Nadal not Feeling Pressure, Safina at a Loss and Djokovic/Murray eye Silverware

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*Rafa Nadal insists that there is “no pressure” as he bids to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slams at the same time. Dubbed the “Rafa Slam,” it is a feat not even his greatest rival Roger Federer has achieved. Speaking before the tournament began he said: “Maybe I am only going to have this opportunity [once] in my career. But [it is] not for that reason I [am] going [to] have the pressure. The pressure is like every Grand Slam, you want to play well in the important tournaments. And for me, having the fourth or not is something that is not in my mind.” He also was quick, as always, to place himself behind R-Fed in the list of favourites to lift the trophy. “I feel if I play at my best level, I can have a chance to be in the second week, and there we will see what happens. Every match will be really difficult, so I have to be ready for everything. But I for sure am feeling less favourite than [Federer] and not more favourite than Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, these kinds of players.”

*Before we can even catch our breath following the Christmas rush we are thrust back in to the hectic world of a Grand Slam and already the headlines are keeping us hooked. Former world No. 1 Dinara Safina collapsed to a 0-6, 0-6 defeat at the hands of No. 3 seed Kim Clijsters in just 44 minutes. Many of her critics are labelling her as finished as the woman who reached the final here in 2009 has won only nine of her last 25 matches since returning from her latest injury setback. “I was sitting in the changeover, and I was like, OK, at least how can I get a chance to hurt her?” said the younger sister of enigmatic men’s star Marat Safin. “Nothing was hurting her, not my backhand, my forehand or my serve. My return, nothing. She was dictating basically from the first point. There was nothing that I could do to hurt her. Embarrassing.” But she has vowed to defy those doubters and fight her way back to the parapet of the game she once sat on top of. “I will give my 100% to get back. I will fight. I will go through whatever it takes,” she added. “But first I want to find answers. I’m fully motivated…I cannot say that I didn’t practise hard but I guess something was not right. I don’t know. I have to figure out the answers.” The full interview, plus Clijsters’ reaction can be seen at the WTA website.

Rafael Nadal

*That result was the sixth ‘double bagel’ of Clijsters’ impressive career. All have come at Grand Slams with four of the six being in Melbourne. They have all come within the first two rounds and all, bar one, have seen her reach at least the semi finals. The omens look good for the Belgian. They read as follows:

Year Tournament Opponent Round Finish
2000 US Open Marta Marrero 1st 2nd
2003 Australian Open Petra Mandula 2nd SF
2003 Wimbledon Rossanna de los Rios 1st SF
2004 Australian Open Maria Elena Camerin 2nd R-Up
2007 Australian Open Vasilisa Bardina 1st SF
2011 Australian Open Dinara Safina 2nd ?

*Both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are confident they can lift the 2011 Aussie Open title after coming close to lifting majors in 2010. But they appreciate the fact that they must aim to overcome the top two of Nadal and Federer if they are to achieve this, having had mixed results in previous encounters. Djokovic overcame Roger Federer in the mesmerising US Open seminfal in New York last September before losing to Rafa Nadal in the final. He also lost to Tomas Berdych in the semis at Wimbledon. “They’re the two best players in the world, deservedly,” said The Serb. “Of course, [they are] the two biggest favourites in any tournament they play to win the title. I guess I’m in this small group of players behind them that is trying to challenge them in each event. How far back, I can’t say. To be able to compete with them is a big challenge. Every time we play they take my game as well to another level. They make me play better. In case I get to play them in this tournament, I will look forward to it.” Murray lost the other Wimbledon semi to Nadal whilst he also lost last year’s Melbourne final in straight sets to Federer. He believes that experience will help his assault this time around. “Experience obviously helps,” said the 23-year-old Scot. “I played quite a lot of big matches last year. I went through some very tough patches last year, as well, especially after the Aussie Open. That was something I had to come back from and I learned from. So I think mentally I’m probably in a better place.” The full interviews can be seen on the ATP website.

*Danish beauty Caroline Wozniacki has come under further scrutiny as she begins another Slam looking to lift her first major. The top female star is probably sick of listening to the old “worthy No.1” debates and, even if she won’t admit it, Matt Cronin believes she is showing the signs of stress and strain. “I believe that I’m a really good player,” the 20-year-old said. “I can beat anyone on a good day. If I win, great. If I lose one match, just back on the practice court, work, and get stronger. I think that’s also why I’ve reached the level I’ve reached. I’m never satisfied. I always want to get better. Every time I step on the practice court, I always see things that I want to improve. I think I get frustrated, but I use it in a positive way. That’s the way I’m built.” The full report can be seen at the FOX Sports website.

