Friday, January 13, 2006

Australian Open Preview: Predicting The Women

It's that time of year again. Finally, tennis has returned for a new season, which kicked off two weeks ago down under. The season's first major The Australian Open gets underway Sunday night at 7 PM (11 AM Australia time Monday).

Last year, Serena Williams took the women's field by storm, capturing her second Open and seventh career slam by besting Lindsay Davenport in three sets. To get there, she overcame match points against Maria Sharapova in a classic semifinal. A less than 100 percent Serena looks to defend her title in Melbourne.

Comeback Kids: While the competition should be stiff, the WTA Tour will also get a jolt from two players making their returns.

Former five-time slam winner Martina Hingis has returned to the tour after retiring for three years due to chronic foot problems. The 25-year-old Swiss product won three consecutive Australian Open titles from 1997-99. But back then, she was the best player in the world. However, that changed due to the hard hitting of the Williams sisters, Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, etc.

Now, Hingis will try to recapture some of her old form, battling a very competitive field. In her first tournament back at Gold Coast a couple of weeks ago, she reached the semifinals before losing to Flavia Pennetta in three sets. At Medibank International in her first real test, Hingis lost in straight sets to Justine Henin-Hardenne. At Melbourne Park, she'll have another early battle against 30th seeded Vera Zvonareva. It should be interesting to see how she fares.

While Hingis is on the comeback trail, so too is Jelena Dokic. The talented 22-year-old Serbian who now calls Australia home once was ranked as high as fourth in '02. However, she slumped badly the next two years falling out of the top 100. By last year, her name had become a distant memory as she stopped playing tour events altogether and dropped to 349 in the world. A difference in opinion with her father, then coach Damir resulted in a split prior to the last two years, which complicated things.

Under new representation last December, she won an Open wildcard to qualify. In her first match at Auckland this year, she lost in three sets to Julia Schruff. Dokic will hope for better luck against first round opponent Virginie Razzano.

If either Hingis or Dokic reach the second week, that would be a great story.

Bracket One: This features top seed Davenport, Henin-Hardenne (8), Venus Williams (10) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (14). Any section which includes four slam winners is top heavy, which could be bad news for the rest of the competition.

Potential Sleepers: Other seeded women include Elena Likhovtseva, Tatiana Golovin, Maria Kirilenko, Ai Sugiyama. Golovin and Kirlineko are the best of the bunch who could make some noise. Both are rising stars who will be heard from. Likhovtseva and Sugiyama are experienced players who compete well. If you're looking for someone who might be able to surprise in this bracket, it could be Dokic. If she gets by Razzano, she has the ability play spoiler and reach Week Two. It will depend on how sharp she is.

Analysis: In the top portion, Davenport should cruise to a third round match against Kirilenko, which might not be easy but she should prevail. If form holds, Kuznetsova would meet Golovin in an intriguing third round. The winner would take on Davenport for a chance at the quarterfinals. On the bottom half, Henin-Hardenne should have an easy first two matches but then it could get interesting if Dokic is waiting for her. Venus is not 100 percent but that's nothing new. The question is will she be fit enough not to get upset? A potential third round opponent could be Likhovtseva. If Venus is on her game, that shouldn't pose a problem, which would setup a Round of 16 showdown with Henin-Hardenne.

The Pick: This is a tough bracket to call. But Davenport and Henin-Hardenne are at full strength. Look for them to meet up in the quarters. Henin-Hardenne is fresh off a win at Medibank International. Davenport has the hardest groundstrokes on tour and relies on her big serve. In contrast, Henin-Hardenne is quicker and likes to setup her backhand. At the U.S. Open, her serve failed her. However, she's playing better now. I like Henin-Hardenne over Davenport in three sets to reach the semifinals.

Bracket Two: Maria Sharapova (4), Nadia Petrova (6), Elena Dementieva (9), defending champ Serena Williams (13) and Daniela Hantuchova (17) comprise this bracket. Three talented Russians, an American champion and a Slovak. The Wimbledon '04 champ Sharapova won't be up to full speed due to a sore shoulder, which is something to watch. Serena once again will not be at her best but she's still a threat.

Potential Sleepers: Jelena Jankovic (23) is a talented 20-year-old from Serbia and Montenegro who has won one title in her three-year career. Jankovic reached the third round at the last two slams. Is this the major she makes a dent in? Klara Koukalova (29) is a 23-year-old Czech whose ranking has climbed as high as 30. Since reaching the third round in her slam debut at Australia, she hasn't gotten out of the second round. She'll have to deal with tricky first round opponent Ekaterina Bychkova, who upset Kuznetsova at the U.S. Open. German Julia Schruff could give Dementieva some trouble. She reached the third round at the Open. Also keep an eye on Shuai Peng, who could meet Sharapova in the second round. She has a big game.

Analysis: Barring a major surprise, Sharapova should make the Round of 16 where she could setup a rematch with Serena of their three set epic. But don't be surprised if Serena gets knocked out before then. Hantuchova has a nice game but has fallen short in big matches recently. She could pose a threat to Serena. On the bottom half, Petrova and Dementieva could be on a collision course in the fourth round. Only Jankovic might prevent it.

