Federer still the favorite as Aussie Open begins
No one needs to tell Roger Federer that the tears he shed here at Melbourne Park 12 months ago after losing the final of the Australian Open to Rafael Nadal were trivial in comparison to those being shed in Haiti. And so, being Federer, he decided to do something about the Caribbean catastrophe.
After talking to some of the top players -- “I have connections,” he laughed -- Federer has organized a charity mixed doubles event to be played at Rod Laver Arena on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam. All donations at the gate -- a minimum of $9 -- will go to the Haitian relief effort.
“I think it’s something as a tennis family we are very happy to do,” said Federer. “Hopefully, we can fill the stadium.”
The Swiss, needless to say, has returned to Melbourne in a much better frame of mind than anyone could have predicted. To have won the French Open, his last great goal, and followed it with another Wimbledon triumph constituted an amazing comeback for a man who was being written off as a fading star in the early months of 2009.
Now, with Nadal trying to rediscover his old title-winning form after an injury-stricken end to last year and Novak Djokovic -- the 2008 champion here -- searching for his game, Federer begins as an obvious favorite despite the fact that there are plenty of contenders.
Andy Murray, whose shocking loss to Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round here last year derailed his Grand Slam ambitions for 2009, has benefited from being in the country for two weeks, having participated in the Hopman Cup. But many will feel that Nikolay Davydenko, who beat Federer and Nadal in Qatar, is equally capable of grabbing the crown.
Juan Martin del Potro, the U.S. Open champion, is nursing a troublesome wrist but, if fully fit, he too will be a major threat. It is possible, of course, that Djokovic will hit form once the championships get under way. but the manner in which he lost to the Australian teenager Bernard Tomic in the exhibition tournament at Kooyong on Saturday -- double-faulting to drop serve at 5-5 in the final set -- suggests that the Serb’s game is not in perfect working order.
Andy Roddick, in contrast, will be raring to get back into Grand Slam action after winning the ATP title in Brisbane last week. The seventh-seeded American will open against Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker and could face Sam Querrey in round three provided the Californian gets past a former finalist here, Rainer Schuettler.
The weather, perfect on Saturday, is due to change with much needed rain -- for the farmers if not the tennis fans -- on the way this week. But changing conditions are nothing new here and players just have to get used to temperatures that can swing from oven-hot to chilly in the space of a few hours. And, of course, they can suddenly find themselves playing indoors as well, if conditions demand the closure of the roof on Rod Laver and Hisense Arena.
As for the actual surface, which has been converted to a more conventional hard court from the rubberized Rebound Ace for the past couple of years, let Murray describe how it differs from Flushing Meadows.
“The bounce on the court is different,” Murray explained. “And also the balls get quicker as they get older at the U.S. Open whereas here they slow down a lot.”
Kim Clijsters, thrilled to be back at a tournament the players love more than most, agrees that the surface is different from the average American hardcourt.
“It’s a very rough surface, so the balls fluff up,” she said. “I noticed it on my shoes as well. I get through shoes a lot more quickly here than, say, at the U.S. Open.”
The return of Clijsters and her Belgian compatriot Justine Henin has revitalized the women’s game, but the draw has taken care of any thoughts of a Clijsters-Henin final. If they get through their early rounds, the two rivals will meet in the quarterfinals.
There cannot be an all-Williams final, either. The sisters have been drawn to meet in the semifinals with Serena opening up against the Pole, Urszula Radwanska while Venus, seeded sixth, plays Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in round one.
Serena was hampered to some degree -- she won’t admit to how much -- by a knee injury while losing to Elena Dementieva in Sydney, but she is putting a positive spin on the situation.
“I had a long three-set match (before playing Dementieva) and had a quick turnaround time,” she said. “That was good preparation for me because I do plan to play singles and doubles here.”
With reference to her infamous flare-up at the U.S. Open, Serena was asked how her anger management was going.
“Was it anger management, do you think?” she retorted. “How is your writing coming along?”
Good to know there’s nothing wrong with Serena’s verbal form as we sharpen rackets for the first big duels of the year.