Bob Larson's AO Preview
Men's Look Forward: Week of January 19
Posted on 1/18/2004 at 1:41 PM
Men's Look Forward: The Australian Open
Please Note: This preview was finished before it was reported that Carlos Moya had withdrawn from the Open; even now, we don't have official word on how the draw will be affected. So we haven't changed anything until we hear something official and final.
Usually at this time we spend a paragraph or two telling you just how great the week's events are, and why. (Except, of course, when we tell you how lousy they are, and why.)
This week, we aren't going to do that. You know why the Australian Open is great: It's the Australian Open. Instead, we're going to tell you how tough it is.
Let's look at it this way: Based on last week's rankings, used to seed the Australian Open, the top unseeded players were Gaston Gaudio, Fernando Gonzalez, Ivan Ljubicic, Jarkko Nieminen, Sargis Sargsian, and James Blake. Let's look at those player and who they face in the first round:
Player............First Round Opponent
Gaudio............(20) Tommy Robredo
Gonzalez..........(1) Andy Roddick
Nieminen..........(12) Nicolas Massu
Sargsian..........(25) Jonas Bjorkman
Blake.............(7) Carlos Moya
Six players. Five seeds as opponents. Who says having 32 seeds eliminates great first round matches? On its face, what it eliminates is the possibility of a really easy draw.
Let's look at the primary contenders to win here, plus a few seeds who perhaps get talked up more than their results justify, and see what each faces.
(1) Andy Roddick. His first big Slam success came here last year, and of course he's improved since then. And yet, he continues to show signs of vulnerability on surfaces other than DecoTurf; David Nalbandian beat him at an exhibition last week. And, overall, slow courts will help his opponents more than they will help him. And his draw is something else. We noted that he's supposed to open against Fernando Gonzalez. The second round, against Bohdan Ulihrach or Lars Burgsmuller, is a bit easier, but then he has to face Taylor Dent or Juan Ignacio Chela. After that, he might face a rematch with Younes El Aynaoui -- assuming El Aynaoui can limp past Sjeng Schalken. Then Carlos Moya, then Andre Agassi on what is probably Agassi's best surface.
(2) Roger Federer. Federer has won on everything, of course, including Sydney two years ago on Rebound Ace. But if you had to pick out the surface that's probably worst for him, this is it. It's too slow for his aggressive game, and Rebound Ace doesn't reward his backhand as much as clay does. And he's not at all accustomed to the heat. His draw is a mixed bag: Easy early on (he opens against a qualifier, then Dennis van Scheppingen or another qualifier), but from then on, it gets bad fast. In the third round, he faces Jonas Bjorkman or Sargis Sargsian or Todd Reid. Then comes Lleyton Hewitt, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to adapt his game for Rebound Ace. And then comes Federer-killed David Nalbandian.
(3) Juan Carlos Ferrero. If Ferrero can win Roland Garros and reach the U. S. Open final, he can of course do damage on Rebound Ace. But since winning Madrid, he's been somewhere between inconsistent and dreadful. He did win the Hong Kong exhibition, but crashed in his only actual ATP warmup, and that follows struggles last fall also. Even if we were the odds-making sort, we'd have no idea how to make his. His draw is quite nice: Albert Montanes, then Filippo Volandri or Nicolas Kiefer, then countryman Felixiano Lopez, then Jiri Novak or Max Mirnyi, then Guillermo Coria.
(4) Andre Agassi. To this point, the best Rebound Ace player of all time. But, every year, the question arises about how much he has left. We really don't have much evidence to work from; he never plays real warmups and his fall results don't mean anything. Overall, his draw is good: Wildcard Todd Larkham, then Nicolas Mahut or a qualifier, then Vincent Spadea (or Thomas Enqvist or someone), then Paradorn Srichaphan (the first real test), then Rainer Schuettler or sebastien Grosjean, both of whom are quite happy on this surface. Last year, Agassi ate Schuettler alive in the final, but that was the final; a quarterfinal meeting may be a slightly different matter.
(5) Guillermo Coria. Again, a guy who has had enough success on clay and DecoTurf that he should be happy on Rebound Ace. Indeed, it might be his ideal surface: Slow enough to make his speed a real factor, but giving his backhand a little more scope than clay. But is he healthy? He pulled out of Auckland, and even if he's fully recovered, he'll be lacking in matches. Helping him out is the fact that he'll have a chance to get in shape in the early rounds: He opens against Cyril Saulnier, then Olivier Mutis or Hicham Arazi. The first seed he would face would be Albert Costa. Then the big servers start to come out: Martin Verkerk or Mark Philippoussis (or Mario Ancic, or Thomas Johansson). Then Ferrero.
