Sunday, January 13, 2013

Battle For The Crown Down Under...

Having A Ball: Roger enjoys playing the part of a ballboy during Kids Tennis Day at the Australian Open!

Famed trio of Djokovic, Federer & Murray are the usual suspects; Serena, Azarenka & Sharapova battle for supremacy

The New Year signals a kind of reboot in most people's lives. The same holds true for professional tennis players. Resolutions are strengthened. Sponsorships are extended. Pleasantries are exchanged. Minds are reset. Tennis being one sport where the off season is barely over a month, this break is the all-important rejuvenator.

Regardless of the previous year's results or lack thereof, a renewed sense of hope leads players to the Australian Open. The opening Major is a favourite with players because of its relaxed and friendly atmosphere, leading it to be rechristened as the ‘Happy Slam'. Its slow-paced hard courts provide a welcome change from the faster ones that are used during year-end tournaments.

World No 1 Novak Djokovic has tremendous belief in himself and his game which suffocates even the most gifted opponents. The two-time defending champion finished as No 1 for the second successive year, cementing his status as tennis' Mr Consistent. Winning the World Tour Finals has also given the Serb a much-needed boost.

No 2 Roger Federer, the 31-year old Master, is still shining brightly. After a brilliant 2012, in which he reclaimed his beloved Wimbledon title, the Swiss is looking to add another great year to his burgeoning resume. He always seems to be supremely confident.

Andy Murray, who finally broke his Grand Slam jinx in New York is now bound to play with newfound freedom. Over the years, the pressure seemed to always get the better of him in Slams, but now no one can call him unworthy. The Scot, ranked 3rd, definitely belongs in the Big 4 now!

One glaring absentee Down Under will be French Open champ Rafael Nadal. Now ranked No 4 and guaranteed to fall at least one spot after the tourney, the 2012 finalist is yet to fully recover from a knee ailment. The Spaniard hasn't played since Wimbledon and is likely to return next month.

Although the Aussie Open used to be famous for relative unknowns scorching the field, chances of that happening seem remote because of the amazing consistency of the Top 8. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are all hungry for that one major breakthrough and have the weapons to achieve it, but need that ‘something extra’ – strength of mind that could carry them past the top three. Except for Del Potro in 2009, none of the others have managed to do so.

On the women's side, the Express Train that is world No 3 Serena Williams promises to once again batter the opposition mercilessly. The American, winner of Wimbledon and the US Open, is actually the best player in the world and everyone knows it.

No 1 ranked Victoria Azarenka is a fighter and boasts a heavy game, but seems to have Serena-phobia. Being the defending champion, the Belarusian would like to prove otherwise. Maria Sharapova completed her Career Slam by winning the French Open last year and will back herself to bag at least a few more big ones. Ranked 2nd, the Russian's shoulder seems to have healed well and she's feisty as ever.

The rest of the top ten that consists of Agnieszka Radwanska, Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki among others don't seem mentally able to bring in that unwavering focus day-in day-out to match the main contenders.

The Oz Open is also known for its extreme heat, making it both a mental and a physical battle, where Skill and Will go hand in hand. That really spices things up now doesn't it?


The Indian subcontinent will be well represented in Australia, with four players vying for doubles and mixed crowns. The ageless Leander Paes along with his partner Radek Stepanek, Mahesh Bhupathi with Mark Knowles and Rohan Bopanna with Rajeev Ram are all contending for the men's doubles trophy. While Paes–Stepanek is a tried and tested pair, Bhupathi and Bopanna split after playing together in 2012 and their new partnerships may need some time to mature.

In women's doubles, Sania Mirza and American partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands have been working well in tandem and seem to be gaining in confidence. In mixed doubles Sania will be partnering world No 1 doubles player Bob Bryan, also from the United States. It may be a lot to ask, but let's hope at least one of these pairings can do well.

(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)

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