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Big questions for the Australian Open

by DAN WEIL, Special to FOXSports.com

Updated: January 12, 2008, 6:36 PM EST

As the Australian Open — the first tennis Grand Slam of the year — gets set to start Monday, it's hard to bet against Roger Federer and Justine Henin, winners of the last Slam, the U.S. Open.

Here are the 10 crucial questions for the upcoming tournament:

1. Can anyone break Roger Federer's stranglehold?

Probably not. The Swiss Superman is gunning for his third straight title Down Under and his 13th major. Federer has shown some vulnerability over the last year, losing nine matches — his most defeats since 2003. But he still dominated the field with 68 wins and three major titles in 2007. At only 26 years of age, he probably has at least four more years at his peak. The only hope for the rest of the field may be the stomach virus that kept the mighty Fed from playing a tune-up to the Australian Open.

2. Will Justine Henin win her second Australian Open?

She certainly goes in as the favorite, having won the U.S. Open and a warm-up tournament in Sydney. Henin skipped Melbourne last year, as she was in the midst of a divorce, and lost the 2006 final to Amelie Mauresmo, withdrawing in the middle of the match due to a mild stomach ailment. So Henin has some incentive to prove she can repeat her 2004 title in Oz. She certainly looks ready to do it, and there is no one else in the field who is on a strong roll.

3. Can Rafael Nadal find success on the hard court?

Nadal has beaten Federer twice in the five times they've played on hard courts, so it's possible that the Spaniard could pose a real threat. But Nadal hasn't done that since early 2006. He hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals in two trips Down Under and lost 6-0, 6-1 in the final of a tune-up earlier this month to Mikhail Youzhny. A medium-pace hard court doesn't favor Nadal's style, making this event an uphill climb. But with his competitive grit, he can't be counted out.

4. Can Maria Sharapova capture her first Australian Open crown?

Yes, but it's not likely. The Russian reached the final in Melbourne for her first time last year, falling meekly to Serena Williams. Sharapova was beset with minor injuries throughout 2007 and won only one event. She made the final of a tune-up earlier this month, losing to Venus Williams. So it would be tough to place Sharapova above Venus or Serena, and it's hard to see her beating Henin in the quarterfinals.

5. Can Novak Djokovic expand on his '07 success?

Yes, but it's not clear he's emotionally ready to win the Australian Open. The 20-year-old Serb had a breakthrough year in 2007, reaching the final of the U.S. Open and the semis of Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But when he played Federer for the title in New York, Djokovic choked. He had an opportunity to win both of the first two sets but couldn't convert. Still, his confidence is growing by the day, so it won't be shocking if he leaves Australia victorious.

6. Can the Williams sisters compete for the title?

Definitely. Only Henin can be rated a stronger favorite than Serena, who has won the Aussie Open three times, and Venus, who is still looking for her first title there. A knee injury has hampered Serena for months, but she did get some matches in earlier this month — though she won the tournament last year without even being in shape. Venus won Wimbledon last year and a recent tune-up event over Sharapova, so she looks raring to go.

7. Can Andy Roddick and James Blake do any damage?

Yes, but it's hard to envision either of them winning the whole thing. Roddick reached the semis last year, losing to Federer. He isn't in Fed's half of the draw this year, so Roddick could easily reach the final. But he's lost 11 straight matches to Federer, and there's no reason to think he'll change that luck now. Blake has been a disappointment at majors and hasn't gone beyond the fourth round in Oz. He's given no indication that he'll do better this year.

8. Can Svetlana Kuznetsova or Ana Ivanovic emerge?

Yes, but the other women discussed above have a better chance. Kuznetsova has won a major — the U.S. Open in 2004 — and has the game to snag another. But she doesn't appear to be mentally strong enough, falling to Henin in last year's U.S. Open final (though she did take a set from the Belgian in Sydney). Ivanovic also appears to have the game but not the temperament to come out on top. She reached her first major final in Paris last year, but was too nervous to provide Henin with a challenge.

9. Can any other men win the event?

Probably not. But Andy Murray, the ninth seed, may have the best chance. He has a clever all-around game and just won a tune-up event. Still, the 20-year-old Scot hasn't yet reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tourney. David Nalbandian, the 10th seed, beat Federer and Nadal twice last fall and has a .500 career record against Federer. But a back injury may force him out of the tournament, and he didn't reach the quarterfinals of any major last year.

10. Can any other women win the event?

Yes. Jelena Jankovic has looked ready to challenge for a major title since 2006, but she's had trouble dealing with the pressure. Russia's Anna Chakvetadze had a breakthrough year in 2007, but suffered a harrowing home break-in last month and may be frazzled. Amelie Mauresmo won the tournament in 2006, but is apparently still suffering from a major stomach injury. Don't forget American Lindsay Davenport, who is making an impressive comeback after sitting out most of last year to have a child. She might run into Sharapova in the second round.

Dan Weil is a FOXSports.com contributor, and can be reached at his e-mail address, [email protected].
 

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1. Can anyone break Roger Federer's stranglehold?

Last year proved Federer is beatable and without the proper preparation this could be his toughest hardcourt slam for a while. Not as heavy a favorite as previous years imo.

3. Can Rafael Nadal find success on the hard court?

Well if he can't do it now, he never will. His draw is as easy as it gets with only Murray as a real threat in his half. A final is within reach one feels.

5. Can Novak Djokovic expand on his '07 success?

Yes, this is his best chance at a Grand Slam this year, with Federer's virus and all. Does have a tough section of the draw and will probably have to defeat both Federer and Nadal.

7. Can Andy Roddick and James Blake do any damage?

No, Roddick can't beat Murray or Nadal and Blake has totally lost it it seems, so he won't go deep.

9. Can any other men win the event?

Yes, Nalbandian or Murray. Once again Federer's fitness plays a big part here, but especially Murray has a great chance here with a pretty reasonable schedule without Federer and Djokovic in his half. Just has to hope he doesn't get Djokovic in the final. Nalbandian is always an outsider cause he can beat anyone on his day, although his injury sets him back a bit.
 
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