5 men's questions for Aussie Open
Is this Roger Federer’s tournament to lose?
Not only is he reigning champion, but he also finished 2010 in a blaze of glory, winning Stockholm, Basle and, most importantly, the ATP World Finals in London. And he has continued seamlessly into 2011, winning the ATP title in Qatar.
There are absolutely no signs of Federer slowing down or losing interest. Just as ominously for his rivals, Federer begins the year on a medium-paced hard court with a lowish bounce that suits his game perfectly and always will give him an edge should he find himself facing Rafael Nadal in the final. Someone is going to have to play very well to beat him.
Who’s got the best shot at beating Federer?
Nadal is the obvious pretender to Federer’s throne. As Nadal seeks his second Australian Open title, his confidence on hard courts will have been boosted by his success at the U.S. Open, and providing the illness which affected him in Qatar does not continue to be a factor, it would be surprising if the Spaniard is not around on finals day.
However, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who complete the quartet that has virtually ruled the men’s game for the past three years, have been joined by Robin Soderling, whose victory over Andy Roddick in last week’s Brisbane final enabled him to oust Murray from the No. 4 spot.
However it is Murray who Nadal will fear most if they end up in the same half of the draw. The Scot, beaten in last year’s Australian Open final, was a few points away from victory against Nadal in the deciding tiebreak of that fantastic semifinal at the ATP World Finals, and if Murray can get past any lingering blockage in his brain about winning at Grand Slams, the next meeting between the two could go Andy’s way — especially on a hard court.
Will there be an American to watch who isn’t named Andy Roddick?
Roddick won’t feel too lonely in leading the American challenge. John Isner and Sam Querrey are now established members of the top 20 and both are capable of causing upsets. Marty Riessen, former top-tenner in the days of Rod Laver (against whom he had a winning record), is a fan of Querrey — with reservations.
“I think Sam is a fine player with a great all-round game but he lacks speed,” says Riessen, who was a quick-footed basketball star at Northwestern. “And, more than ever, speed is essential for making it into the top five. So I think he has the potential to get into the bottom half of the top 10. But winning a Slam is going to be tough for him.”
Meanwhile, Roddick looked good before falling to Soderling in Brisbane and has announced that he is fit and rarin’ to go as he attempts to stay in the top 10 for the 11th straight year. As usual, Roddick’s serve will take him far, but he will need a lot of chips to fall his way if he is going to add to his solitary Slam title by winning in Melbourne.
What can we expect from Juan Martin del Potro?
Del Potro is the tournament wild card in everything but name. Although the 22-year-old Argentine was ranked 258th a week ago — the result of missing almost all of last year with a wrist injury — he got into the draw on a protected injury ranking so he did not need a wild card.
However the 2009 U.S. Open champion could be termed a wild card for the entire year, as no one can be sure just how far this hugely powerful and talented 6-foot-6 giant can climb. Del Potro came through a tough encounter against Spain’s experienced Feliciano Lopez in his first match in Sydney, which was a good sign, because remembering how to close out matches is something that does not come easily to some players after a lengthy layoff.
If the wrist stands up to the task and the mind is strong, del Potro should not take long to get back into the world’s top five. But he has yet to play well at the Australian Open, and it is too soon to start regarding the Argentine as a potential champion in Melbourne.
Could fans finally get a homegrown champ?
It says much for the popularity of tennis in Australia that the crowds at Melbourne Park keep increasing just as the chances of the tournament producing a homegrown male champion keep on decreasing.
Yet again, Lleyton Hewitt is Australia’s only real hope of carrying national pride into the second week. Bernard Tomic, the young Queenslander who has been granted a wild card for the third straight year, has potential but also has a father with “attitude” and, like Mark Philippoussis before him, has not always put his best foot forward.
So all eyes will be on Hewitt, the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion who, for the first time in 15 years, will be stepping onto the court at Melbourne Park without having played an ATP event in the preceding weeks. This year Hewitt has opted for the Hopman Cup, where he won two of his three matches, and the exhibition at Kooyong.
“It’s been good,” Hewitt said. “I give 100 percent every time I walk on court, whether it’s a final or a practice match, and I feel in good shape.”
Having just lost the Ashes cricket series to England, Aussie sports fans will be hoping Hewitt can give them something to cheer.