Will Federer Finally Sink Down

Will Federer Finally Sink Down

Sports Central | Ricky Dimon ( Sports Central | Friday, January 11th, 2008 )

Roger Federer is the favorite in Australia, don’t get me wrong. To suggest otherwise would be borderline crazy.

For the first time in years, however, it looks like the outcome of a Grand Slam is not a foregone conclusion. In Paris, it’s been [Rafael] Nadal, Nadal, and more Nadal, and everywhere else, it’s been Federer. But for the first time since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open (11 slams have come and gone since then), could we possibly see someone other than Nadal or Federer holding the trophy at the end?

It’s not so much that the 26-year-old Swiss is losing a step; it’s simply that men’s tennis is finally welcoming some other top contenders with open arms. David Nalbandian erupted from the depths of an abysmal 2007 season to win the final two Masters Series events of the year and he upset Federer in both. David Ferrer started last season ranked 14 in the world and he was up to fifth by the end. Andy Murray almost qualified for the year-end Masters Cup despite missing both the French Open and Wimbledon with a wrist injury. Novak Djokovic soared from 16th at the start of 2007 to third in the world; and a solid third at that. He did so by reaching the fourth round in Australia, the semis of both the French Open and Wimbledon, and the final of the U.S. Open. Djokovic also captured two Master Series events.

In other words, while it’s still a Federer/Nadal party at the top, finally others are invited.

What does this mean? It means that instead of going ahead and handing the title to Federer, the draw of Grand Slam event is finally, thankfully worth analyzing.

Top Quarter of the Draw

It’s only the second toughest quarter in this year’s draw, but this section has it all. It boasts the best player in the world — perhaps soon-to-be best ever — in Roger Federer. It’s home to young up-and-comers (American John Isner and Croat Marin Cilic), and it’s home to cagy veterans (Frenchmen Fabrice Santoro and Sebastien Grosjean and Korean Hyung-Taik Lee). It has clay-court specialists (Chilean Nicolas Massu, Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco, and Argentine Juan Monaco), big servers (Isner, Czech Tomas Berdych, and Australian Chris Guccione), and two of the biggest forehands in the sport (American James Blake and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez). If you’re a fan, this is the section of the draw on which you look with the keenest of interest. If you’re a player, it’s one in which you’d rather not participate.

Best First-Round Matchup — Fabrice Santoro vs. John Isner. The contrast in styles here will be amazing to watch. Isner will try to blow the veteran off the court with massive serves, while the Frenchman will try to frustrate the youngster by slicing and dicing him to death. The bad news is that the winner of this one gets Federer in the second round; otherwise the potential for a deep run in Australia would be very real. Isner burst onto the professional scene last summer with a surprising, third-set-tiebreaker-filled run to the final of the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. He also won two matches at the U.S. Open and took the first set off Federer in the third round. Santoro, meanwhile, is looking good so far in 2008, as he is currently in the semifinals of the Sydney Medinbank International. Prediction: Santoro beguiles Isner throughout the match and the American hangs tough before fading in a tough five-setter.

Best Potential Matchup — James Blake vs. Fernando Gonzalez, fourth round. This would be a rematch of last year’s fourth-round clash that failed to live up to any hype. Gonzalez simply didn’t allow it to live up to high standards. As he did to everyone he faced in the 2007 Australian Open not named Federer, Gonzalez blasted inexplicable winners from all over everywhere and ran a discouraged Blake right off the court in straight sets. Neither one is playing great tennis right now, but if they each get three matches under their belts prior to this showdown, then look out for some incredible shot-making, especially of the forehand variety. These two have played eight times; Blake won the first three and the Chilean has won the last five in-a-row.

Most Intriguing Storyline — Both of last year’s finalists are stacked together in this rough quarter of the draw. Federer and Gonzalez would meet three rounds earlier than they did last year Down Under, but it will be no easy task even getting to a rematch. Federer gets the winner of Santoro and Isner in the second round and could play Tomas Berdych in the fourth. In addition to Blake registering on his radar screen, Gonzalez has to face either Chris Guccione, who is on fire in Sydney this week, or the always-tough veteran Hyung-Taik Lee in the second round. Federer should get through this section, but it won’t be cakewalk, especially not when you compare this quarter to the rest of the draw.

