Rafa & Serena will try to defend titles in Oz

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The first Grand Slam tennis event of this newest decade will get underway next week in Melbourne, where former world No. 1 superstar Rafael Nadal and reigning top-ranked women's superstar Serena Williams will set out to defend their titles at the Australian Open.

Last year, Nadal outlasted his chief rival Roger Federer in a five-set finale at Rod Laver Arena, while Serena dispatched Russian Dinara Safina in straight sets.

Rafa's title marked his first-ever Down Under championship, while Serena's victory gave her Oz title number four, as she won in every odd year, with the exception of 2001, in the 2000s (2009, 2007, 2005, 2003). Serena would go on to capture an 11th overall major title at Wimbledon last summer, while Nadal's 2009 season would wind up being interrupted by knee and abdominal injuries.

Rafael Nadal's lone hardcourt Grand Slam title came in Melbourne last year.
Nadal currently rests with six major titles, four of which have come at his beloved French Open.

Did You Know?: The former No. 1 Nadal hasn't won a title of any kind (excluding the team Davis Cup) since May of last year?

It's true.

The men's situation in Melbourne appears to be wide open, with Nadal being joined by a bevy of players who could win the title there, most prominently Federer, who performed in all four Grand Slam finals last season and has appeared in a crazy record 22 straight major semifinals.

Federer basically dominated Oz in the 2000s, winning three titles and finishing as the runner-up there a year ago. Having said that, the Fed hasn't added to his Aussie haul since 2007, as Novak Djokovic titled there two years ago and Nadal snuck through last season.

The 28-year-old Federer needs one more Aussie crown to tie Andre Agassi for the most men's titles there in the Open Era (since 1968).

The reigning Wimbledon and French Open champion Federer, of course, is the No. 1 player in the world and owns a men's record 15 major titles...so he's obviously among the bigger favorites at the Aussie fortnight.

Roger Federer is 3-1 in four Aussie Open finals.
Djokovic is a serious contender, having won it all at Melbourne Park (the former Flinders Park) just two years ago. He's also been one of the hottest players on tour since last fall and is capable of beating anybody, on any day.

Can the Djoker make it two Aussie wins in three years?

Some other challengers in Oz will be 6-foot-6 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro, talented Brit Andy Murray, red-hot Russian Nikolay Davydenko and Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick of the U.S.

Del Potro shocked the world (at least the tennis world) by dethroning Federer in last year's quality five-set final at the U.S. Open, and he's simply a flat-out beast on hardcourts...his best surface. Federer was the reigning five-time champ in Flushing at the time.

Meanwhile, the surgical Murray, like a Djokovic or a del Potro, can beat anybody on any day, but he needs to start proving it at the Slams. He reached the U.S. Open final in 2008, but that's still the only major final he's played in, and he's been rather disappointing in Melbourne to this point in his career.

Note: Murray's currently the only member of the men's Top 5 without a major title.

U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro will try to win a second straight major.
The time is now for the "other" Andy.

And watch out for the streaking Davydenko, the hottest player on the planet right now.

Davydenko closed out his 2009 campaign by upsetting all three of last year's major champions -- Federer (2), Nadal and del Potro -- at the prestigious season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London, including a victory over del Potro in the final; and the speedy Russian opened his 2010 season with a title in Doha just last week, as the steady star stunned Federer in the semis and Nadal in the final.

That IS hot.

The 28-year-old Davydenko has beaten Federer in his last two tries, this after dropping his first 12 decisions against the amazing Swiss, and he's taken three straight and four of his last five bouts against Nadal. That makes him a combined 5-0 against Federer and Nadal for the time being.

How 'bout that!

But can Niky D break through and reach that first-ever Grand Slam final and secure that first-ever major title? I'm not feelin' it...but maybe he's figured something out.

The original Andy -- Andy Roddick, that is -- always has a shot on a hardcourt, which, along with grass, is a preferred surface for the American slugger. The former world No. 1 Roddick, however, has never reached a final in Melbourne, where he is, however, a four-time semifinalist.

The always-determined Roddick was a titlist last week in Brisbane.

Nikolay Davydenko is the hottest player on the men's tour right now.
Some other mild contenders in Melbourne could be the last three members of the Top 10 -- French Open runner-up Robin Soderling, Nadal's fellow Spanish lefthander Fernando Verdasco and 2008 Aussie Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

My hopes aren't high for Soderling in that Aussie heat, but Verdasco has proved he can play there, as has Jo-Willy. Verdasco played in one of the best matches of the year last year when he took Nadal to five sets in a grueling semifinal showdown at Laver, which was eventually won by the unflappable Rafa.

Does former top-ranked star Lleyton Hewitt have a shot at giving the home fans their first men's Aussie champ since Mark Edmondson way back in 1976?

