Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Grand Slam season will hit the ground running in Melbourne next week when the 2006 Australian Open gets underway, with Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters considered as the Down Under favorites.
Federer, who captured the Aussie Open in 2004, came up a semifinal loser at the hands of powerful Russian Marat Safin a year ago, while Clijsters skipped the 2005 edition while recovering from a career-threatening left wrist injury.
Federer's loss against Safin wound up being one of the top matches last season (or any season), as the bout went the distance and featured some of the best tennis you will ever see. Safin eventually went on to beat heavy Aussie crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the final.
The former world No. 1 Clijsters reached the final in Melbourne in 2004, only to lose to fellow Belgian star Justine Henin-Hardenne. The reigning U.S. Open champion Clijsters has reached at least the semis in her last three trips to Melbourne and would love to secure career major title number two at the popular stop.
The '05 Aussie Open champ was Serena Williams, who handled Lindsay Davenport in a lackluster all-American finale at Laver Arena. Serena, however, is coming off yet another injury-marred campaign and is not considered as a favorite to successfully defend her crown. Serena also won the Aussie Open in 2003 and has captured the tourney in her last two trips. She missed the event because of injuries in 2002 and 2004.
The great Roger Federer practices for the Australian Open.
The six-time Grand Slam champion Federer could be challenged by a few men, but the field has already taken a couple of big hits. The men's side will have to do without world No. 2 French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who pulled out this week due to a lingering left foot injury, and U.S. Open runner-up Andre Agassi, who withdrew last week, citing a left ankle problem. The eight-time Grand Slam winner Agassi is a four-time Aussie Open champion.
Hopefully Safin will be on hand, but that's a big question mark right now. The reigning champ and two-time Melbourne runner-up (2002, 2004) has been sidelined for months due to a a sore knee and did not play in any of the Aussie Open tune-ups.
FYI, both the oft-injured Safin and Serena failed to win another event in 2005 after running the tables in Oz.
Federer's realistic obstacles would appear to be Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, the fiery Hewitt, Masters Cup champion David Nalbandian, hot Croat Ivan Ljubicic and perhaps even gritty Russian Nikolay Davydenko.
The 2003 U.S. Open champion Roddick reached the Aussie semis in two of the last three years, losing to Hewitt in the final four a year ago. The huge-serving American clearly has enough game to prevail in Melbourne, as long as he doesn't have to face the maestro that is Federer.
Hewitt is a two-time major titlist, but has yet to corral his home Slam. Last year's runner-up finish marked his best-ever showing in Melbourne.
Nalbandian, who shocked Federer in five sets in November's Masters Cup finale in Shanghai, has reached the quarterfinals in his last three treks to the Aussie and is always a dangerous performer in any draw.
The high-flying Ljubicic is fresh off his title in Chennai, led Croatia to its first-ever Davis Cup title last year and is clearly one of the top-10 players on the planet right now. On the negative side, however, Ljubicic has never advanced beyond the third round in Melbourne, following a second-round setback there a year ago.
Davydenko is currently ranked sixth in the world and just keeps winning tennis matches. He lost to Roddick in last year's Aussie Open quarters and then went on to reach the semis at Roland Garros.
Men with an outside shot (a.k.a. darkhorses) include Americans Robby Ginepri and James Blake, Frenchmen Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils and Czech Tomas Berdych. Monfils was last week's Doha runner-up to the mighty "Fed," while Berdych captured the last Masters Series event of 2005 (Paris Masters).
Back to the ladies.
Clijsters and Serena will be joined in the fray by the likes of Davenport, WTA Championships winner Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, last year's top bridesmaid Mary Pierce and Justine Henin-Hardenne.
U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters will attempt to win back-to-back Grand Slam events.
Davenport reached Aussie Open and Wimbledon finals last year, only to lose to Serena and Venus Williams, respectively. The current world No. 1 is a three-time Grand Slam champ, but hasn't won a major since the 2000 Aussie extravaganza. She also lost to Clijsters in a final at last week's exhibition event in Hong Kong.
Mauresmo reached her lone Grand Slam final in Melbourne seven years ago and is a perennial quarterfinal/semifinal threat at all the majors. The athletic Frenchwoman has the complete game, she just needs to put it all together for seven straight matches at a major. That's easier said than done.
The 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova reached the semis at three quarters of the '05 Slams, losing to Serena in the Aussie final four. The popular Russian would be even scarier if she possessed any touch at all.
The '05 French Open, U.S. Open and WTA Championships runner-up Pierce, like Davenport, was one of only two women to reach a pair of major finals last year, losing to Henin-Hardenne at the French and Clijsters at the U.S. Open. The veteran "Frenchwoman," an opening-round loser last year in Melbourne, won the Aussie Open in 1995 and was the runner-up in 1997.
The French Open champion Henin-Hardenne captured the Aussie in 2004, but was unable to defend her title last year due to a knee injury. The former world No. 1 is a four-time Grand Slam champion and, if healthy, is always a threat to win any tournament.
The Wimbledon titlist Venus looks like a longshot in Melbourne, as she limps into the major after closing out 2005 hobbled and suffering a lower back injury in Hong Kong last week. Venus is a five-time major champion, but has never titled at the Aussie. She lost to her younger sister in the 2003 finale, her lone championship match in Melbourne.
Potential darkhorses on the ladies' side are hard-hitting Russian Elena Dementieva and rising Czech Nicole Vaidisova. Unfortunately for Dementieva, if she was off to see the wizard she'd be singing "if I only had a serve."
Five-time Grand Slam winner Martina Hingis has rejoined the tour this year, but the wild-card entry probably won't make it too deep into the second week in Melbourne, where she appeared in six straight finals from 1997-2002, including back-to-back-to-back titles from '97-99.
After reaching the semifinals at Gold Coast last week, Hingis was a first- round loser against Henin-Hardenne in Sydney this week. The "Swiss Miss" clearly needs to shake off some more rust.
It's that time again. Time to pick some winners.
I'm going out on that limb to predict additional majors for Federer and Clijsters. A Federer victory would mark his seventh Slam in 11 tries, while a Clijsters win would give her a second straight major.