(6) Rainer Schuettler. All right, hold up your hands if you really think this guy can win a Slam.... We thought so.... On the other hand, on Rebound Ace, he can beat anybody on a good day. And he likes to get all hot and sweaty -- Australia was made for him, and vice versa. But on the final hand, he's been in terrible form this year. He'll have to recover fast, since he opens against Robin Soderling. Then, potentially, Doha champion Nicolas Escude. Then Robby Ginepri, Sebastien Grosjean, and Agassi. Ouch.
(7) Carlos Moya. If he were healthy, he'd be the most interesting prospect of all: A guy who has been in the final here, who came in with an incredible 9-1 record on Rebound Ace this year. But also a guy who was bone-tired. And, now, he's bone-tired and with a bad ankle. If he plays (which he probably won't) he will have to open against James Blake, then Nicolas Lapentti, then Arnaud Clement. If we were Moya, we might just go home and rest right now too.
(8) David Nalbandian. Maybe Nalbandian can make up for Moya. We'd heard he was injured -- but he beat Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi in last week's exhibition. Of course, it is an exhibition, but it still means his wrist must be feeling all right. And he opens against a qualifier, then another qualifier or Richard Gasquet (who isn't climbing so fast any more), then Wayne Ferreira, whose game does not stack up that well against the Argentine, then Tim Henman (ditto). And then comes Roger Federer, who isn't quite Nalbandian's patsy any more, but who isn't that far removed from it, either. If Nalbandian can avoid more wrist problems, he could make this thing very interesting.
(9) Sebastien Grosjean. Melbourne has been the best Slam for him, and yet overall his results bias toward fast courts. It makes it hard to know what to predict from him. He didn't do much warming up. But he adapts fast. He'll need to: He opens against Mikhail Youzhny. Then comes Jan-Michael Gambill, who hates Rebound Ace, or Gregory Carraz -- but then comes Tommy Robredo, then an all-scrambler battle with Rainer Schuettler.
(10) Mark Philippoussis. The #1 Australian, at least according to the rankings. Does that mean they'll have speeded up the court for him? The draw certainly didn't do him any favors. He opens against former champion Thomas Johansson, then possibly Fabrice Santoro, then perhaps Martin Verkerk, who beat him at Sydney before falling sick.
(11) Tim Henman. Henman doesn't seem like the sort of guy who would do well on Rebound Ace, but he's had some nice results over the years. And, what's more, he has the motivation that a good result here would put him back in the Top Ten. His draw is good: Jean-Rene Lisnard, then probably Radek Stepanek. The first seed he would face is Agustin Calleri. The first big test would be David Nalbandian in the Round of Sixteen.
(13) Paradorn Srichaphan. For a guy who first gained people's attention with a win over Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, Srichaphan has had a surprisingly tough time at Slams. But this is probably the ideal Slam for him, and his draw is nice: Jose Acasuso, then Albert Portas or a qualifier, then Gustavo Kuerten (who has a mental block about Melbourne). And then, perhaps, he would face Agassi.
(15) Lleyton Hewitt. Somehow, he's never done well at his national Slam. Recently, he cut back on warmups in an attempt to fix that, and failed utterly. This year, he was back to a full schedule (Hopman Cup and Sydney); will it work any better? He hurt his ankle at Hopman Cup, but he seems fine now. And with half a dozen Rebound Ace titles, you know he can do well here -- if he every really comes out and plays his game. His draw is good: A qualifier, then Xavier Malisse or Karol Kucera, then Felix Mantilla or Rafael Nadal. Then Federer, but this is perhaps the best surface for Hewitt to face Federer. After last fall's attempt to withdraw into himself (or whatever it was), the Hewitt fire seems to be back. Can he once again make himself the top Australian?
(18) Younes El Aynaoui. His draw isn't bad in the first couple of rounds, but his ankle is iffy. He isn't really a contender -- but we have to mention him, because he would face Andy Roddick in the fourth round if he survives Sjeng Schalken in the third.
(21) Mardy Fish. Rebound Ace hardly seems Fish's ideal surface (indoor hard is his ideal, it appears), but it was on this stuff last year that he first made his mark, with two wins over Carlos Moya in the first month of the year. His draw is no fun, though: Ivo Karlovic, then possibly Todd Martin, then Nicolas Massu.
(27) Taylor Dent. How well he can do probably depends on whether they've juiced up the court. If it's normal Rebound Ace, his odds aren't too good -- though they improved a little when Paul-Henri Mathieu pulled out, meaning that he opens against Fernando Verdasco, then Juan Ignacio Chela, then Andy Roddick.
