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The Fed, J H-H jump out to early leads

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Roger Federer and Justine Henin-Hardenne went one-up on their respective tours by capturing Australian Open titles over the weekend.

The "Fed" became the new men's No. 1 and added Aussie Open hardware to his 2003 Wimbledon title by sailing through a deep field in Melbourne, capped off by a shrewd and confident 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-2 straight-set dismissal of big Russian Marat Safin. The Aussie Open final marked his first-ever match as the world's No. 1 player.

Former two-time year-end No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian, a Federer nemesis, were also among the Fed's victims at Melbourne Park. The gritty Nalbandian ousted the Swiss at last year's Aussie and U.S. Opens.

Roger Federer
Federer added the Aussie Open to his Wimbledon title.
Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, maintained her women's world No. 1 status by beating fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in three sets at Melbourne Park, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, and did not drop a set in the process. It marked the third time in four majors that J H-H topped her countrywoman in a Grand Slam final, as the diminutive star also downed Clijsters in last year's French and U.S. Open title matches.

Federer officially moved atop the ATP rankings when he blitzed French Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets in last week's semis. The brilliant Swiss supplanted U.S. Open winner Andy Roddick atop the ledger, as Roddick fell off his perch when he was upset by Safin in a five-set quarterfinal showdown in Melbourne.

The Fed is the first-ever Swiss to hold down the top spot in the rankings -- which began in 1973 -- and the 23rd overall star to secure the post.

Henin-Hardenne must enjoy the fact that only a trio of women can currently challenge her reign in the women's game, and one of them (Clijsters) just hasn't shown the mettle to remove the crown from her compatriot's head. The other potential challengers are Serena and Venus Williams. But Serena hasn't played anywhere in seven months, and let's not forget that J H-H actually had a winning record against the powerful American last year (2-1), and Venus hasn't claimed a major since the 2001 U.S. Open.

The 22-year-old Federer grabbed the early lead in the 2004 Champions Race, a race most people expect him to win this season. The stellar Swiss led the circuit with seven titles a year ago, including Wimby and the season-ending Masters Cup in Houston, where he blazed his way to a 5-0 mark against a field of only the world's top-eight players, including the likes of Roddick, Ferrero and Andre Agassi, who lost to the Fed twice at the Westside Tennis Club, including a lopsided final.

Federer has won his last 12 matches on tour, dating back to the '03 Masters Cup, and will continue playing this week when he leads Switzerland against the host Romanians in Davis Cup action in Bucharest. Unfortunately, the Davis Cup play will not allow him to add to his rapidly-climbing career prize money of roughly $8.7 million.

"What a great start to the year for me, to win the Australian Open and become No. 1 in the world," Federer said. "To fulfill my dreams, it really means very much to me."

The 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne is arguably the fittest player on the women's tour, owns the best one-handed backhand in the world and her mental toughness has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last year. Barring an unusual circumstance, she'll probably be the favorite to repeat at Roland Garros, even if Serena's in the draw.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
Henin-Hardenne now holds three of the four Grand Slam crowns.
The women's game, in terms of the Slams, is just a four-horse race right now, between Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, Serena and Venus. And Clijsters has yet to break through at that level and Venus hasn't won a major title in 2 1/2 years.

Maybe it's just a two-horse race...between J H-H and Serena?

Henin-Hardenne will continue to thrive with Serena on the shelf and Clijsters unable to play her best ball in the biggest matches (0-4 in Grand Slam finals). The 5-foot-5 giant needs only to win a Wimbledon title to complete a career Slam, and she came close in 2001 when she gave way to Venus in the final at the storied All England Club.

"Wimbledon this year, for sure, is going to be another goal," Henin-Hardenne said. "I still have to improve my game on grass, especially against the strong players like Venus or Serena."

Henin-Hardenne is already off to an unstoppable 10-0 start this season, including a title at the Aussie Open tune-up in Sydney last month. Her career prize money is now over the $7 million mark.

For the exquisite Federer, the sky's the limit. He has the big serve, all the shots and excels on all surfaces. Don't be surprised if he tallies a career Slam before it's all said and done.

Who would win if Federer played the Patriots?

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


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