My co-writer Nina Rota and I were wondering last week if the Australian Open was going to be up to snuff this year as a number of players were threatening to pull out before the event started. But as of today, Tuesday, the draw held together, with Nadal, Nalbandian, Davydenko, Tursunov and Gonzalez getting through their opening rounds. Their physical ailments are being held at bay, at least for now.
Recently I proclaimed that Andy Roddick would beat Federer at least once this year. He already did that this past weekend. Alright, it was only an exhibition match. I like to think it was a good omen for Roddick on the year. Roddick treated viewers on the opening Sunday to a nice little catfight with Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It ended with a Roddick victory in four sets, but first he had to nose his way out of a 20-18 tiebreak loss in the opening set and hang on through another tiebreak in the second.
The Roddick match illustrates why people have argued that the Australian Open should be set back a ways in the calendar. A lot of hiccups take place in the early rounds here. When I lived in a girls’ dorm once I remember the stream of sleepy faces filing into the cafeteria in the mornings. They hadn’t had their jolts yet. Players often look like that here. The Aussie Open is way too big too early. Roger Federer suggested recently that it be set back to early March. The weather would be heading into fall then down under, much like it is when the US Open takes place in late August. Players would not feel like they are leaping out of the gate into the middle of a major tournament. We could have a few run-up events to a March date for the Open, and maybe a mid-sized event in between. The Aussie could start the calendar in March, with a decent break between that and the French. Of course it would probably rework the schedule a lot, and other events would need to shift, but too many players are showing up here this week looking rusty and not quite ready for prime time. Neither are the writers. We need our foreplay too.
So everyone seems to hold their breath here for the opening rounds. Roddick especially. Even Roger Federer looked cranky and not quite on his game yet. After his first match against Bjorn Phau, Roger pronounced himself relieved to be through it. Now he felt he was “officially” into the tournament.
David Nalbandian probably hopes he is officially into the tournament too. He earned it the hard way, as is often the case with Nalbandian. Serbian player Janko Tipsarevic was set to serve out the match in the third set when Nalbandian decided he had better play after all. He clawed his way back until his opponent succumbed to the blistering heat and retired in the fifth set trailing 2-1. Last year I was making a bit of fun about Nalbandian and his paunch, which we can see protruding beneath his shirt. Now I am thinking it functions like the pouch on a kangaroo, it stores up energy for the lad for those frequent times when he’s coming back from two sets down. Nalbandian is not exactly a training monster, so I wonder how he does it. He looked like he was just getting started by the time Tipsarevic wilted into retirement. I want a paunch now too!
Speaking of paunches, we should say something about the return of Serena Williams. It amazes me still that she moves as well as she does on the court. But we won’t know that until she runs into Nadia Petrova in her draw, the likely woman who will give her a real contest. Everything about Serena is big right now, including her earrings. The outfit is a screeching limey thing, it has me longing for a mojito. Maria Santangelo was expected to give her more of a battle as the Number 27 seed but didn’, so Serena crafted an easy win aided in large part by a service game that has not deserted her. I want to see her back on top, but it is annoying to see how out of shape she still is. And yet her desire seems to be there. And yet she’s out of shape. Another year of back and forth with our hopes for at least one of the Williams’ sisters. I am going to try and ignore her for the next week or so and hope she can maneuver her way along into something good.
Maria Sharapova had her own rollercoaster going on against France’s Camille Pin. Sharapova was up 5-0 in the third set before Pin started making a dent in the Russian’s game. Pin pulled back into the match aided in great part by a skillful, consistent ground game that unfortunately does not extend to her serve. Camille, meet Elena Dementieva. The land of cupcake services. Sharapova got a hypoglycemic attack from all that munching on Pin’s serves, both first and second. She treated them with the impunity they deserved.
The Russian took several long time-outs for trainer visits due to the heat and, for a moment there, we wondered if being born in Siberia means you can’t do well in 100 plus degree heat after all. She looked ready to cave. But when you see a serve coming at you with the speed of Pin’s serves, a staggering 60 something mph, Maria probably told herself there was no way she was ever going to lose to a player like this. She took care of business with a 3-6, 6-4, 9-7 win. The woman has nerves of steel. Maybe the time-outs were a bit of a fake job, but she seemed to be clearly fatigued. I hope she hurt like hell, because maybe then she will remember and condition herself better.
A couple of stealth bombers flew into town in the form of Mssrs. Djokovic, Murray and Berdych. They sprinted through their openers like there was no one on the other side of the net. Marat Safin got a major work-out against Benjamin Becker, winning his opener in a tough five sets. And our recent Aussie hero Guccione, the tallest man on tour, succumbed to the smallest, Olivier Rochus (co-shared with Christophe), in another brutal five-setter.
Also of note were the wins of a number of Yanks in the opening round, notably Robby Ginepri, who battled another big hitting guy – up and coming Spanish player Nicholas Almagro – for five sets. Big server Sam Querrey also overcame another big guy – Jose Acasuso – in four sets. But the big prize so far goes to Mardy Fish, who came forward to upset Number 4 seed Ivan Ljubicic. Last year Fish was on his way to becoming another lost American cause, but after wrist surgery he has bounced back well. He’s already had a win over Ancic in the Auckland event earlier this year, so Fish seems determined to get a good spot back in the fray. Mardy could get by David Ferrer in the Round of 16 although he would probably lose to Roddick in the quarters. If Roddick can survive a few early hiccups, he will be very strong.
A yummy dark house candidate: The Bagh Man. Marcos Baghdatis put on an entertaining show opening night against former Top 10 player Rainer Schuettler of Germany. I saw things that say Marcos is ready for this one. Mary Carillo cooed endlessly about how effectively he can play from any part of the court, and he went out to prove that. His forehand was not this crushing a year ago, but it is now. He unleashed brutal shots cross court all night against the German, and his backhand was equally adept and powerful. Then he pulls out a slew of forehand drop shots which neatly clear the net and die properly, like good little drop shots should.
But just when you think Baghdatis has it all, he can turn around and flub an easy-looking shot, and you wonder what goes on inside that head. Alright, so he needs therapy like most of us do because, in spite of his often brilliant play, or perhaps because of it, who knows, he seems to relax a bit, to let his mind wander. Perhaps he’s rewarding himself. Unlike my partner, I am picking Baghdatis to get by Robredo in the Round of 16 and face Federer in the quarters. And if Baghdatis gets that far, it could be an interesting match-up. He will feed on his confidence.
Here are my picks for the boys:
Federer will beat Djokovic, Baghdatis will take out Robredo.
Federer-Baghdatis in the quarters
Fish can upset Ferrer, Roddick will take out Safin then Robredo
Fish-Roddick make a nice American quarter
Haas will beat Nalbandian, Berdych will beat Tursunov (Malisse is already gone from that corner of the draw, and Davydenko will go too)
Haas-Berdych in a quarterfinal battle of the Pretty Boys
Blake over Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Murray over Rafael Nadal. This is the most interesting corner of the draw as it has guys who have never met, like Blake and Murray, and Murray and Nadal.
Blake-Murray should be an arresting quarterfinal
So hang on to your hats, we are under way down under.