- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

After a year of rankings leapfrog, the Olympics and an epic match on the lawn in London, the world’s best tennis players are ready to go at it again in the season’s first Grand Slam.

The Australian Open begins Monday and it may be one of the most difficult tournaments to predict in years.

On the men’s side, Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Switzerland’s Roger Federer enter as the top seeds, setting up a potential continuation of an on-court rivalry that dominated the 2008 season. Novak Djokovic, the third-seeded Serb, will look to defend his title, while fourth-seeded Scotsman Andy Murray played arguably the best tennis of the fall and winter.

The depth of the men’s field was not lost on Federer, a three-time Aussie winner who is one victory shy of Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles.

“It’s an interesting scenario,” he told reporters at the AAMI Classic, an exhibition warmup event in the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong. “Novak is the defending champion, you know, Rafa had an incredible year last year and I’ve won this tournament plenty of times. So I guess it goes through the three of us a bit. We are the ones to beat, you know. … But I mean, it’s going to take a heck of a performance from one of the players to win this tournament.”

With Federer and Nadal in line to meet in the final, there will be talk of a rematch of their memorable showdown in the Wimbledon final. The match, won by Nadal in five sets, is widely considered one of the best matches in tennis history and a potential trigger for luring new fans to the sport.

“Every ‘best of’ I watched at the end of last year all talked about that match, so it clearly resonated with the casual sports fan,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “As far as whether the next step will be taken, I think we’ll find that out this year, but I think we’re pretty well-positioned.”

Nadal reaffirmed himself as the world’s best clay-court player by trouncing Federer in last year’s French Open and became the first man since Bjorn Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. But he has historically struggled on hard courts, and to meet up with Federer again, he may need to get past Murray.

The 21-year-old tore up the fall and winter tour schedule with titles in Madrid, St. Petersburg and Doha, plus an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, where he dispatched Nadal and Federer. Murray has beaten Federer four straight times since losing to him in the U.S. Open final, leaving many to expect a breakout year.

“If he doesn’t do it here, I’ve got to think that with the way he’s playing and with all the confidence he’s got, he could definitely have a breakthrough this year,” ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo said.

Carillo credited an intense offseason workout regimen for Murray’s emergence and pointed to similar training for Jelena Jankovic, the top seed on the women’s side, who rose to the No. 1 ranking despite never having won a Grand Slam title. Jankovic will seek to justify her ranking against a field that doesn’t include defending champion Maria Sharapova, who is recovering from a shoulder injury. Reigning U.S. Open champion Serena Williams returns as the second seed, and fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva will seek her first Grand Slam title after winning warmup events in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand.

American interest also will be driven by the performances of Andy Roddick and James Blake, who remain the best hope for another Grand Slam among the U.S. men., will also drive American interest. Blake, the ninth seed, is said to be rested after a grueling summer that included a trek to the Beijing Olympics; the seventh-seeded Roddick has been working with a new coach, Larry Stefanki.

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