We’re mere hours from the start of the 2011 Australian Open. The preview is coming late, and this is the first time in four years that I’m not linked into cable television for the tournament. (For all my gripes about television, the main one is the cost — yet somehow it ended up that my wife and I were plugged at that moment in three different domiciles in three consecutive years.) I’m also without internet at the house still, over a month removed from the move that will provide some salvation in that department. So what this tournament means to me this year in personal terms is something that has yet to be determined.
It’s really quite sad, because the Australian might just be my favorite of the four Grand Slam tournaments on the tennis calendar. It broadcasts at times amenable to my deranged sleep cycles, and tennis is the sport my wife and I seem to be able to most consistently get into together as spectators. There’s always the new-year feel to things, the summertime turning our winter upside down here in Eugene and players arriving Down Under in varying states of fitness. Anything is possible when the men and women hit the courts in Melbourne, as the next fortnight will attest. To give you my nickel’s worth on things, here are the five big stories I see on the men’s side:
- How would a Nadal victory stack up to Laver’s Slams? — It has now been 42 years and counting since Rod Laver put together the greatest streak in men’s tennis in the Open era, becoming the only male to conquer all four Grand Slam tournaments in the calendar year of 1969. Never since has one man held all four Slams at one time. But with world #1 Rafael Nadal coming into Melbourne Park with the most recent victories at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, a win here would seal his place in history alongside Laver.
Or would it? Laver himself has spoken out about the subject, saying it wouldn’t be as huge a feat with the 2010-2011 split over the run. But the distance between the U.S. Open in September and the Australian Open is no greater than that between the Aussie and the French Open in May. So while it doesn’t fall in the calendar year it does fall within the same length of time — and is nevertheless consecutive. It would be a feat unprecedented since that nascent year of Open play.
Don’t forget, either, that Laver achieved his calendar Slam in an era where the Australian and U.S. Opens were played on grass. As great as the venerable Australian was in his heyday, he was never forced to conquer the hardcourt surfaces of the modern era of the sport. He hugged the cusp of the pre-Open era and sounds a bit like he is crying foul for what is an equally formidable accomplishment. But if Nadal ends up conquering Melbourne with a championship won in Rod Laver Arena, it will in no way diminish the feat of the man whose name graces the stadium. It would be a different yet equally formidable feat, achieved in an entirely different era. The comparisons are the providence of writers like myself.
Remember, there was a time when we said Nadal was a one-trick pony, content to dominate the clay and concede the grass and the composites to Federer and ride the sidecar as the perennial second. But he has branded himself as an all-court dynamo, and a second Australian Open title would be a spectacular way to start a season. It would also be testament to a versatility which could in a way only be rivaled by Nadal’s Swiss doppelganger. The man from Mallorca has a favorable draw and a final against Federer would be sweet justice after last year’s early-season woes. And the ever-classy Spaniard would do the sport justice standing alongside a man like Laver in the record books — even if it does ultimately come with a bullet…
- Does Federer have his mojo back? — As much as the talk has been about Nadal entering this year’s Australian Open, you’d almost forget that the reigning champion is not Rafael but Roger. For Federer the win over Andy Murray in the final earned his fourth title in Melbourne, and his mastery of the tournament is rivaled by few. Since his first Australian Open title in 2004, Federer has a 44-3 record in the tournament, reaching at least the semifinals seven straight years. Even in his early years he was successful in Melbourne, reaching at least the third round in every appearance and amassing a career 54-7 tally on its courts. The last time he lost here was the 2009 final, when Nadal beat him in the final for his first career hardcourt Slam.
It seemed to set him into a tailspin. Federer has not won a Slam since last year’s title in Australia, and he has failed to even reach a final — near-blasphemy, it seems, in the world of Roger Federer. But the Swiss star has been seeing his star rise in recent months since stumbling a second straight year in Queens. He knocked back down Nadal in the 2010 ATP year-end championships in London in a best-of-three showdown, has looked good throughout his exhibitions and is coming off a victory over Davydenko in the final to begin the year in Qatar. The momentum is definitely in his favor to repeat as champion, as his Spanish counterpart works his way more slowly back into his season. Whether he can pull it off is another question.
