Turning to the new year in pro tennis, we find (1) four elite
superstars who are likely to dominate among the women and (2) a single, unquestioned
favorite among the men. In here contemplating the prospects for Melbourne Park
07, we give close heed to the January hard-court tournaments and also to the
2006 year-ending events at Madrid and Shanghai.
The four semi-finalists at the Sony-Ericsson in Madrid were the identical
four women who had been the semi-finalists at both Australia and Wimbledon 06.
Together, the four superstars compose the elite group currently at the top of
women's tennis. Only three of them will compete at Melbourne, however, as
Henin-Hardenne has withdrawn for personal family reasons. Justine would have been
the narrow favorite, having been runner-up at Melbourne last year and having
defeated two of the others in winning at Madrid recently. The other three will
compete at Melbourne. All three--Sharapova, Mauresmo, and Clijsters--seem closely
matched in their chances.
Maria Sharapova may have lost to Henin at Madrid, but she had earlier beaten
Justine in the final at U.S. Open 06. Sharapova, now 19, appears to have grown
in stature and power over the last year or so, and is now more daunting than
ever in her serving and stroking. Her bold, attacking rockets to the sides can
dominate any opponent. She was extremely strong indoors last fall, winning
the Tier I at Zurich, the Tier II at Linz, and all three of her matches in the
round-robin phase at Madrid. She lost to Clijsters, however, at the Watson's
Water "exhibition" tournament last week in Hong Kong, though she had beaten Kim
at Madrid. This will be Maria's fifth appearance at Australian Open, where she
has improved in her finish in every year.
Seemingly now at her best is Kim Clijsters, 23, who missed most of the second
half of 2006 with recurrent wrist trouble. She returned in November, winning
two of her three round-robin matches at Madrid before losing to Mauresmo in
split sets. She began the new year impressively, capturing the Watson's Water
over Sharapova in the final and then winning the tournament at Sydney.
Last year's Australian Open winner, Amelie Mauresmo, now 27, also won
Wimbledon 06 and was runner-up to Justine at Madrid. She began 2007
inauspiciously--carried to three sets in her first match at Sydney this week and then losing
her second match. Amelie possesses superior court mobility, excellent power and
consistency in serving and stroking, along with excellent variety in her game
including skills in coming to net behind first serve. She has sometimes
faltered at critical times, but her victories in 2006 suggest that her nerves are no
BEST OF THE REST
There are a dozen or so other stars capable of defeating any of the elites
not at their best. Henin's absence means that at least one and very possibly two
members of this second group will reach the semis at Melbourne.
Close to the leaders are three Russians stars, all of whom qualified for the
championships in Madrid but faltered in the round-robin play. Svetlana
Kuznetsova is still just 21 and finished 2006 ranked #4, showing three wins over
Mauresmo during the year. Displaying good improvement during the fall was Nadia
Petrova, 24, tall and strong, who beat Kuznetsova in winning the tournament in
Stuttgart in October and Mauresmo at Madrid. Both Kuznetsova and Petrova
withdrew during matches at the Sydney tournament this week with maladies, but both
appear in the draw for Melbourne, made today. The third member of the group,
Elena Dementieva has excellent mobility, striking power, and temperament, and is
wonderful to watch amid her unceasing struggle to overcome her own sub-par
Martina Hingis was our Player of Year runner-up for 2006, behind Federer,
where we honored her marvelous comeback at age 25 after three years on the
sidelines. Martina finished the year at #7, having shown her old talents for clean
hitting to the sides amid countless fascinating matches often against larger
and stronger opponents. Martina as a teenager was twice Australian champion, and
she reached the quarters last year early in her comeback. All her matches
this year should be highly watchable, though it seems unlikely that she can much
improve over her year-end 2006 ranking.
Jelena Jankovic, 21, made a strong run at U.S. Open 06, defeating Kuznetsova
and Dementieva, and finished the year at #12 after a dismal first half. Jelena
won the tune-up tournament at Auckland last week, where her victims included
Hingis and Mauresmo. This week at Sydney, Jelena lost to Clujsters in the
final, but she won the first set and carried the second set to a tiebreaker.
Another recent teenager seemingly ready to rise is Dinara Safina, age 20, sister of
Marat. Safina finished 2006 at #10, and she began 2007 with a fine win over
Hingis in the final at the Gold Coast tune-up.
