Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The vastly-underrated Australian Open will get underway next week and world No. 1s Serena Williams and Lleyton Hewitt will be the heavy favorites at the Down Under Slam.
You certainly have to like Serena's chances in Melbourne, even though the rugged field includes reigning two-time champion Jennifer Capriati, her powerful sister Venus, rising stars Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Daniela Hantuchova, and former champion Lindsay Davenport.
On the men's side, the high-flying Hewitt will look to add Aussie Open hardware to his ever-expanding trophy case. The young star captured the U.S. Open in 2001; secured his first Wimbledon championship last summer; and has corralled the last two Tennis Masters Cups. In all fairness to Hewitt, he was not at full strength at last year's Aussie Open as he was still recovering from a bout with the chicken pox and subsequently lost to unheralded Spaniard Alberto Martin in the first round.
Serena, like Hewitt, has never won it all in Melbourne, but she was forced to skip last year's edition due to injury. She, of course, went on to win the next three "majors" in succession -- the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open -- by peppering her big sister in all three finals. Serena currently stands at four, in terms of Grand Slam event titles, having claimed her first at the 1999 U.S. Open at the ripe ol' age of 17.
Serena Williams is seeking her fourth straight Grand Slam event title.
Hewitt will have to face some serious competition in Melbourne, including 2002 Aussie Open runner-up Marat Safin; 2002 French Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero; and the legendary Andre Agassi, a three-time Aussie Open champion. Hewitt will have more than three key rivals, however, as I also believe that Carlos Moya, Roger Federer, Jiri Novak, Andy Roddick, Fernando Gonzalez and red-hot Thai Paradorn Srichaphan will have something to say about who'll reign supreme at the year's first Slam.
Serena's competition will not be quite as steep, with (in my opinion) only six other women having a real shot Down Under (and I've already mentioned them in this article). Whereas in the men's draw, I believe any one of 10 studs can hoist the trophy.
Some key participants will be missing from this year's Open, including reigning champion Thomas Johansson and surprise U.S. Open titlist Pete Sampras. Johansson, who shocked the mighty Safin in last year's Melbourne final, is currently nursing a knee injury, while Sampras, a two-time Aussie Open winner and 14-time major victor, just recently decided to return to the ATP this season, but stated that he would not do so until next month.
The surprising Johansson titled last year as a 16th seed, shocking Safin in four sets in a disappointing final.
The immensely-talented Tommy Haas and always-dangerous Tim Henman will also miss the fortnight, due to injuries, while some of the injured women who will not participate in Melbourne are rising French star Amelie Mauresmo and former world No. 1 Martina Hingis, who lost to Capriati in last year's marquee final despite winning the first set and holding a seemingly-commanding 4-0 lead in the second. Capriati, of course, roared back for an unbelievable three-set victory amid scorching heat inside "The Rod."
Hewitt will try to halt an Aussie losing skid, as a male host nation performer hasn't won the event since Mark Edmondson upset Hall-of-Famer John Newcombe in the 1976 all-Aussie final. The last Aussie female to capture the tournament was Chris O'Neil 25 years ago, and, at the time, O'Neil's victory gave Aussie women a seventh straight championship and a 10th title in 11 tries Down Under.
An Aussie woman will not stop that drought this year, with nary an Aussie in the ladies' top 45. And should Hewitt fail on the men's side, the hosts will have virtually no shot at the crown.
No, I did not forget about "dangerous" lefty Wayne Arthurs.
The incomparable Serena is seeking a fourth straight Slam title, a trick that hasn't been turned since the brilliant Steffi Graf nailed down four straight from 1993-94, culminating with the '94 Aussie Open. Graf captured five straight Slams at one point during her brilliant career, from 1988-89, culminating with the '89 Aussie Open. Graf (a.k.a. Mrs. Agassi) piled up an astounding 22 Grand Slam singles titles in all -- good for second all-time in the storied sport.
I'm gonna have to go out on a limb and pick Serena among the women, while my men's selection is (yet another surprise) Hewitt. How can you not pick these two? The hulking Serena boasts too much power and too many shots, while Hewitt's unmatched fitness (I hear ya Andre) and court coverage should carry him to his first title at Melbourne Park.
I really don't like Capriati's chances for a three-peat, if for no other reason because she hasn't won a tournament of any kind since overcoming Hingis (and the hell-like weather) at the '02 Aussie extravaganza. That's 12 months if you're counting at home. If Capriati does prevail, she'd become the first woman to win three straight there since Hingis from 1997-99.
A now-healthy Davenport could surprise on the ladies' side, while a resurgent Moya, a Melbourne runner-up in 1997, could sneak in among the men.
The lovely Anna Kournikova will be part of the draw, but outside of getting hearts to race, don't expect much from the snake-bitten Russian.
The Australian Open, arguably the players' favorite Slam, is a tremendous setting for the sport and boasts some of the world's most enthusiastic tennis fans. The vibe, unlike the one at Wimbledon, is relaxed, as tournament organizers truly roll out the welcome mat and encourage players to put their feet up and let their hair down.
The always-fan-friendly event never turns away a would-be fan, as anyone who shows up is a guaranteed admission to the grounds. That would help to explain how the tourney set a single-day Grand Slam attendance record of 56,667 last year.
Notes: There will be only four former Aussie Open champions on hand among the women (Capriati, Davenport, Seles, Pierce), and only two among the men (Agassi, Kafelnikov). An American has won the last three titles among the ladies (Capriati 2001-02; Davenport 2000), while the American Agassi will seek a third title in four years on his beloved Rebound Ace hardcourts.
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