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Monday, January 19, 2009
Serbia stands proud and powerful

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Thriving and winning

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For many players in today's game, their destiny in tennis is to ride the wave of a rich national heritage in the sport.

But that is not the scenario for the flourishing Serbians -- defending Australian Open men's champion Novak Djokovic, WTA world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. Instead of following in the footsteps of former greats, the three stars are creating the footsteps for future Serbians to equal or surpass.

"Serbia, before, didn't have a tennis tradition and didn't have players in the top of the game," Jankovic said after posting a routine 6-1, 6-3 win over Yvonne Meusburger of Austria, a match during which the heat making her feet burn was more of a deterrent than her opponent. "Now we do. Now we have established ourselves as the players who are in an elite group.

William West/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic was the first Serbian to earn a Grand Slam title when he won the Australian Open last year.

"I hope that in a way we can inspire and motivate younger generations to develop their games and go our way, go our paths. [They could be] thinking, 'If Jelena or Ana or Novak have done it, they made it to the top, why can we not do it?'"

Of the Serbians, Djokovic is embarking on the most prominent trip at this Australian Open. Attempting to defend his first Grand Slam title is the lordly challenge that lies ahead.

First-round qualifier Andrea Stoppini might have possessed a name that suggested he could halt the progress of just about anybody, even Djokovic. But the 220th-ranked Italian certainly discovered that names can be deceiving as he lost his first major match 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 to the reigning champion.

"Well, look, there is a pressure," Djokovic said when discussing the defense of his title. "But it didn't affect me today, no. I'm still trying to find the rhythm and slowly getting there. It is a different feel, but I look at it as a challenge."

History shows that defending an Australian Open crown is not an anomaly. Nine players since the advent of the Open era in 1968 have flourished under similar circumstances in Australia.

But of those former champions, only Johan Kriek in 1982 and Stefan Edberg in 1987 were attempting to defend their first Grand Slam victory.

Djokovic knows that whether he captures a second consecutive Australian Open trophy or not, he and his compatriots certainly are shaping the power of the sport back home.

"In Serbia, we don't have a rich tennis tradition, that's for sure," he said. "We barely had a couple of players in the tennis history of Serbia, and now we have so many in the men's tennis, and girls as well. It's a surprising fact, but we are all living up to it. We are really proud to make such a small country very proud."

As for Ivanovic, a finalist here last year, she's feeling fit after a hand injury ruined the second half of her 2008 season, a painful memory that shadowed her first Grand Slam career victory at the French Open.

"I feel it's a new year, and I feel I'm in a great physical shape," Ivanovic said after taking a 7-5, 6-3 first-round win over Julia Goerges of Germany. "It's a fresh start for me, basically."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Day 1

1. It pays to win the first set: Especially in this heat. Just ask eccentric Frenchman Michael Llodra.

Llodra lost the opener to volatile Belgian Xavier Malisse 7-6 (8), then crumbled in the final two sets, 6-1, 6-1. The second set lasted 15 minutes; the third, 30. Maximum temperatures Monday floated around the 95-degree mark, with the extreme warmth expected to persist this week.

Malisse, a hugely talented right-hander reared at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is trying to resurrect his career after slipping outside the top 350 in February 2008. He had to qualify simply to get in the main draw.

Next, he'll face Andy Roddick.

Don't count on any sets lasting 15 minutes, unless, of course, it's Roddick dishing out the rout.

2. Baghdatis can tough it out: Or at least Marcos Baghdatis did Monday. The Cypriot, recently departed from his flowing locks, conquered the heat and downed Frenchman Julien Benneteau 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

"The sun, it's just very strong," he said. "Just being out there, you cannot breathe. I just want to, you know, puke."

A crowd favorite in Melbourne after his entertaining path to the final three years ago, Baghdatis said the encouragement helped. The lone sour note for the winner was his first-serve percentage -- 43.

How did he describe his serve?

"Not so good, but I don't really care," he said. "I'm happy I went through."

3. The comeback is on track: She may have lost, but Kimiko Date Krumm proved she still can compete with the younger generation.

The 38-year-old, who retired in 1996 when she was inside the top 10 before resuming her career last year, battled big-hitting Estonian Kaia Kanepi, 23, for almost three hours, succumbing 6-4, 4-6, 8-6. Martina Navratilova would be proud.

It was Date Krumm's first Grand Slam appearance since exiting to American Kimberly Po in the opening round of the U.S. Open 12 years ago.

"I hope I try to play [the French Open], Wimbledon and the U.S. Open because I have nothing to lose," she said. "So step by step, if I can go anywhere, I will try."

4. The svelte Spaniard is still a work in progress: When the statuesque Feliciano Lopez helped Spain upset Argentina in the Davis Cup final in December, there were renewed hopes the lefty would live up to his potential.

Not so.

Lopez, seeded 27th, was sent packing by another lefty with a big serve, Gilles Muller, in an opening day match. Muller, ranked 87th, advanced after winning 6-3, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 4-6, 16-14 in four hours, 23 minutes. (Thanks to computer gremlins, stats immediately after the match miraculously listed both players not dropping a point behind their first serve.)

