Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The young 2004 tennis season will hit full throttle next week when the Australian Open commences in Melbourne, where Andre Agassi will be on hand but Serena Williams will not to defend their titles Down Under.
Serena announced last week that her lack of preparation will prevent her from competing at Melbourne Park, where she bested her big sister Venus 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4 to capture the 2003 crown and complete the so-called "Serena Slam." Serena hasn't played any official tennis since beating Venus in last July's Wimbledon final, and underwent season-ending knee surgery back in August. The younger Williams claims her knee is okay, but she hasn't been able to fine- tune her game to the point where she is ready to make another title run in Melbourne.
As far as Agassi is concerned, he'll head to Melbourne seeking a fifth Aussie Open crown and his fourth in five years. The legendary star hasn't lost in Melbourne since 1999, as he missed the 2002 edition due to injury and won the event in 2000, 2001 and last season -- that's 21 matches and counting for the eight-time Grand Slam champion.
The 33-year-old Agassi can expect challenges from a bevy of brilliant younger stars, including 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, Wimbledon winner Roger Federer and French Open and U.S. Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero (who was the only man to reach two Grand Slam finals last year, but is currently in the midst of a dismal seven-match losing streak, dating back to last season). Did I forget to mention Guillermo Coria, Australian Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler, Carlos Moya, David Nalbandian, Sebastien Grosjean, Wimbledon runner-up Mark Philippoussis, etc., etc. Agassi claimed last year's Aussie Open by pasting Schuettler 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 in a forgettable final.
Andre Agassi will head to Melbourne seeking a fifth Australian Open crown.
And perhaps coming in under the radar is two-time major titlist Lleyton Hewitt, who is looking to have a big '04 after having an "off" 2003. Hewitt's speed and fitness could take him a long way in Melbourne, especially if he gets a favorable draw.
The former two-time year-end No. 1 Hewitt finished at No. 17 last year, but expect him to re-join the top 10 in 2004, despite his apparent lack of weapons on a big-hitters tour.
The men's draw, in all likelihood, will only feature two former champions, with Agassi being joined by on-the-mend Swede Thomas Johansson, who returned to the ATP just last week after missing all of '03 while recovering from knee surgery. Johansson shocked 2000 U.S. Open titlist Marat Safin in the '02 Aussie Open final.
On the women's side, things become considerably more interesting without the presence of the powerful Serena. Her absence leaves U.S. and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne as the favorite, but the diminutive Belgian could face roadblocks in the form of her countrywoman Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams, who, like Serena, hasn't played a WTA Tour match since Wimbledon, over six months ago. Venus spent the better part of the last half year nursing an abdominal strain, which clearly slowed her in the Wimby final.
Clijsters would appear to be a contender in Melbourne, but she's pulled out of two tourneys in as many weeks due to an ankle injury that might eventually require surgery. If she can go next week, Kimmy will be the second seed and seeking that elusive first-ever Grand Slam championship.
Without Serena on hand, the women will have only one former Aussie Open winner in the draw -- Davenport (2000). Serena is joined on the sidelines by 2001 and 2002 champ Jennifer Capriati (bad back) and 1995 winner Mary Pierce. Another former champion -- Monica Seles (1991-93, 1996) -- appears to have one foot out the retirement door, as she'll skip Melbourne, having not played at all since a disappointing first-round loss at the French Open in May of last year. The former world No. 1 star has been battling a rash of injuries, specifically bad feet.
Justine Henin-Hardenne seeks her third Grand Slam title in four tries.
As usual, players will likely have to battle intense heat at the Open, although today's (January 13) high temperature in Melbourne was a relatively- pleasant 83 degrees and next week's extended forecast calls for mostly 70- some-degree weather.
The typically-brutal conditions in Melbourne favor the game's fittest performers, i.e. Agassi, Coria, Schuettler, Moya and Hewitt among the men, and Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters among the women. But it doesn't hurt to have a brilliant hardcourt game either.
Expect Roddick and Henin-Hardenne to be the top seeds, but I don't expect one of those two to win seven straight matches at Melbourne Park. I wouldn't be surprised to see J H-H run the table Down Under, but I would be startled to see Roddick go all the way. I think Agassi has a great chance to reign once again, but Federer and Coria will be very dangerous and the Adelaide native Hewitt is on a mission to claim his first Slam crown on home turf. Federer, I believe, still has to prove his "major" mettle, despite that dominant Wimbledon performance last summer.
If Henin-Hardenne falters, a healthy-only Clijsters could be ready to pounce for her first career Grand Slam title. Clijsters was last year's Flushing Meadows and Roland Garros runner-up to J H-H and came within a game of reaching last year's Aussie Open final before blowing a seemingly-commanding 5-1 lead against Serena in the third set of their semifinal bout. Ouch!!!
If J H-H or Clijsters fail Down Under, watch out for Venus.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and pick Andre and Henin-Hardenne. "AA" adores the Rebound Ace surface at Melbourne Park, while J H-H's results have improved every year at the year's first Slam since 2000, culminating with a trip to the semifinals last season (lost to Venus). The high bounce of the Rebound Ace favors players (Agassi, Federer) who use a variety of shotmaking.
Let's get it on mate!