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Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Weathering the Aussie weather no easy task

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After searing heat with the thermometer rising to 42 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) on Monday, on Tuesday the winds blew, and with them came lower, more seasonable temperatures.

On Show Court 2, at one point in the afternoon while he was practicing, Rafael Nadal had to wait 15 seconds to throw up the toss on his serve because an extended gust of wind had made that mission impossible.

Fallen leaves blew through the alley beside Court 3 like tumbleweed in the desert, and generally it was an erratic-weather day that went from dangerously hot in the morning to chilly in the evening.

Handling the climate can be a key aspect of the Australian Open in Melbourne's ever-changing conditions, as retired American Todd Martin learned during a distinguished career that included being runner-up in 1994 at Melbourne Park.

Martin is Down Under working with Novak Djokovic as an add-on coach along with Marian Vajda. "I felt after three years with Marian, I needed some freshness in the team," Djokovic explained during the media conference in Melbourne on Tuesday for the Kooyong Classic exhibition, which he is playing in this week. "Todd Martin is a great person, and he brings a calmness to the team. He knows how to deal with the conditions and has a lot of experience."

In 1994, there was serious extreme heat. Martin survived it to reach the final, which he lost in straight sets to Pete Sampras. "First and foremost, you have to block out pain," Martin said on Tuesday about dealing with the radical weather challenges. "Usually, maybe eight weeks out of 10, guys are playing with something wrong [various injuries] and they figure out how to play despite that. Here, guys come in well-rested and well-prepared, but the heat can still hurt. You've got figure out how to tell yourself this kind of pain is no different than when your knee doesn't feel 100 percent. Whatever you're feeling, there's a good chance the other guy is, too."

The understated Martin brings a useful perspective to Djokovic, a player he describes as "pretty darn talented and a pretty good fighter."

Djokovic was champion at the Australian Open two years ago in 2008, beating Roger Federer in the semifinals and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final, and had that breakthrough Grand Slam success the initial year of the blue Plexicushion courts.

"It's the first time I've seen the hard courts down here -- as opposed to the Rebound Ace," Martin said. "I think they're great. The ball bounces similarly high, it doesn't seem to fluctuate with the weather as much and the court is definitely not too fast. It's fair for everyone who is in the tournament, even if a guy like [serve-and-volleying] Taylor Dent would really benefit from having a little more speed to the court."

Djokovic, ranked No. 3, is on the short list of five -- with Federer, Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray -- widely regarded as having a legitimate chance to win the first Grand Slam of the year.

According to local oddsmakers from The Australian Bookmakers, three-time champion Federer is the 5-2 favorite followed by Nadal and Murray at 4-1 and Djokovic and del Potro at 5-1. The drop-off is from the elite five is significant, with Nikolay Davydenko, despite his recent impressive results, listed at a distant 12-1.

Nadal and Federer, who practiced Tuesday with good friend Stefan Koubek in Rod Laver Arena, have prepared by playing two exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi and then the ATP event in Doha, Qatar, where both were beaten by Davydenko -- Federer in the semifinals and Nadal in the final after holding two match points.

Murray played four singles and four mixed doubles matches with fellow Briton Laura Robson at the Hopman Cup in Perth and has pronounced himself in fine fettle for a shot at the title he was favored to win last year. Then, he entered the tournament on a streak of eight consecutive wins at the Abu Dhabi exhibition and Doha events. His ranking has slipped to No. 5, something he could have prevented last week by playing Doha and winning a few matches, but he claims not to be concerned, even it means he is seeded outside the top four.

Djokovic, like del Potro, will enter the Australian Open with only the Kooyong exhibition for match practice. Looking back at his loss to Andy Roddick in last year's quarterfinals, when he retired in the fourth set with a heat-related condition, he said, "I didn't feel I was playing right the whole time in Australia. And then I changed the racket, which didn't reflect well in my game. But this year is different, and I hope it won't finish that way."

U.S. Open champion del Potro, fresh from holiday time at home in Argentina with family and friends, merely declared, "I will be looking for another Grand Slam here in Australia."

If there are five main contenders among the men, that core number is realistically just three on the women's side -- and two of them are not even among the top seeds. Kim Clijsters, off her U.S. Open title and her victory over Justine Henin in the Brisbane International final on Saturday, is ranked No. 15. She will be seeded 15th barring injuries to players ranked above her, but Henin has no seeding at all because she has only one event on the WTA Tour ranking computer, two fewer than are required for a ranking.

Although Serena Williams is ranked No. 1, Dinara Safina No. 2 and Svetlana Kuznetsova No. 3, only Williams is treated as a serious threat by local legal bookmakers. TAB has Clijsters as the favorite at 3-1, Williams at 7-2 and Henin at 9-2. Kuznetsova at 20-1 and Safina at 25-1 are barely viewed as being in the same area code as the Clijsters-Williams-Henin trio in terms of their chances to win the title.

As a Grand Slam event, Australian Open officials could change the seedings to better reflect the current reality at the top of the game. But, according to tournament director Craig Tiley, that will not happen.

He said that when the entry list was confirmed Dec. 7, it was implicit at the time that the seedings would be done directly off the rankings.

"If we changed the seedings this year, who knows what the situation might be a year from now?" Tiley said in defense of maintaining the conventional method of seeding.

As a result, there will a element of suspense when the draw is done Friday -- with the unseeded Henin floating around as a wild card who could pop up anywhere.

Tom Tebbutt is the tennis writer for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.