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The Australian Open could be a classic

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Jonathan Overend | 10:36 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

A deliciously unpredictable start to the tennis year has been summed up by the current unseasonal weather here in Sydney - all cloud and thundercracks - mixed with record temperatures down the coast in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open.

And on the courts of the east, in the first two weeks of the season, we've had a 15-year old Brit beating the world number 26, a Henin/Clijsters classic final to roll back the years, a title for a player facing suspension only days previously, and mutterings of a new tennis "World Cup" to keep the off-court motors chugging. Delicious indeed.

So where to start?

The omnipresent Nikolay Davydenko seems to be the man of the moment on the ATP Tour. This man, I have to hold my hands up and admit, is quite amazing.

davydenko_ap595.jpgDavydenko receives the trophy after winning in Doha

His relentless pursuit of points, pounds and prizes is now backed up by a livelier brand of flat and furious hitting which, in Doha, claimed back-to-back wins over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to win the Qatar Open, the perfect follow up to his 2009 season-ending success at the ATP World Tour Finals in London.

Perhaps these recent scalps will give him the belief to take the next step and win a major (his win over Federer was his second in three months, after seven years of trying in vain against the Swiss) but he remains a long shot for the title due to the talent ahead of him.

Nadal, the defending Aussie Open champion, is ready to prove that his troubles at the end of 2009 are behind him. Some extra depth on his groundstrokes - particularly his return of serve - has been noticeable in the early weeks of 2010.

Federer will be looking to reclaim the title he last won in 2007, Juan Martin Del Potro is going for back-to-back majors (not out of the question by any means), and Andy Murray will put some extra bite behind his crosscourt forehand, if recent evidence is anything to go by, in his search for a debut Slam.

Add the likes of Djokovic, Roddick, Tsonga, Verdasco and Soderling, and this could be a classic tournament.

The women's event has an extra pinch of turmeric thanks to the return of Justine Henin on a wild-card. Just like compatriot Kim Clijsters at last year's US Open, Henin is perfectly capable of going all the way and winning the title.

She may have pulled out of the Sydney event with a leg injury, but she was on the practice courts as soon as she arrived in Melbourne, looking fit and determined.

And the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour will struggle to host a better match this year than the final the Belgian pair contested in Brisbane, at the close of Henin's comeback week.

Over two hours and 23 minutes, they played out a greatest-hits-collection of a match, complete with Henin comebacks from dead positions, before Clijsters edged it 8-6 in the deciding tie-break. Stunning stuff.

After a few mediocre years, with stuttering attempts from Safina, Ivanovic and Jankovic to rule the world, we have the two Williams sisters and the two Belgians set to contest the heavyweight matches. Just like old days.

That's not to write off the next generation. Far from it. I'm excited about seeing further progress in 2010 from the likes of Wozniacki, Azarenka, Lisicki, Oudin and the other 15 or 16-year-old we haven't even heard of yet.

kim_afp595.jpgClijsters and Henin played out a thrilling final in Brisbane

And then there's Yanina Wickmayer - another of the names making headlines in the first few weeks of the season.

After breaking into the top 20 with her run to the semi-finals of the US Open, Wickmayer saw her season close with catastrophe; a third violation of the World Anti Doping Agency "whereabouts" rule and a one-year suspension.

A vigourous appeal was sent through the doors of various courts around Europe, including the European Court for Human Rights, and, in a landmark ruling, the ban was overturned to leave her free to compete.

As a last-minute entry on a wild-card, Wickmayer turned up in Auckland and promptly romped through the field without dropping a set. The trophy was lifted with more than a slight grin of defiance.

Her "whereabouts" for WADA officials after the final? Cloud nine.

Further down the international news agenda, several British players have put in impressive performances at the start of the season.

James Ward, playing his first competitive tennis since contracting glandular fever in September, successfully qualified for the ATP event in Chennai. Work with Greg Rusedski in London and Toni Colom, from the Nadal camp, in Spain looks like it may be paying off.

Also in India, the doubles pairing of Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski reached another semi-final to suggest their remarkable breakthrough 2009 season wasn't a fluke, while, over in Auckland, Dan Evans won through qualifying as did Elena Baltacha, who had also qualified the previous week in Hobart.

And watching Ross Hutchins at close quarters this week here in Sydney, partnering Aussie Jordan Kerr to some fine results at the Medibank International, emphasised the battle for places in the Britain Davis Cup team this March, in the predictable absence of Andy Murray. Hutchins looked in fine nick.

Another year of development for Laura Robson, Britain's precocious 15-year-old talent, started with the incredible experience of partnering Murray at the Hopman Cup in Perth.

The week began with Robson looking completely out of her depth, but, after a crash course in dealing with the big time, talent shone through with victory over the world number 26, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. It was Britain's single point in the 2-1 defeat in the final.

