Rafael Nadal bids to hold all four ma­jor ti­tles, while flood­ing adds somber back­drop.

With flood­ing dis­as­ter as a back­drop, women’s field wide open with­out S. Wil­liams

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE clarkel@wash­post.com

The women’s draw lacks the top player of her gen­er­a­tion, Ser­ena Wil­liams, whose ab­sence leaves a wide-open path to the 2011 Aus­tralian Open cham­pi­onship.

The men’s side fea­tures a quest to achieve a feat not seen in 42 years, with world No. 1 Rafael Nadal try­ing to be­come the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four ma­jor ti­tles at once.

And the dev­as­tat­ing floods that have rav­aged the northeastern state of Queens­land, though a few hours away by plane, serve as a somber back­drop to the tour­na­ment re­garded as the most joy­ful of the ten­nis ma­jors, typ­i­cally drenched with sun and good feel­ing.

This year’s Aus­tralian Open, which gets un­der way Mon­day (Sun­day night in the United States), was pre­ceded by a sold-out “Rally for Re­lief” head­lined by Nadal and Roger Fed­erer to raise money for vic­tims of the flood­wa­ters that sub­merged much of Bris­bane, the nation’s third-largest city, and left more than two dozen dead and many more missing.

“I’ve never seen a tragedy like this in Aus­tralia,” said Dar­ren Cahill, 45, an ESPN com­men­ta­tor and for­mer tour­ing pro from the coun­try, in a con­fer­ence call from Mel­bourne on Fri­day.

Just two weeks ago many of the world’s top men, Amer­i­can Andy Rod­dick in­cluded, com­peted in a tune-up event at a ten­nis com­plex in Bris­bane that Cahill said was now 10 feet un­der wa­ter.

“ This is re­ally close to the bone for us,” Cahill added. “We’re see­ing the tragedy un­fold on our tele­vi­sion screens and are quite stunned.”

When the com­pe­ti­tion gets un­der way, there will be no short­age of story lines at Rod Laver Arena— start­ing with the un­cer­tainty in the women’s field fol­low­ing the with­drawal of Wil­liams, the tour­na­ment’s five-time and de­fend­ing cham­pion, cit­ing lin­ger­ing is­sues with the freak foot in­jury she suf­fered last July. She has not com­peted since un­der­go­ing surgery to re­pair dam­age af­ter cut­ting her foot on bro­ken glass in a Ger­man bar.

“In women’s ten­nis, to not have Ser­ena the last seven months has been a tremen­dous loss,” said for­mer pro Pam Shriver, a mem­ber of ESPN’s broad­cast team.

Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, the cur­rent world No. 1, has been in­stalled as the tour­na­ment’s top seed. But that doesn’t make her the fa­vorite. The sport’s rank­ing sys­tem re­wards con­sis­tency over big-match su­pe­ri­or­ity. And while the 20-year-old Dane gamely slugged away in 2010, com­pet­ing in more tour­na­ments than nearly all of her peers and win­ning six, she has yet to win a ma­jor.

“I think most peo­ple feel that un­til you win a ma­jor, then theNo. 1 rank­ing — when it’s de­cided on just play­ing a lot of good qual­ity, reg­u­lar tour events— is just a lit­tle bit hol­low,” Shriver said. “ There are a lot of ques­tion marks.”

A more likely cham­pion is Bel­gium’s Kim Cli­jsters, who won her third U.S. Open in Septem­ber to add an­other chap­ter to her re­mark­able come­back story af­ter re­tir­ing in 2007 to get mar­ried and start a fam­ily.

Cli­jsters’s de­fen­sive skills are well suited to Aus­tralia’s hard courts. And, at 27, her mental strength is for­mi­da­ble — par­tic­u­larly on big stages.

What slim hopes Amer­i­can women have al­most cer­tainly rest with 30-year-old Venus Wil­liams, whose win­dow for win­ning her first Aus­tralian Open is grow­ing shorter. Wil­liams boasts a mas­sive serve and fierce com­pet­i­tive fire. But it has been nearly a decade since she won a ma­jor on a sur­face other than grass. And it’s un­clear whether the knee prob­lems that ham­pered her 2010 cam­paign have been re­solved.

The men’s side fea­tures three Amer­i­cans among the top 20 seeds: Rod­dick, Sam Quer­rey and the big-serv­ing John Is­ner.

And though Rod­dick’s strug­gle to win a sec­ond ma­jor since he hoisted the 2003 U.S. Open tro­phy have been well doc­u­mented, he still likely rep­re­sents his coun­try’s best hope in Aus­tralia, granted a fa­vor­able draw un­til a po­ten­tial fourth-round meet­ing with Fed­erer.

U.S. Davis Cup cap­tain Jim Courier, a two-time Aus­tralian Open win­ner, re­cently vis­ited Rod­dick in Austin and came away con­vinced that the 28-year-old is in the best shape, men­tally and phys­i­cally, he has been in since last spring, be­fore mononu­cle­o­sis sapped him for months.

“I still hope that he can break through, bust through, and lift an­other tro­phy,” said Courier, 40. “He has that ca­pa­bil­ity if he’s able to play at his max­i­mum po­ten­tial and be a lit­tle more ag­gres­sive from the base­line like we saw him do last year in March, par­tic­u­larly in Mi­ami when he beat Rafa. That’s the type of ten­nis that can scare and beat any­body.”

Un­for­tu­nately for Rod­dick, his ca­reer has dove tailed with those of Fed­erer and Nadal, who each could stake a claim to­day as the great­est to play the game. Add to that a sec­ond tier of con­tenders that’s laden with tal­ent, in­clud­ing the mer­cu­rial No­vak Djokovic, the 2008 Aus­tralian Open cham­pion, who played bril­liantly in los­ing to Nadal at the U.S. Open in Septem­ber.

Swe­den’s Robin Soder­ling also ap­pears poised for a break­through at Mel­bourne, where he has never done well, us­ing his mas­sive serve and ground­strokes to top­ple Rod­dick in the fi­nal at Bris­bane ear­lier this month.

Andy Mur­ray of Scot­land also has a point to prove, with his tal­ent never liv­ing up to its billing in ma­jors.

But the most com­pelling men’s fi­nal would be the most fa­mil­iar, with sen­ti­ment root­ing for an­other in­stall­ment of the Nadal-Fed­erer ri­valry. It’s tricky to pick be­tween them, though if Nadal doesn’t get over the virus that has ham­pered him of late, it could tip the bal­ance in Fed­erer’s fa­vor.

In the case of both, there is lit­tle left to achieve in their bril­liant ca­reers. Fed­erer has won a record 16 ma­jor men’s ti­tles; Nadal, at 24, be­came just the sev­enth man in his­tory to com­plete a ca­reer Grand Slam with his vic­tory at the U.S. Open in Septem­ber.

Should he win in Aus­tralia, he’d join a more elite group in hold­ing all four ti­tles at once. And un­like Laver, Nadal would have done so on three dif­fer­ent sur­faces rather than two.

“If he is able to do this,” Courier said, “ he’s do­ing it in an era that’s deeper than any era that has ever ex­isted in men’s ten­nis — pro or am­a­teur.””

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.