Another Spaniard survived a five-set affair. Slumping 11th seed David Ferrer, in Roger Federer's quarter, overcame German baseliner Denis Gremelmayr 6-1, 6-7 (6), 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-4. Ferrer went 8-for-20 on break points, compared with Gremelmayr's 3-for-12.

5. JJ has some good ideas: Here's a novel idea to keep cool, courtesy of the always entertaining Jelena Jankovic:

Q: Can you get [Jankovic's shoe sponsor] to adjust the shoes because they're too hot?

A: I don't know. I will tell them to put some air-conditioning in there. (Laughter follows.) Especially with the technology growing and getting better, I believe in the future we will have these kinds of things, too.

The top seed didn't have to overly exert herself in Round 1, needing 70 minutes to dispatch Austrian Yvonne Meusburger 6-1, 6-3.

-- Ravi Ubha

Almost Serbian

Dokic

From 2001 to 2005, Jelena Dokic abandoned Australia, the country where she grew up, to represent Serbia, the country of her heritage.

But nowadays, Dokic, a former No. 4 in the WTA standings and 2000 Wimbledon semifinalist, is comfortably representing Australia. Dokic had a tenuous history with Tennis Australia, the country's governing body, stemming from difficulties related to her father.

Courtesy of a wild card, the 25-year-old Dokic is competing in her first Grand Slam tournament since the 2006 Australian Open. She opened with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 win over Tamira Paszek.

"After pretty much a three-year absence, to start the year with a win at a Grand Slam is really huge for me," Dokic said, admitting she experienced on-court jitters during the match.

Dokic, who severed ties with her family, has missed chunks of time away from the tour and admits to battling depression.

"Tennis is not the most important thing in the world, but it's something I love," a teary-eyed Dokic said. "I had to go through a lot of family issues. It's really a miracle for me. It's really emotional to win today."

-- Sandra Harwitt

Youth prevails

Tomic

In a nation so desperate for an Aussie Open champion, the local Melbourne newspaper The Age had an entire column Monday devoted to which players it could try to adopt as one of its own. Cancel the adoption -- good news arrived in the late afternoon.

Wild-card recipient Bernard Tomic, who's 16 years and 90 days old became the fourth-youngest winner of a Grand Slam match in the Open era. The three other teens to achieve that feat were Michael Chang (15 years, 191 days at the 1987 U.S. Open), Jimmy Arias (16 years, nine days at the 1980 U.S. Open) and Aaron Krickstein (16 years, 27 days at the 1983 U.S. Open).

Tomic, who scored a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) victory over Italian Potito Starace, is the youngest player to win an Australian Open match in the Open era.

"It's a dream come true to win a first round in my first Grand Slam," said Tomic, who practiced before the match with world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. "I'm just thrilled that I could pull off a win today. With the crowd behind me, it was an unbelievable experience."

-- Sandra Harwitt

A golden oldie

Santoro

Frenchman Fabrice Santoro was not deterred by being the oldest singles player in the Australian Open men's draw since 1980.

Santoro ushered Juan Carlos Ferrero to the exit in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-2 win.

In 1980, Australian Colin Dibley was 53 days older than Santoro when he beat Hank Pfister in a four-set, first-round win.

"Since 1980 -- wow!" Santoro said. "I didn't know this statistic, but I'm very happy about it."

Santoro said he gave some consideration to hanging up his rackets last year, but he wasn't ready to retire.

"I still enjoy the game and to fight on the court," said Santoro, who doesn't know how many tournaments he will play this year.

"But every time I play this year, I want to play with a smile on my face."

-- Sandra Harwitt

Down Under papers

Ivanovic

Hot photos of 2008 Australian Open finalist Ana Ivanovic as well as Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in a transparent white dress were splashed across the pages of the Herald Sun newspaper Monday. But the most notable photo in the paper was of Rafael Nadal, who grinned broadly as he was flanked by sisters Melinda and Victoria Petrolo, who were wearing the tiniest of bikinis as well as feather headdresses at a private IMG players party at Breezes, located on the pool deck at the Crown Casino. Other players who attended the event were Roger Federer, James Blake and Jelena Jankovic. The no-time-for-partying David Nalbandian, who won last week's Sydney title, reportedly didn't make the pool deck scene but was in the vicinity swimming laps in the pool.

-- Sandra Harwitt

Critic's choice

Gonzalez

No. 13 Fernando Gonzalez versus Lleyton Hewitt: It has taken Lleyton Hewitt a long time to become a favorite son to an Australian crowd that didn't always like his lack of manners. But an older, wiser Hewitt has matured as a result of his marriage, coming out from under his parents' thumbs and from dealing with a serious hip injury. Gonzo's serve is a mighty force, but he arrives here with his coach of the past few years sitting in Andy Roddick's corner. At times a guy who struggles to stay focused, Gonzalez needs to stay on top of his game from the outset so that he doesn't let Hewitt grind out the win with the aid of his partisan crowd.

ESPN.com prediction: Gonzalez in four.

-- Sandra Harwitt