The Spaniard may have four names but Robson is the one to remember. Quietly, patiently, another star is emerging from these shores.

Back in Sydney, there was plenty of chat in the lobby of the official players hotel about the suggestion for a biennial, 10-day tennis "World Cup".

The plan, drawn up by a marketing firm and backed by leading players, would see countries competing at one venue in a succinctly packaged team format.

The idea, while nothing particularly new (Andre Agassi was saying this sort of stuff more than 10 years ago), makes total sense.

But tennis is all talk sometimes - that's all it can be when so many diverse interested parties run the sport - and this utopian vision needs more than blue sky thinking from marketeers to succeed.

It needs to be properly thought out, with a solution to every potential hurdle, and most importantly unity across the whole sport, with all its stakeholders (to borrow that horrendous corporate phrase), to avoid forever being seen as an unofficial, or "rebel", event.

The Davis Cup has its merits, but the format is overly complicated and increasingly irrelevant. The players no longer see it as the best format for international team tennis.

So will anyone listen to them?

An excursion out of "the tennis bubble" and into the real world should be obligatory for tennis officials, and I applaud the alternative idea and wish it every success, without holding out too much hope.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The flat hitters in recent times have come into their own. Players like Davydenko have adapted to the heavy topspin approach of other top players and used it to their advantage, using the high bounce of a spinning ball to send back powerful, consistently heavy shots. Look at how Soderling beat Nadal in the French. Long may the success of those two continue - variety is the spice of a sport like tennis!

  • Comment number 2.

    Add in Cilic to the list of possibles.

    The men's draw is as wide open as it has been in recent years, but if the weather remains typically sweltering, probably the winner will be the person who can most efficiently navigate the draw.

  • Comment number 3.

    Laura Robson "quietly" emerging as a star? She must be the world's most hyped 15-year old in the history of tennis.

  • Comment number 4.

    RickyM - ever heard of Hingis?

  • Comment number 5.

    I completely agree with Mr Overend's comments regarding the Davis Cup, and I would be delighted to see this tournament shelved in order to make way for a different format. Unfortunately the Tennis Authorities have precedent for being conservative, so this proposed overhaul will still have a lot of hurdles to clear.

    In short, I'll believe it when I see it, but here's hoping.

  • Comment number 6.

    RickyM, eerrrr, probably the most idiotic comment I've seen on a forum.

  • Comment number 7.

    I put a few quid on Henin to win the aussie a week or so ago and got 5-1. Great to hear she was out on the courts looking fit and healthy after not playing in sydney!

  • Comment number 8.

    Murray will need to improve more than just his crosscourt forehand if he wants to win his maiden slam.

  • Comment number 9.

    Laura Robson beat Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Maria Jose Sanchez Lorenzo retired a few years ago & has gone on to become a mother.
    Predictions for Australia: Roddick or Davydenko / Clijsters or Serena.
    Henin will become a major force by Paris with the two Belgians occupying the top two spots in the world by the end of 2010. Now that Davydenko has wins over Federer/Nadal - his confidence will grow & grow with the potential to take a first slam. The conditions in Australia will suit him too as his supreme fitness (in sometimes stifling heat in Melbourne) will play right into his hands.

  • Comment number 10.

    I agree with this Jon, and I think 2010 will be an exciting year for tennis. Davydenko's win in London has seemed to spark the confidence he has been lacking the past few years, and many had written him off as simply not good enough to win a major title. Having said this I still don't think the Aussie Open will be his this year. Federer for example always saves his best tennis for the matches 'that matter', and his grand slam record would dictate him to either win it or come very close. Nice to see Del Potro coming through as a top top player, would like Murray ideally to follow in his foot steps and win a major in 2010. I think it could happen...maybe Wimbledon this year.
    On the womens side, excellent to see Henin and Clijsters slowly breaking down the Williams sisters dominance over the past few years... Caught abit of Robson at the Hopman also, she is maturing but I think it will be 3 or 4 years before she is competeting properly in the slam events.
    My prediction for Aussie 2010

    Men's winner - Federer Women's winner - Clijsters.

    Looking forward to another great year of tennis, and as Jon said I am positive there are going to be some upsets!

  • Comment number 11.

    Firstly Jonathan - you have a ridiculously envialbe job, and I am green with envy. I hope my linguistic skills and insightful commentary will stand me in good stead should you need a side-kick!
    Secondly, I think touting Davydenko as a threat to the title is slightly naive. He won the masters at the back end of last season, when everyone was shattered. The title in Doha was an impressive win, but I haven't seen enough to convince me that over 3 sets he has the arsenal to compete with the big 5. I now consider them to be the big 5, as Del Potro in my eyes has done enough to justify his posisiton there. For me it is Murray who is hanging in there. He serves nicely, but I still don't see enough attacking options for him to be a threat.

