Djoker set to defend in Oz; Maria...not so much

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Only half of last year's singles champions will be on hand when the Australian Open gets underway next week in Melbourne, as Novak Djokovic is ready to defend his title, while Maria Sharapova will skip the first major of the year due to an ongoing shoulder problem.

The Serbian Djokovic captured his first-ever Grand Slam event title by winning the Aussie Open a year ago, capped by a victory over upstart Frenchman Jo- Wilfried Tsonga in the title match, while the Russian Sharapova nailed down her third career major championship by dousing Serbian Ana Ivanovic in the women's finale on the "True Blue" Plexicushion at Melbourne Park.

Novak Djokovic hopes to successfully defend his title at the Aussie Open.
But, is Djokovic the favorite on the men's side heading into Melbourne? Probably not, even though he did close out his 2008 campaign back in November by winning it all at the ATP's prestigious season-ending Tennis Masters Cup.

And with Sharapova out, who is the fave among the women? Is it Jelena Jankovic...Serena Williams...Venus Williams? A resurgent Venus capped her '08 season by winning the women's season-ending Championships in Doha just over two months ago.

By the way, Sharapova isn't the only top Russian star who will be absent in Melbourne, as Nikolay Davydenko announced his withdrawal from the event last week, citing a heel issue.

Djokovic will be among the men's favorites, but in my opinion, he's slightly behind Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Swiss Roger Federer and Brit Andy Murray.

Rafael Nadal currently holds the Wimbledon and French Open titles.
The five-time major champion Nadal currently holds the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic titles and will enter the Aussie Open for the first time ever as the top seed. Rafa doesn't typically play his best tennis in Melbourne, having reached just one semifinal there in four tries, and he was stunned by Tsonga in last year's Down Under final four.

Federer, on the other hand, is usually the favorite whenever he enters a major, with the exception of the French, where Nadal has a four-year title stranglehold, including wins over Roger in the last three finales in Paris.

But we're not in Paris.

The reigning U.S. Open champion Federer was shocked by Djokovic in last year's Aussie Open semis, this after winning the tournament two straight and three of the previous four years. The Fed has reached at least the semis five years running in Oz.

The 13-time major titlist Federer needs just one more Grand Slam tournament title to tie Pete Sampras for the men's record in that category.

FYI, the "struggling" Federer was the only player to reach three Grand Slam finals last season and he also holds a remarkable record by reaching 18 straight major semis. And, only Andre Agassi (4) has won more Aussie Open titles among the men in the Open Era (since 1968).

Roger Federer will seek his fourth championship in Oz.
Djokovic is a two-time major finalist, with his loss coming at the 2007 U.S. Open, against Federer. He broke through with his first-ever major title in Australia last year and is obviously a threat to repeat this year. I'm not going out on a limb when I say Djokovic is a threat to win any tournament he enters, and the 2009 Aussie Open is no different.

Note: Federer and Nadal have combined to win 14 of the last 15 Grand Slam titles, with Djokovic's win in Melbourne last year being the lone title coming outside the sequence.

The hard-charging Murray, meanwhile, is arguably the hottest player on the planet right now. The fiery Brit is fresh off his season-opening title defense in Doha; beat both Nadal and Federer at an exhibition tourney in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago; and was a finalist at the most recent major, the U.S. Open, where he ultimately bowed to Federer, back in September. Murray, however, defeated Federer in last week's semis in Doha, giving the quality Scot his fifth victory in seven career tries against the nifty Swiss. He's beaten Federer three straight times since that U.S. Open final setback, and you can make it four straight if you count the unofficial Abu Dhabi clash earlier this month.

"Dandy" Andy seems like a big favorite right now, but keep in mind that he has yet to win a Grand Slam title and has not fared all that well in Melbourne. Sure, he reached the fourth round there two years ago, but his two other treks to Melbourne Park resulted in opening-round exits, including one last year at the hands of the flashy Tsonga.

Andy Murray titled in Doha last week and is arguably the hottest player on the planet.
But also keep in mind that his two-best Grand Slam finishes have been his last two major events, as he reached the Wimbledon quarters last season before landing in the Flushing finale.

