Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2007 tennis season may still only be in its infant stages, but it'll shift into high gear next week when the first Grand Slam of the year gets underway in Melbourne.
Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo will be on hand to defend their titles at the Australian Open, where Federer beat excitable Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis and Mauresmo surprised 2004 champ Justine Henin-Hardenne in last year's singles finals at Rod Laver Arena.
Federer, of course, has his sights set on winning all four majors this year, as he came real close last season by winning three of the four, with the only loss coming against Rafael Nadal in the French Open finale.
The 25-year-old Federer has won nine of the last 14 major titles, including Aussie Open crowns in two of the last three years, and will continue his march towards history in Melbourne. The sensational Swiss has gathered five of the last six Grand Slam championships and is five major titles away from equaling the amazing Pete Sampras' record 14 wins.
Mauresmo broke through with her first-ever Grand Slam title last year in Melbourne, as she was leading Henin-Hardenne in the second set when the typically-feisty Belgian quit with bad stomach pains. Mauresmo went on to capture a second career major at Wimbledon, as she once again topped JH-H in a Slam final.
A big victory in Melbourne would give Federer a 10th career Grand Slam title.
The athletic Mauresmo also reached the Aussie Open final in 1999, but lost that year against Martina Hingis.
A Federer repeat won't be easy Down Under, as a slew of top names will be gunning for the incomparable Swiss.
The aforementioned Nadal is 6-3 lifetime against the Fed, including a 4-2 record against the intimidating Swiss last season. Federer, however, has won their last two matchups, including a victory in the 2006 Wimbledon final, after Nadal beat the tremendous Swiss in the French Open finale just four weeks earlier.
The Aussie Open is staged on a hardcourt, a surface where the two stars have split four career matches. They've never met at Melbourne Park.
Nadal hopes to be healthy for the Aussie event after suffering a groin injury that forced him to pull out of this week's tournament in Sydney. He missed last year's Aussie Open due to a foot problem.
Mauresmo's toughest competition figures to come from Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, since the Roland Garros champion Henin-Hardenne will not be on hand this year because of "personal family reasons." Henin-Hardenne landed in all four major finals last season, but that obviously will not happen in 2007.
Mauresmo held the No. 1 ranking for a majority of the '06 campaign before she was supplanted at the top by Henin-Hardenne at the season-ending WTA Tour Championships.
The 2006 U.S. Open champion Sharapova will enter the Melbourne field as the top seed next week, while the 2005 U.S. Open champ Clijsters, playing in her final season on the WTA Tour, will seek her second trip to the Aussie Open finale in four years.
With the two-time Grand Slam champions Mauresmo and Sharapova and the popular Clijsters among the top picks, the women's draw can also expect some charges from the likes of French Open runner-up and former U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, the five-time major titlist Hingis and perhaps even Elena Dementieva. Kuznetsova, however, is currently questionable for the trip to Melbourne after pulling out of this week's tournament in Sydney due to an upper respiratory tract infection. Petrova is also questionable for the Aussie extravaganza after suffering an abdominal strain in Sydney.
Mauresmo will seek a third major title in five tries.
The veteran former world No. 1 Hingis, arguably past her prime at this point, reached six straight Aussie Open finals from 1997-2002, winning three in a row from '97-99. She hasn't reached the final in Melbourne, however, in five years.
Other potential contenders among the women are rising Czech slugger Nicole Vaidisova and surging Serbian Jelena Jankovic, last week's titlist in Auckland. At the time of this article, Jankovic was already a perfect 8-0 this season, including a quarterfinal victory over Mauresmo in Sydney this week. The Serbian stunned the French star by winning 13 of the last 15 games in that QF showdown.
How 'bout the Williams sisters...do they have a shot in Melbourne? Well, the five-time Grand Slam champion Venus certainly does not, since she pulled out this week due to a nagging left wrist injury. The seven-time major titlist Serena, meanwhile, owns a pair of championships in Melbourne, with the last one coming as recently as 2005. As a matter of fact, Serena has won the Aussie title in two of her last three trips Down Under, so she's probably still a threat. She beat her big sister in the '03 Aussie finale.
FYI, Serena lost to little-known Austrian Sybille Bammer at this week's final Aussie Open tune-up in Hobart. Concern?
Back over on the men's side, Federer and Nadal should expect challenges from the likes of Nikolay Davydenko, last week's Doha titlist Ivan Ljubicic, James Blake, former U.S. Open champ and three-time Grand Slam runner-up Andy Roddick and former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian. The currently world No. 5 Blake is seeking his first-ever trip to a major final. He was last year's Tennis Masters Cup runner-up to the great Federer. Roddick lost to the Fed in last year's U.S. Open finale after enjoying a resurgence with his latest coach -- the legendary Jimmy Connors, who might not join Roddick in Melbourne following the death of his mother, Gloria Connors, at her home in Belleville, Illinois this week.
Should Federer falter, plenty of other men could figure into the Aussie equation, such as last year's surprise runner-up Baghdatis, Tommy Haas, Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic and last week's Doha runner-up Andy Murray, who's been climbing the ATP charts under former Roddick and Andre Agassi mentor Brad Gilbert. The rising Djokovic is a 19-year-old stud who just titled last week at the Aussie Open tune-up in Adelaide.
And let's not forget former world No. 1s Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin. The two-time Grand Slam champion Safin was the 2005 Aussie Open titlist, having beaten Hewitt in a marquee finale, and has been the runner-up in Melbourne on two occasions, including a 2004 title bout loss to the amazing Federer. Hewitt, like Safin, is also a two-time major champ.
Hewitt will head to Melbourne with new part-time coach Scott Draper, who got the job after Hall-of-Famer Patrick Rafter turned down the post offered to him by his fellow former world No. 1 Aussie countryman.
Did I forget to mention top-10 players such as Tommy Robredo, Mario Ancic and Fernando Gonzalez? No. But I do have to admit that Gonzalez could be a candidate to make some noise.
How 'bout top-10 women like Patty Schnyder and Dinara Safina? Do they have a chance to run the table at Melbourne Park? No, although Schnyder has appeared in one semifinal (2004) and a pair of quarterfinals over the last three years. Safina, the younger sister of the charismatic Safin, is fresh off her title at Gold Coast, but winning seven straight matches at a major is an entirely different animal (in this case, probably a kangaroo or a koala, mate).
The 19-year-old Sharapova is already halfway to a career Grand Slam, having captured last year's U.S. Open and Wimbledon 2004.
The reigning three-time year-end No. 1 Federer will try to corral a third straight Grand Slam title, which would give him an even 10 majors for his already-incredible career. He'll try to become the first male repeat Melbourne champion since the great Agassi turned the trick in 2000 and 2001. The last woman to repeat was Jennifer Capriati, in 2001 and 2002.
The men's field will feature only three former champions (Federer, Safin and Thomas Johansson), while the women's draw will also only boast a trio of former Aussie Open winners (Mauresmo, Serena and Hingis). None of the American women will be seeded, and the highest-ranked American in the women's draw will be No. 40 Meghann Shaughnessy. Serena currently checks in at No. 94. Ouch.
When it comes to pickin' the winners in Melbourne, Federer is the obvious selection to hoist the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup among the men, while my women's pick is...Maurapovajsters (that's a combination of Mauresmo, Sharapova and Clijsters). Seriously, it's very difficult to pick between Mauresmo, Sharapova and Clijsters, but I'll go with Sharapova to nail down her third major title and put her hands around the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
The '07 Oz Open will commence Monday (Sunday in the U.S.).