Commentary

Sharapova-Ivanovic not the only sultry rivalry on the horizon

Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic aren't the only players whose rivalries could intensify. Ravi Ubha looks at a handful on head-on collisions that could pick up in the near future.

Updated: January 28, 2008, 5:04 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

The bigwigs at the WTA must be chuffed, with two of their glamor girls, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, squaring off for the Australian Open title.

Whether it can match Roger Federer's dramatic battle with Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last year remains to be seen, but since the baseline bashers are only 20, it probably won't be their last encounter in major finals. (Fans, incidentally, can only hope the finale is competitive -- in their last three tilts, the loser has claimed three games or fewer.)

Federer has another foe in Novak Djokovic, and the Justine Henin-Serena Williams rivalry was resurrected in 2007. Sharapova-Ivanovic aside, here's a look at some matchups that might intensify and intrigue in the years ahead or, in one case, remind us of past glories (world rankings in parentheses).

(1) Roger Federer vs. (8) Richard Gasquet
Head-to-head: 6-1 Federer

Where to begin with the enormously talented but mentally fragile -- maybe that's too tame for some -- Gasquet? He graced the cover of a French tennis magazine when he was 9, and hopes hit the roof following an upset win over Federer in their first tussle at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2005.

Gasquet

What an encounter it was. Gasquet, then ranked outside the top 100, won the final set in a pulsating tiebreak.

Since then, the 21-year-old with the flowing one-handed backhand has lost six in a row to Federer, and eight of the past nine sets. His woes against the Swiss have mirrored his troubles against other, less formidable opponents. He's also been upstaged by good friend Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is on the verge of ending France's Grand Slam drought (among the men, that is).

"Gasquet has made strides, but he's also disappointed at times,'' said Barry Cowan, a former pro who works as a commentator for British-based Sky Sports. "Mentally there's that question mark, whether he believes he can make the next step. I also think at times he's been too passive and not aggressive enough.''

The rest of the season will prove vital in assessing whether Gasquet can reignite the rivalry and move up the rankings, Cowan added.

"I always felt he was a multi-Grand Slam winner,'' Cowan said. "I'm having doubts now. This year will give us a lot of answers.''

(5) Maria Sharapova vs. (12) Nicole Vaidisova
Head-to-head: Never played

Similarity, either in game style or personality, usually isn't a good thing for rivalries, but this one could be an exception. Both are 6 feet tall (or taller) blondes who predominantly bash from the baseline, hail from Eastern Europe, and were tennis-reared under the watchful eye of Nick Bollettieri in Florida.

That's not to say they're exactly the same. While the ever-grunting Sharapova is usually positive on court, Vaidisova's body language can get downright ugly, and her temper still needs to be tempered.

Vaidisova

"For the fans and the media, they would go crazy,'' said Sam Smith, a former women's pro who now commentates for the BBC. "Great TV. If you weren't a tennis fan and you just clicked on the TV and saw two 6-foot, amazing looking girls hitting a ball very hard but turning into quite smart players as well, I think you'd probably watch.''

Sharapova, of course, holds the edge when it comes to conquering the majors, having won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- and a clear favorite to win the Australian final. Vaidisova, two years younger, is seeking that breakthrough.

"If Vaidisova can match the tennis of Sharapova, which I think she can, Sharapova will have the edge a lot, maybe for the next couple of years, because mentally she's in a different league -- at the moment,'' said Smith.

(2) Rafael Nadal vs. (9) Andy Murray
Head-to-head: 2-0 Nadal

For sheer entertainment, the pair arguably bookended two of the top men's matches of last year. First came their fourth-round epic at the Australian Open, where 20-year-old Murray pushed 21-year-old Nadal all over the court and had a set and break lead before the Spaniard recovered to win in five sets and nearly four hours.

Murray

In the third round of the Madrid Masters, more breathtaking rallies followed, with Nadal prevailing 7-6, 6-4 in almost 2½ hours. In both cases, incidentally, Nadal was crushed in his next match.

"If you look at the great matchups over the years, it's a contrast of styles,'' Cowan said. "For example, you have the elegance of Federer against the brute force of Nadal. You have a little bit of that in Murray-Nadal.''

Expect twists and turns when they meet next: The two battles produced a total of 17 breaks and 59 break chances.

Don't bank on it being another early-round encounter, either. In fact, if it hadn't been for Tsonga, Murray and Nadal would probably have met in the last four in Melbourne -- Tsonga began his improbable run with a four-set win over the Scot on day one.

Monica Seles vs. (51) Lindsay Davenport
Head-to-head: 10-3 Davenport

This one obviously falls under the category "short term," since Davenport's status beyond 2008 is unknown and Seles probably won't be playing past then if she decides to come back at all this year.

Most fans, though, probably would agree that having both back at the same time would be a treat. Their playing each other would be a bonus.

Seles

The last time that happened was in 2003, when Davenport prevailed in the final of Tokyo's Pan Pacific Open.

"A lot of people would love to see Davenport-Seles,'' Smith said. "It would all add to a women's tour that has so much variety in it, and will generate so much interest.''

New mom Davenport, 31, has gone 19-2 and won three small tournaments after re-emerging on tour in September. Seles, who turned 34 in December, and her once-unique baseline game last graced the court at the 2003 French Open. Shortly after, the nine-time Grand Slam champion unofficially quit, thanks mainly to a foot injury.

"Seles hasn't really had a chance to say goodbye to the fans, and she has huge numbers of fans,'' Smith said. "It would be great for her to get out there, and I think she can and still be competitive.''

(1) Roger Federer vs. (89) Mario Ancic
Head-to-head: 4-1 Federer

Ancic is from the same city in Croatia as 2001 Wimbledon winner Goran Ivanisevic and has an eerily similar voice and almost the same physical stature and huge serve.

Ancic

Ancic can play on grass, too, as evidenced by his two titles at a Wimbledon warm-up and his win over Federer at the All England Club in 2002 in their first match -- the last time Federer lost on grass -- plus a semifinal showing in southwest London two years later.

Like Gasquet, however, Ancic, whose 2007 campaign was all but wiped out by mono and a shoulder injury that abruptly ended his quest to make the top five, hasn't overcome Federer since, taking just one set in the process. Any chance of a match in Melbourne was wiped out when Ancic had to withdraw due to a stomach illness. (What else can happen to him?)

Assuming he fully recovers from the mono, Cowan thinks Ancic has to revert to his old game -- attacking more rather than lingering on the baseline -- if he has any chance of challenging Federer and claiming a major.

"He's one of those guys who gives 100 percent, but I actually feel he's further away from winning a Grand Slam now than he was two years ago, not because of the mono, but because of the way he plays,'' Cowan said. "I think he's staying back too much.''

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.