Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
You don't have to wait long now for world- class tennis action, as the 2004 ATP and WTA Tour seasons will get underway next week in five different cities abroad.
Next week's events in Adelaide, Doha and Chennai (for the men) and Gold Coast and Auckland (for the women) not only will kickoff the '04 campaigns, but will also serve as hardcourt tune-up tourneys for the first Grand Slam of the year -- the January 19-February 1 Australian Open, where American superstars Andre Agassi and Serena Williams should be on hand to defend their crowns.
Adelaide will also welcome the return of huge crowd favorite Patrick Rafter, who hasn't played on the circuit since late 2001 and officially announced his retirement from the ATP in January 2003. The two-time U.S. Open singles champion announced that he will play some doubles (alongside fellow Queenslander Josh Eagle) at the AAPT Championships in Adelaide and the Aussie Open in Melbourne. Rafter has not announced that he will return to the tour on a regular basis.
The 2004 season will unofficially get underway this Saturday with the exhibition Hopman Cup in Perth, where mixed teams will do battle as players prepare for Melbourne, which will once again stage Australia's richest sporting event with a $14 million purse.
Patrick Rafter will come out of retirement to play doubles in Adelaide and Melbourne.
All the game's biggest stars are expected to be on hand in Melbourne, as Agassi and Serena will be joined by the likes of U.S. Open champions Andy Roddick and Justine Henin-Hardenne, Wimbledon titlist Roger Federer and French Open champ and U.S. Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero. Serena and Henin- Hardenne were the only multiple "major" champions in 2003, as Serena also claimed Wimbledon and Henin-Hardenne pocketed the French. The Aussie Open fields will also boast former world No. 1s Kim Clijsters, Lleyton Hewitt, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Carlos Moya, as well as Guillermo Coria, Marat Safin and Tommy Haas, the German star who missed all of last year while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Hewitt has been flying under the radar, somewhat, following a disappointing year, for him, but the current world No. 17 expects to bounce back in 2004. Let's not forget that the speedy Aussie closed out his '03 season with a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open (lost to Ferrero) and a pair of five-set Davis Cup victories against the Wimbledon champion Federer and French Open victor Ferrero. FYI, Ferrero, the only two-time male Grand Slam finalist in 2003, closed out '03 with six straight defeats. Ouch!
The gritty Hewitt, the 2001 U.S. Open champ and 2002 Wimbledon titlist, finished as the No. 1 player in the world in '01 and '02, and was the youngest-ever year-end No. 1 in 2001. But when he tumbled to No. 17 this past season, he became only the fourth player to plunge out of the top 10 after finishing No. 1 the previous year, joining Budge Patty (1951), Arthur Ashe (1976) and Mats Wilander (1989).
Hewitt, however, recently helped Australia claim its 28th Davis Cup title, a championship the 22-year-old covets more than anything else in the sport.
"The Cup means a helluva lot more to me than winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open," he said. Go figure.
By the way, Hewitt proposed marriage to his long-time girlfriend Clijsters during a cruise on Sydney Harbor last week...and she accepted. A wedding date has not been announced for the tennis power couple.
Back to Agassi.
Since he is 33 years old (turns 34 in April), there has been speculation that this could be Andre's last year on tour. But people, of course, are always speculating. "AA" has not confirmed such speculation either way, but let's face it, he's already done just about everything you can do in the sport (No. 1, Aussie, French, U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion, Olympic gold, Davis Cup title, etc., etc.), is happily married to fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf, is the father of two young children and has amassed a huge fortune as perhaps the game's most popular star ever. But he still appears to be driven, as he continues to go through those grueling offseason workouts in his native Las Vegas in preparation for a fifth Aussie Open title run.
It's my guess that Agassi will repeat Down Under, despite the stiff competition that will await him in the form of Roddick, Federer, Ferrero, Coria, hungry 2003 Aussie Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler, Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis, etc., etc. Agassi loves competing on the Rebound Ace, a surface that rewards players who use a variety of shots, such as himself. And keep in mind that he hasn't lost a match in Melbourne since 1999, having claimed the championship in his last three trips there. Agassi missed the 2002 edition with a wrist injury.
Roddick and Henin-Hardenne finished '03 as the respective world No. 1s, but don't be surprised if things change in '04. Serena should return healthy following season-ending knee surgery, while Federer, not Roddick, appears to be the "next Sampras." Remember, it was Federer, not Roddick, who led the ATP with seven titles last season, including his big season-ending title at the Masters Cup in Houston where the graceful Swiss went undefeated in five matches against the top-eight players on the planet. And Federer is a dominant 5-1 lifetime against Roddick, including a 1-hour, 43-minute dismantling in the Wimbledon semis and straight-set semifinal victory against the young American at the Masters Cup, where the "Fed" ultimately chopped up Agassi in the final.
Will Kim Clijsters break through for her first Grand Slam title in 2004?
Any way you cut it, Federer-Roddick would appear to be a classic rivalry in the making.
On the women's side, Henin-Hardenne and her fellow Belgian Clijsters won just about everything in sight last year, but let's not forget that when Serena did play she was a practically-unstoppable 35-3 and was not on hand to defend her title in Flushing, where she would have been the heavy favorite to repeat. Henin-Hardenne stunningly defeated Serena twice in 2003, but the powerful American captured their last bout in convincing 6-3, 6-2 fashion in the Wimby semis, their first encounter since J H-H shocked the former world No. 1 in three sets in a hotly-contested semi at Roland Garros.
Despite some expected rust, I do expect Serena to repeat in the heat in Melbourne. She can likely expect challenges from her big sister Venus, Henin- Hardenne, the U.S. and French Open runner-up Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, and perhaps even Capriati and Davenport. Like Serena, Venus and Davenport will also return from injuries in the coming weeks. Venus, of course, was last year's Wimbledon and Australian Open runner-up to Serena, and, like Serena, hasn't played since Wimby due to a nagging abdominal strain.
Back to the men.
When it comes to tennis, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." The Argentines currently account for two of the top-eight players in the world, with the No. 5 Coria and No. 8 David Nalbandian. The South American nation hadn't boasted a pair of top-10ers since Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc back in 1981.
The big questions heading into 2004 are: Are Roddick and Henin-Hardenne legitimate No. 1s? Will the busy Williams sisters return to form? Will Federer assert himself as the next Pete? Will Hewitt, the 2000 U.S. Open champion Safin and three-time French Open winner "Guga" Kuerten return to the top of the men's game? Will the amicable Clijsters breakthrough for her first Grand Slam title? Are Davenport and Capriati on the downslide? Is Monica Seles still playing? Are youngsters like Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal ready for the top-20 spotlight? And, will Anna K return to the court by March as she predicted?