Federer, Serena look to defend honor at Oz Open

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2008 Grand Slam season will kick into action next week in Melbourne, where Roger Federer and Serena Williams will be on hand to defend their crowns at the Australian Open.

Federer vanquished Chile's Fernando Gonzalez in last year's men's final to corral a second straight and third overall Aussie Open championship, while an unseeded Serena basically came out of nowhere to tattoo Maria Sharapova in the women's finale for her third title in her last four trips to Melbourne Park. The victory also marked Serena's first major title since running the table at Oz in 2005.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer is closing in on Pete Sampras' record for major titles.

The reigning Aussie Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open conqueror Federer currently stands at 12 when it comes to Grand Slam singles titles, as he's two wins away from equaling the great Pete Sampras' record. Serena, meanwhile, is an eight- time major titleholder...and that's not too bad either.

The top-ranked Federer, of course, is expected to reign supreme in Melbourne once again, despite the fact that he pulled out of an exhibition event this week due to a severe stomach virus. Something tells me, however, that he'll be ready in time for next week.

FYI, Federer has reached at least the semis in a record 14 straight majors and has performed in a record 10 straight Grand Slam title bouts.

Yeah, but is he the best-ever player from Switzerland?

While Federer is clearly the heavy favorite to three-peat Down Under, the same cannot be said for Serena, who crawled to the tennis finish line last season, including three straight Grand Slam quarterfinal losses to the amazing Justine Henin, following that early-season Aussie success.

The soaring world No. 1 Henin is your reigning French Open, U.S. Open and WTA Championships queen. She skipped last year's Aussie Open due to personal reasons (separated from her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne), only to come back and win three of year's four biggest women's events after that.

Justine Henin
Justine Henin will seek a second Aussie Open crown.

Henin owns seven major titles, including a lone Aussie Open crown back in 2004. She also reached the final Down Under in 2006, before losing to athletic French star Amelie Mauresmo.

The diminutive Henin has appeared in the final in her last two trips to Melbourne (2004 & 2006), as she skipped the hot-weather extravaganza in 2005 and last year.

Back over on the men's side, Federer can expect competition from the usual suspects -- Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

The powerful Nadal is the reigning three-time French Open champ and two-time Wimbledon runner-up to Federer, but has yet to break through on the "hardcourts" at Melbourne Park.

Nadal only reached the Aussie quarters last year and has proven to be a mere mortal on any surface that's not red clay. The U.S. Open runner-up Djokovic, meanwhile, can play top-shelf tennis on any surface and looks to improve upon his fourth-round finish in Melbourne a year ago. The always-entertaining Serb wound up appearing in two semis and a final in his last three Grand Slam appearances in 2007 and is a major titlist waiting to happen. Don't you think?

Back to the women.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova will seek a second straight trip into the Oz Open final.
Henin's stiffest competition figures to come from solid Serb Ana Ivanovic, Russian glamour girl Maria Sharapova, perhaps the Williams sisters, and maybe even long-time star, and new mom, Lindsay Davenport.

Ivanovic was last year's French Open runner-up to Henin and, like her countryman Djokovic, can perform on any surface. She also made a trip into the Wimbledon semis last season.

The determined Sharapova, a two-time major champion and former No. 1 star, can beat any woman in the world on one of her good days and pushed the great Henin in last year's WTA Championships season finale, in what was arguably the best women's match of 2007.

Sharapova has reached at least the semis in her last three trips to Melbourne and would love to rebound in a big way from her lopsided title match loss at the hands of Serena a year ago.

Serena won't head to Melbourne as the fave, but just like that box of chocolates...you never know what you're gonna get from the able American. She came out of nowhere to win it all a year ago, and who's to say she can't duplicate that feat again this year?

Serena's big sister Venus would love to capture her first Aussie Open title, a title that eluded her five years ago when she succumbed to her younger sibling in the final in Melbourne.

Venus is a six-time major champ, including four Wimbledon titles, one of which came last year at the famed All England Club, and could surprise Down Under with a favorable draw (which will be revealed on Friday).

Serena Williams
Serena Williams has won three titles in her last four trips to Melbourne.

Back to the dudes.

Aside from Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who are some other serious contenders over the next couple of weeks?

Gritty Russian Nikolay Davydenko is always knocking on the Grand Slam door (but no one ever answers). He's been a semifinalist in three of his last five major events, but has yet to land in that elusive first Slam finale. Davydenko's lost in the quarters in his last three trips to Melbourne.

David Ferrer has been coming into his own, as evidenced by his trip into the U.S. Open semis and the Masters Cup finale last season.

