First, here's a link to my preview story in Friday's USA Today, which was written before the draw came out. With that additional information, herewith are some thoughts and my picks for the tournament. I add the very large caveat that the Australian Open is generally the most volatile Slam and the hardest to predict, since if starts promptly after the (albeit) brief off-season. With players dispersing around the globe, it's tough to know who's been sipping umbrella cocktails in the Canary Islands and who has been running up and down scree in the desert as Andre Agassi famously used to do.
I know, I know, a thick branch to stand on with the Fed Express, but I can't pick against a guy who has reached 10 straight majors and who has proved again and again that in big events in best-of-five sets he can rarely be thrown off his game long enough to lose (his pedestrian five-set record of 10-10 notwithstanding). He has a good draw, with a potential fourth-round clash with James Blake and a meeting with '07 finalist Fernando Gonzalez in the quarters. His biggest test should come out of the lower quarter of his half, which is the toughest section with No. 3 Novak Djokovic, No. 5 David Ferrer, former champs Lleyton Hewitt, Thomas Johansson and Marat Safin, and '06 finalist Marcos Baghdatis. I still expect Serb Djokovic to reach the last four and to give Federer a stern test. An upset wouldn't shock me - if the Djokster isn't too worn out - and I expect him to challenge Federer all season, especially on hard courts. But Fed will prevail.
I like Roddick in the lower half of the draw. The 25-year-old American has a potentially interesting second-round date with 18-year-old mentee and Davis Cup practice partner Donald Young, but for the most part his draw is decent, with the likes of Jarkko Nieminen and Tommy Robredo (who he's never lost to) in his section. The sixth-ranked Texan always prepares well in the off-season (he worked again in Hawaii with Connors on his way to Oz) and has performed well in Melbourne with three semifinal appearances. If seeds hold, his quarterfinal opponent would be No. 2 Rafael Nadal, which is basically a toss up on hard courts. Nadal has looked vulnerable on cement - look no further than his 6-0 6-1 drubbing by Mikhail Youzhny in India last week - and Roddick can force the issue more with his serve against Rafa, who can't block it back like Federer. I'll take the American in five. I see surging Andy Murray reaching his first Slam semi in the top section of the bottom half of the draw, which includes No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 8 Richard Gasquet. The Scot has all the shots, moves exceptionally and seems primed to get over his Slam hurdle - he's never been past the fourth round of a major. But he's still too green to take it all.
One wacko first-round matcheup features 6-9 John Isner vs. French magician Fabrice Santoro, who is playing in his 62nd career major, surpassing Andre Agassi's Open era record of 61. The winner then plays Federer in round two.
With the women, I'm going a bit more out on a limb. Justine Henin still looks like the class of WTA Tour and did nothing to dissuade me of that notion with her win in Sydney over second-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova for her 40th career title and 28th consecutive win (the longest streak since Venus Williams notched 35 in a row in 2000). The Belgian dynamo is the clear favorite. But assuming Maria Sharapova's shoulder is healthy, I sense a big tournament from her. She played a gutsy match in the final against Henin at the Madrid Championships, nearly winning, and she has something to prove after a relatively quiet '07. Sharapova craves victory, almost needs it, and if she can get by a tough second round against Lindsay Davenport (who she leads 4-1 head-to-head), I think it's just the kind of early-round boost that could propel her to the title. She'll likely have to get by Henin and then Serena Williams to do so in the tough top half, but when she is on there are few that can stop her from the backcourt. I've been impressed by Davenport's comeback (18-1, three titles in four events) but I feel she's still relatively untested against top competition and I just can't see her beating more than one or two top-10 players here. She'll have to beat more than that to take the trophy, which would really surprise me.
I expect both Williams sisters to be in the mix until the last few days of the tournament. Defending champ Serena plays best when she feels she has something to prove. I'm not sure that is the case this year. She should make it to the semis with a possible quarterfinal match up against No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, but she might also crash out early, though she is apparently in much better shape than last year.
The bottom half is more wide-open, with No. 8 Venus paired with No. 4 Ivanovic and No. 2 Kuznetsova with No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze. Venus is always such a tough call. When she's focused and grooved, few players can keep up with her pace and speed. I put little stock in her exo win over Sharapova, however. Ivanovic, on the other hand, showed last year that she can consistently go deep at majors. True, she faltered in the big moments, but I think the added seasoning makes her a legitimate title threat. Her game is technically sound (despite occasional yips on her serve), the forehand is humongous and the smile is killer. I see her taking out Venus and whoever emerges from the Kuznetsova-Chakvetadze section to reach a second Grand Slam final.
On a tournament-wide note, how Melbourne Park's new, bright-blue Plexicushion will factor in remains to be seen. Many pros have given the hard court surface, which replaced the gummy Rebound Ace, mixed reviews, and say it’s less quick than anticipated. “I think the court speed is one of the biggest questions,” ESPN's Patrick McEnroe told me earlier this week. “I’m hearing that it’s a little slower than people expected. If that’s the case, it could be a little bit tougher for Blake and Roddick.” Ditto Federer, who thrives when he can take advantage of his foot speed and volleying and can get a little extra zip on his serve.
Last (and just for fun), because I am still learning the blogging trade of creating links, posting photos, etc., I am offering some free schwag to the first person who can identify the headless person in this photo below (send your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org).
And before I forget, I must thank my web master, Stephane, who is doing an excellent job holding my hand through this process.