…Serena is the only player who could drop into a slam out of nowhere and steal it.

Last Thursday I went onto the radio show Fantasy Draft Help Insider to take part in an ATP/WTA fantasy draft. Their draft has a Roger Federer rule: if you get the top pick in the first round and take Roger Federer (a foregone conclusion), you have to pick last in every succeeding round. I managed to get that first pick and I immediately joked, “Oh, no, does that mean I’ll get stuck with Serena Williams?”

The joke’s on me. Serena is rolling. Besides Goran Ivanesevic, who stole a Wimbledon after his career looked like it was over, and Andre Agassi, who scratched and crawled his way to a French Open crown, Serena is the only player who could drop into a slam out of nowhere and steal it.

Of course it takes a bit of luck and Serena is looking at some of that right about now. First of all, she’s in the easiest half of the draw and it just got a whole lot easier: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelies Mauresmo and Elena Dementieva are all gone. And while you have to give Serena credit for taking out Nadia Petrova, Petrova has not been performing up to her seed in slams. A long list of injuries has left her up and down and her slam confidence is low. She has three quarterfinals and one semifinal appearance in the last eight slams; not terrible but not befitting the sixth ranked player.

I don’t expect Serena to steal this slam, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis are still going strong in the other half of the draw, but she should be able to get to the semifinals and that is pretty amazing. But it may not be a good thing for Serena and it’s not good for the WTA. If Serena thinks she can drop in and get to a semifinal in a slam, that won’t exactly push Serena to hit the treadmill or spend hours on the tennis court. Why should she if she can get so far with so little preparation?

And it also doesn’t say much about the WTA. When Martina Hingis returned after a three year layoff, she got into the top ten by August. And now Serena, after playing only sixteen matches last year, is doing well in a slam. That means the level of play hasn’t improved much over the last three years and clearly the top ten players are not performing well in slams. Sharapova and Mauresmo (last year anyway) have played consistently well. Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne have also played well but they’ve missed months at a time due to injuries. That’s two consistent top 10 players and a few part-time top 10 players, not enough to carry a tour.

Mardy Fish has had a bit of luck too. When he got to the third round, his opponent, Wayne Arthurs, had an adverse reaction to a shot he took for hip pain and had to retire after only three games. Of course, Fish got there by defeating number 4 seed Ivan Ljubicic in the first round but here we go again: Ljubicic has reached one quarterfinal and one semifinal in his slam career. Other than that, he’s never gone past the third round. No disrespect Mr. Fish, but that’s not befitting a player who’s been ranked as high as number 3 in the world.

Fish did beat David Ferrer to get to the fourth round and I have no caveats for that, it was just a damn good victory for Fish.

This is the best Roddick has played since a good serve and a strong forehand was all you needed to win a slam.

Fish’s opponent in the fourth round will be his good buddy Andy Roddick. Just before Roddick’s third round match with Marat Safin, his coach Jimmy Connors arrived in Melbourne and that’s as it should be because he got there just in time to see two sets of tennis that marked Roddick’s transition from a timid, one dimensional power player into some semblance of an aggressive all-court player.

In the fourth set alone I saw Roddick step inside the baseline – yes! Inside the baseline – and hit a return winner off a Safin second serve. Not only that but it was a backhand. Roddick has the hardest serve in the game and his forehand has always been powerful but his backhand was suspect and since he grew up as a backcourt player, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of following one of those massive serves in to the net.

Roddick’s return of serve had always been weak too so Brad Gilbert moved him behind the baseline to give him more time to read the serve. After Gilbert left Roddick’s employ, Roddick stayed behind the baseline and that took away his ability make his opponent’s pay for second serves.

One game after that return winner, Roddick picked up a dipping passing shot and placed it right on the sideline for a volley winner. Roddick came to the net over 50 times in the four set, 7-6(2), 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), victory. That qualifies as aggressive.

This is the best Roddick has played since a good serve and a strong forehand was all you needed to win a slam. One other thing. Both his forehand and backhand are good enough that his next opponent, Mario Ancic, told himself to finish points quickly so he could stay out of rallies with Roddick.

Roddick managed to beat Ancic but it took five sets. Interesting to note that Roddick had a 1-7 record against top 10 players in the slams coming into this match – Ancic is ranked number 10.

It would be hard to exaggerate the degree of consistency required to win a five set match. You may have to crawl back into a match – Ancic lost the third set 6-1 – only to find yourself at the beginning of a fifth set where it’s winner take all and a few loose shots loses the match. You also have to be aggressive but not too aggressive. If you stay back, your opponent will hit winners. If you approach, your volleys have to go to an empty corner but they also have to stay inside the lines.

Ancic had problems with both of these concepts. Serving at 2-2, he hit a few loose shots. He lost the game on a volley that landed just beyond the corner. Roddick is now 2-7 against top 10 players in slams and that’s another improvement.

Oh yeah, I forgot about James Blake. He has quietly made his way to a fourth round match with Fernando Gonzalez without dropping a set. I expect him to get past Gonzalez and then past Rafael Nadal and into the final. One more caveat, though. The court here is Rebound Ace and I assume that’s because it’s made of crushed rubber tires and objects bounce on it. It’s also sticky and that means Nadal will have good footing for his scampering and his high looping spinners will bite the court – helping the spin – then bounce up high. Those are favorable conditions for Nadal.

Still, even talking about three Americans nearing the semis is a good thing for the U.S.

See also:
The Yanks Step It Up in Melbourne
2007 Australian Open: Loosey Goosey Young And Talented
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Round
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

Submit this story to TennisVote!

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 245 user reviews.