The contingent of 19-year-olds is deep even apart from Sharapova. Ana
Ivanovic is a six-footer from Belgrade, who amid a fine summer season defeated Hingis
in the final at Canada 06. The record of Jerusalem-born Shamar Peer was
slightly less lustrous, but in the recent Australian tune-ups at Gold Coast Peer
defeated Ivanovic in split sets. Peer in her next match came close to defeating
Safina. But ahead of both Peer and Ivanovic in the 2006 rankings was Anna
Chakvetadze, also 19, who showed a fine Hingis-like game in defeating Petrova in
the final at Kremlin Cup, Moscow, in October, seen on Tennis Channel.
Best of the 18-year-olds is probably Tatiana Golovin, who was born in Moscow,
spent her early years in France, and trained in Florida. Golovin's court
movement is wonderful to watch, and her stroking and serving carry good pace.
Tatiana has been competing at high level since age 15, and during 2006 she scored
several wins over first-eight players along with good scores against
Sharapova. Amid several wins, she lost to Petrova and Mauresmo in the recent Australian
Almost surely the best for her age is Nicole Vaidisova, 17, a six-footer from
Prague, who finished the 2006 race at an impressive #11. A very strong server
and hitter who seems in excellent control of her frame despite her
youthfulness, Nicole reached the semis at Garros 06 and won three matches at Wimbledon.
Though her performance leveled after that, she began the new year with three
wins at Sydney, defeating Ivanovic before losing to Jankovic. Also aged 17
during 2006 but well below Vaidisova was Michaella Krajicek, sister of Richard,
whose best achievement was in winning the grass tune-up at Ôs-Hertogenbosch 06
before losing in the first round at Wimbledon.
Of the current veterans, Serena Williams at 25 will certainly require
watching. Serena undeniably possesses the serving/stroking power and athleticism
needed to compete in the elite group. But given her extended time on the sidelines
with injuries, it seems unlikely that she can outslug the top players while
avoiding excessive errors. She lost in the third round this week in Tasmania.
Absent from Melbourne will be Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport.
Here are my odds for winning the tournament:
Sharapova and Clijsters, each 4-1
Kuznetsova, Jankovic, each 15-1
Dementieva, Golovin, Safina, Ivanovic, Serena W., each 40-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
THE QUARTERS AND CRYSTAL BALL
Sharapova, seeded atop the first quarter, should prevail in a fourth-round
meeting probably with Ivanovic. Patty Schnyder is the highest-seeded player in
the other half of the quarter, but Patty appears vulnerable against
Chakvetadze, whose fine striking ability should carry her into the quarters. Sharapova's
blistering firepower, however, should be too much for the fellow 19-year-old
In the second quarter, Hingis and Safina should advance to an interesting
fourth-round match-up, where the latter should repeat her final-round victory
over Martina at Gold Coast last week. Kim Clijsters, however, has shown top form
in her January victories and should have no trouble reaching the quarters. Kim
then should survive a difficult struggle with Dinara to claim a place in the
Kuznetsova and Petrova are the high-seeded players in the third quarter. Also
present are Golovin, Peer, and Jankovic. My confidence lies with the
fast-rising player from Serbia, who seems almost certain to defeat Petrova and
probably Kuznetsova as well. The choice here is Jankovic.
Defending champion Mauresmo heads what seems a relatively weak bottom
quarter, also containing Dementieva and young Vaidisova. Dementieva beat Vaidisova at
the Watson's Water before stretching Sharapova. Elena's chances seem faint
against Amelie, however, assuming that the champion will regain better playing
form as the tournament proceeds. Make it Mauresmo.
The postulated semi-final between Sharapova and Clijsters would seem a
natural classic. Kim's January run has been enormously impressive, especially
including her win over Maria in the Watson's final. But Kim has hurt me in past
predictions and Maria rarely seems to do so. Their styles are contrasting--Maria
the supreme striker, Kim the wonderful mover--but making the difference will be
their mental strengths. Crystal Ball picks Sharapova.
The other prospective semi seems just as fascinating--the rising 21-year-old
against the reigning champion. The younger player's wonderful current run and
Mauresmo's recent struggles are convincing. Jankovic is the choice.