Favorite — Roger Federer

Bottom Section of the Top Half

This is the hardest part of the draw, and that’s probably not even debatable. The talent here — while sometimes inconsistent — is just sick. Marat Safin, Juan Carlos, and Lleyton Hewitt (and even Thomas Johansson) are all Grand Slam champions. Novak Djokovic, Marcos Baghdatis, David Ferrer, and David Nalbandian have shown they are capable of joining that group in the near future. Radek Stepanek, Nicholas Kiefer, and Dmitry Tursunov can flip their “on” switches at any moment and when on, they are scary. And then there’s Ernests Gulbis, whose third-round massacre of Tommy Robredo at last year’s U.S. Open (of which I witnessed every point from the front row) is the standard by which I shall judge all future tennis performances. He’s still probably a year or two away from stardom, but if he catches fire again, the Latvian could wreak havoc on the veterans in this section.

Best First-Round Matchup — Gulbis vs. Marat Safin. Oh, what I would pay to witness this in person. If nothing else, this one is going to be some kind of fun. Neither one of these guys has ever met a shot he didn’t like. ESPN is probably too uninformed to think of airing this match live, but perhaps HBO will pick it up, because this is going to redefine the term “heavyweight fight.” It’s not for a title, but it will feature non-stop, back-and-forth, vicious punching. Just as boxers are often bloodied and bruised following a bout, the stats of this Gulbis/Safin collision won’t look pretty. Gulbis and Safin know only one speed on the court. It’s all about hitting winners, winners, and more winners. While the winners are going to come early, often, and in spectacular fashion, this match could — if it goes five — also feature more unforced errors than any other in the entire tournament. Prediction: in a match that will leave both the contestants and fans gasping for air, Gulbis maintain his composure and outlasts the volatile Russian in a topsy-turvy five-set thriller.

Best Potential Matchup — David Nalbandian vs. David Ferrer, fourth round. This would be a rematch of last year’s epic five-setter in the third round of the U.S. Open. I was right next door on the Grandstand as that match was taking place, but never made my way in. The announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Armstrong Stadium is currently filled to capacity; please enjoy the action on the outer courts,” reared its annoying text on nearby TVs throughout the almost five-hour affair. Ferrer eventually prevailed 7-5 in the fifth. Nalbandian, however, exacted revenge later on at the Masters Series Paris in another high-quality match. The Argentine and the Spaniard are two of the best players on the ATP Tour right now, and if Nalbandian is 100 percent for the Australian (his back is currently an issue), this match will prove it.

Most Intriguing Storyline — Will Nalbandian’s back prevent him from continuing this hot streak? He was the hottest player in tennis at the end of 2007 so it would be a major shame if an injury hinders his chances Down Under. After sleep-walking through most of last season — he lost fourth round at both the Australian and French Open and third round at Wimbledon, and he never made it past a quarterfinal of any tournament — Nalbandian exploded out of nowhere in the last three weeks of the year. He stunned the field in Madrid to win the Masters Series event there, and he did so by upsetting the top three players in the world in consecutive rounds: Nadal in the quarters, Djokovic in the semis, and Federer in the final. Two weeks later, Nalbandian proved the Madrid win was no fluke by capturing a second straight Masters Series shield in Paris. There he took out Federer, Ferrer, and Nadal in the process; he beat Federer in straight sets in the third round and destroyed Nadal 6-4, 6-0 in the final. If his back allows, Nalbandian could very easily be the one to emerge from this brutal quarter of the draw.

Favorite — Novak Djokovic

Top Half of the Bottom Section

This is not the softest section of the draw, but it is by far the most up for grabs. Nikolay Davydenko is the top seed here and you can go ahead and pencil him into at least the fourth round, but he could have serious problems with Andy Murray and/or Richard Gasquet. Both of those youngsters are playing great tennis at the moment and should control the destiny of this quarter. Mikhail Youzhny and Stanislas Wawrinka, both of whom are looking good early in 2008, could have something to say about that. Ivo Karlovic is someone who never want to face; not at any point in a tournament. Little fanfare will accompany this portion of the draw, but in terms of following its progress, this could be the most interesting quarter to track for tennis aficionados.

Best First-Round Matchup — Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Andy Murray. This is simply a blockbuster opening-round matchup that would be much better suited as a second-week clash. Both youngsters are on top of their games at the moment. Tsonga, a promising 22-year-old Frenchman, reached the semifinals in Adelaide in the first week of January and his tournament featured straight-set wins over Gulbis and Lleyton Hewitt. Last year in three Grand Slam appearances, he gave Andy Roddick a tough battle in the first round of the Australian, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon (lost to Gasquet), and then won two rounds at the U.S. Open before falling to Nadal. It looks like Tsonga is ready for the big stage, and he’ll have to be against Murray.

Want a tell-tale sign of how good the 20-year-old Scot was in 2007? Well, he finished the season ranked 11 in the world and narrowly missed qualifying for the Masters Cup despite missing most of the summer — including the French Open and Wimbledon — with a wrist injury. Picking up where he left off, Murray kicked off his 2008 campaign with a dominant performance in Doha to capture the title there. It’s a shame one of these two rising starts will be bounced in the first round here. Prediction: Murray’s stellar return game blunts Tsonga’s power and the Scot prevails in four relatively close sets.

