Aussie Open's second week could be a stunner
Forecasting no title for Federer and a solid shot at a Williams sisters final
Venus Williams (left) walks next to her sister Serena as both have their games going at a level where they could meet in the Australian Open final, writes Bud Collins of MSNBC.com.
By Bud Collins
MELBOURNE, Australia - The first week of the Australian Open was marked by police macings, multiple upsets, and a match -- Lleyton Hewitt's marathon five-set win over Marcos Baghdatis -- finishing at 4:33 a.m. Even the Ethereal One looked human when Roger Federer barely escaped from Dostoyevsky-reading Serb Janko Tipsarevic 10-8 in the fifth set. All this leaves us primed for some high-octane action in the second week of the year's first major.
Nadal scaling heights on hard courts
Second-seeded Rafael Nadal's chances to reach his first major final on hard courts are looking up. He is in the lower half of the draw, which is clearly the weaker section. Besides Nadal, the other three players who'll take part in the quarterfinals in the lower half are unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, 14th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, and 24th-seeded Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, who will go against the Spaniard.
In some ways we never know what to expect of clay king Rafa, but he seems to be improving all the time on the hard stuff. He pulled himself out of some tough holes and hasn't lost a set in the tournament. He's shaken his numerous injuries from last year, too. Nadal caught a break in his fourth-round match when Paul-Henri Mathieu, seeded 23rd, retired at 6-4, 3-0 with a left calf muscle injury after losing 11 of the first 12 points of the second set. Despite such a short outing against Mathieu, Nadal came away from the match in a very positive frame of mind. He played well and afterwards offered that his performance was perhaps his best tennis in Australia this year.
Nadal's form should see him through to the semifinals, where I expect a tough contest against Youzhny, who upset fellow Russian and No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko to reach the quarterfinals. Youzhny knocked off Rafa in the 2006 U.S. Open quarterfinals and utterly destroyed him 6-0, 6-1 in the Chennai finals two weeks ago, but the muscular Mallorcan was spent after beating longtime friend and mentor Carlos Moya in a marathon the day before. Youzhny won't find a depleted Nadal this time. Making the final is there for the taking for Nadal.
Djokovic's dream realized at Federer's expense?
Top-ranked Federer looked a tad vulnerable in his third-round win over the 49th-ranked Tipsarevic. Still, he showed that he could lift the quality of his game when he's not at his best, similar to when the top-seeded Swiss came back in the fifth set to beat Nadal at Wimbledon last year. His major susceptibility is that he just hasn't played that much since wining the Masters Cup in Shanghai in November. He missed the Kooyong Classic warm-up exhibition event due to a stomach virus, so this is his first tournament in two months. Federer's fourth-round opponent Tomas Berdych, who is seeded 13th, beat him at the 2004 Olympics, but that was best-of-three sets and I don't see that happening here. Nor do I see the James Blake-Marin Cilic winner stopping the Fed Express in the quarterfinals.
However, Federer's potential semifinal opponent Novak Djokovic is a different matter altogether. The No. 3 Serbian hasn't dropped a set and looks to be on a collision course with Federer in the upper half of the draw even though he'll have a tougher road to travel on his way to a potential showdown against the World No. 1. Aussie Hewitt, the "C'mon!" man, will test the Djokster in the fourth round, especially with the hometown crowd behind him, but expect the 20-year-old Serbian to prevail. Then in the quarterfinals Djokovic will have to grind through the winner of a collision of two Spaniards -- former French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero or No. 5 seed David Ferrer.
Then we get what could be the match of the tournament: Federer vs. Djokovic. In my view the winner of this semifinal will go on to become the Australian Open champ. Djokovic is 1-5 against Federer, including last year's U.S. Open final, where he lost in three tight sets. I'm guessing the peer-imitating Djokster is ready to take the next step, and he did beat Federer for the first time on his way to the title in Montreal last August. He's my pick to stop Federer's run of 10 consecutive major finals and win the title here.
A Williams sisters final could be in the cards
The women's draw is heating up, too, and I'm not sure anyone can stop one of the Williams sisters from bringing home the trophy, even though top-ranked Justine Henin is on a 33-match winning streak. The diminutive Belgian remains on form and she's still a slight favorite, but I just feel a Williams is going to win the title. I don't know if it will be defending champ Serena or Venus, but an all-Williams final wouldn't surprise me.
The match between Henin and No. 5 Maria Sharapova will be the marquee quarterfinal clash on the women's side. Former Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner Sharapova is bombing her serve again after struggling with a shoulder injury last season. She pushed Henin in three tough sets at the year-end championships in Madrid and is playing with a lot of confidence. It will come down to execution -- Henin's speed and variety versus Sharapova's bludgeoning baseline power.
Like Henin and Sharapova, No. 7 Serena is in the top half -- and stronger half -- of the draw. She'll face No. 3 Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals and should be fresher for whoever survives the Sharapova-Henin battle. In the fourth round, Serena brushed aside last year's Aussie Open semifinalist Nicole Vaidisova, 6-3, 6-4 and looks in fine form, especially her serve, which is the best in women's tennis. Henin managed to beat both Williams sisters on her way to her seventh major title at the 2007 U.S. Open, but the Williams sisters are in better shape now. To get by Sharapova, Serena, and then possibly Venus in the final will be a tall task for the 5-foot-6 Belgian.
Venus will be awful tough to push aside
In the bottom half of the draw, I can't see how anyone can stop Venus from reaching her second Melbourne final. Like the first one in 2003, she might be staring at younger sis Serena from the other side of the net if she gets there. Four-time Wimbledon winner Venus can be erratic, but the No. 8 seed has looked strong and fast through her first three rounds and she only gets better as a tournament progresses.
Surprise round-of-16 opponent Marta Domanchowska of Poland won't offer much resistance to the 27-year-old American. Her biggest test will be No. 4 seed Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals. The 20-year-old Serb mashes her forehand, but hasn't proved to me she's a big-match player yet. Venus is, and stopped Ivanovic at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in straight sets last year and hasn't lost to her in four encounters. I see no break in this pattern.
In the other quarter of the bottom half of the draw, the highest seed remaining heading into the round-of-16 is No. 9 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia. That after second-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova was stunned by 29th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in the third round. The 18-year-old took out the Russian in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. Whether it's Hantuchova, Maria Kirilenko, Nadia Petrova, or Radwanska in a potential semifinal against Venus, the American won't be derailed. If the final pits Venus against Serena, it's a toss up and a can't-miss match for tennis fans, especially Americans.
© 2008 MSNBC Interactive