In the Land of Oz, dreams begin at the first slam of the season

Updated: January 8, 2008

There's no place like home at the Oz

The Australian Open, with its relaxed atmosphere and Down Under cheer, is known as the "Happy Slam.'' Yet, it also carries a certain mystique. The setting comes across as so charming, so far from everywhere, so full of lilting accents, that the nickname "Oz'' seems only natural.

After two weeks of sleep deprivation and constant time-difference calculations, ardent tennis fans might start looking for the poppy field where Dorothy and her crew took a snooze. As a tribute to the dreamlike quality of the season's first Grand Slam event, we present ten pre-tournament talking points with a nod to a cinematic classic.

Somewhere over the rainbow, courts are blue: Speaking of sleep, Plexicushion sounds more like a mattress than a playing surface. The new sunny-sky-bright stuff is supposed to be faster and more consistent than Rebound Ace, which drew flak from players for getting sticky in the typically warm, humid conditions. Early reviews of the new surface have been mixed.

Hewitt

There's no place like home: And no one knows better than favorite son Lleyton Hewitt that he is racing against the red sand in his athletic hourglass in his quest to reach another final here. Having Tony Roche on his side might come in handy if Hewitt runs into Roche's former pupil, the great and powerful Roger Federer.

Pay no attention to the mom in the corner: Lindsay Davenport is idle this week after hauling away her third title in four tries since coming back last fall. She's played only one top-10 opponent in her post-maternity phase -- Jelena Jankovic, with whom she split matches late last year -- but wins are wins. Davenport's opponents probably will try to run her around, but if she can dictate the pace, her confidence and experience could take her deep in the tournament where she captured her third and final Slam in 2000.

Have a little fire, scarecrow: At this time last year, Ivo Karlovic was little more than an interesting footnote on the ATP circuit. Now, the genial giant is No. 22, with three titles in the bank. His final step in being taken seriously is to make some noise in a Slam.

Bring me the broom of the defending champion: Serena Williams showed up for the Hopman Cup looking self-assured and buff -- immediately spurring a new round of the endless is-she-in-shape debate. Forget the tale of the tape. Serena rarely beats herself, no matter what condition she is in, and any road to the women's title goes through her.

I'll get you back, my pretty: Maria Sharapova would love to erase the image she left in Melbourne last year, when she was demolished in the final by the aforementioned Serena. The result seemed to linger for months as Sharapova struggled with her serve and a tender shoulder, but she put it together in the year-end championships, almost knocking Henin from her perch. Sharapova doesn't like the Australian summer heat, but she enjoys the competitive kitchen.

Munchkinland: Two of the youngest players in the top 100 on their respective circuits put down their lollipops and made runs to tournament semifinals last week, thereby raising expectations. Croatia's 19-year-old Marin Cilic lost to eventual champion Mikhail Youzhny in Chennai, India, and 17-year-old Tamira Paszek of Austria fell to Davenport in Auckland, New Zealand.

Brains, heart, nerve: All qualities displayed by James Blake at various times in his career and life outside the white lines. But his role in helping the U.S. Davis Cup team win the title last month didn't seem to have any magical carryover. Fabrice Santoro upset Blake in the first round this week at the Aussie Open tuneup at Sydney, an event he won the past two years. He could use a breakthrough performance in this Slam.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch? After last year's personal transformation, most folks would put Justine Henin firmly in the Glinda camp. We'll soon find out if the world No. 1, coming off an almost surreal season, can pick up where she left off.

Off to see the wizard: Federer has to win Slam No. 13 before he can go on to a record-tying 14 or the all-time 15. When it comes right down to it, his mission will be the most compelling plotline of the fortnight.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.


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Raymond rolls on

Raymond

Samantha Stosur's continued illness-related absence from WTA action left her doubles partner, Lisa Raymond, in the lurch on the eve of the Australian swing. Raymond and old friend Francesca Schiavone of Italy have agreed to play together in Sydney and Melbourne, and perhaps in Doha and Dubai.

Raymond, 34, said losing the top ranking she and Stosur had achieved pales in comparison to watching Stosur try to overcome one setback after another. "She's at such an intricate part of her career," Raymond said. "It's disappointing for me, but it's a hundred times more disappointing for her."

On another subject, Raymond said she's committed to playing Fed Cup this season, joining another longtime pal, Lindsay Davenport. Things get a little bit more complex when it comes to who is actually going to represent the United States in doubles.

Captain Zina Garrison is pursuing the services of both Venus and Serena Williams. Depending on their availability, Raymond's doubles rival and current No. 1, South African native Liezel Huber, who is married to an American and just became a U.S. citizen, also could be in the mix.

Raymond chose her words carefully, saying she'll play with any partner Garrison feels is best for the common cause. "The powers that be will have to sit down and think about who they want," Raymond said. "It's definitely an odd situation, given the fact that [Huber] just became an American citizen. If she plays, another girl is going to lose a spot. It'll be interesting to see how Zina handles it."

Return of service

Nadal

The inaugural "Question of the Week" asked how you would structure Rafael Nadal's 2008 schedule to give him the best shot at being healthy all season, and whether that itinerary would include less time on clay. Here's what Lanka from Toronto suggested:

"I would make sure that he played less tennis [in general] and certainly less on clay, even though it's his favorite surface. Clay is a forgiving surface, and so he is probably less likely to get injured on clay than on other surfaces. That having been said, the fatigue resulting from a schedule that doesn't allow for sufficient rest and recovery can leave Rafa more vulnerable to injuries during the second half of the season or the hard-court season, where injuries are more likely to occur given his playing style. … His recent success at Wimbledon shows that he has not only the desire but the talent to succeed on other surfaces. Rafa would be well-served to follow a schedule similar to Roger [Federer]'s, as Roger has been economical with his schedule, always making sure to balance preparation and rest.''

Question of the week

Who will make a surprise quarterfinal appearance in the Australian Open, and why?

E-mail your responses to bonniedford@aol.com.