Tis The Grand Slam Season
January 19, 2009 -- Here it is... a brand new tennis season. Faster than players could say "let's go on vacation," they are back on court. We could easily argue they don't have an off-season. Two weeks is hardly enough down time, considering the prior eleven months of matches and international travel -- oh and a trip to Beijing for the Olympics. Players train and prepare for January tournaments in December. But until the players and their player counsels lobby the powers that be, the tennis "season" will remain more like the tennis "year."
And so The Australian Open begins with its familiar glaring sunlight that destroys any subtle shades and tints of color and replaces them with highly contrasting hues. Even the images on television screens make viewers squint, there's such a glare. Temperatures today hit 95 degrees. On-court temps had to have been a good five to ten degrees on top of that. But the players with any sense of urgency to their career arrived weeks ago to play in Perth at The Hopman Cup, or Brisbane, or Sydney at the Medibank International.
Roger Federer is sporting a new, shorter hairstyle -- he wouldn't characterize it as a "hair cut" -- and Jelena Dokic is back after a five-year hiatus as a wildcard for her adopted country Australia.
She pulled off a three-set win and told the press afterward, "It's emotional to win today. It's great to be here at a Grand Slam."
Missing from the year's first Grand Slam is Nikolay Davydenko, who's out with an injury and the women's defending champion Maria Sharapova. Her shoulder may be better than it was at the end of the French Open last year, but it's not ready for a fortnight of Grand Slam action. No one knows when Maria will return to the WTA tour either since her managers told the press, etc., to stop asking that question. So there!
Jelena Jankovic, world's #1 and the #1 seed in women's singles, is on the top half of the draw along with her fellow Serbian sister #5 seed Ana Ivanovic. On the bottom half, the Williams sisters stand ready to meet in that semifinal unless a rival sends one of them home. Many favor Agnes Radwanska or Elena Dementieva to be the foil. Dementieva defeated Serena earlier this month in the Medibank semifinal, and then went on to capture the title. The Russian's fitness level is hard to equal and once the ball is in play her groundstrokes and footwork can easily devastate any opponent.
Possible dark horses on the top half of the draw are Caroline Wozniacki seeded 11th and Alize Cornet seeded 15th. Wozniacki won her first two titles in 2008, one in Stockholm and the second in New Haven at Pilot Pen Tennis. Cornet and Wozniacki grew up in juniors together. Both are primed for a breakthrough. However, with Caroline's two titles and her improved fitness she could be the one earning a berth in the quarterfinals.
Jelena Jankovic began her pursuit of her first Grand Slam title with a straight-set win over Austrian Yvonne Meusburger. Sporting ANTA, a new Chinese clothing manufacturer set to compete with Nike, Adidas and Reebok, as reported in Bob Larson's Business News today, Jankovic picked up the tempo of play opting for an offensive strategy rather than the usual counter-punching mode that got her to her current rank. Jelena trained in the off-season in the high altitudes of Mexico. She worked on aerobic and anaerobic strengths. Next time you see her, take a look at those arms. Definitely more bulk!
The first day wasn't the best for many American hopefuls; however, stalwart Andy Roddick eased through to the second round by defeating qualifier Bjorn Rehnquist of Sweden in straight sets. Fifteen unwanted pounds have vanished from the American's frame since he hired his newest coach Larry Stefanki. However, in a pre-match interview he was reticent to group himself with the elite four: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Andy Murray. "I have faith I could play well against them," Andy said, his eyes cast downward. Was that humility or macho posturing?
American men who packed it in today were Robby Ginepri who lost to the powerful Tomas Berdych; Taylor Dent who lost to another American Amer Delic in a five-set struggle; John Isner who lost in five to qualifier and veteran Dominick Hybarty; Bobby Reynolds who was done in by #21 seed Tommy Robredo, and Robbie Kendrick who lost in four sets to Robin Soderling another seeded player at #16. Tough draws are tough to handle.
In the last match of the evening session, #2 seed Roger Federer took on Italian Andreas Seppi. Federer clinched the first set in little over twenty-two minutes, looking fit and fast. His forehand sizzled, reminding fans of its power and accuracy from two years back. However Seppi came out in the second set with one thing in mind -- to win. He went for bigger shots and stayed on serve with the Swiss. However, he couldn't convert his break opportunities. In the set's tiebreak he slapped the ball in the net as he went for winners. In the third set, Seppi pressed Federer again coming up with magical passing shots time after time. However, even though Roger's first service percentage fell, Seppi could not convert any of his break point chances and thus lost the match as Roger converted the first break of serve he had since the first set.
If Federer wins the Australian Open he will tie Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
Rafael Nadal makes his debut tomorrow in Melbourne Park. He has a tough draw with Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon in his quarter. In the other quarter on the bottom half sits Andy Murray, the player many believe will capture his very first Grand Slam at this year's Australian Open. But playing well in Masters Series events, and exhibitions, are decidedly different than winning a major -- seven rounds of best-of-five matches. With the pressure of the media and his mind weighing heavily for the Scot anything could happen. That's what makes this game so interesting.