Andy Roddick always keeps himself in contention with that storm of a service game, and he's landed in the Aussie final four in three of the last five years.

And the aforementioned Gonzalez is playing the best tennis of his career over the last several months. When his monster forehand is landing in, he's tough to beat.

Back over to the women.

Henin looks like the sure pick here, with honorable mention going to Ivanovic, Sharapova, Serena and Venus, but does anyone else have a shot in Melbourne?

We can't forget about U.S. Open runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic or Anna Chakvetadze...can we?

I think Kuznetsova lacks the creativity to beat Henin (as evidenced by an embarrassing 2-15 lifetime record vs. the mighty Belgian), while Jankovic is slowed somewhat by a soft serve, not to mention Henin (0-9 all-time against the formidable star), and Chakvetadze (0-3 lifetime versus Henin), although solid in her play, lacks the firepower to consistently beat the likes of an Henin.

Back to the men, again.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic was last year's U.S. Open runner-up.

If he's ready to play, Federer's old nemesis David Nalbandian could make a run in Melbourne. The former Wimbledon runner-up is a career 8-8 all-time against Federer on the ATP, including a perfect 2-0 mark versus the sublime star last season. The feisty Argentine beat Federer at the Oz Open in 2003 before losing to the Swiss stylist there the following year. Nalbandian, a fourth-round loser in Melbourne a year ago, reached the Aussie semis in 2006 and was a back-to-back-to-back quarterfinalist in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Nalbandian, like Federer, also pulled out of this week's Kooyong Classic exhibition tourney, citing a back injury. His status for Melbourne could be in question.

Can Aussie icon Lleyton Hewitt end the host nation's titleless drought at its beloved Open?

I doubt it.

An Aussie male hasn't prevailed at the Aussie Open since Mark Edmondson turned the trick way back in 1976. The two-time major champion and former world No. 1 Hewitt did, however, reach the final there in 2005.

Trivia Time: Who was the last Aussie woman to prevail at the Aussie Open?

Some other slight contenders on the men's side could include Richard Gasquet, last week's Doha champion Andy Murray, Tommy Haas, James Blake, Carlos Moya and last week's Chennai titlist Mikhail Youzhny. Keep an eye on Haas, though, his fragile right shoulder is giving him some trouble once again.

Back to the women, again.

How 'bout some former top-ranked stars like Mauresmo and Davenport? Are they in the mix?

Mauresmo is coming off a disappointing, injury-riddled season, but won a pair of majors as recently as 2006, including the Oz Open, while Davenport has returned to the tour on a full-time basis and is fresh off her title in Auckland last week. The 31-year-old American has won a trio of major championships, but hasn't posted such a win in eight long years (2000 Aussie Open). She was the Aussie runner-up to Serena three years ago.

FYI, Mauresmo also reached an Aussie Open final back in 1999, but lost to Martina Hingis.

Honorable mention on the ladies' side would have to go to two-time Grand Slam runner-up Elena Dementieva, Czech slugger Nicole Vaidisova and nifty Swiss lefthander Patty Schnyder.

Top-10ers that won't win it on the women's side are Daniela Hantuchova and Marion Bartoli.

Whatever happened to Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce?

Trivia Answer: Chris O'Neil in 1978. O'Neil also became the first unseeded woman to run the Aussie Open table in the Open Era that year.

Where have you gone Marat Safin? Shouldn't he (a two-time major champion and former No. 1) be in the contenders discussion? He should, but he isn't...because he's Marat.

Safin is the last man not named Federer to win the Aussie Open (2005) and the big Russian also posted runner-up finishes Down Under in 2002 and 2004.

New this year will be the surface at Melbourne Park. The customary Rebound Ace has been replaced by "True Blue" Plexicushion, an acrylic covering that will have a different cushioning system, including a lower rubber content, as well as firmer footing and the ability to retain less heat.

Translation: The surface will still play in the medium to medium-fast range. Just don't call it a hardcourt.

The Aussie Open, which was staged on grass back in the day, used Rebound Ace for 20 years after moving to Melbourne Park in 1988.

Did You Know: Mats Wilander is the only player to win the Aussie Open on both grass and Rebound Ace.

Who didn't know that one?

As is the tradition, this is where I make my picks.

I'm gonna go crazy and select Federer to claim the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup and Henin to secure the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. And new for this year, I'm also going to pick two people that are in it not to win it -- Juan Pablo Brzezicki and Akgul Amanmuradova.

Enjoy, mate!

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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