Betting is terrible. I abhor it. But I'm not above helping someone else make a little money, or win fabulous prizes off Tennis Channel's own Racquet Bracket. Hey, if the Australian Open can be sponsored by Betfair, gambling can't be all bad right? …right? And so, as the blitzkrieg on Melbourne Park begins (qualies are already afoot – pass the drool cup), here's some intel gathered from the first couple weeks of the season that you might want to consider when filling out your forms.
It's Davydenko, Nikolay Davydenko
NIKOLAY DAVYDENKO IS ON FIRE
He started the year as he ended the last – beating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal back-to-back. Okay, he had a slip up v. David Ferrer in Abu Dhabi, but on the whole he's never looked better. Can he keep up his level over seven 5-set matches? History says no. But history has a way of falling by the wayside at the Australian Open.
MELANIE OUDIN IS NOT
Oh we loved her at the US Open. And we are haaaating on her now. While it's very true she's won only one main draw match since her blistering Flushing Meadows run, people seem to forget she didn't end up in the quarters by accident. They also forget, by calling her run some sort of lightning in a bottle, that she also made the fourth round of Wimbledon. This is a very young girl attempting absorb a monster experience. She has game. Will she find it in Melbourne? Only her sneakers know. But believe this, she's not through with us.
KIM CLIJSTERS IS A BEAST
In the Brisbane final, which hurled me through every emotion under the sun – not recommended at 3:30 in the morning – Clijsters showed not just the brilliant form she displayed at the US Open (Roddick went one better, declaring the first set the best he'd seen "any woman play ever"), she also revealed new depth of character. Sure, there was the walkabout two games from a straight set win, but when push came to shove, she shoved her archrival Justine Henin over a cliff with nerves of steel. She revealed nothing new in donating her entire winner's purse to a children's hospital she'd visited earlier in the week. She's a sweethert. But it begs the question: What kind of aid could a Slam check afford?
RAFAEL NADAL IS (NEARLY) BACK
Sure, he didn't win Doha, uncharacteristically coughing up match points to Nikolay, but for a guy many were finding God just to pray for him at church, Rafa's rebounded nicely. His most satisfying win both for fans and, one would imagine himself, was over Robin Soderling in the Abu Dhabi final. Stella's got his groove back. Now all he needs is to convert a championship point. Could it be in Melbourne? As Rafa's taught us, don't give up the kid from Mallorca.
MARIA SHARAPOVA IS (DEFINITELY) BACK
While all the media attention has been squarely on the Belgians, Sharapova's been quietly cleaning clocks in exhibitions around the world, from the symbolic (avenging her Wimbledon loss to Gisela Dulko in South America – twice) to the significant (downing Venus Williams in Thailand and Caroline Wozniacki in Hong Kong, both in straight sets). She also just signed a shiny new $70 million Nike contract wants to show off. Ignore at your peril.
Why no respect?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC GETS NO RESPECT
All the attention right now is on three storylines in the men's game: Can Roger and Rafa worm their way back to an AO showdown, will Andy Murray being seeded fifth add to the pressure to win his maiden Slam or will it finally take it away, and how many millions of majors will Juan Martin del Potro win in his lifetime. Meanwhile, Djokovic is not only a former AO champ, he also went on the tear of his life at the tail end of the '09 season, and yet he's nowhere in the conversation. Big mistake. Regardless of whether or not he wins another major Down Under, don't be surprised to see the Serb finally capture the No 2 spot in the rankings when the Aussie dust settles.
ROGER FEDERER IS VULNERABLE…
He went from never losing to Davydenko to losing to the Russian twice. He also skipped his normal Aussie prep, the Kooyong Classic, to hit the practice courts hardcore at Melbourne Park. Someone obviously feels he has some kinks to work out in the ole forehand.
…AND SO IS SERENA WILLIAMS
Which will hamper Serena more, the inevitable media-hounding with this being her first Slam appearance since The Incident and its resultant Fine and Probation (aided and abetted by the return of The Line Judge, who you can bet will be featured in more close-ups than anything Bethanie Mattek-Sands has ever or will ever wear), or the right ankle brace Serena starting sporting in her QF match in Sydney? When asked why she was wearing it, she replied coolly "there's probably a reason, but not one that I want to discuss." Don't worry, everyone else will be discussing it for you.
All that said, the one thing the Aussie has taught us in the past is Melbourne is one great big giant unpredictable free-for-all (see Fernando Verdasco in '09, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in '08, Serena Williams in '07…). So batten down the hatches, strap on a cup and be prepared to be completely useless at work the next couple weeks. You can follow all the action on Tennis Channel, including live streams and, apologies in advance, my daily Slam blog, guest-starring one very foul-mouthed, sexually-confused tennis ball with a hankering for all things Serbian. And I mean all things.
See you Sunday!
James (& you know who)
What, you thought you were gonna get away without a twitter plug? It's like you don't even know me. Twitter.com/JamesLaRosa. There.
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