Soderling doesn’t benefit from fourth seed

While Andy Roddick’s name was being drawn out of the hat to play the Czech, Jan Hajek, in the first round of the Australian Open, the rain continued to fall out of clouds so low that they obliterated the top floors of the nearby downtown skyscrapers.

But weather can change dramatically in Melbourne and, by the time qualifiers emerged from the crowded players’ lounge to play second-round matches, the sun was shining on a lovely, warm afternoon.

With rolling roofs available on the two main stadiums, rain is not such a disaster at Melbourne Park as it can be at Flushing Meadows but one has to be careful about using words like ‘disaster’ while talking of the weather at the moment with floods only just starting to subside from the suburbs and city center of Brisbane up north where more than 35,000 homes have been ruined.

As it did with the tsumani, the tennis world has been quick to react and most of the top names will be on view Sunday in a fund-raising exhibition for Queensland flood victims. “It is the least we can do,” says Roger Federer.

Federer will begin the defense of his crown with a first-round match against Slovakia’s Lucas Lacko and may find himself playing either 16th-seeded Mardy Fish or 18th-seeded Sam Querrey in the fourth round. If the American pair win their opening two matches they will meet each other. The other American hopeful, John Isner, meets Frenchman Florent Serra first up and is in Rafael Nadal’s quarter.

Robin Soderling’s elevation to the No. 4 seed at Andy Murray’s expense has done him little good as he has been drawn in the Scot’s quarter anyway. But before the pair can meet, Murray may have to deal with former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who is returning from a long injury layoff.

Soderling began the year well with a title win in Brisbane before the floods came – beating Roddick in the final – which got him off to a good start with his new coach, the Italian Claudio Pistolesi. Soderling’s parting with fellow Swede Magnus Norman, who had masterminded his two consecutive appearances in the French Open final, came as a surprise, not least to Pistolesi.

“I suddenly got a call from his agent at the end of last year asking me if I was interested,” said the former Italian No. 1. “Of course, I was flattered and although there is always a bit of a risk in taking over a player who is already in the top five, it was an opportunity I could not resist.”

As we talked, Soderling arrived with a plate full of green vegetables, carrots and tomatoes, having plundered the players’ buffet. “I let him have some pasta, too,” laughed Pistolesi. How could he not?

On a day like this, one searches the qualifying draws for youngsters of promise. Sadly, American men are thin on such ground. There are 11 in the qualifying draw here, but the vast majority are well into their mid-twenties and many, like Bobby Reynolds, have put their best years behind them.

Alex Bogomolov Jr. provided a typical example. Now 27, Bogomolov finished the year ranked 168. In 2003 he climbed as high as 97 but no higher. He played well to defeat the equally experienced, fifth-seeded Swiss Marco Chiudinelli 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in a delayed first round of qualifying. A good effort, but not a pointer for the future of American tennis.

The French, for instance, have 15 men in qualifying and many of them are younger.