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Friday, January 11, 2008
Freaky Slam

Wimbledon is the traditional Grand Slam event, Roland Garros is the iron (wo)man major and the U.S. Open is the grueling jewel in the lineup. That leaves the upcoming Australian Open, which is the freaky Slam.

The tournament took a quantum leap when it moved to Melbourne Park in the early 1990s, and since then it's been right up there with the other majors by any standard. Still, it's hard to overlook the fact that, even if you just count the Open era, it has spewed out some real head-scratchers.

Consider some of the players who have won the Australian Open: Brian Teacher, Johan Kriek, Mark Edmondson, Petr Korda, Thomas Johansson, Chris O'Neil, Barbara Jordan, Kerry Melville. Guess who never won in Australia? Bjorn Borg, Venus Williams, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and those two "Aussie battlers," Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt.

Pete Sampras won Wimbledon seven times, and he bagged the title Down Under just twice. Roger Federer has won the title three times, and it might have been four, were it not for the fact that he tried a between-the-legs, back-to-the-net passing shot on a match point against Marat Safin two years ago.

As Jimi Hendrix said, Fly your freak flag high!

There are many reasons for why the AO is the freaky slam, starting with the fact that it's the first major, played all of two weeks into the new year. It's like the New England Patriots having to play the first round of the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 7. When the new year rolls around, all bets are off and journeymen revel in counting coup while many of the marquee players are still returning unwanted Christmas presents or rubbing the sleep of the offseason out of their eyes.

All that makes the freaky slam something like a NASCAR race. A lot of folks tune in to see who's going to spin out.

With that in mind, let's set up a dream freak semis, and look at who might emerge from each quarter of the main singles draws to be part of it:

Top quarter:

John Isner, the young American who made a such a big splash this summer. He serves huge and the new Plexicushion court is said to be faster than the old Rebound Ace.

Lindsay Davenport, who's still supposed to be home writing thank-you notes for all the Baby Einstein videos she received last June.

Second quarter:

Radek Stepanek is, like the tournament itself, unpredictable, so he gets the nod over emerging talent Ernests Gulbis.

Vera Zvonareva is best known for her emotional meltdowns and crying jags, it's about time she had a smiley-face tournament.

Third quarter:

Michael Llodra, a player widely known for his pranks and blithe spirit, won a tournament last week. Can you say "hot?"

Sania Mirza has struggled with injuries and has a tendency to spray balls all over creation, but she's fit and collected a few good wins recently.

Bottom quarter:

Donald Young has Andy Roddick in the second round but after that it's a good draw all the way to a quarterfinal paring with Rafael Nadal, who has troubling, chronic injury issues.

Agnes Szavay really came on last year and, in her quarter, the best players she'd need to beat are Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze.

Now just sit back and watch the broadcast executives blow their brains out.