But in the final, Maria's experience, strength of will, and superior power
should prevail. In my opinion, Sharapova in Australia 06 will claim her third
MEN'S SINGLES -- ROGER AND THE REST
Since he began dominating pro tennis at the start of 2004, Roger Federer has
been almost unbeatable at the major non-clay events. Then in 2006 he reached
the final round at Garros, Monte Carlo, and Rome, thereby proving himself also
the world's second-best player on clay. In all three cases he lost to Nadal
in split sets. By winning Australia, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open 06, Roger
narrowly missed achieving the classic Grand Slam--the first by a male player since
Laver in 1969.
The odds against Roger's winning all four Slams in 2007 are of course long.
The array of talented players every year becomes richer as newcomers rise from
an expanding field of highly trained athletes. Federer is now 25--slightly
past the median age for peak results in today's pro tennis. Roger must avoid
injury and maintain his singular level of motivation and skill, and he must
unfailingly perform at his highest level against opponents just as dedicated and
nearly as talented as himself. Even if these things happen, his chances for the
Grand Slam are probably no better than one in ten. (Roughly speaking, he should
be a moderately odds-on favorite to repeat at Wimbledon and U.S. Open,
slightly less so at Australia, and have about a one-in-three chance of winning at
The journey begins at Melbourne Park this month, where the bounce is usually
somewhat slow for a non-clay surface. Thus Roger's serve and power
forehand--his ultimate weapons in times of danger--will be slightly less penetrating than
at the other non-clay Slams. Roger's going last year at Melbourne was not
comfortable, despite the absence of Rafael Nadal (then and now the world's #2
player) and Marat Safin, the defending champion. On his run to the championship,
Roger had to play only one first-tenner (Davydenko at #5). Roger nevertheless
lost five sets enroute--two to Tommy Haas, and one each to Davydenko, Kiefer,
anld Baghdatis. In contrast, Roger lost only one set in capturing Wimbledon 06
and two in capturing U.S. Open 06.
Roger will be the strong favorite against each of his seven opponents at
Melbourne. But there are several players whose chances against Roger seem worthy
Heavy-serving and heavy-hitting Marat Safin returned in early 2006 from long
absence with knee injury. After strong late-year showings in the European
indoor tournaments, the tall Russian finished the year by capturing the deciding
match in Russia's 3-2 Davis Cup triumph over Argentina. He began 2007 at
Kooyong Classic by defeating Nalbandian and then losing to Federer by close score,
63 76. His current ranking outside the top twenty scarcely indicates his
chances against any opponent on the Rebound Ace surface.
Safin's past W-L record shows that Australia is Marat's best Slam. He won
the tournament in 2005, defeating Federer in a thrilling five-set semi. The year
before, in 2004, Marat reached the final round but, having reached the
Open-era record for most sets played in a given Slam, he became a tired runner-up to
Roger. In the 2003 event Marat withdrew midway with wrist injury, but he was
tournament runner-up in 2002.
Rafael Nadal is the tournament's second-seeded player. Rafael continues to
lead Roger in their career W-L tally, though Roger won their fine Wimbledon 06
final and again beat Rafael at Masters Cup 06. Rafael's readiness for Melbourne
is unclear, as a groin problem caused him to withdraw from his first 2007
appearance, at Sydney. The injury question, along with a less-than-superior
record since last summer, make his road to the final round seem far from easy,
laden with difficult potential foes. If he reaches a final-round match-ujp against
Roger, however, he will be extremely dangerous. Roger will need to summon his
very best game, including consistent instincts for attacking.
The most exciting riser of 2006 was Andy Murray, 19, who showed wonderful
timing in his strokes and a strong all-around game. Murray defeated Federer in the
second round at Cincinnati 06, where Roger was probably unready after a
difficult triumph a few days before in Canada. With Brad Gilbert guiding his
preparations, Murray is almost surely now at the level of the world's first eight.
At the Kooyong Classic this week, he defeated Ljubicic and lost to Roddick.
Fiery German star Tommy Haas requires notice. The often-injured 26-year-old
took two sets from Federer at Australian Open 06, noted above. Two weeks before
that, Tommy beat Roger in a split-setter at Kooyong Classic. At its best,
Tommy's brilliant all-court game can be extremely strong. At the most recent
Slam, U.S. Open 06, Haas beat Safin in five sets before losing to Davydenko in
five. His draw in Australia is good, as the two higher-ranked players in his
quarter--Davydenko and Nalbandian--left questions in withdrawing from events this
Andy Roddick's poor career record against Federer may be mostly irrelevant.
