And so the first major of the year is already upon us, and both the men’s and women’s draws look very intriguing to me. Let’s start with the men. Roger Federer is recovering from a stomach virus which hurt his preparation last week, but his draw looks relatively kind. He opens his campaign for a fourth crown in five years at Melbourne with a first round test against Diego Hartfield of Argentina. He should quickly adjust to the new Plexicushion surface, which might be a little slower than he would like. In any event, Federer should get through that one in straight sets. In the second round, he figures to meet either the amazing 35-year-old Fabrice Santoro or the big serving American John Isner, who took a set off Federer last year at the U.S. Open. Federer might drop a set against either player, but no more than that.
I believe the first serious skirmish for Federer could be a potential fourth round meeting against No. 13 seed Tomas Berdych, the big hitter who toppled Federer at the 2004 Olympic Games but has not beaten him since. He gave Federer a rough time in a Davis Cup match a few weeks after the 2007 U.S. Open, taking a set and threatening to push the world No. 1 into a fifth set. He will make Federer work hard if they meet in Melbourne, but Federer would prevail in four tough sets. If Berdych does not make it that far, No. 25 seed Juan Monaco could be the man Federer meets in the fourth round. He too, would not let Federer have an easy time of it, but Federer would prevail in three prolonged sets. In the quarters, Federer could take on either James Blake, Ivan Ljubicic or Fernando Gonzalez. If he plays Blake, Federer will get the job done in straight sets; if he confronts Ljubicic, Federer would prevail in four; if he takes on Gonzalez, the task could be more arduous.
Gonzalez finally beat Federer for the first time in November in a round robin match at Shanghai. That was an important breakthrough for the 2007 Australian Open finalist. When he met Federer in that championship match last January, Gonzalez served for the first set and reached 5-4, 40-15, double set point. He did not close out that crucial game and went down in straight sets. Gonzalez has the single most explosive forehand in the game, and he would be much more dangerous against Federer in a quarterfinal than in a big final. I believe Federer would win that one in four very tight sets.
That would bring the 12 time Grand Slam champion into the penultimate round. In that semifinal, he would probably play either No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in a repeat of the U.S. Open final, or David Nalbandian, who beat Federer two times in a row last autumn in the final of Madrid and the round of 16 indoors at Paris. Unfortunately, Nalbandian had a problem with his back this past week and was forced to pull out of an exhibition event. If he recovers sufficiently from the injury, Nalbandian would conceivably play Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round and would then have to play No. 5 seed David Ferrer in a potentially bruising fourth round encounter.
Ferrer was a vastly improved player in 2007. Nalbandian played some of the best tennis of his life to win both Madrid and Paris back to back. Nalbandian-Ferrer has the makings of a five set skirmish, but I would lean toward a five set win for Nalbandian if he is physically sound. Djokovic has his work cut out for him if he wants to earn a quarterfinal appointment with Nalbandian or Ferrer. The No. 3 seed will most likely meet Dmitry Tursunov in the third round, and then would have a round of 16 assignment against either No. 19 seed Lleyton Hewitt or No. 15 Marcos Baghdatis. The guess here is that Hewitt will narrowly move past Baghdatis in five sets, but he will not be able to hold back Djokovic, who will prevail in four sets.
So then we would have the enticing prospect of a Nalbandian-Hewitt round of 16 contest. I would look for Nalbandian to win that match in straight sets, setting up a quarterfinal with Djokovic. That could be the match of the tournament. The baseline exchanges would be fiercely contested, with Nalbandian boasting the superior two-hander and Djokovic holding the edge off the forehand. Djokovic has a better serve. In the end, I like Djokovic in five pendulum swinging sets.