Other men (possibly) figuring into the Aussie equation are Tsonga, former world No. 1 and former U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick and rising Argentine slugger Juan Martin del Potro.

Tsonga, when healthy, is one of the most talented players out there, as evidenced by his '08 Aussie runner-up finish and an appearance in his first- ever Masters Cup event late last season.

The former No. 1 Roddick is fresh off his runner-up finish to Murray in Doha and can certainly serve his way into the second week in M-bourne.

Del Potro was one of the best players on tour in the second half of last season and, unlike most Argentines, loves to play on hardcourts.

There are some other Top-10 stars out there, but I don't like Gilles Simon's or James Blake's chances this month. Just because.

As for an Aussie male prevailing on February 1, that's not going to happen. You would have to figure that former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt gives the hosts their best chance, but the last time I looked, Hewitt was ranked 67th in the world and still heading south.

The two-time major titlist Hewitt was the Aussie Open runner-up back in 2005, which marks his last appearance in a major final.

The last Aussie man to win the Aussie title was Mark Edmondson, as a non-seed, way back in 1976. He upset second-seeded Aussie legend John Newcombe in that particular final.

How many times can I use the word Aussie?

Dark horses on the men's side could be...well...nobody. You would have to figure that your champion is coming from the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic-Murray pool. But I will throw out some names like Gael Monfils, Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic as possible surprises. Cilic was a titlist in Chennai last week.

Wish 'em luck.

Quiz: Who is the only male player to win the Australian Open on both hardcourts and grass? (Answer to come later)

Jelena Jankovic is No. 1 in the world, but has never won a major title.
Back over on the women's side, Jankovic and the Williams sisters are among the top candidates to win, as are Russians Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva and perhaps even Jankovic's fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic.

Jankovic is the current world No. 1 and reached her first-ever major final at the last Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open, where she ultimately succumbed to Serena.

The athletic star has had some good results in Melbourne, including a trip into the semis there a year ago, but it's hard to install someone as the favorite if they've never won a Grand Slam tournament before.

Jankovic reached at least the semis in three of the four majors last year and I expect her to head deep into the second week at the Park.

The former top-ranked Serena is a nine-time major singles champion, including three titles in her last five trips to Melbourne. The reigning U.S. Open champ and Wimbledon runner-up fell to Jankovic in the Aussie Open quarters last year.

Serena Williams already owns three Aussie Open titles.
Safina was last year's French Open and Olympic runner-up, and looks like a major champion waiting to happen, while her compatriot, the two-time major finalist Dementieva, has been one of the hottest women since last summer, nailing down the gold medal in Beijing and prevailing at a hardcourt Aussie Open tune-up in Auckland just last week.

For Ivanovic, in addition to being last year's runner-up in Melbourne, the former world No. 1 star is the reigning French Open champ. But she just hasn't played that well since titling at Roland Garros.

Venus appears to have returned to her old solid form, having won a second straight Wimbledon title and the season-ending Championships crown last season. The seven-time major champion was the 2003 Aussie Open runner-up to her little sister Serena, and has never run the table in Melbourne.

There are some other Top-10 women out there, with Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska as the most likely contender out of them in Melbourne. The others with a most outside of shots are Russians Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova, a former U.S. Open champ.
Venus Williams hopes to capture her first-ever Melbourne championship.

Dark horses among the women could be hard-hitting Dane Caroline Wozniacki and Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who corralled her first-ever WTA Tour title in Brisbane last week. These are two of the rising young stars on the circuit, especially Wozniacki.

By the by, the last Aussie woman to win the Aussie Open was Chris O'Neil way back in 1978. And who could ever forget that memorable final against American Betsy Nagelsen?


Quiz Answer: Mats Wilander.

Let's predict some 2009 winners.

I'll take Federer to "surprise" on the men's side and equal Pete, while my women's pick is gonna be Serena, who would reach double figures in Slam titles with a victory.

I'm also gonna go out on a limb by predicting some hot and sunny weather in Melbourne, much like the hot (frigid) and sunny (overcast/rainy/snowy) weather we've been having in the Philadelphia area the last couple of months.

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