Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Defending champions Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati will be on hand when the Australian Open commences next week, but will the popular American stars be able to shine once again Down Under?
The time-defying Agassi is 31 years old, but he's won two straight and three of the last seven titles in Melbourne. He pocketed his seventh career Grand Slam event championship by leveling helpless Frenchman Arnaud Clement in last year's final at Melbourne Park.
The incredible Capriati came back from the tennis dead to reach her first-ever Grand Slam final last January, and she made it count by stunning then-world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the title match at "The Rod" (Rod Laver Arena, that is). Capriati, a.k.a. the "Comeback Kid," went on to capture the French Open later in the season, one in which she finished with a career-high No. 2 ranking, behind only fellow American Lindsay Davenport.
Let's get back to Agassi.
Doesn't it seem as though he's primed for another one of his infamous slides? Towards the end of last year, Agassi married girlfriend, and former tennis great, Steffi Graf right around the time when the athletically-gifted couple produced their first child, Jaden Gil. A new husband and a new father? This combination seems like a lethal one for someone trying to excel in the young person's world of professional tennis, when a thirty-something-year-old player is typically past his prime. Agassi's game suffered severely, at one point, while married to actress/model Brooke Shields.
Agassi has won two straight and three of the last seven titles in Melbourne.
Capriati, of course, is the former teen prodigy who all but fell off the tennis map in the mid-1990's after being charged with misdemeanor drug and shoplifting offenses. It appeared as though she would never regain her once- brilliant form, as the New York native was a non-factor from 1994-99. But Capriati showed glimpses of her former shelf throughout 2000, and promptly knocked down the door in 2001.
But I expect neither Agassi nor Capriati to repeat in Melbourne this month. Instead, let's look at a pair of current U.S. Open champions for inspiration.
On the men's side, if Australian world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt can overcome his recent bout with chicken pox, he'll be the heavy crowd favorite and a likely candidate to reign on his home turf. On the ladies' side, a certain Venus Williams would love to add the Australian Open to her growing list of Grand Slam tournament wins. The powerful American has won the last two Wimbledons and U.S. Opens, and her game, obviously, is perfectly suited for anything fast, i.e. a hardcourt.
Hewitt and Williams have yet to reach an Aussie Open final, while Agassi and Capriati have combined for a perfect 4-0 record there, including Agassi's 3-0 mark in the big match. Agassi's most-memorable victory at the Aussie Open came in 1995 when he outdueled countryman Pete Sampras in the glamorous all- American final. Agassi's other Aussie Open crown came when he defeated then- reigning champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2000.
Speaking of Sampras, wouldn't he love to breakthrough with his first title of any kind since Wimbledon 2000? The legendary star hasn't won a Grand Slam tourney that's not Wimbledon since the '97 Aussie extravaganza. He's piled up a record 13 Grand Slam event titles, but only six have come outside of jolly old England. And six is not a great number for Pete, considering he's been on the tour for 15 years. Of course it's been well documented that he's a flop on clay (specifically that Grand Slam event in Paris). But that's another story altogether.
Sampras, if his 2002 season-opening loss against fellow American Todd Martin in Adelaide is any indication, will not secure Australian Open title number three later this month. Sampras entered 2002 with a new coach (Tom Gullikson), but his first match of the new year produced a result similar to that of his 15 setbacks last season.
Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten is the world's No. 2 player on the men's side, but let's face it, if it's a Grand Slam tourney that's not on clay, Guga's a bust. As a matter of fact, he's failed to get past the second round in Melbourne five years running. I wouldn't look for anything different at the upcoming fortnight.
So who else will contend with Agassi and Hewitt among the men? Well, there's the always-dangerous Kafelnikov, who's also claimed a French Open and Olympic gold during his consistent career; pesky Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, who reached a pair of Grand Slam semis last year, including the Aussie Open, and came within one victory of hoisting the prestigious Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney in November; my pick for top-five star waiting to happen, Tommy Haas; 2000 U.S. Open champ Marat Safin; young Swiss Roger Federer; and the man child they call the "next Pete," Andy Roddick. Roddick gained invaluable experience on tour last year, and his big game, which features that cannon-like serve, is perfectly tailored for Melbourne.
Did I forget to mention top-10ers Juan Carlos Ferrero or Tim Henman? Ferrero has a quasi shot Down Under, but the oft-soft Henman doesn't have a finishing bone in that lanky body.
I think I answered that one.
Back to the ladies.
Capriati came back from the tennis dead to reach her first-ever Grand Slam final last January, and made it count by stunning Martina Hingis.
(Photo by Empics)
Can anyone challenge Capriati and Venus?
There's former world No. 1 and three-time Melbourne titlist Martina Hingis; powerful Belgian Kim Clijsters; former U.S. Open champ Serena Williams; 2001 Wimbledon runner-up Justine Henin; and four-time Australian Open champion Monica Seles. Hingis and Seles are the only active multi-Aussie Open champions in the 2002 field, but I wouldn't get my hopes up for additional Melbourne titles from either one. The ever-weakening Hingis is fading fast among some of her more-powerful peers, while Seles hasn't lifted Grand Slam hardware since the 1996 Australian Open. As a matter of fact, Seles' '96 Aussie Open plaudits mark her lone "Slam" trophy since her comeback from the well-publicized stabbing incident occurred in 1993. Before getting stabbed in the back by a crazed German Graf fan, a teenaged Seles had rattled off six Grand Slam tourney titles in just over four years on the circuit.
I didn't neglect to mention the current world No. 1 and 2000 Aussie Open champ Davenport, as the veteran American has decided to skip this year's event due to a knee injury she suffered at last fall's Sanex Championships in Munich.
Hingis will be hard-pressed to run the table in Melbourne, having just returned to action after being sidelined by ankle surgery since early October. The "Swiss Miss" sustained torn ligaments in the joint while battling Davenport at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix three months ago. She is working off the rust in Sydney this week.
Do estranged Aussie Jelena Dokic and Russian beauty Anna Kournikova have any chance in Melbourne? Yes on one, and no on two -- which means Dokic has an outside shot, while "Kourni" has none.
Former champion Mary Pierce will also be in this year's field, but she is returning to action for the first time since battling back and ankle injuries, which had sidelined the "Frenchwoman" since last May.
And no, surprise Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic will not capture his first Australian Open title! Or will he?
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