He sure doesn't. That ship (the major titles one), I believe, has sailed for Rusty.

Note: The last Aussie to play in the men's final Down Under was Pat Cash, back in 1988, the year the event shifted from grass to hardcourts.

FYI: Mats Wilander is the only male player to win the Aussie Open on both grass and hardcourts.

Back over on the women's side, Serena can expect a rough road in Melbourne.

Note: Serena is a perfect 4-0 in her career Aussie Open finals.

Safina will be back to take another crack, as will French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, seven-time major champion Venus Williams, U.S. Open titlist Kim Clijsters, and, oh yes, Serena's bitter rival, Justine Henin.

Serena Williams is a four-time Aussie Open champ.
Henin will compete in her first Grand Slam event since the 2008 Aussie Open. That's two years, as the future Hall-of-Famer has missed the last seven majors.

The small Belgian with the big heart retired from tennis, ranked No. 1 at the time, in May of '08, but announced her return to the circuit this past fall.

In her first tournament back last week, Henin soared all the way into the final in the Aussie Open tune-up in Brisbane, only to lose to her great fellow Belgian rival Clijsters in the blockbuster finale.

Henin is a seven-time major champion, including her lone Aussie Open title in 2004, and she also had a runner-up finish there back in 2006.

The former world No. 1 Safina is still seeking that elusive first-ever Grand Slam title, having suffered setbacks in last year's Aussie Open final and the last two French Open title tilts.

As always, keep your eye on Dementieva, who, in addition to her Olympic gold medal in 2008, has also reached a pair of major finals, albeit both of which came six long years ago. She's still one of the most dangerous players out there, with that arsenal of groundstrokes.

Justine Henin will play in her first Grand Slam event in two years.
The 2009 Wimbledon runner-up Venus, meanwhile, is also always in the mix, but she's never titled (singles wise) in Oz and has reached only one final there, losing to her little sister in 2003.

The currently 15th-ranked Clijsters could be the player to beat in Melbourne. She's the most-recent major winner on the tour and is fresh off her big victory over the comeback kid Henin last week.

Clijsters is a two-time major champ, with both victories coming in New York, and she was the runner-up to Henin in Oz back in 2004.

How 'bout the chances for world No. 7 Victoria Azarenka, former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, former Aussie Open champ Maria Sharapova, or former Oz runner-up Ana Ivanovic?

Azarenka still hasn't proven that she can overcome her nerves at the majors, but the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up Jankovic, meanwhile, could be a serious contender at the fortnight, having regrouped from a slow start last year to regain her powerful form towards the end of '09.

The former No. 1 Sharapova is a three-time major champ, having won three of the four Grand Slam events, but she's been a bit of a non-factor since returning from a 2008 shoulder surgery last season.

Kim Clijsters is certainly among the favorites in Melbourne.
Sharapova captured her Aussie Open championship by beating Ivanovic in the 2008 finale, and the Russian glamour girl also reached the final there in 2007, losing to the mighty Serena.

Ivanovic is a bit of an enigma, as the former world No. 1 and former French Open champ looked like a world-beater two seasons ago, but has plummeted in the rankings since. She's in the best shape of her still-young career, but she's down to No. 21 in the world, and would appear to be on the outside of the title mix in Melbourne.

A Down Under darkhorse could be rising Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, who surprised most by reaching the U.S. Open semifinals last year and upset ever- improving Italian Flavia Pennetta in last week's finale in Auckland.

The world No. 16 Wickmayer was suspended from the WTA Tour after failing to report her whereabouts for some drug testing on three occasions last year, but the suspension was overturned and she's back to being a full-time member of the women's circuit. (She also shares a birthday with yours truly.)

Elena Dementieva is still seeking that elusive first-ever major title.
By the way, an Aussie woman hasn't captured her home major since Chris O'Neil way back in 1978, or when Jimmy Carter was president (the American president). And the late Gerald Ford was the prez when "Eddo" Edmondson won it for the Aussie faithful 34 years ago.

Also in Melbourne, Fabrice Santoro, who "retired" from the ATP in November, announced last week that he will play at the Aussie Open. The 37-year-old's motivation is to make his 70th career Grand Slam appearance and become the only player to play in a major in four different decades (1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s). His first-ever Grand Slam singles appearance resulted in a first-round loss at the 1989 French Open.

Santoro will be "retired" again after making his 21st trek to Oz.

Did You Know?: Former Aussie great Ken Rosewall is both the youngest-ever (18 years, 2 months) and oldest-ever (37 years, 8 months) men's champion at the Aussie Open.

So who's gonna claim the Aussie titles this time around? I certainly don't know, but I will make my annual picks and go with Federer to corral major title number 16, and Clijsters to break through with her first Grand Slam victory outside New York.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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