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Steve Flink: Australian Open Begins

1/10/2008 7:54:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It is not uncommon for Grand Slam tournaments to take a while to pick up steam. With 32 seeds nowadays in both the men's and women's singles events, the first couple of rounds tend to be fairly predictable. But the first major of 2008 is off to an unusually good start as I see it. On opening day at the Australian Open, a cluster of big names--- including Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Andy Roddick--- took care of business with consummate ease. But two significant women's players--- No. 3 seed Jelena Jankovic and former champion Lindsay Davenport-- nearly bowed out in the first round, while the No. 9 seed Andy Murray among the men fell by the wayside.

The survival of Davenport, now 19-1 in singles matches since her comeback last September, was particularly important for this Australian Open. Now we will have the chance to watch her play Maria Sharapova in an enticing second round meeting, in a rare battle of top of the line competitors. While it is undeniable that on merit, past performance and recent form, Davenport should have been seeded, it is also true that the fans need something extraordinary like this at the outset of a major. Seeding 32 players has made the first two rounds too mundane in too many cases, so I am glad this battle will take place.

I watched Davenport on television falling into a precarious position in her opening round assignment against Italy's tenacious yet limited Sara Errani, a player Davenport had beaten twice since her comeback with relative ease. Davenport, bothered by a foot cramp, was down 4-2 in the third set before recouping for a 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 triumph. Sharapova won her match much more convincingly in straight sets over Jelena Kostanic Tosic, and so the Russian and the American will meet as expected in a second round encounter.

This has the makings of a gripping and very memorable skirmish. On one side of the net will be Sharapova, a two-time Grand Slam tournament winner who made it to the final of the Australian Open last year and is looking to establish herself this year as the chief challenger to Justine Henin for world supremacy. On the other side is Davenport, a woman who has taken three majors and a player who finished four years as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Sharapova will have the burden of defending all of her points for making it to the title round a year ago. Davenport, 19-1 since her comeback after having a child last year, will seemingly have nothing to lose.

But, of course, it is never that simple. Davenport is on an inevitable path back toward the top ten in the world, and would like to get there as soon as possible. A win here over Sharapova would speed up that process and give her a big confidence boost at the start of 2008. This is a big test for a resurgent player, and also an opportunity. And yet, she has lost four of her five career clashes with Sharapova.What will be the determining factor in the match? To me, Davenport is better on the return of serve but Sharapova gets the slight edge on serve. Both women are big hitters who look to strike quickly in a rally. So this one will largely come down to which player does a better job with second serve returns, to who serves with more authority at break point down.

The opening night highlight in many ways was the escape of Jelena Jankovic against the Austrian Tamira Paszek. There were 15 service breaks in the final set. Paszek served for the match five times, and had three match points. Somehow, despite entering all of those danger zones, Jankovic moved on to the second round. Both players were hobbled near the end, with Jankovic needing the trainer for her back, and Paszek requiring a trainer for her leg. But Jankovic demonstrated that she did not finish 2007 at No. 3 in the world without good reason. She struck an audacious backhand crosscourt winner to save the first match point and battled gamely on the next two as Paszek pressed, missing a forehand down the line and a backhand crosscourt.

Paszek seems certain to me to reach the top 20 in the world this year. She did not quite know how to finish the task against Jankovic but her ground game is extraordinary. Her flat forehand down the line and her two-hander going in either direction are serious weapons, and she knows how to take control of rallies. As for Jankovic, she may well be worn down completely after playing 97 matches in 2007. That clearly took a toll on her body. But she remains a terrific competitor and in this choppy match she fought back from 4-1 and two service breaks down in the final set to prevail 2-6, 6-2, 12-10. I hope she has enough left in her reserves to do herself justice in this tournament, but I am not that optimistic.

Now, let's look at what happened to the No. 9 seed Murray, who was disrupted so badly last year by a wrist injury. He still finished 2007 impressively, and started 2008 the right way with a tournament win in Doha. In my view, Murray had an excellent chance with his draw to reach the semifinals in Melbourne, and even a reasonable chance of making the final. But he ran into a dangerous player in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a Frenchman who has many facets to his game and a penchant for playing inspired tennis against the best players in the world.

Nevertheless, a best of five set format plainly favored Murray, who dropped the first two sets before capturing the third 6-0. In the fourth, Tsonga was unmistakably hurting, grabbing his side and moving uncertainly as he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth. A poised and purposeful Murray broke back and seemed to have the momentum going thoroughly in his favor. The two players went into a tie-break. Murray got the quick mini-break for 2-0, and was in good shape during the next rally. But, inexplicably, he tried a drop shot which he hit into the net.

That was a glaring mental mistake. Murray has long had a tendency to overdo that drop shot but he is a fine match player who usually understands what the percentages call for in a big situation. That carless lapse was damaging to say the least. Tsonga, attacking forcefully at times but also playing smart tennis from the back of the court and giving Murray no pace, got back to 4-4 in that tie-break. Murray then made another questionable judgment, going for a big second serve wide and double faulting.

Murray served at 5-6, match point down and pulled a forehand wide to lose the contest, understandably letting his frustration show as he blasted a ball high into the stands. Tsonga prevailed 7-5, 6-4, 0-6, 7-6 (5). I still believe Murray is going to finish this year among the top five in the world, and go far into a Grand Slam event somewhere along the line. But this was a wasted opportunity. He had an excellent draw, and the right preparation to have a great Australian Open. No one was asking him to play his best against Tsonga; no one was expecting him to have an easy time of it against an opponent who can be so bothersome.

But the fact remains that at the top level you have to win when you are struggling, to survive the early rounds without playing well, to play your way into a Grand Slam tournament and keep improving with every round. Murray did not give himself that chance. He did not take advantage of an opportunity to do something substantial at the opening of a new Grand Slam campaign, and that is a pity. Having said that, I have no doubt he will learn from what happened and keep progressing through 2008 and beyond.

So now Rafael Nadal's draw looks even better. Carlos Moya lost to Stefan Koubek, and Nadal will not have to face his countryman in the round of 16 so soon after being pushed into a nearly four hour marathon in India. And Murray might well have been a semifinal foe for Nadal, and he is gone. We will see if he can take advantage of the conditions. The new Plexicushion surface suits his game well. Nadal knows he needs to reassert himself immediately after a disappointing second half of 2007.

But all eyes will be on Sharapova and Davenport. I am eagerly awaiting that contest. Despite her lackluster first round performance, I still expect Davenport to raise her game considerably and topple Sharapova in three sets. I will be back in this space writing about that contest when it is over, and I have a feeling there is going to be a great deal for me to say.

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