Thursday, August 25, 2005

Past Champions Try To Dethrone Federer At Open

In as competitive a season as there's been on the men's circuit, the best player in the game is clearly top ranked Roger Federer. Even when he lost to Marat Safin in a classic Australian Open five set semifinal, he made Safin earn it. Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt to finally win his second career major after over a four year drought since capturing the 2000 U.S. Open. And so, the unpredictable Russian was back in the hunt to challenge Federer.

Meanwhile, Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal rose up the rankings quickly, winning early and often. One such match where he fell short was a final in Miami against Federer back in March. Nadal had a two set lead but couldn't hold on. Even though he lost, the teenager announced to the world that he was coming. In a semi rematch on Nadal's best surface at Roland Garros, he was too much for even Federer besting him in four on the way to another four set conquest of Mariano Puerta for his first ever slam.

At Wimbledon, Federer continued his grass court mastery claiming his third straight title. In straight setting archrival Andy Roddick in a final rematch, Federer sent a message to the rest of the field that his best was far superior to everyone else's. As if to put it to test, he took off for over a month before returning to Cincinnati and winning the only Masters Series event he entered, defeating Roddick in two sets. It was his ninth title of the season adding to a remarkable season in which he's won 64 out of 67 matches.

One player who will be returning for his 20th straight Open is Andre Agassi. This year, the 35-year-old American vet has battled a nerve problem in his back. After it acted up in an excruciating five-set first round loss to Jarkko Nieminen at Roland Garros, he took two months off missing his second straight Wimbledon and other tour events. When Agassi returned to Los Angeles for a tuneup, he won five straight matches to capture his first title in a year. At his only Masters Series appearance in Montreal, he reached the final before losing in three sets to Nadal. Though he ran out of gas against Nadal, Agassi played well.

It's possible this could be Agassi's final grand slam event. He has never indicated due to his competitive nature and still enjoys playing. He has won the Open twice in '94 and '99. This probably is his last chance to win a ninth slam with his last victory coming at the '03 Australian Open. If ever there will be a fan favorite at this year's Open, it's Andre.

Can Agassi go out on top like Sampras three years ago? Can former champions Safin ('00), Hewitt ('01) and Roddick ('03) unseat the defending champion and world number one Federer?

Bracket One: This section features Federer, sixth seed Nikolay Davydenko, 11th seed David Nalbandian, 16th seed Radek Stepanek, 20th seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and 21st seed Fernando Gonzalez. A couple could be competitive against Federer.

Potential Sleepers: Andrei Pavel and Nicolas Kiefer are solid hard court players who can pound the ball from the baseline. Pavel has made the fourth round twice including last year while Kiefer was a quarterfinalist in 2000 and into the fourth round last year. Kiefer lost in the third round to Federer at Wimbledon. Both shouldn't be underestimated. Former '98 French Open champion Carlos Moya is an accomplished player who is really streaky with his serve and forehand. One potential first round match to watch is Paradorn Srichaphan versus Younes El Aynaoui. Both are capable of advancing as evidenced by Srichaphan's fourth round result two years ago and El Aynaoui's two quarterfinal appearances in '02 and '03. Keep an eye on Dmitry Tursunov. The third-year Russian had his best result at Wimbledon upsetting Tim Henman along the way to the fourth round.

Analysis: Federer's section should be routine through the first three rounds until he meets up with Ferrero, Pavel or Kiefer in the round of 16. The bottom half of the draw is more tricky and could produce upsets. Davydenko is a good player but could lose in the second round to El Aynaoui or Srichaphan. Moya should face Wayne Arthurs in the second round with the winner taking on Davydenko, El Aynaoui or Srichaphan. Nalbandian is always a dangerous player at slams who brings his best. Look for him to meet either Gonzalez or Tursunov in the third round and advance.