The Pick: Sharapova should be determined to make an impact after a somewhat disappointing '05 at the slams. She has much to prove. If she meets Serena in Round Four, look for her to avenge last year's heartbreaking defeat and play the winner of Petrova-Dementieva. Both are very gifted players. The match could hinge on whether Dementieva can get her first serve in. If she does, she'll get through to face Sharapova. Both love to slug the ball from the baseline which can lead to a lot of winners and unforced errors. What separates Sharapova from Dementieva is her big serve. For that reason, Sharapova should advance to play Henin-Hardenne in the semis.

Bracket Three: This section features third seeded Amelie Mauresmo along with Patty Schnyder (7), Anastasia Myskina (12), Nicole Vaidisova (16), Dinara Safina (19) and Flavia Pennetta (20). This might be the most overlooked bracket because no one has ever won a major. However, starting with Mauresmo, none of these players along with a couple of others should be underestimated.

Potential Sleepers: Schnyder's first round opponent Greece's Eleni Daniilidou is capable of pulling the upset if Schnyder is not up to speed. Daniilidou took out Henin-Hardenne at Wimbledon last year. Schnyder's potential second round opponent Shinobu Asagoe is no pushover either. Sania Mirza (32) or Michaella Krajicek could make some noise. Both are rising players who are playing well.

Analysis: Mauresmo finished '05 in style by winning the WTA Championship, proving that she could win when it counted. If she can bring that same level to Australia, she can go all the way. It won't be easy though. She'll meet either Mirza or Krajicek in the third round and could play Vaidisova or Pennetta just for a chance at the final eight. If Schnyder gets through her first two matches, she should have an easy time making the fourth round where Safina could be waiting. Safina is off to a good start this year. So, that could be a good match.

The Pick: Mauresmo is clearly the best player in this bracket. While she should have some tough challenges and will probably have to get by rising Czech star Vaidisova in the Round of 16, she should have enough game to make the Elite Eight. Schnyder usually has good success in majors and will probably test Mauresmo. But this is Mauresmo's best chance to finally breakthrough at a slam. She should make the Final Four.

Bracket Four: Included in this section are '04 U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters (2) and runner-up Mary Pierce(5). Both are clearly the best players in a bracket which also features semifinalist Nathalie Dechy (11), Francesca Schiavone (15) and Ana Ivanovic (21).

Potential Sleepers: Other seeded women include Anna-Lena Groenefeld (22), Marion Bartoli (27) and Vera Zvonareva (30). All are solid players with Zvonareva having the most potential. The 21-year-old Russian has made one quarterfinal in Roland Garros ('03) and five fourth rounds. But she took a small step back last year with her best slam result a third round showing at The French Open. Zvonareva has a potentially difficult first match against the comebacking Martina Hingis, which will be no picnic. Hingis should be dangerous. Lucie Safarova is ranked just outside the top 30. The 18-year-old from the Czech Republic is just in her second season but already has three titles. Keep an eye on her.

Analysis: Pierce is coming off a great '05 which saw her reach two finals before falling to Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters at the French and U.S. Open. She is clearly very motivated and should cruise through the early rounds of the top half. The winner of Zvonareva-Hingis will probably play Pierce in the third round. But neither should be able to handle her pace. Ivanovic is another Serbia and Montenegro product who's in her second year. However, she's not ready for primetime yet. Look for Pierce to reach the quarters with ease. Clijsters is the hottest player on the tour and finally got the monkey off her back winning at the Open last September. But she will be playing with a sore hip. If she's still able to play through it, nobody in her half should seriously threaten until a possible fourth round encounter with Schiavone.

The Pick: Considering Clijsters' plight, it's hard not to like Pierce. If she's in top form, she should overpower opponents from the baseline. If Clijsters can get through the first four rounds, it would be a rematch of last year's Open. She certainly has enough heart to get there but after that all bets are off. I like Pierce to triumph over Clijsters and setup a Frenchwomen semi showdown with Mauresmo.

Breaking Down The Final Four: Sharapova would play Henin-Hardenne in one semifinal. It's a contrast in styles between the boom-or-bust Sharapova and the savvy Henin-Hardenne. But Henin-Hardenne is in better shape and off to a good start this year while Sharapova hasn't played much competitive tennis since last year. Henin-Hardenne should prevail to reach her second Aussie final in three years.

Whenever Pierce and Mauresmo meet, it's usually onesided. At last year's Open, Pierce destroyed Mauresmo. However, Mauresmo turned the tables against Pierce to pull out a three set epic WTA Championship final. That should give her an edge. This promises to be another ultracompetitive match but I'll take Mauresmo to advance to her second Australian Open final since '99.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: Amelie Mauresmo, France. Like Clijsters at the last slam, Mauresmo now has the distinction of being the best player on the WTA Tour to never win a major. It has to change some time. She'll have to overcome a very difficult opponent in Henin-Hardenne. So it won't be easy. Also similarly to Clijsters, Mauresmo has a reputation for falling short in such matches. I believe her win last December was a huge confidence boost and can help her win in Australia. It won't be routine though. I'll take Mauresmo to triumph in three fiercely competitive sets.

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