Andy kept matters close through the first three sets of their final-round
meeting at U.S. Open 06, and the two split the first two sets at Masters Cup. In
his first two matches at Kooyong Classic this week, Andy scored wins over Murray
and Haas, thereby creating a final-round meeting this weekend with Federer.
(Last year, Andy won the event at Kooyong but became a victim of tournament
sensation Baghdatis at the Open.)
THE QUARTERS AND CRYSTAL BALL
In the top quarter, Roger will encounter dangerous opponents starting in the
third and fourth rounds, probably Youznhy and Djokovic. Youzhny is remembered
for his strong run at U.S. Open 06, where he upset Nadal in the quarters and
seriously tested Roddick. His success continued into Davis Cup play in late
September, when he defeated James Blake in first-day action in Russia's triumph
over the Americans. Djokovic at 6-2 and age 19 is a rising star from Serbia,
world #16 in 2006, winner of the tune-up at Adelaide last week. He is very
nearly co-equal with Andy Murray in his promise. If Federer survives these tests,
there is further potential trouble ahead in his quarter-final, where will lurk
the survivor of Robredo, Acasuso, Baghdatis, and Gasquet. Roger at his best
should certainly advance, but the way will not have been easy even if he makes
it seem so.
The second quarter will probably be decided by first-serve percentages. If
there is an all-time record for number of aces in a quarter, the array of big
servers here will probably create a new one. Placed here are Roddick, Safin, J.
Johansson, Ljubicic, and Ancic, any of whom could become the survivor. Recent
play suggests that the third-round meeting of Roddick and Safin should
identify the winner. My preference is Safin, though Roddick deserves his higher
seeding and should be favored. An interesting contender is Rado Stepanek, who at
Kooyong this week extended Federer to three tiebreak sets, winning one of them,
and then went on to defeat Gonzalez and Ljubicic. Safin remains the choice
The third quarter is led by Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom withdrew
amid this week's competition. Haas could be the beneficiary, noted above, or
perhaps Tomas Berdych, the strong 21-year-old from Czech Republic. Another
contender is veteran Xavier Malisse, who defeated Nadal at Chennai in strong play
early this month. My guess is that Davydenko, who has played brilliantly at
times in recent months, will hold together well enough to advance, though the
tricky traction at Melbourne Park could spell further problems for the Davydenko
The bottom quarter could belong to Nadal, the recent wunderkind, who must
surmount Andy Murray and then the survivor of James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez
along with his own recent injury, noted above. The auspices do not seem
favorable for Rafael, whose improvement on hard courts reached a plateau in the
second half of 2006 and whose muscular style could be challenged by high
temperatures and the sometimes treacherous Rebound Ace. I see the Nadal-Murray winner
narrowly defeating Blake to win the quarter. Make it Murray.
Thus Federer and Safin should meet in the tournament semis. Marat could
prevail, but Roger has come through so regularly against the most difficult
challenges that not choosing him here is nearly unthinkable. Meanwhile Andy Murray,
whose success in the tournament to date will be hard to sustain, will probably
falter against Davydenko's wonderful all-court game. Finally in the final
round, Federer--now at his peak--should have little trouble against a well-worn
Nicolay. I make Roger's chances to sweep the tournament at odds-on, roughly 3-4.
The Russian women have scored more match victories than the women of any
other nation at all major tournaments of the last year. There is almost nothing
more certain than that this trend will continue at Australia 06.
Last year, seven nations were fairly well bunched toward the top of the tally
of men's matches won at Australian Open. U.S.A. led the list by a narrow
margin, buoyed by the success of the Bryan twins in doubles. Strangely, Russia was
not one of the seven leading nations. This should change in 2007 with Safin,
Davydenko, Tursumov, and Youznhy all likely to compete well. Crystal, however,
deems that Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans will score well for the U.S., and
that the supporting cast will add sufficient wins in singles and doubles to
swing the honor again to U.S.A.
Best wishes to all for a great Open 07 from Crystal and me.
Arlington, Virginia, USA