    The dark horse, and one that people haven't mentioned at all is Djokovic. He was in sintilating form at the back end of last season, but ran out of steam. Refreshed, he will be a force. Federer to win, however Djokovic and Nadal will run him close. Those 3 still a class apart.

  • Comment number 12.

    RickyM - truly a most bizarre comment. Do you actually follow the sport ...???

  • Comment number 13.

    Thats the second person who has said, 'what a silly comment' and 'you know nothing about tennis' without actually explaining why. Without explaining yourself you're legitimizing the comment.

  • Comment number 14.

    Is it too much to ask that you put an "on" on the end of Brit?

  • Comment number 15.

    Loved this comprehensive information to whet my appetite about the next fortnight. Have just watched Kirilenko beat Sharapova so your words are proving true already!

  • Comment number 16.

    It should be a more open tournament but I would still like one more Federer/Nadal final for the memory book.

  • Comment number 17.

    jonnyboy1104,

    OK, firstly I follow Tennis quite closely. If an American 15 year old had won Junior Wimbledon they would be on the cover of Time magazine. One poster has put "ever heard of Hingis?". I would add Seles, Capriati to that and there are loads more that were feted as the new wonderkid. forget that they all actually fulfilled that hype, the amount of it was insane. Photograhers following 14/15 year olds while they went shopping is hype. Have we seen Robson plastered all over the media apart from the weeks before and after Wimbledon?
    It's natural to gravitate towards a decent teenager as we have precious little in the way of top class tennis player here. For someone to post something so inaccurate and then scuttle away and watch the fallout just annoys me. Murray was hyped an he's world no.5, we sometimes get it right, Robson has something about her so why disregard her so easily? She's won one, lost in the final of one and lost in the semi of another Major junior tournament. Good player, should be given the credit she deserves.

  • Comment number 18.

    Could someone have a word with the Aussie Open organisers about using Jim Courier for on court interviews. He is embarassingly terrible. Did anyone just hear is interview with Andy Roddick?

  • Comment number 19.

  • Comment number 20.

    Isn't there a Grand Slam on? Any comments on the first eight days of it?

  • Comment number 21.

    Ok - I have just watched the Nadal v Murray match... Brilliant! It is a crying shame that Nadal had to retire, and as a totally neutral Brit"on" - I hope he recovers quickly. We need more matches like this.

  • Comment number 22.

    Looks like Jonathan has defected to twitter and left this blog to spin slowly in the wind

  • Comment number 23.

    22 comments in two weeks, what the hell?

    As we move towards the mens final, Murray has shown that he's picked up the rhythm really well this year, with everyone around him having "problems". I expect his opponent will be Federer, and he will be ruthless in the final, but I doubt it'll be a repeat of the US Open Final when Murray didn't turn up and Federer was relentless.

    It's a shame about Nadal. I don't think he'll ever recover now. And though he may deny it, he does look smaller and weaker. Djokovic will always be good and consistent, but he hasn't built on the form of 2007-08 at all really and is just staying around the top 3/4 without pushing on. I think Murray has more talent than him and that it should in theory be Murray if he can get the best out of himself over the next few years to win slams. Federer will ultimately decline. I thought it was going to be in 2009 after a poor 2008 by his standards. Although I thought he was slightly fortunate to win Wimbledon, he's shown that he is genuinely still the best player out there, and I'm fascinated to see if he finally renews his rivalry with Nadal at the French. Have they even played each other since Wimbledon 2008, the greatest match of all time?

    As for Del Potro and Cilic. Both have bright futures. Cilic is dynamite but was tired against Murray. Del Potro when he's on it, nobody can hit the ball harder or better, but he does combine the sublime with the ridiculous. If he finds the consistency to match his ability to hit a tennis ball, and a little more mental strength, then he could easily be the best player in the world after Fed goes.

    Back to Murray. His aim this year has to be win a grand slam and possibly get to number 1 in the world. He had a chance of both last year-if he'd have won Wimbledon he'd have got to number 1 in the world. And he has almost the whole package now. He has everything to his game, all the shots, the tricks, the disguise, the tactics, the mental strength, the power and the intelligence. Obviously he's not 10/10 on all aspects e.g. there are players out there who could out-hit him all day on the power front, but across all the areas he's becoming the complete player, and he's going at a healthy rate. Can he win on Sunday? He'll need to be at his best and (Federer) to be below his best to have a chance. It is a distinct possibility.

  • Comment number 24.

    What I just said about Nadal/Federer was ludicrous. Obviously they played in last year's Aussie Open Final. Then where Federer cried because he lost. That does seem still like such a long time ago. So much has changed since then.

 

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