Countdown (Under) begins to season's first Slam

1/18/2006 - Tennis

SYDNEY, Australia -- While it might seem like only yesterday that Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters were holding aloft their U.S. Open singles crowns in New York, the tennis world has awakened from its annual 20-minute power nap (actually, about a six-week offseason) and congregated Down Under for the year's first Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

Injuries already have knocked out three of the top players on the men's side: No. 2 Rafael Nadal; No. 7 Andre Agassi; and defending champion,No. 12 Marat Safin. The women's draw is intact with the possible exception of the second-seeded Clijsters, who's day-to-day with inflammation in her left hip joint, and fourth seed Maria Sharapova, who will have to play through the pain of a sore right shoulder.

The spate of pre-tournament withdrawals only will increase calls from many players and other stakeholders to make adjustments to the tennis calendar, which now spans nearly 11 months. It's becoming increasingly clear to this faction that the existing break is simply not enough time for many players to unwind, decompress and allow nagging injuries heal for the upcoming season.

Earlier this week in Melbourne, Andy Roddick called for the players to consider forming a union to force changes in the schedule should the International Tennis Federation and Grand Slams fail to act on their own to ease the burdens on players.

"The ITF, the Davis Cup, the Grand Slams, they're all different entities and you'd think that they would want to work together for the greater good," said Roddick. "But they each want their little slice of the pie and they're not willing to give that up."

Federer, though sporting a protective brace in this week's tune-up at Melbourne's Kooyong, says he's all the way back from a late-season ankle ligament strain. Roddick's late-season back troubles appear to be behind the 23-year-old, and Aussie hometown favorite, third-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, and fourth seed David Nalbandian of Argentina (who was victorious over Federer at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai last November), ought to be over stomach viruses that bothered both players in this final week before play starts in Melbourne.

Federer's karma must still be gathering momentum, as the heavy favorite and winner of six Grand Slams has a sweetheart draw, opening with the heretofore unknown Uzbek, Denis Istomin. Federer wouldn't appear to face any significant challenge until a possible quarterfinal matchup with No. 14 Richard Gasquet of France, who bounded onto the tennis landscape last April with a three-set victory over Mr. Invincible on clay in Monte Carlo.

But Gasquet would first need to get by dangerous floater Tommy Haas of Germany in the first round. Haas beat Federer earlier this week in an exhibition match at Kooyong.

Roddick has benefited the most from Nadal's withdrawal, moving up a spot to the No. 2 seed. More importantly, he is on the opposite side of the draw from Federer, and therefore can only face his nemesis in the final.

Ironically, three other Americans (No. 13 Robby Ginepri, No. 27 Taylor Dent and Justin Gimelstob) were randomly placed in Roddick's mini-quadrant of the draw, foreshadowing potential Roddick-Dent and Ginepri-Gimelstob third-round matchups, with the winners meeting in the round of 16. These are all players who have practiced a lot together and know each other's games well, which increases the possibilities of an upset or two in Melbourne.

Big-hitting American James Blake is a potential semifinal opponent for Roddick if he manages to get past Nalbandian in the fourth round in what would be one of the best matches of the first week.

The women's game is notable these days for its depth, and American Lindsay Davenport is the top seed in Melbourne. However, she faces a tricky path into the latter stages of the draw. A potential quarterfinal encounter with No. 10 Venus Williams, who outlasted her in a memorable Wimbledon final last July, awaits Davenport.

But first Williams likely would have to get by 2004 Australian Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, a four-time Slam winner. No player in the women's game, not even the imposing Venus, can be eager to see the tenacious Belgian in her portion of the draw, especially in the round of 16.

Fourth-seeded Maria Sharapova faces an easier path to the semifinals, with the exception of a possible fourth-round match against the defending champion, No. 13 Serena Williams.

Clijsters, fresh (sort of) off her first Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open, looks to have a favorable bracket as long as her body holds up on the Rebound Ace surface. Two Frenchwomen, No. 5 Mary Pierce, a finalist last year at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, and No. 3 Amélie Mauresmo, who's underperformed in Grand Slam play, are the main obstacles looming in the amiable Belgian's half of the draw.

Let's not forget about the return of Martina Hingis, who will be playing at the Australian Open for the first time since 2002.

The three-time champion of this event had a nice run in her return at the season-opening Australian Women's Hardcourts, winning three matches before losing in the semifinals. She strained her hip flexor in the process and had to withdraw from her semifinals doubles match. And last week Hingis was bounced by Henin-Hardenne in the first round of the Medibank International.

Hingis received a wild card to play and drew No. 30 Vera Zvonareva in the first round. Zvonareva is coming off her worst season since 2001.

Bracketology aside, the season's first Grand Slam is notoriously difficult to handicap. So while Federer and Davenport are the favorites and top seeds entering the fortnight, it's been 12 years since both No. 1 players won the Australian Open in the same year.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the Australian Open for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com