Saturday, January 14, 2006

Australian Open Preview: Picking The Men

Unlike last year, the season's first grand slam will be without some prominent names. Unable to compete in Australia are defending champion Marat Safin, French Open winner Rafael Nadal and four-time Melbourne champ Andre Agassi.

Safin- who won his second major by outlasting the top player in the world Roger Federer in a five set classic semifinal before coming back to beat hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt in four sets- is still recovering from left knee surgery which prevented him from competing at the U.S. Open. He won't return until next month in Marseille, France.

One of Australia's adopted sons, Agassi was forced to pull out due to an ankle injury suffered over two months ago while playing racquetball. He tried to return for the Masters Cup but wasn't close to 100 percent, prompting him to reassess whether he could give it a go down under. Not wanting to jeopardize the rest of his season, the 35-year-old Agassi won't rush back until he's ready.

Much like Safin and Agassi, the flambuoyant Nadal, who took the tour by storm last year, will miss the event due to a calf muscle strain suffered at last year's Madrid Masters final in October. Like Safin, he's also targeting the same tournament in France next month.

All three slam champions will be missed. However, the show must go on. With that trio not in Australia, Federer is the overwhelming favorite to win his second Open. The six-time slam winner won the final two majors of '05 and has taken five of the last eight the past two years. Can he be stopped? Let's find out.

Bracket One: The first bracket features top seed Federer. In his path will be Nikolay Davydenko (5), Dominik Hrbaty (12), Richard Gasquet (14), Igor Andreev (23) and Olivier Rochus (24). Translation: Federer is a couple of levels better than his biggest competition. Not exactly encouraging news for the rest of the field.

Potential Sleepers: Aside from other seeds Filippo Volandri (29) and Max Mirnyi (30), Tommy Haas, Ivo Karlovic and Novak Djokovic are all capable of making runs into the second week. The one-time number one ranked player Haas started this year with a bang, upsetting Federer in an exhibition match last week. It has to do wonders for his mental state but he'll be up against promising Frenchman Gasquet in what promises to be a great opening round match. If Haas gets through that, he could face rising star Djokovic in the second round. In his first season last year, he made the third round at the last two slams. Stamina could be an issue for the 18-year-old Serbia and Montenegro product. Karlovic is an imposing serve-and-volley specialist who can make life difficult for opponents. Nicknamed The Croatian Bomber, he can crank up his serve when needed and is awfully difficult to break. He'll test Davydenko in Round One.

Analysis: Federer should have no trouble early on. He'll be waiting in the Round of 16 for either Gasquet, Haas, Djokovic or Rochus. Whoever he plays should push him enough to be ready for the next phase. The bottom half of his draw could open up if Karlovic can stop Davydenko. Either Hrbaty or Andreev could emerge to challenge Federer in the quarterfinals.

The Pick: Unless something goes completely wrong, Federer should emerge from this section without a scratch. Look for his fourth round opponent to present more of a challenge than whoever he faces in the Elite Eight. Haas has played Federer tough as has Rochus. Gasquet is certainly talented enough to give him a match. There's just no one on the other side who should scare Federer. He'll be waiting in the semifinals.

Bracket Two: This features last year's runner-up Lleyton Hewitt (3) along with Guillermo Coria (6), Fernando Gonzalez (9), Juan Carlos Ferrero (15) and Nicolas Kiefer (21). Hewitt is the best player here but it promises to be a tough bracket.

Potential Sleepers: Hewitt might not have to wait very long for a tough match. He could face British riser Andy Murray in the second round. By no stretch would that be easy. Murray is a talented baseline shotmaker who plays with fire and will be heard from this year. If Hewitt gets through his first two matches, he could see Fernando Verdasco (28) next. Verdasco is another promising left-handed Spaniard who can slug the ball from the baseline. Also in that portion of the draw is Paradorn Srichaphan. But he'll have to upset Kiefer just to make Round Two. On the other side of the bracket, Gael Monfils (22) continues to climb up the rankings and could make some noise. Sebastien Grosjean (25) can never be taken lightly either. He's a solid baseliner who can run down many shots, forcing opponents to work.

Analysis: Now a father, Hewitt returned to the tour this year and was upset in his first two tuneups. That could be a sign that he's not as sharp as last year. If it is, we'll know soon enough. I still like him to get through Murray, Verdasco and Kiefer to reach the quarterfinals. Coria seems to have an easier path to the third round before a possible test against Grosjean. Gonzalez is always a threat on hard courts and should meet Monfils in an intriguing third round.

The Pick: Look for Hewitt to be waiting while Coria battles it out with the winner of Gonzalez-Monfils. Coria could have trouble against either but he's a tough customer and should setup a grudge match against Hewitt in the Elite Eight. These two don't like each other. At last year's Davis Cup match in Australia which Coria won, they traded insults. There is no love lost. If it comes down, Hewitt will have tons of support from the pro-Aussie crowd. Coria can neutralize Hewitt's speed game and has just as many shots in his arsenal. For those reasons, I'll pick Coria to upset Hewitt and setup a semifinal against Federer.

Bracket Three: David Nalbandian (4) heads this section along with Gaston Gaudio (8), David Ferrer (11), Tommy Robredo (16), Mario Ancic (18) and James Blake (20). This certainly is a competitive draw, which should make for some good matches.