The Pick: None of these guys should be able to beat Federer. They might push him but that's all. I'll take Federer over Ferrero in a competitive fourth round rematch from Wimbledon. On the other side, Davydenko should hope for Srichaphan in the second round. El Aynaoui is a shot maker who feeds off the crowd. This has been Davydenko's best season with a quarterfinal showing in Australia and his first ever semi in Paris. His baseline game should be enough to get through the early rounds. I'll pick him into the round of 16 where he'll face Nalbandian. Nalbandian has had a tough year but plays better at slams as evidenced by two quarter appearances in Australia and London. I like him over Davydenko to face Federer in the final eight. He's given Federer trouble in the past, eliminating him in the fourth round two years ago. This time should be different.

Bracket Two: This features third seed Hewitt, fifth seed Safin, 12th seed Henman, 15th seed Dominik Hrbaty, 17th seed David Ferrer, 22nd seed Mario Ancic and 25th seed Taylor Dent. Any bracket that includes two former Open champions is tough.

Potential Sleepers: Fernando Verdasco is a left-handed baseliner from Spain who might pose problems for Henman in Round One. His best showing at Flushing was the third round in 2003. Paul-Henri Mathieu is better than his ranking and can slug the ball from the baseline. In Montreal, he upset Roddick in the first round and made a surprising run to the semis before losing to Nadal. He made the third round here last year. Max Mirnyi is always dangerous on hard courts but he takes on Justin Gimelstob in the opening round. Whoever wins could make the third round.

Analysis: Hewitt should be through the first two rounds with relative ease but could face Dent in an entertaining third round. Ferrer could play Mark Philippoussis in the second round. If he gets through, he should have no trouble making the round of 16. On the bottom half, Safin enters with an achy knee, which he took time off for this summer. He could be tested right away against Alexander Popp. If he's playing well, Safin should coast to the fourth round. Look for Verdasco or Henri-Mathieu to eliminate a struggling Henman. Either should be in the third round where they could face Ancic. That's if Ancic overcomes his first round history at the Open.

The Pick: Hewitt should be pushed by Dent. He took a set off him at the fourth round of Wimbledon. But the quicker Hewitt should advance to the round of 16 where he could meet Ferrer. He'll win that and be waiting for Safin. Don't be surprised if Henri-Mathieu makes the fourth round and challenges Safin. If the Russian is on, he should setup a rematch of the Australian Open final against Hewitt. This would be a compelling quarterfinal with two top five players slugging it out from the baseline. Safin prevailed in four over Hewitt at Melbourne. Here, I like Hewitt to avenge that loss to setup a Wimbledon semi rematch with nemesis Federer.

Bracket Three: This features fourth seed Roddick, eighth seed Guillermo Coria, 10th seed Puerta, 13th seed Richard Gasquet, 18th seed Ivan Ljubicic, 23rd seed Jiri Novak and 26th seed Feliciano Lopez. It might be the easiest bracket to project.

Potential Sleepers: American Robby Ginepri had a great summer winning Indianapolis, reaching the quarters at Los Angeles and the semis at Cincinnati where he routined Safin and took Federer to three before losing. At Indianapolis, he beat Roddick in three close sets. They could play in Round Two. German Tommy Haas is a streaky player who can rip shots from the baseline and hit big serves. Last year, he made the final eight but has struggled this season. He's still formidable. Teenage American prospect Donald Young will be making his grand slam debut. He takes on a qualifier in Round One.

Analysis: Other than Ginepri early, Roddick's section shouldn't pose any threat. The rematch should take place and won't be easy for A-rod but he still should advance. Roddick could play Haas in the third round but should get through to the round of 16. Look for him to face rising Frenchman Gasquet. Only 19, he has an all court game. At Wimbledon, he made the fourth round. This is his Open debut. On the top portion, Coria hasn't been great this season but the hard courts are to his liking. He was a quarterfinalist two years ago. Coria should advance to the third round where he could meet big lefty server Feliciano Lopez. Lopez had a nice run to the quarters at London but shouldn't beat Coria here. If French Open runner-up Puerta plays well, he could be a potential round of 16 opponent for Coria.

The Pick: Roddick is clearly the best player in this section. If he doesn't come out, he'll hear about it. He had a very good summer winning his fourth title in D.C. and losing to Federer at Cincinnati. He did tweak a thigh towards the end of that match. If he struggles, that could be a factor. But Andy is tough and still should cruise through to a fourth round match against Gasquet. That might be entertaining but Roddick should prevail. Coria should meet Roddick in the quarters. If that match comes down, it would be another rematch from Wimbledon, where Andy won in a competitive straight sets. Look for a similar result here putting Roddick into the final four.

