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Roddick's first round isn't easy

1/19/2004

Tennis fans everywhere can rejoice as the first Grand Slam gets under way because both the men's and women's draws have interesting first-round matches.

Injuries have depleted the women's field. While Justine Henin-Hardenne is the clear-cut favorite, she has never made the Australian Open finals. The men's field figures to be competitive, and the top seed has a rough opening-round challenge.

Here is a look at some of the first-round matches to watch:

MEN

(9) Sebastian Grosjean, France, vs. Mikhail Youzhny, Russia

All of France will root hard for Grosjean, remembering the 2002 Davis Cup comeback by Youzhny over Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Youzhny upset seventh-seed Jiri Novak in the third round of last year's Australian Open before losing to Roddick in five sets in the round of 16 (Roddick rallied from two sets down!).

Grosjean is 2-0 lifetime vs. Youzhny, both in straight sets.

(10) Mark Phillippoussis, Australia, vs. Thomas Johansson, Sweden

This match features a former Australian Open champion against a player who has never made this tournament's quarterfinals. Hard to believe it is Phillippoussis who has never pleased the local crowd by getting past the round of 16!

Johansson, the 2002 champion, missed all of 2003 with a knee injury. This isn't the kind of draw desired for a successful comeback.

(12) Nicolas Massu, Chile, vs. Jarkko Nieminen, Finland

The Chilean was one of the pleasant surprises in tennis last year. Now he goes for his first Australian Open match win against a difficult Finnish opponent, a southpaw who's in the top 40 in the world rankings.

Nieminen won all four of his first-round Grand Slam singles matches last year. He made it to the third round of last year's Australian Open.

(20) Tommy Robredo, Spain, vs. Gaston Gaudio, Argentina

Expect a long match as these guys will hit a lot of balls. Robredo is 1-0 lifetime against Gaudio, but that was on carpet last year.

Both have losing records at Australia (Gaudio 3-4, Robredo 1-3) ... something has got to give!

(26) Albert Costa, Spain, vs. Greg Rusedski, Great Britain

Can Rusedski get past the distraction of his recent revelation of a positive steroid test? This is the first time these players have met since 1999, though Rusedski can take comfort in a 3-1 head-to-head lead.

Xavier Malisse, Belgium vs. Karol Kucera, Slovakia

The winner of this match is likely to face Lleyton Hewitt in round two. Malisse made it to the third round of last year's Australian Open before losing to Nalbandian.

WOMEN
(2) Kim Clijsters, Belgium, vs. Marlene Weingartner, Germany

Hampered by an ankle injury, Clijsters couldn't have been thrilled to see this opponent. She does get a break since the German also was bothered by an injury (abdominal strain) in a warm-up tournament last week.

Weingartner is just outside the top 50 in the world rankings, and she has had made the third round or better at the Australian Open three consecutive years. That includes last year's shocking first-round upset of No. 3 seed Jennifer Capriati.

(3) Venus Williams, United States, vs. Ashley Harkleroad, United States

Not a gimme of a comeback match for Williams. Harkleroad is 43rd in the world rankings, and she is an up-and-coming player to watch.

Venus should be comfortable knowing her past history at the Australian Open, reaching the quarterfinals or better in each of her five appearances. Doesn't it seem like a lifetime since she made the finals last year, losing to her sister, Serena?

(8) Ai Sugiyama, Japan, vs. Tatiana Panova, Russia

Panova is coming back from what is described as "mental recuperation." Panova made the third round of her past four Grand Slam singles appearances, so when she is on, she can be a tough opponent. Sugiyama was upset in the first round of the Adidas International warm-up at Sydney, but she had a good season in 2003.

Virginia Ruano Pascual, Spain, vs. Katarina Srebotnik, Slovenia

Ruano Pascual made the quarterfinals of last year's Australian Open. Srebotnik made the third round last year and is ranked in the top 40 in the world.