Thursday, January 15, 2009

Australian Open just a few days away

The defending champion will not be in Melbourne, but there are others eager to grab the first major title of 2009. Who are they, and what are their chances? Here are some players to watch:


Ana Ivanovic: Ivanovic was last year's finalist. She lost the final in respectable straight sets to Maria Sharapova, and then she went on to win the French Open. But a thumb injury put Ivanovic out of the game for a while, and when she returned, she seemed less confident. Despite her very impressive skills, Ivanovic can be a streaky player, and it may be too early in the season for her to make a seven-match run. But if she is on her game, anything is possible.

Serena Williams: You can't say "Serena Williams" and "Australian Open" without all our minds turning back to 2007 when the unseeded Williams came seemingly out of nowhere and won in Melbourne, allowing her opponent, Maria Sharapova, to take only three games in the final. There is every reason to believe that Williams, who ended 2008 by winning the U.S. Open, could win again. She appears to be healthy, and when she is healthy, she is a contender. She seemed pretty tired and out of sorts after her Sydney semifinal, but she has time to rest and refresh herself.

Dinara Safina: I named Safina the most exciting player of 2008 because of her heart-stopping performances in Berlin and at the French Open. She came from behind over and over, finally burning out during the final in Paris. She won the U.S. Open Series, but toward the end of the season, we saw her burn out even more. It's hard to judge what state of mind Safina is in right now, or what state of mind she will get herself in for the Australian Open. But she has the game to win it all, and she has earned the right to be called a contender.

Jelena Jankovic: Could this be Jankovic's first major? She withdrew from the Hong Kong exhibition because of illness, and she is also having trouble adjusting to her new, bulked-up physique. That doesn't sound like a formula for winning, but this is Jankovic we're talking about, and--as Todd Spiker reminds us--with her, it's always something. Her back goes out, she has a virus, she can't find her mother, her back goes out again, she has to adjust to her new body, and so forth. So no matter what is going on with Jankovic, she can still win three tournaments back-to-back--or lose the U.S. Open. Is she a contender? Absolutely.

Venus Williams: We have come to expect Venus to win Wimbledon, or to be in the final, at any rate. But we have not seen her win another major in a while. Williams is healthy, and has been playing extremely well. There is every reason to believe that she can win a major that is not held in England, and it might as well be the Australian Open, which she has never won, though she was a finalist in 2003, when she lost to her sister in three sets.

Elena Dementieva: Her serve has improved vastly. It's now good enough to win her a major, but there are two Elenas--one fights to the last second and wins, the other goes to pieces mentally. We've been seeing more of the second one lately, and we do not know which one will be in Melbourne.


Caroline Wozniacki:
There are signs that this could be a very good year for Wozniacki, although anything can happen. The fiery player has gained confidence, and--unless she is a perfectionist-- her near-win over Serena Williams in Sydney has to make her feel good. She is coming into the season's first major with quite a bit of authority.

Alize Cornet: Fans have been waiting to see whether Cornet can perform well on surfaces other than clay. It appears that she can, though clay may always be her best surface. I called Wozniacki "fiery," and that is also a good term to describe Cornet. The young Frenchwoman is fun to watch, too, with her hot-headed personality and her springing court movement.

Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka goes to Melbourne weighing much less because that long-screeching monkey is finally off her back. Her victory in Brisbane makes her something she was not before--a winner.

Agnieszka Radwanska: Radwanska's focus and accuracy make her a threat. The precise baseliner may not have the fire or movement of a Wozniacki or a Cornet, but she has a habit of putting the ball in the right place--over and over.

Flavia Pennetta: What a pleasure to be able to put Pennetta into this category. She has always been a better player than her results indicate, and now the results are beginning to catch up to the talent. Pennetta has heart, and she has the ability to hang in for the long run.

Dominika Cibulkova: She's supposed to be too short to play tennis, but apparently, she ddn't heed that warning. She is certainly capable of creating an upset in Australia.

Zheng Jie: She went from a year of injury recovery to a year of glory. This is one doubles specialist who is stirring things up in singles.

Nadia Petrova: It is entirely possible that Petrova will bomb out of Melbourne early, but it is just as possible that she will stick around and use her big serving and precise volleying to cause headaches. With Nadia, you never know.

Amelie Mauresmo: If that thigh injury is the old adductor problem, forget it. But if it's just a passing thing, this would be a good opportunity for the 2006 champion to prove she's still got it. She began the season playing impressively, and it would be nice to see her have a long stay in Melbourne.


Patty Schnyder:
Schndyer's looping forehand and stunning drop shots are always worth watching. Though she loses it from time to time, she generally has an excellent serve, and in 2008, we saw something new--a much improved Schnyder backhand. The tour's biggest under-achiever is always a pleasure to watch, though frustration often sets in with her fans: Patty's problem is not her serve, her volley, or her groundstrokes; Patty's problem is her head. The Trickster almost always puts on a great show, though, and here's hoping she gets to put on several.

Amelie Mauresmo: A tennis writer once said about Mauresmo that "tennis flows from her," and that is the best description of Mauresmo I have ever heard. "French flair," Mary Carillo calls it, and--a few years ago--the U.S. Open Series nicknamed her "The Artiste." Every generation has a player of great grace--Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, Gabriela Sabatini--and the current generation's picture of grace is Amelie Mauresmo. With her beautiful one-handed backhand and deadly volleys, Mauresmo is definitely worth watching.

Daniela Hantuchova: I wish I could list Hantuchova as a contender, or even someone who could make trouble, but she isn't looking that dangerous these days. Still, the 2008 semifinalist has an elegant game that is a pleasure to see.

Maria Kirilenko: Inconsistency keeps Kirilenko from improving her ranking, but--like Hantuchova--she has a poise and elegance to her game that makes me want to watch her as much as I can.

Jelena Jankovic: You can watch Jankovic for her speed alone, but there is much more to watch--her footwork, her stunning backhand down the line, her never-ending antics, and her winning smile, even in near-defeat.


Todd Spiker said...

You know, as well as Dementieva is playing right now, I wonder if she might have played a little TOO much heading into a slam. Momentum is all fine and good, but ten matches in less than two weeks, and now having to try to string together still more for a deep run in Melbourne, might be a little much for her to ask of herself.

Of course, it's hard to argue against such momentum, even if maybe she has risked peaking a week early and getting a little tired out before she's got a good month of play under her belt.

Diane said...

I wondered about that, too, Todd. On the other hand, she is incredibly fit, and she needs the confidence.

Todd Spiker said...

I guess it's one of those situations where after whatever she does -- good or bad -- in Melbourne, opinions on the "winning side" will be able to say "I told you so." ;)

Diane said...

I lean a little toward "she has played too much" for one reason: The heat in Melbourne has taken down the fragile and the fit, the qualifiers and the top 10. She might be tempting fate.