(30) Arnaud Clement. He's never really recovered the form that made him a finalist here way back when, but he's doing better now than at any time since. Opening against Nikolay Davydenko is tough, but he's in Carlos Moya's section, so if he can get to the second round, he might do real damage.
Interesting floaters. Even with 32 seeds, there are some quite interesting unseeded players in the draw. Notable among them: Former finalist Marat Safin. And he's in a part of the draw where he just might do some damage: He opens against Brian Vahaly, then #12 seed Nicolas Massu or Jarkko Nieminen, then #21 Mardy Fish or Todd Martin, then Moya or Clement. If he's actually healthy, that could spell nightmares for someone.
Fernando Gonzalez didn't miss seeding by much. It was a costly miss, since he opens against Andy Roddick. But if he can keep the ball in the court, he's one of the few guys who can really match Roddick for all-around power. Is he a threat to win? Probably not, based on history; he'll surely have a bad day somewhere. But he might scare a few people -- starting with the #1 seed.
Jarkko Nieminen is another near-seed, and he's quick but likes modern surfaces; Rebound Ace should be good for him. His contest with Nicolas Massu could be quite a thing -- and the winner faces Safin.
Todd Martin -- well, he's 33 years old, and has enough bolts and screws and rivets to hold together a light tank, which leaves him forever vulnerable -- but his brain may make him a threat a dozen years from now. And his could face Fish in the second round.
James Blake is probably hoping that Carlos Moya's ankle is good enough to play on -- but just barely. The American opens against Moya, and if the Spaniard can't compete, then Blake becomes in effect the #7 seed. Maybe playing Hopman Cup wasn't so dumb after all.
Thomas Enqvist is a former finalist who is way down on his luck. He's gradually been coming back from injury. Based on his progress last year, he probably isn't ready to contend again. But could he threaten someone? That seems at least possible.
Dominik Hrbaty comes in having won two warmup events. That's not without precedent -- Lleyton Hewitt, e.g., did it in 2000. And Hewitt even went on to reach the Australian fourth round. But does Hrbaty had Hewitt's reserves? He would face Tommy Robredo in the second round.
Nicolas Escude needed a wildcard to get in, but he won Doha, giving pretty good evidence that he's finally healthy again. Despite Doha, he prefers faster courts. In the second round, he would face Rainer Schuettler, who loves this surface, or maybe Robin Soderling. That could be a lot of fun to watch.
Rafael Nadal is on the rise again. Unfortunately, he'll have to deal with a lot of very patient players: Felix Mantilla in the second round, then Lleyton Hewitt.
Todd Reid is Australia's New Big Thing. He might have a slight chance, too, since he opens against another wildcard, then Jonas Bjorkman. But then he has to face Roger Federer.
The Rankings. This may be the last chance anyone will have at Andy Roddick for a while. Roddick leads Roger Federer by about 150 points, and Juan Carlos Ferrero by 400 or so -- but Roddick has semifinalist points to defend, to quarterfinalist points for Ferrero and Round of Sixteen points for Federer. That means that Roddick has a real, if relatively small, lead over Ferrero in safe points -- but he's behind Federer. What that means is that Roddick has to reach at least the quarterfinal, and outlast Federer, if he wants to stay #1. If Federer wins, obviously he is #1. Indeed, if Ferrero wins, he has a fair shot at #1.
It's almost certain that the top three will remain the Top Three, since #4 Andre Agassi has champion's points to defend. The only threat is Guillermo Coria (fourth round points), and the best he can really hope for is #3. Even that will take a title.
#4 Andre Agassi had better look out, though; he will fall behind Coria unless he's around to the very end. It looks as though he's probably safe at #5, though, given that #6 Rainer Schuettler has finalist points to defend and that Carlos Moya is a thousand points off the pace and injured.
With Moya hurt, in fact, there is a pretty good chance that Schuettler will stay #6. The one real threat to him is David Nalbandian -- though he has quarterfinalist points to worry about. Carlos Moya, despite his problems, will probably be #7 or #8.
Once we get to #9, though, things get chaotic. The gap between Sebastien Grosjean and Mark Philippoussis, #9 and #10, and the #15 ranking is only about 150 points -- and Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman are in that group, with Hewitt having fourth round points to defend and Henman nothing at all, not even a first round loss, while Grosjean has a quarterfinal. So any two of these players could end up in the Top Ten.
If we look at players who have a lot to worry about, semifinalist Wayne Ferreira immediately springs to mind; a bad result here could threaten his Top 50 status. Last year's quarterfinalist Younes El Aynaoui is probably looking at #25 or so if he does badly.