The draw works in his favor as the #2 seed, everything set for that showdown everyone was hoping to repeat last year and expects to see every time on the biggest stages.
- Can either of the two men to break the Fedalopoly win again? — In 2008 Novak Djokovic played the tournament of his life. The Serbian upset Federer in the semifinals and then outplayed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final for his first — and as yet only — Grand Slam title. He’s been a consistent quarterfinalist, reaching the elite eight in nine of the eleven Slams since his title. It isn’t as though he’s been horrible — he’s reached at least the semifinals in five of those eleven, and is coming off a four-set loss to Nadal at the 2010 U.S. Open. He’s also got the confidence earned from leading his native Serbia to its first-ever Davis Cup title this December over France in Belgrade. He has proven capable of withstanding the Australian summertime before, as long as he’s fit enough. His late run through 2010 could either work for him or against him… either Djokovic will be at his peak performance, or he will be worn down. One way or another, it will make for entertaining tennis.
We’re also going to see the return of Juan Martin del Potro, who has been persona non grata in the sport of tennis for most of the period since his breakthrough 2009 U.S. Open title over Federer. Fighting through a wrist injury to begin 2010, del Potro reached the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open in a respectable follow-up to his New York success and finals appearance against Nikolay Davydenko at the ATP year-end championship in London. But the Argentine tower opted for surgery in May that effectively killed the momentum from his hot streak to end 2009. He arrives in Australia unseeded, plummeted down the world rankings after rising into the top five, and just 1-3 in three tournaments since returning from his rehab. He could either be a dangerous-if-disregarded darkhorse candidate, or a washout in another early-round ouster.
- Which near-champ has the best shot at stealing the Slam? — Over the past several years we’ve seen dominance by the aforementioned duo that has left the field clawing for semifinal spots as a source of pride and crowing when they reach a final against the dynamos. The head of the pack for “sure to someday win a Slam” in recent years has been Andy Murray, but the Scotsman has been passed by in shock value in the past few years by Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych. The trio lumps together right behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in the seedings… and any of the three could easily step into the void whose potential to appear in Australia is ever-present.
Soderling has inside position as the #4 seed, and has the confidence of having pulled off Grand Slam upsets over both Federer and Nadal in recent years. Should both men advance that far, he would get a draw against #5 Murray in the quarterfinal — letting the two settle which is the hotter contender of the moment. Lurking just behind the pair is #6 Berdych, who was the revelation of 2010 with his finals showings in both Paris and London. His form has gone erratic since, though, and he has slipped a bit. All three have proven that they can reach a final — now they need to take the next step and show they have the killer instinct to finish the deal.
Also entrenched in the discussion amongst that pack of on-the-cusp contenders is Tsonga, this year seeded as lucky #13. Just three years ago he was almost a Grand Slam champion after felling Federer; but then at the last juncture Djokovic thwarted his ambitions and took the title for himself. Last year he returned to the final four, and despite battling problems with fitness and motivation over the years the Frenchman also remains a tough draw when he is on his game. Australia has been kind to him in recent years. Watch out for any or all four of these former Grand Slam finalists.
- Who’s the darkhorse? — Every year there’s somebody who emerges from the woodwork and elevates his game to the next level. Sometimes the darkhorse of the tournament is a veteran who chips away at the field. Sometimes it is a bright, on-the-rise star who presages bigger things to come with one upset after another. This year? I have a feeling Gael Monfils is going to regret his #12 seed in the end, as he is matched up against young Dutch sensation Thiemo de Bakker. As you can see on the next page, I project the 22-year-old making the breakthrough all the way to his first Grand Slam quarterfinals. After a run in 2010 that saw de Bakker qualify for all four Grand Slam tournaments for the first time in his career, win his first Grand Slam matches and advance to the third round at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he has vaulted up into the Top 50 in the ATP rankings. Look for him to upset not just Monfils but at least one if not two other seeded players before succumbing to the greater combination of skill and experience that is Roger Federer in the quarters.
Previewing the 2010 Australian Open: Men’s Edition is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust