Analysis of Contenders for the Australian Open
1. Maria Sharapova
I think Maria has to be the favourite for the tournament simply by process of elimination. Mauresmo, whom I shall discuss, is doubtful, Justine is not present, and, despite her success in Hong Kong, it is too early to establish Clijsters as a major threat to Sharapova, having looked decidedly behind the top 3 throughout most of last year. The rest are not clearly in Maria's class unless they have extremely hot days. If there's one thing that can be guaranteed about Sharapova at this young age it's that she has a voracious appetite for grandslam success, and will bring her best tennis to the major events almost by default. Her intensity, Seles-like, almost grinds down her early opponents even when her shots are not in tune, and sees her through.
But Sharapova is not the overwhelming favourite. Mauresmo, Clijsters and possibly a few dark horses have the arsenal to compete, and her game is still at times given to appearing one-dimensional. There are players with the requisite physical power, as well as greater speed and variety, enough to lay challenge.
And incidentally, Hong Kong should not be completely overlooked, even if it was an exhibition tournament. In 1995 the then overwhelming Australian Open favourite, Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario, was defeated by Mary Pierce. Two weeks later, the same result occurred. In 2000, Jennifer Capriati defeated Martina Hingis in the Hong Kong final, a result which received little attention. Not only did it spur her to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne two weeks later, the following year, Jennifer the underdog against Hingis, I had a feeling that the result of the previous year would stand her in good stead, even if the commentators did not appear to have it on their stats. Lo and behold, Hingis was the victim of an upset.
Amelie is such a fine athlete, who is always in impeccable shape for the occasion. Sport is her livelihood and the discipline that goes with being a great tennis player of this decade is not an added burden, but something she relishes. She also has a tremendous repetoire, of course.
But I just don't rate her chances very highly. I was disappointed with the nature of her loss to Sharapova last September in New York, being bagelled in the final set. Despite all the bravado and rhetoric, I really feel Amelie is lacking the motivation she was possessed with this time last year. Against a spirited opponent, I do wonder whether Mauresmo will start thinking about the flight home rather than fighting to stay in the championship.
She does not appear to have started the year favourably and is completely unpredictable. After a great 2004, she faded badly in 2005. After a resurgence in 2006, are we to see another fatigue-induced slump this year?
Kuznetsova has the fitness and all-round physical strength necessary to remain in the gruelling contests we have been wont to witnessing in Australian championships past -- perhaps more so than any other player. She is also not a player who will be crushed, with both the ability to chase and to attack. On her better days, if she can remain in a contest mentally, she can defeat any player.
But Kuznetsova's game always looks so sloppy, like it is still far from falling into place. I have rated her very highly in the past, but I do sometimes wonder whether she has the talent to marry her physical ability in order to produce better results. I doubt she will carry away the trophy.
Kim seems to have started the year promisingly, and I would place her as second favourite for the title. I do wonder how she would cope with Sharapova's relentless groundstroke assault now that she has greatly improved her agility and speed. She really seemed as if she might have conquered Kim when she defeated her last summer.
But there's not much else to say about Clijsters. We know that she is an athletic phenomenon and, when not carrying injuries, is capable of out-muscling rather than overpowering virtually all of the players in the draw. The question is whether her body is falling apart. Can she go through seven matches without sustaining an injury? It is getting more and more doubtful.
As always, she needs to prove that she can defeat the players seeded above her, or even some below, in a grandslam championship. She has made a steady ascent up the world rankings, which is often the key ingredient to longevity. Last year she established herself as a major contender in any tour event, except the grandslams. Perhaps this year she will continue to make progress, and we will see her contest a grandslam final or even better. She has the weapons. But I have not yet seen sufficient proof that this is likely to happen, and my gut feeling is that she will be victim of an early upset.
I can see Martina coming through Safina, and perhaps even getting psyched-up to contest Clijsters. But the problem Hingis has always faced in grandslams is that not only is she vulnerable to known dangers, such as obviously Kim, there are also other players with more potent games who, in inspired form, can almost rise from the unknown. Players such as Chakvetadze, Vaidisova, Ivanovic, Jankovic, Dementieva or even extremely unpredictable floaters such as Sprem, Mirza or Rezai all have games which can toy with or, most often, mow Hingis down when they are in the zone. In terms of percentages, Hingis would be the favourite against such opponents, particularly the latter names, but I honestly do feel that, if those opponents were at full steam, she would be extremely vulnerable to each of them.
Capable or defeating anybody in the draw if her serve is working and her groundgame is on. One of the most graceful athletes, arguably the greatest, on the tour. I actually think that coming so close in 2004, and to a lesser extent in 2005, as well as having defeated all of the top players at least once, will be the fuel Dementieva will need to keep going for another few years yet. But it's always a question of the serve. Other people put her losses down to other factors, but all players have days when their groundgame deserts them. As far as I can see, Elena's groundstrokes are of top-five quality and can match any other, but her serve prevents her from really bringing her groundstroke force to bear.
There is no evidence that she has improved her serve, less still that she can sustain good or even adequate serving for seven matches under intense heat and pressure.
A beautiful player to watch, but very unlikely to ever win a grandslam championship because of the limitations of her game, as her record in grandslam championships would atest.
Perhaps a dark horse for the semi-finals, but I've never rated her as an incredible prospect. Her groundstrokes are nothing more than above average, her serve is decent if not extraordinary, and her temperament is volatile, however determined Hingis claims her to be in order to deflect the attention from her own limitations.
All to prove. She has possibly the best forehand in women's tennis, adequate movement, good hands, a beautiful, crunching serve and a more than potent backhand to boot. I salivate at her athletic presence, also. But where are the results recently? I cannot see everything coming together in Melbourne.
Possesses one of the cleanest, most compact and deceptively dangerous ground games in women's tennis. Jankovic makes everything from the baseline appear so simple. While opponents struggle with their timing and to find the correct shot, Jelena is just there blasting away with real acceleration particularly from the backhand side, while her forehand is more effective than that of Hingis, a similar player. Whether Jelena has Hingis' match-playing abilities and all-court talent is doubtful, but I feel it is far from impossible that Jankovic could step up and become the major player than very few ever thought she would be.
Her recent run could harm her cause, however. But still, I really do feel that she's a dark horse for the title in Melbourne.
Still a great deal to prove at grandslam level. She apparently has all the weapons to defeat great players, but major championships are when they are most motivated and the pressure is increased. There are also still doubts about her fitness. I do not see her going past the round of 16.