2004 SEASON PREVIEW (from the ATP website)
December 11, 2003
Battle for No. 1 Wide Open in 2004
© Getty Images
The new season lies just around the corner with a number of players with the potential to grab the headlines in 2004. Rarely has a season looked so open, and with so many players having the skill, expertise and experience under their belt, it is anyone's guess as to who will end up on top of the world rankings at the end of the year. By SIMON HIGSON
Will 2003's usual suspects, Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero continue to make strides ahead of the pack? Can Andre Agassi still keep up with his young guns? Will Lleyton Hewitt stamp his authority back on the ATP circuit and again challenge for No.1? Are Marat Safin and Tommy Haas poised to make their long-awaited comebacks at the top of the tennis hierarchy? And will Argentine duo David Nalbandian and Guillermo Coria continue their charge?
The depth of talent at the top of men's tennis has rarely gone so deep, with the likes of Gustavo Kuerten, Tim Henman, Sebastien Grosjean and Mark Philippoussis all having the potential to pull out a big result when it counts.
Andre Agassi, who has been richly rewarded for his strict off-season training program in recent years, will be one of the favorites in Melbourne in January as he attempts to win his fourth Australian Open (and fifth in total) in five years. The opening Grand Slam of the year will also be a good indicator as to whether Hewitt will be capable of overcoming the slump that saw him plummet to 16th in the ATP Champions Race 2003.
With only fourth round points to defend from his 2003 showing, a big performance at the Australian Open from World No. 2 Federer could potentially see him reach the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career in February. Former Australian Open finalist Safin has the firepower to make a sparkling return to the limelight, although many will argue that the Australian Open may come a few months too soon for the Russian to have a realistic chance of adding to his trophy cabinet so early in the year.
© Getty Images
Agassi will also look to add to his staggering 16 Tennis Masters Series titles when during the first two Tennis Masters Series tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, where he already owns a record six crowns.
The leading clay courters will once again be in full force as the European clay court swing gets underway in the Spring with three Tennis Masters Series tournaments and Roland Garros. Ferrero, who won Tennis Masters Monte Carlo and Roland Garros in 2003, is threatening to become the most dominant clay court player since Thomas Muster in the mid-1990s. The Spaniard is likely to face a stiff challenge from Argentines Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian, as well as compatriot Carlos Moya. And don't forget Gustavo Kuerten, who surprisingly failed to collect a title on clay in 2003, but showed signs of a return to form with some impressive wins in the late indoor season.
Few will bet against Federer successfully defending his Wimbledon crown in 2004. Federer's straights sets defeat of Roddick at the Wimbledon semifinal stage in 2003 was received with welcome relief by many who had started to believe that the traditional grass court game had become a lost art in the face of baseline power-tennis. The Swiss was irresistible on grass in 2003 and, along with Henman and Philippoussis, Federer will face few challengers able to withstand his grass court craft and expertise.
American ace Roddick will have the unenviable task of defending all the points amassed during his magical American hard court streak in 2003, where he collected two successive Masters Series titles in Montreal and Cincinnati as well as his first Grand Slam title at the US Open. If anyone will warm to that task however, it is Roddick. 2004 will likely be a revealing year for the American, who will hope to build on his meteoric rise to the top of the game under the tutelage of Brad Gilbert.
Who will finish as No. 1? It's anybody's guess, but the all-court games of Federer and Safin (if fit) immediately set them apart as players who have the potential to shine on all surfaces all season long. With so many contenders in the mix, next year is sure to be one of the most exciting tennis seasons in recent times.