be the right pick, so we'll go with Kim.

Jankovic vs. Vaidisova - These 2 young ladies just played a highly competitive match in Sydney and Jankovic won in 3 sets. We expect something similar in Melbourne. Pick: Jankovic.

Clijsters vs. Jankovic - Another rematch from the Sydney tournament. Jankovic held a match point versus Clijsters at 6-4, 5-4, but was unable to close it out. Can she close out Kim on an even bigger stage? We're not sure that she can based on her meltdown at the US Open versus Justine Henin-Hardenne, but perhaps she learned from that. Regardless, Kim Clijsters is our pick as the 2007 Australian Open Women's Single Champion.

Enjoy the tournament!

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