Clearly, Federer will be eager to make a statement against the formidable Djokovic. The world No. 1 lost to Djokovic in a final set tie-break last summer in the final of Montreal before coming through in a straight set U.S. Open final. Djokovic had five set points in the first set of that championship match, and two more set points in the second set, failing to convert on any of them. That was largely a case of nerves for Djokovic, who should be more relaxed in a semifinal setting at Melbourne. But he did not finish 2007 on a strong note. Will he be ready to handle Federer in the first major of the New Year? I have my doubts, but he will make his presence known. Federer will come through by scores of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
If Nalbandian manages to get to the semifinals rather than Djokovic, I see a similarly hard fought contest developing because Nalbandian can hold his own with Federer from the baseline. Federer has a vastly superior forehand but Nalbandian’s two-handed backhand is more solid than Federer’s single handed backhand. Nalbandian would give Federer a serious scare but would eventually bow 6-3,4-6,7-5,2-6, 6-4. On to the final would go Federer.
On the opposite half of the draw, Rafael Nadal has a pretty good draw. He may need to deal with countryman Carlos Moya (the No. 16 seed) in the fourth round. Moya kept Nadal on court for nearly four hours in India before losing in a final set tie-break, leaving Nadal terribly compromised physically. Nadal then took only one game from Mikhail Youzhny in the final. In any case, Moya could well bow out before even getting to Nadal for a potential round of 16 skirmish. If Moya does make it that far, Nadal would take care of business this time around in four comfortable sets. That would push Nadal into the quarterfinals, where he would almost inevitably play No. 6 seed Andy Roddick. They met only once last year, with Nadal thrashing Roddick in straight sets on hard courts in the semifinals at Indian Wells.
The last time they had played before that was in the 2004 Davis Cup final, when Nadal came through over Roddick in four sets. Unless the courts are playing faster than expected in Melbourne, the conditions will be in Nadal’s favor. Roddick would need to serve stupendously to stay with Nadal. Even if he does, I still like Nadal’s chances. The Spaniard advances in four sets by grinding Roddick down from the back of the court and peppering Roddick’s backhand all day long. The seedings suggest that he would meet No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals, but I don’t see the Russian getting that far. I think there is a good chance that Stanislas Wawrinka (the No. 26 seed) will beat Davydenko in the third round. Then I believe Wawrinka would lose to Youzhny in the round of 16. At the top of that bottom half of the draw, No. 9 seed Andy Murray should end up clashing with No. 8 Richard Gasquet in the round of 16. That could be a beauty, but in the end Murray is my pick to prevail in four sets. Murray would then topple Youzhny in another four set confrontation.
So that would set up a semifinal between Murray and Nadal. A year ago, they fought valiantly against each other through five compelling sets before Nadal came through to win. He was then exhausted and injured when he went down to Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. I believe that Murray will give Nadal another serious run for his money in the semifinals of Melbourne and could conceivably win that match. But, in the end, I see Nadal once more getting the win in five sets.
That would give us the best possible final between the two best players in the world. On the Plexicushion, Nadal’s backcourt game could give Federer serious problems, but he needs to be fresh and fit for such a clash. I am not confident that will be the case. I believe it is much more likely that Nadal will be depleted in some ways and not as energetic as he needs to be. In both Madrid and Paris last fall he was obliterated by Nalbandian after surviving strenuous battles the day before. He could be similarly vulnerable coming into a potential Australian Open final with Federer.
Nadal would be helped, however, by having at least a day off before stepping into the arena with the world No. 1. The conditions in Australia should be a boost for the Spaniard, who would make Federer play a ton of high backhands throughout the contest. Time and again, Nadal will roll that vicious topspin forehand crosscourt up and keep making Federer hit the backhand from uncomfortable positions. Federer always seems reluctant to attack as often as he should when he plays Nadal, and much of the match would be fought out from the back of the court, another plus for Nadal.
In the end, Federer’s serve will be the key, as it was in his five set Wimbledon final round win over Nadal. He will squirm his way out of innumerable break points and eventually overcome Nadal. I see Federer winning his 13th major 4-6,7-6(5),3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a gripping five set collision.
