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 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.””