Tennis’ stars gear up for Australian Open Series

Time for tennis' elite to acclimatise to the outdoor hard courts Down Under, writes Marianne Bevis

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
caroline wozniacki
Can Caroline Wozniacki prove she is the rightful world No1? (Photo: Karl Norling)

caroline wozniacki

With the first grand slam of the new season fast approaching there is still plenty of opportunity to get those bodies and tactics in peak condition.

The second week of January offers up four chances for players to get their games into oil-smooth form and to acclimatise to the high temperatures of the brilliant blue outdoor hard courts of the Australian Open Series.

The biggest, and probably the most significant -because of one particular participant -will be in Sydney, where the long-absent Juan Martín del Potro begins the long road back from a chronic wrist injury that stopped him playing in all but three events of 2010. He will be joined in the men’s competition by defending champion, Marcos Baghdatis, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Ernests Gulbis and Sam Querrey.

The women’s event is full to brimming with star-appeal. It will feature the first 2011 appearance of the new No1, Caroline Wozniacki -her third consecutive appearance at Sydney -together with Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic.

Also in the mix is a woman who may make a major breakthrough in 2011 after reaching two grand slam finals in 2010: Vera Zvonareva. Stir in the bundle of energy that is Francesca Schiavone -a first-time Slam winner in 2010 -Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Yanina Wickmayer and Nadia Petrova and this is one melting pot of an event.

Sydney’s outstanding line-up leaves few names for the last women’s event before Melbourne in Hobart. With the likes of Marion Bartoli and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova presenting the biggest challenge, Hobart should give Dinara Safina another chance to make some headway before facing the rigours of a grand slam.

Back in Auckland, the men take over from the women for what is the biggest men’s professional sporting event in New Zealand. It has attracted the only other big name from the World Tour Finals not to feature thus far, David Ferrer.

Last year at this tournament Ferrer went out in the first round and then fell in the second at the Australian Open. He began to talk of retirement, but then went on to reach his highest ranking in two years after good runs not only on the clay but also on the late indoor hard courts.

Ferrer made little impact on the top men at the WTFs but still has the potential to push everyone else to the limits, and will want to make a better mark in the Oz swing than he did in 2010. His biggest challenge in Auckland should come from fellow Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro, now riding high at 15 in the world. However, this event will also give tennis fans their first chance to see whether David Nalbandian can continue his outstanding form after hip surgery in 2010.

The Argentine attempted to make his tennis comeback in Auckland last year but injured himself in the warm-up and had to withdraw from Melbourne. He is in better shape now and, turning 29 on the first day of the year, he will be conscious that he has little time left to make his way back to the top of the game.

There is one other non-ranking tournament -highly popular with many of the top players over the years: the eight-man showcase that runs for four days in the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong.

Lleyton Hewitt’s presence there for the first time will be a popular addition for the home crowd, but he will be up against a class field that includes Tomas Berdych, Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Jurgen Melzer, Mikhail Youzhny and Gael Monfils. The results may not yield ranking points, but they will give the winner a real boost of confidence ahead of the main show.

The tag line for 2011’s Australian Open Series is “A Whole New Level” and, compared with the preparations that have led to this moment, that is exactly what the players will need to find when they arrive in Melbourne for the first Major of the year.

For the Open itself boasts the world’s top 100 ranked men and all but two of the world’s top 100 women -one of them defending champion Serena Williams.

There will be several fascinating storylines to follow. For the men, there is Rafael Nadal’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive grand slam. Should he succeed, he would be the first in 41 years to emulate Rod Laver. How appropriate that his attempt will be made in the arena that bears that great Australian’s name.

However, Roger Federer is the Australian defending champion and is aiming for his fifth title there. He also injected a little extra spice into his rivalry with Nadal by beating him at the WTFs. He played great tennis in Melbourne last year, and during the late hard-court season, he put on an aggressive surge of form.

Novak Djokovic also showed some impressive improvement during 2010. He won his only grand slam in Melbourne three years ago and looks keen and capable enough to take his second this year.

Andy Murray came close to winning his first Major in Melbourne last year, and since losing to Federer in the final, he has beaten the Swiss in two Masters finals. He and the constantly improving Robin Soderling will be strong contenders.

And then there is Del Potro. He clearly has the ability, but surely he will not be sharp enough to disturb the top five quite yet.

As for the women, Melbourne will provide Wozniacki with her first chance to prove she is the rightful No1. She became more impressive as she advanced through 2010, especially on the end-of-season hard courts, and must be one of the favourites for the title. But Clijsters got the better of her at the Tour Championships in Doha and will, as always, be a formidable threat.

The unknown quantity comes in the petite shape of Henin. If she is fit -and the key may be whether her lately-healed elbow can deliver a consistently solid serve throughout the tournament -she will always be a danger.

One more to watch is Zvonareva. It took Williams, Clijsters or Wozniacki to beat her in the second half of 2010, and she has become a more aggressive and consistent player than at any time in her 10 years as a pro. She could be the dark horse on the hard courts of Melbourne.

So January 2011 promises to be a sun-drenched, no-holds-barred, high-spirited affair. Will it be the old campaigners who dominate or the young bloods ready to take on the mantel of champion?

With so much at stake, no wonder all those men and women have been hard at it since their 2010 season’s came to an end. Tennis is no sport for holidays.

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