Best Potential Matchup — Richard Gasquet vs. Murray, fourth round. Gasquet, 21, really began to fulfill his potential last season. The Frenchman posted a milestone win over Andy Roddick in an epic quarterfinal duel at Wimbledon before losing to Federer in the semi-finals. That tournament propelled Gasquet to an appearance in his first ever year-end Masters Cup. He is 2-0 in head-to-head meetings with Murray, the most recent coming just a few months ago at the Masters Series Paris. If both are on top of their games — and it looks like they are — this one will be a lot of fun to watch.

Most Intriguing Storyline — Who will emerge from this wide open, free-for-all section? When Nikolay Davydenko is the top seed in a section of the draw, you know it’s anyone’s ballgame. That’s not to say Davydenko isn’t rock solid, because he is, but the Russian racks up rankings points by beating up on lower-ranked players. Rarely does he beat the top players (in fact he is a combined 0-18 against Federer, Nadal, and Roddick. Throw James Blake and Lleyton Hewitt into the mix and he’s a combined 0-28). Davydenko would be ripe for the picking if he runs into an in-form Murray or Gasquet. Tsonga, Mikhail Youzhny (who just won in Chennai), Stanislas Wawrinka (who just reached the final in Doha), and huge-serving giant Ivo Karlovic also lurk in the dangerous waters of the draw’s third quarter.

Favorite — Andy Murray

Bottom Quarter

Was Nadal’s uncle and coach, “Uncle Toni,” the master of Australian Open draw ceremonies? You would almost think that after a close inspection of the bracket. Nadal’s section is by far the easiest. While it’s still far from simple, it’s nothing like what will be going on in the top half. Nadal should cruise into the fourth round, where he could meet compatriot Carlos Moya, which would be tough but not anything out of the ordinary for a fourth-round Grand Slam matchup. Andy Roddick most likely awaits in the quarterfinals; that’s also tough, but again nothing Nadal would have hoped against prior to the draw’s release. Quite unlike the free-for-all in the above quarter, I would be absolutely stunned if the semifinal representative from this quarter is someone other than Nadal, Roddick, or Moya.

Best First-Round Matchup — None. This section is arguably the weakest of the four, but another reason for the lack of quality opening-round matchups is that it’s littered with qualifiers. Perhaps the way the qualifiers fall into the bracket will produce a first-round match worth watching, but that’s yet to be seen. For now it looks like Carlos Moya vs. Stefan Koubek, Jarkko Nieminen vs. Frank Dancevic, and Davydenko vs. Michael Llodra (who just won in Adelaide) seem most likely to deliver the goods. A potential second-round all-American clash between Donald Young and Andy Roddick would be of serious interest to U.S. tennis fans.

Best Potential Matchup — Carlos Moya vs. Rafael Nadal, fourth round. The mentor and the pupil, both from the tiny Spanish island of Mallorca, have already squared off in 2008. That semifinal match in Chennai has most likely clinched being the best three-set match of the whole year and we are only two weeks in. Nadal prevailed 6-7 (3), 7-6 (10), 7-6 (1) and saved four match points in the process. It lasted a ridiculous three hours and 55 minutes. That’s right — three hours and 55 minutes for just three sets. Anything close to that in Australia would have to be considered not only the best match of this quarter, but also the best match of the whole tournament.

Most Intriguing Storyline — Which Mallorcan — if either — will navigate his way to the semi-finals and beyond? There’s really not much in this quarter of the draw to write home about other than the presence of Nadal and Moya. Just that, however, should be enough to peak the interest of hardcore tennis fans. Moya is intriguing because he is already 31-years-old, but he still had a resurgence of sorts in 2007, reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open en route to climbing up to 18th in the world. A fan favorite, Moya is in the twilight of his career (even though he is still playing great) and this could be his last chance to make serious noise Down Under.

Nadal is still just 21, but there are concerns about his physical style of play and grueling match schedule already taking tolls on his body. His form in Australia should be a good indicator of whether or not Nadal is ready to go for 2008 and primed to maintain his stranglehold on the No. 2 ranking (or even move up to No. 1?). Yes, Andy Roddick is up there at the top of this section and he would most likely be the quarterfinal opponent for either Nadal or Moya. But Roddick’s results have been modest recently and it would not be surprising at all if he bowed out to one of the Spaniards.

Favorite — Rafael Nadal

Overall

It’s too early in the year for predictions. Or maybe, for the first time in what seems like ages, it’s just too hard.

Sports Central

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