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Australian Open preview: Clash of the Titans



Australian Open preview: Clash of the Titans

To describe the upcoming Australian Open as tantalising would be to introduce Megan Fox as mildly attractive. It really does seem as though men’s tennis is smack in the middle of a golden age, with a series of contenders all worthy of holding aloft the Norman Brookes Challenge cup and a winner’s cheque of almost R20-million. By STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.

As with most major sporting tournaments, the Australian Open at Melbourne Park is steeped in history and titbits of trivia that are sure to come in handy during a pub quiz. Although established in 1905, the tournament was only awarded major status in 1927 and followed a city-rotation policy that saw four different Australian cities host the championships, and even Christchurch and Hastings in New Zealand.

In 1972 the meandering was curtailed and the tournament found its permanent home in Melbourne, thanks mainly to the live sport fanatics there. So much so that in 1988, a new stadium was built to accommodate a larger crowd that sees the venue used for a host of other attractions including basketball, super-cross and even ballet.

Thankfully the modern game doesn’t have the travel constraints of yesteryear, when top players skipped over the tournament due to the 45-day travel time by sea. And this year, presents one of the most hotly contested tournaments in history. In the lead-up to recent major tourneys, it was not uncommon to see ridiculously short odds besides the name of Federer or Nadal. While we marvelled at their almost unearthly skills, it was getting boring to see all-comers left in the dust as they scooped trophy after trophy.

It seems as though, finally, Andy Murray will prove the term “Big Four” is not just a tennis soundbite. In an effort to continuously improve his game, Murray has enlisted the services of former world number one (and robot-like tennis player) Ivan Lendl. The former Czech has not coached professionally before and the announcement caused more than a few raised eyebrows, which were quickly put back in their place when Murray breezed to the title win at the Aussie Open warm-up event in Brisbane, without dropping a set or seemingly, breaking a sweat.

Watch: A classic rally between Djokovic and Nadal at the US Open final 2011

Murray has always flattered to deceive, and while he has numerous victories over the Top 3 players, he has yet to do so in the final of a major, where the Scot has twice been runner-up to Federer and once to Djokovic. No doubt Lendl will be looking to add some steely resolve to his headspace to get the talented man from Dunblane across the finish line.

Towards the end of 2011, we commented on the significance of Roger Federer’s fall to third place in the world rankings, something that had not happened in eight years. Many were calling the time of death on the Swiss legend’s career, citing age and extramural distractions as the major causes. But we knew better, hailing those calls as premature and predicting the “FedExpress” would stick around for a while longer and be competitive towards the business end of many more tournaments.

It seems even our optimism was below the mark when Federer recorded the best finish to a calendar year since his admission to the pro circuit. After the US Open, where he lost out in a thrilling five-setter to Novak Djokovic, the Swiss maestro put together a run of 17 consecutive victories that saw three more trophies being squeezed into an already bulging trophy room, one of which was the year-ending Masters Final event where the Top 8 players in the world contest for the title of Masters Series champion.

Federer is more than comfortable playing in the Rod Laver arena, being the only champion to have won on both the quicker Rebound Ace surface and the slower Plexicushion Prestige surface now in use. As if the premature calls of the end of his career weren’t enough motivation, Federer currently sits tied with the arena namesake, Rod Laver, on four Australian Open titles. As an ardent fan of the history of the game, Federer will no doubt love to see his name etched just above that of his childhood hero.

Of the “Big Four” the one with the poorest form heading into the tournament is undoubtedly Rafael Nadal. After contesting the US Open final, the Spaniard was dogged by injury that saw him perform rather poorly at the Masters Series where he was beaten twice in the round-robin section and thus failed to progress to the final stage of the tournament. While Nadal recovered to help Spain lift the Davis Cup trophy in December, he followed up an exhibition match loss with a semi-final exit at the Qatari Open at the hands of Gael Monfils. Not the best preparation for a major, but Nadal is a big tournament player and already has a career Grand Slam (all four major titles) and a record 19 Masters Series 1000 titles. Often a scratchy looking Nadal in the early rounds has gone on to win tournaments as the pressure and intensity have pushed the left-hander to lift his game.

In the fickle world of professional sport, Nadal was also under scrutiny in 2011. Tipped to surpass every Federer record and touted as a possible “greatest ever”, Nadal endured a “poor” year, having won only one Grand Slam, lost in two other major finals and won the Davis Cup. Yet people are asking: “What’s up with Rafa?” Crazy, we know. The spectre of Djokovic continues to haunt Nadal, who was responsible for six defeats in tournament finals, on three different surfaces. Federer at least has the comfort of a victory over Djokovic in his greatest season ever and three other narrow misses. Nadal doesn’t, and this year, as well as the history books, will be very much about how he deals with the Serbian.

Even with the richness of competitive talent around, the red-hot favourite to lift the title come 29 January, will be Djokovic. A player who cleaned-up the 2011 calendar with 10 tournament victories (three of which were Grand Slams) and a record $12-million in prize money. Although statistically not the best season in tennis history, his 70-6 win-loss record had Pete Sampras hailing the achievement as the best he has seen in his lifetime and “one of the best achievements in all of sport”. Not bad for a kid whose notoriety on the circuit used to be for doing impersonations of other players.

Not much more can be said of Djokovic’s record-setting year, that hasn’t already been praised. The physical demands of the year were clear to see as the Serbian petered out towards the end of the year, his body succumbing to the ailments of playing so many finals in an already congested tennis calendar. Historians will also point out that nobody, bar Federer, achieved anything close to the same form in the year that followed their three-Grand-Slams-in-a-year feat. In every other case, including Laver, Connors, Wilander and Nadal, they all went major-less in the year following their astonishing feats.

This may be partly due to fatigue, but probably because the attention had turned squarely to these players and every other player was dedicated to figuring out a new game plan, capable of unseating the champion. But regardless of the bulls-eye strapped to his back, defending champion and world number one, Djokovic will be front of mind in most pre-tournament prediction debates. He looks fresh after a few weeks rest, beat Federer in an exhibition tournament and demolished world number five, David Ferrer in the final.

Each grand slam has its group of dark horses that could go deep into the second week, and the contenders in this category are no slouches themselves. Former world number four, Juan Martn del Potro is returning to some good form having recovered from a serious wrist injury, pushing Nadal close in a clay court Davis Cup final match. Frenchman and Federer’s Achilles heel, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, made the finals of the Masters Series Final event in December, going the distance against the maestro and already has an ATP title to his name in 2012.

Another Serbian Janko Tipsarevic, showed good form as injury replacement at the Masters Finals and narrowly lost out to ATP newcomer of the year, Milos Raonic, in the Chennai Open. Raonic, now ranked 31 in the world, is a contender himself.

While these dark horses are likely to feature in week two, and cause some elevated heart rates for the favourites, should they meet, it remains unthinkable that anyone outside of the Big Four will have his name etched on the winner’s trophy. In fact, seeing anyone other than these four contest the semi-finals would be a surprise, although which one of them will go on to be victorious is anybody’s guess. And while we’re all busy predicting this and that outcome, we should take a moment, or longer, to appreciate the current state of quality of men’s tennis. It doesn’t come around too often. DM


Main photo: Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds his trophy after beating Andy Murray of Britain during their men’s singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne January 30, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz


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