All Not Fair Dinkum in Oz: 2006 Australian Open Preview<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Despite being in the land of "No worries," the tennis world has plenty to be concerned about as the year's first Grand Slam tournament kicks off tomorrow in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Melbourne.
As if the rash of top player withdrawals (three-time winner Andre Agassi, defending champ Marat Safin, and world number two Rafael Nadal) and potential withdrawals (defending champ Serena Williams and US Open queen Kim Clijsters) isn't enough of a buzz-killer, the dirty little secret of sports-performance enhancing drugs-is now rearing its ugly head on the tennis tour.
After a handful of suspensions over the past five years (and bucketfuls of rumors, denials, and disputed tests), two major suspensions have come down recently: an eight-year ban for 2005 French Open finalist, Argentine Mariano Puerta, and two years for 16-year-old French Open quarterfinalist, Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva (the tongue-twisting name alone would drive one to drug use).
The genie is out of the bottle, if you will, and putting him back will take more than a wish for the same reason that your anti-virus software needs to be regularly updated: hackers always seem to be one step ahead of the blockers.
The tennis cheaters are no doubt rationalizing that taking performance enhancing drugs is the only way to keep up in a tennis season that never ends. Case in point: Swiss Roger Federer, coming off another prodigious year with an 81-4 match record, 11 titles including two Grand Slams, and the number one ranking, only had slightly more than a month off from his last match of 2005 to his first of 2006. No doubt much of that time was spent training. No doubt this is not the way to treat a racehorse.
Whoever deemed tennis a "sissy sport" obviously never played on tour: players travel continent to continent week after week, practicing and competing daily while adjusting to different surfaces, balls, food, and time zones. Sprinkle in four-hour, five-set matches at the majors and it's not hard to imagine why steroids are used, not to bulk up to hit balls over the fence (see Major League Baseball), but rather to boost energy for today and recovery for tomorrow inside the fence (see Tour de France).
Before you dust off your violin for fatigued multi-millionaire athletes living the jet-setter's dream, keep in mind the tour takes place amongst consenting adults (except, of course, for those mid-teen female phenoms whose domineering fathers would face child-labor chastisement in any other workplace). Players, tournament directors, and the sport's governing bodies are all complicit in a type of endangerment that every Minnesota deer hunter knows to avoid: for the good of the game, there's a time to stop chasing the bucks.
As we all know, when there's money at stake, waiting for Lake Minnetonka to freeze over in June would be a better bet than waiting for a shorter and saner tennis season. So in the meantime, the sport and its spectators will continue to suffer decimated playing fields and diminished levels of play. As John Cleese would say with a stiff British upper lip, "Right, we'll have to make the best of it."
On a brighter note, one of the keep-your-eye-on stories Down Under is the return of the "Swiss Miss," former world number one and three-time champion Martina Hingis, who retired three years ago at age 22 due to-surprise, surprise-a foot injury.
This stylish and strategic player, who, fittingly enough, I once observed playing a game of chess before her match, is a welcome throwback to a time when the game rewarded the cerebral over the physical. Outgunned and disheartened back in the days when the Williams' sisters' artillery fired true, Martina will now be facing more of the same by even more gals in her comeback. Fare well, my fair lady.
Hingis won't go all the way, but picking a woman who will is proving challenging with all the injuries and lack of lead-up results. If you like to play the numbers, picking a Russian isn't a bad bet with a full nine of them being seeded. Let's face it though, only the prettiest and richest among them has a good shot of winning: that would be Yahoo's most hit-on athlete-Maria Sharapova. (Maybe that needs some re-phrasing.)
Moving right along, the two Frenchies, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, world's numbers three and five respectively, have showed real promise of late with a one-two finish in the year-ending WTA Tour Championships. Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 champ and last week's winner in Sydney, seems ready for resurgence after a down year. Or maybe American Lindsay Davenport will finally legitimize her number one ranking with her first major since the 2000 Aussie Open. This may seem like dereliction of prediction, but this tournament is wide open for the one who's healed and prepared after the Britney-Spears-marriage-length off-season.
Aside from Federer being the obvious choice to double his 2004 pleasure, there are a few men that could rise to the occasion if the Swiss wizard falters in Oz: Aussie Lleyton Hewitt will be the home-country favorite, but can't seem to extricate himself from being merely a step on several recent Grand Slam champions' road to the title; Argentine David Nalbandian took down the "The Boss" in the year-ending Master's Cup in Shanghai ending Federer's 24-match final win streak, and with his increased fitness, will be a serious contender in Melbourne; German Tommy Haas, after some good early season form, is most definitely a dark horse to go deep into the second week.
And while two American boys flashed at last year's US Open (Robbie Ginepri-semi-finals, James Blake-quarterfinals), I would look for the other one that flopped, Andy Roddick, to enter this year as a man on a mission. After what many called a "bad year"-five titles, number three ranking, Wimbledon final (I wish I had bad years like that)-I'm guessing the gamely Roddick might just blow a path to the final on the high-bouncing Rebound Ace courts of Melbourne Park. But if he does get there, Andy, with the last five of his six straight losses to Roger coming in a tournament final, had better hope the Swiss has already been dismissed.
For Seasonal Affective Disordered (SAD) Minnesotans, the Australian Open couldn't come at a better time: as we muddle through record gloom and the deepest part of winter, one needs only to tune in to the 91 hours of broadcast coverage for a vicarious summer thrill of sun and fun. So even if you have a chronic case, pull the shades, push the button, and transport yourself to the Land of Oz-at least it will get you through January.
Minnesotan David Wheaton once cured his SAD by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 1990 falling to Stefan Edberg. You can find out more about David's tennis career-and his current work as an author, speaker, and radio talk show host-at www.davidwheaton.com.
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