Tennis '06 kicks off next week

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2006 tennis season will get underway next week with a trio of men's tournaments and a pair of women's events in four different countries.

The ATP will open its year in Doha, Chennai and Adelaide, while the WTA will stage action in Auckland and Gold Coast. All the events over the next two weeks will serve as preparation for the first Grand Slam tourney of the year, the hardcourt Australian Open, which will be held from January 16-29 in beautiful Melbourne. In week two of the '06 campaign, the men will be in Sydney and Auckland, while the women will perform in Sydney, Hobart and Canberra.

Several stars have already opted against playing next week, as French Open champion Rafael Nadal (foot), 2005 Aussie Open winner Marat Safin (knee) and 2004 Wimbledon queen Maria Sharapova (shoulder) are all on the shelf due to injuries. The world No. 2 Nadal will not make the trip to Chennai (India), while Safin will miss the team exhibition Hopman Cup in Perth and Sharapova will avoid a trek to Gold Coast (Australia).

Safin's participation at the '06 Aussie Open is also in doubt, as he continues to nurse a sore right knee that forced him to miss the '05 U.S. Open and Tennis Masters Cup. The charismatic Russian is the reigning Aussie Open champ, having beaten the great Roger Federer in last year's semis and Lleyton Hewitt in last year's final at Rod Laver Arena.

Marat Safin
Oft-injured Marat Safin will be among the stars starting 2006 on the sidelines.
Perhaps the biggest attraction next week will be the return of former No. 1 ladies' star Martina Hingis, who recently decided to return to the circuit after retiring from it three years ago due to, among other things, foot, heel and ankle injuries. The Swiss Miss will see her first action since playing one match at a WTA event early last year in Thailand. She hasn't been a full-time member of the tour since late 2002.

Will the five-time Grand Slam champion recapture her former top-ranked form following a three-year layoff? I seriously doubt it.

Hingis will be part of the field at Gold Coast next week.

The maestro that is Federer will highlight next week's field in Doha, where the Swiss stalwart reigns as the Qatar Open titlist. He beat hard-serving Croat Ivan Ljubicic in last year's finale there.

Federer and Lindsay Davenport head into the new year as the respective world No. 1s, but many consider U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters as the woman to beat in 2006. Clijsters led the WTA with nine titles in 2005 and was named as the International Tennis Federation's world champion, as was Federer on the men's side.

Federer and Nadal co-paced the ATP with 11 titles apiece last season, with the mighty Fed capturing a pair of major crowns -- a third straight at Wimbledon and a second consecutive one at the U.S. Open.

Federer's main competition in '06 figures to be many of the same people that placed inside the top 10 in '05 -- Nadal, Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, Hewitt, surprise Masters Cup champion David Nalbandian, U.S. Open runner-up Andre Agassi (if he can stay healthy) and the Davis Cup star Ljubicic. It was the very-capable Nalbandian that stunned the elegant Swiss in five sets in the November Masters Cup final in Shanghai, as the Fed lost several personal streaks in that shocking setback, including an amazing 24-match winning streak in finals.

The Aussie Open and Wimbledon runner-up Davenport and Clijsters should be challenged on the ladies' side in '06 by the likes of WTA Tour Championships winner Amelie Mauresmo, Sharapova, Roland Garros, U.S. Open and Tour Championships runner-up Mary Pierce, French Open titlist Justine Henin- Hardenne and, hopefully, Aussie Open champion Serena Williams and Wimbledon winner Venus Williams. Only Davenport and Pierce reached two Grand Slam finals among the women in 2005, but both came up short in their bids for additional tennis glory. Federer was the only man to land in two major finals in '05, going 2-0 (of course).

And watch out for rising 16-year-old Czech Nicole Vaidisova, who shot her way up the charts in '05 with the help of three titles.

Some other potentially hot young stars include the likes of Frenchmen Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, Czech Tomas Berdych, Serbs Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, German Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Russian Maria Kirilenko and Indian Sania Mirza.

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