Now let’s take a close look at the women’s draw. The most exhilarating moment of the first week will undoubtedly be a second round appointment between No, 5 seed Maria Sharapova and the resurgent Lindsay Davenport. Davenport has lost only one match since her comeback last fall. She deserved to be seeded but the tournament will benefit enormously from the fact that she is not. Davenport, who has lost four of five previous meetings with Sharapova but once beat the Russian 6-0,6-0 at Indian Wells, will be primed for this contest. Sharapova—as I see it— will be nervous and unsettled. Both women will serve big and set up second shot winners repeatedly. But Davenport’s return is better than Sharapova’s and her ground game is marginally superior. She wins in three sets, 7-5,4-6,6-4. The 31-year-old American will reach the quarterfinals and play her heart out against top seeded Justine Henin.
Henin will be hard pressed to contain Davenport in some hotly contested baseline exchanges, but the Belgian will come through in two tight sets. In the semifinals, Henin will confront the winner of a compelling quarterfinal encounter between defending champion Serena Williams and world No. 3 Jelena Jankovic. Serena will have to overcome No. 12 seed Nicole Vaidisova in the round of 16, but Serena will win that contest in straight sets. In the Williams-Jankovic quarterfinal, it will go down to the wire as Jankovic does her best to prolong the rallies, making Serena work inordinately hard. But Serena is sturdier under pressure. She pulls out the big first serve at all of the crucial moments, and wins 6-4,4-6,7-5.
In 2007, Serena Williams and Justine Henin met in the last three majors, clashing each time in the quarterfinals. Henin was too good on each occasion. She will be again this time around. It will be a high quality contest, and Serena will not give up her crown without a spirited fight. But Henin will be tougher on the big points, will be more consistent and durable in the rallies, and will make too many good returns when she gets a look at second serves. Henin wins over Williams 7-6(6),4-6, 6-3 for a place in the final.
On the opposite half of the draw, Venus Williams may be pushed hard in a potential three set collision against No. 31 seed Sania Mirza of India, but Venus will get through that one 4-6,6-4,6-2. Similarly, Venus will be hard pressed to beat No. 24 seed Li Na but once more Williams will win. She prevails 7-5,3-6,6-4 to reach the quarters. In that round, her string runs out. No. 4 seed Ana Ivanovic, now on the verge of being ready to win her first major, will pester Venus time and again with a barrage of balls directed at the Williams forehand. Ivanovic defeats Williams 2-6, 7-5,6-3 to reach the semifinals. She will face No. 6 seed Anna Chakvetadze in the semifinals.
Chakvetadze will topple No. 22 seed Lucia Safarova in the round of 16 after Safarova removes No. 9 seed Daniela Hantuchova. No. 2 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova will defeat Agnes Szavay in the round of 16 and then will meet Chakvetadze in the quarterfinals. Chakvetadze was way too apprehensive when she lost to Kuznetsova in the semifinals of the 2007 US Open but that will not be true on this occasion. She will give the No. 2 seed many problems from the baseline, but Kuznetsova is more versatile and her heavy forehand will be a big reason why she wins 2-6,6-4,7-5 to reach the final. But her tournament will conclude on a disappointing note. Henin will be primed for the big occasion, and deeply determined to win her second Australian Open crown after missing the event last year when she was going through a divorce.
Henin will have her thinking cap on and will pick apart the Russian methodically. Justine Henin will win her 8th major title, casting aside Kuznetsova 6-4,6-3 with a typically composed and professional effort. Kuznetsova pushed Henin to her limits in the recent Sydney final but still fell short and lost in three sets. But the Russian lost to Henin in a straight set final at the U.S. Open last year, and also was beaten by the Belgian in straight sets in the French Open final of 2006. Henin has not lost a match since Wimbledon last year, and she will keep her streak going right through Melbourne, collecting an eighth Grand Slam championship in the process.