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    Australian Open begins

    We're half a month into 2012. Novak Djokovic's streak is long gone and most of the top names are at the Australian Open. Even though Australia is not presently as big a tennis powerhouse as say, Russia, tradition has the AO as the first major of the year. While planning the first Grand Slam—winning all four majors in one year—Don Budge was advised to skip the Australian Championships. In 1938, Australia took several weeks to reach by steamship, and his friends warned that he was such an attraction that the Aussies would play him to death in preliminary tournaments. But Budge schemed to win all four majors before turning pro, and had to start down under—as did Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver (twice), Margaret Smith Court and Steffi Graf.

    From 1982 to 1985, the AO was played late in December, but that didn't work out. Without any looming slams to defend against, very few top players made the long flight. For several years the AO was lightly regarded, and there was talk of replacing it as a major with another Asian tournament—Japan was booming then. So they moved it back to January, and Steffi Graf came to win the first leg of her 1988 Golden Slam. She won again in 1989, for five straight majors. Strong players like Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis and Lleyton Hewitt brought respectability back to Australian tennis. Tennis fans still chatter about a rich Chinese or Russian tournament replacing the AO, but so far it is just talk.

    On the men's side, all eyes are on Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray and promising Aussie Bernard Tomic. Djokovic was almost perfect last year, but that leaves him with a boatload of points to defend. Roger Federer has been very strong since losing the US Open to Djokovic last fall. Rafa Nadal—I don't know. He lost to Ferrer recently, and I have read that he has adopted a heavier racquet to generate more power on his groundstrokes—which tells me that all those losses on clay to Djokovic are still in his head. Changing racquets always messed up my game, but Nadal is a body genius, so it may work out for him.

    Andy Murray has taken on dour Ivan Lendl as an additional coach to push him to a major win. Andy Roddick tried Jimmy Connors as a coach, briefly, and the Davis Cup team was coached by John McEnroe, also briefly. A sports radio DJ  in the DC area used to argue incessantly that great players don't often make great coaches. About the only example any caller could present then was Mike Ditka, but it seems to be a sports version of the Peter Principle.

    Bernard Tomic is a rangy, nineteen year old baseliner of Bosnian and Croatian extraction. His father once threatened to move back to Croatia during a war of words with the Australian Federation. He plays a deceptively laid back game, seeking to draw his opponents into errors. Tennis is littered with players who found that junior strategy didn't work against adults, but Tomic has recently beaten Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych, Mardy Fish and came back to beat Fernando Verdasco in the 1st round of the AO yesterday. Unfortunately, Tomic seems to have a gift for deprecation that will not serve him well:

    Verdasco dominated Tomic 6-4, 6-2 in Brisbane two years ago. Tomic yesterday recalled that defeat, while pointing to Verdasco's ranking slide from a career-high of No.7.

    "I think I was 16," Tomic said. "He was on his run, playing well ... the past six months he has not really done much."

    On the women's side, several top players are out, or playing, with injuries. Caroline Wozniacki has a sore left wrist. Kim Clijsters is still worried about her hip. Andrea Petkovic withdrew with a stress fracture in her lower back. Serena Williams twisted an ankle last week and sister Venus simply withdrew, citing an autoimmune disease. Maria Sharapova also has a gimpy ankle.

    If Wozniacki loses early, it is mathematically possible for any of the other top seven women to reach the number one ranking. Except Samantha Stosur, who blamed the pressure of Aussie expectations for tumbling out in the first round. Stosur is a head case, but she usually waits until the finals to crash and burn.

    Realistically, there are few players that can overwhelm Wozniacki in an early round, and she isn't facing any of them until possibly Clijsters in the quarterfinals. Petra Kvitova trails Woz by less than 200 points, and has the best chance of taking over the number one spot, except that her half includes Marion Bartoli, Sharapova, Serena Williams and Vera Zvonereva.


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