Bracket Four: This features second seed Nadal, seventh seed Agassi, ninth seed Gaston Gaudio, 14th seed Thomas Johansson, 19th seed Tommy Robredo and 24th seed Mikhail Youzhny. On paper, this looks like easy pickings for Nadal and Agassi.

Potential Sleepers: Czech Tomas Berdych is a talented baseliner whose ranking is up to 37th and playing well. The 19-year-old made the semis in D.C. before losing to Blake and upset Nadal in the first round at Cincinnati. He lost in three sets to Youzhny the following round. He is capable of making some noise and could see Agassi in Round Three. Both Greg Rusedski and James Blake are playing well heading into their opening round match. The winner could give Nadal problems in Round Three. Sebastien Grosjean is a sound player who can run down shots from the baseline but his best results are on grass where he lost to Roddick at the Wimbledon quarters. Gustavo Kuerten is an exciting player who made two quarter appearances in Flushing but is he healthy?

Analysis: Nadal's best surface is clay but he proved recently that he could win on a hard court, beating Agassi at Montreal for his ninth title. He is an impressive 65-9 heading into his first round with Bobby Reynolds and should have plenty of confidence. He plays with fire and can make impossible shots due to his speed. Nadal should meet either Rusedski or Blake in the third round. I like Johansson to win his first three matches and be waiting in the round of 16. On the top half, Agassi should handle either Mardy Fish or big server Ivo Karlovic in the second round setting up a potential third round match against Berdych. Youzhny should meet Gaudio in the third round. I like Youzhny to pull the upset and make Round Four.

The Pick: This is a tough bracket because there are players who could ruin a Nadal-Agassi quarterfinal. Nadal will have his hands full against Blake, who should edge Rusedski. Blake will have the home crowd on his side but Nadal is tougher and should advance to play Johansson in the round of 16. The Swedish vet is has a potent serve and a lethal forehand in his arsenal. He made the semis at Wimbledon and should be competitive against Nadal but I'll take Nadal to reach the quarters. Berdych has a chance against Agassi but in that environment, Agassi should have enough to win. Youzhny is a similar opponent but I like Agassi to prevail and meet Nadal in an entertaining quarter, which would be great. Agassi's experience versus Nadal's youth. At Montreal, Agassi couldn't hurt Nadal from the ground and had trouble reading his serve. However, he's great at adjusting and this tournament means too much. Only cause of that, I feel Agassi will find a way to advance and setup an all-American dream semi against Roddick.

Breaking Down The Final Four: In one semifinal, you'd have Federer against Hewitt, an opponent he dominates. It's amazing because Hewitt is one of the best players on tour. But he can't hurt Federer because Roger has too much game. In last year's final, Federer bageled Hewitt in two of three sets which tells you how remarkable he is. He'll win again to reach the final but it won't be that lopsided.

The other semi would be the old guard versus the new guard. Roddick has been here before when he played Sampras three years ago in the quarters and got blitzed in straight sets. That was then and this is now. The fans would be torn with who to pull for because Agassi is one of the most popular players and it could be his last hurrah. Many rooted for Sampras three years ago and it helped him go out on top with a record 14th grand slam. I just feel Roddick would have too many big serves and forehands to lose this match. Agassi is a great returner but Roddick has more to lose here. He must win to setup a championship rematch of Wimbledon.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: Roger Federer, Switzerland. Federer is the best player since Sampras and is a threat to his 14 slams. If he wins, it will be his sixth career slam at 24. He plays the bigger points better than anyone and can beat opponents a variety of ways with shots that defy logic. Whether it's the running forehand crosscourt or the backhand down the line or a drop volley or ace, he can pull it off. Federer is the best at shifting from defense to offense and has great court coverage. This doesn't mean Roddick won't have a chance. He'll be on his best surface where he won his only major and have tons of support turning it into a Davis Cup match. It will be very difficult to defeat a man who doesn't lose to him or in finals.


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