Potential Sleepers: Neither Jarkko Nieminen (26) nor Carlos Moya (32) should be overlooked. Nieminen is a confusing lefty who can make life difficult for opponents. Just ask Hewitt why he had to dig out of a two sets to one hole in their U.S. Open quarterfinal. Moya is a former French Open champ who relies on a big serve and heavy forehand. However, he doesn't fare well off clay and has a tough opening match against baseliner Andrei Pavel. Also in this section is The Magician Fabrice Santoro. The stylish two-handed shotmaker is the most unorthodox player on the tour. He forced Federer to play out of his mind at the U.S. Open to win a second round match without a problem. He plays American Vince Spadea in the first round. If he advances, he has a chance to make some noise. Not being talked about much is Tim Henman. The classic serve-and-volleyer fell off in '05 due to a bad back. Some time off might help him. He'll try to avenge a second round Wimbledon loss to Dmitry Tursonov.

Analysis: This bracket certainly isn't dull. It's possible that form won't hold, especially on the top half. Gaudio's best success has come on clay. So he could be ripe for the picking in the second or third round. Look for Pavel or Santoro to bounce him out. Ancic struggled last year but the skilled Czech is back in form. Look for him to advance to a third round match against Ferrer. Ancic should have enough to eliminate Ferrer and then best whoever's left to make the quarters. On the bottom half, Nalbandian shouldn't be challenged until he squares off against Nieminen in Round Three. The rejuvenated American Blake should be waiting for him in the Round of 16.

The Pick: Nalbandian is coming off a huge Masters Cup win over Federer, coming from two sets down to pull it out. He should have plenty of confidence. Blake would pose a very good challenge because their styles are similar. Both love to dictate points from the baseline. Blake recently won his fourth ATP title at Sydney International. So he'll be ready. But when push comes to shove, I still like Nalbandian to edge Blake in five sets to advance and meet Ancic in the quarters. I'll take Nalbandian's experience there to make the Final Four.

Bracket Four: Included in this section are Andy Roddick (2), Ivan Ljubicic (7), former Aussie winner Thomas Johansson (10), Robby Ginepri (13), Radek Stepanek (17), Tomas Berdych (19) and Taylor Dent (27). Toss in Feliciano Lopez (31) and this is one ultracompetitive bracket.

Potential Sleepers: Luxembourg's Gilles Muller sent shockwaves through New York when he derailed Roddick in the first round at last year's U.S. Open. This is just the 22-year-old's second full season. He is a rangy lefty with impressive groundstrokes and an underrated net game. The question with him is consistency. If he brings his 'A' game, he could surprise. Nicolas Massu is a crafty baseliner who can hit with anyone and also has the stamina to go the distance. Facing off in a first round match, Xavier Malisse meets Mikhail Youzhny. Both are talented players who saw their rankings drop last year. Malisse though possesses a big serve and lethal groundstrokes. If he ever puts it altogether, watch out.

Analysis: Roddick should cruise through his first two matches but then it could get interesting. If Dent advances into the third round, Roddick would have to deal with the textbook serve-and-volleyer. He might have to sweat a little but Roddick's fitness should get him through in four sets. Making life more difficult, Ginepri could be looming in Round Four. On the top half, Ljubicic is a solid player who can hit big serves and lethal groundstrokes. However, he has never gotten past the third round at any major. For that to change, he'll probably have to get past either Lopez or Muller. Any one of Johansson, Malisse or Berdych could advance to face Ljubicic in the Round of 16.

The Pick: Roddick is the choice to come out of this section. However, it won't be easy. He'll most likely have to beat Dent and Ginepri just to make the quarters. Berdych is a very talented Czech who is on the fringe of breaking the top 10. I like him to beat Ljubicic and setup an Elite Eight clash with Roddick. That would be power against power as both big men possess rocket serves and lethal forehands. I'll take Roddick's experience and will power to win out in an exciting four sets to setup a semi showdown against Nalbandian.

Breaking Down The Final Four: In one semifinal, Federer would meet Coria. This is a mismatch because Federer's footspeed can match Coria. It's essentially why Coria's nemesis Hewitt has never had much success against Federer. Federer has the speed and instincts to anticipate shots better than anyone. His big serve and ridiculous shotmaking is what separates him. Coria will put up a hard fight but I can't even see him getting a set. Federer should cruise to his second Aussie final in three years.

The other match is a rematch of the '03 U.S. Open semifinal which Roddick cameback from two sets down to prevail in, winning his only major to date. It was Roddick at his absolute best. His big serve matches up well against Nalbandian. But Nalbandian's aggressive returning and fiesty baseline game will be a stiff challenge for Roddick. Both players need this match to prove they can take that next step. Unfortunately for Roddick, I feel Nalbandian will pull it out in five. It sets up a rematch of the Masters Cup.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: David Nalbandian, Argentina. Nalbandian would be in his second slam final and first since falling to Hewitt at '02 Wimbledon. Federer would be the overwhelming favorite here because he never loses in these matches. His perfect 6-0 record in slam finals is remarkable. But Nalbandian has the kind of game that can agitate Federer. The 24-year-old Argentine proved that two months ago in Shanghai. To repeat the feat, he'll have to play out of his mind. Nalbandian is the best player on the tour to never have won a major. It's time for him to break through.

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