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Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Prospect of parity a frightening thought

There's been a lot of talk about how this is the most competitive Australian Open in years, and that we could be looking ahead to a season with unpredictable results and unfamiliar faces in the winner's circle. It's a welcome change after more than five years of dominance by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

You can see the glint of opportunity in the eyes of the players in Melbourne. From the young guns hoping for a break to veterans looking for one final shot at hardware, the pros sense the changing tides. In previous years Down Under, the favorites for the men's title started and ended with Rafa and Roger; now, there's a handful of legitimate contenders to the throne. And while Serena Williams remains the premier big-game star on the women's side, there are at least two "newbies" from Belgium who can wreak havoc in any draw.

The Australian Open already has produced some compelling, competitive tennis. Just ask Maria Sharapova and Robin Soderling, two notable casualties from the first round. Even Federer had all he could handle against hard-hitting Igor Andreev -- if the mighty Fed hadn't won the third-set breaker, he could have been on the next plane out with Maria and Sod, as the momentum would have been squarely with the Russian.

We can expect more tight matches and upsets as the tournament progresses. For U.S. fans, especially on the East Coast, that means overtime for the coffee maker. But let's not get carried away in celebrating this new "open" era of tennis. I can remember a time not too long ago -- let's call it B.R., as in "Before Roger" -- when men's and women's tennis lacked dominant champions. Chaos reigned. The sport resembled the PGA Tour, pre-Tiger Woods, when every tournament seemed to produce a new champion you had never heard of.

Consider this: From the 1998 Australian Open through the '99 edition, there were an unprecedented 10 different men's Grand Slam finalists, only one of whom was named Pete Sampras. The others included Alex Corretja, Carlos Moya, Mark Philippoussis, Patrick Rafter, Thomas Enqvist and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The women's tour also had plenty of topsy-turvy results, with Martina Hingis being the only consistent performer during that period, although she was hardly dominant among her peers.

In sports, there's a euphemism for this kind of unpredictability: parity. But is it good for the game?

The world loves an underdog and relishes the big upset, but you can't have these without the big dogs, the dominant champions. It's a fine line between parity and chaotic blandness. And I certainly don't want a return to the days when major finals were contested by the likes of David Nalbandian, Lleyton Hewitt, Petr Korda, Marcelo Rios, Natalie Tauziat and Jana Novotna. They were talented players but not exactly inspiring ones. In the end, they turned out to be transitional figures occupying a void eventually filled by Serena and Venus Williams, and Federer and Nadal.

Right now, tennis has just the right mix. Fans still can expect Roger and Rafa to reach the second week of Slams and contend for titles, but they also know an upset or two lurks in almost every round. There are more exciting matchups in both draws but still enough familiar faces in the final weekends -- from Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick to Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva -- to excite both hard-core tennis nuts and the casual fan.

Hopefully tennis can continue to walk the line and avoid plummeting into the abyss of parity. In the meantime, enjoy the action while it lasts.