*It was the match that truly exploded the 2011 tennis season in to life. David Nalbandian overcame feisty home favourite Lleyton Hewitt in a dramatic five-set tussle that reprised the 2005 quaterfinal here, that time Hewitt coming out on top. Visibly exhausted following the late finish, Nalbandian was understandably elated at the shift he had just put in. “It was a very tough first round,” said the Argentine. “We both know it, every time we play it’s long matches, tough ones, he’s a real fighter. He played unbelievable. It’s amazing playing with him in a full stadium, here in Australia. We both had a lot of chances, I was serving for the match, it was that kind of match nobody can forget. Cramping was around all the time, he was too tired as well. I played the two match points, I play incredible, serve and volley, it was amazing, and then after that the match was for both. I can win, I can lose, the match was very close. I was one point to be two break points down in the fourth, so I play very good shots, I didn’t care about it. I win my serve, and that’s helped me, that helped me to win the match. I take that we both fight a lot all the time; it doesn’t matter when we are tired we keep fighting. Today the match was for me, but he can win as well. I take the brave heart that I put today on court.”

*Venus Williams has been sporting yet another bizarre dress Down Under but then, what’s new? With what could best be described as fishing net wrapped around her midriff she has claimed that Lewis’ Carroll’s most famous creation is the inspiration. “The outfit is inspired by Alice in Wonderland,” said the 30-year-old. “It’s kind of about a surprise, because when Alice goes down the rabbit hole, she finds all these things that are so surprising. This outfit is about having a surprise in a tennis dress, and showing some skin and then just having a print. Prints don’t happen that often in tennis. So it’s called the Wonderland dress.” Okay then.

*Former world No, 6 Nicolas Lapentti has retired from tennis, aged 34, after suffering ongoing tendonitis in his knee. He won five ATP Tour singles titles and reached a further seven finals in his 16 years as a professional. “It took me a lot to take the decision,” he said. “I didn’t want to rush; I wanted to be 100 percent sure. I’m leaving tennis without regret. I’ll have a farewell match, but I don’t know when and against whom. I have to get over the injury first.”

*When faced with questions about her longevity Japanese stalwart Kimiko Date Krumm says that it is her husband who will decide how long she prolongs her gargantuan career for. “If my ranking is high enough to play in the Grand Slams I’ll be back next year,” she said. “I’ll just have to check with my husband first. We only spent about a month together in total last year.”

*Fundraising for the flood victims of Queensland, Australia has topped the $1.8m mark following another charity event organised by the gracious Roger Federer on Sunday. Rally For Relief was a 90-minute-long friendly extravaganza featuring many of the sport’s top stars. Pat Rafter captained the Green Team which featured the Andy’s Roddick and Murray, Viktoria Azarenka, Vera Zvonereva, Kim Clijsters and Rafa Nadal. The Gold Team was led by home favourite Lleyton Hewitt and featured the talents of Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Justine Henin, Caroline Wozniacki, Roger Federer and Sam Stosur. Players rotated round court and even took turns as line judges while US Davis Cup captain Jim Courier oversaw proceedings from the umpire’s chair. As usual, players were miked up and fired quips as sharp as their groundstrokes across the net much to the delight of the 15,000 present at the Rod Laver Arena. The event finished with an all-Aussie encounter as Hewitt battled Rafter before Nadal and Clijsters faced Federer and Stosur in mixed doubles.

*Former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic has blamed her pre-tournament injury disruptions for her first round crash at Melbourne Park. “For the last 10 days I couldn’t push hard in practice because of my abdominal strain,” said the Serb, who was forced to withdraw from the Hopman Cup with the problem. “I had [only] really Sunday and Monday that I could push a little bit more, and the first couple days that I could actually serve. I think that at the end got to me. It’s a ten-day strike before the Slam.”

*Maria Sharapova has been discussing her recent split with long-term coach Michael Joyce publicly, Thomas Hogstedt taking over the reigns. “After a really long period of time, I think a few things become a routine,” said the 23-year-old, who describes Joyce as “like a brother” and who will continue to look after him financially. “I think from both of our perspectives it was really a good move to bring in a new voice, a fresh perspective into the team. Obviously it’s different not having him at a tournament after so many years. But it’s part of an athlete’s career…It’s been going really well with Thomas. I like the work ethic that he’s brought on the court. I’m happy so far, but you never know where things will take you.”

*Nadia Petrova insists she is in no rush to find a new coach having been “single” since the off-season. “Frankly, I’m in no hurry to get a new coach because I’ve been on tour for so long,” said the Russian. “What I need is a regular hitting partner.”

*Swiss star Patty Schnyder says she is unsure how long she will continue to play tennis after bombing out of the Aussie Open at the first hurdle. “I haven’t made any commitments beyond the next one or two months,” she said. “I’ll play Fed Cup against Israel and then Doha and Dubai. After that I don’t know.”

*Former player and founding member of the ATP, Jim McManus, 70, has passed away of medical complications brought about by his recent fight with cancer. Before the ATP was established McManus twice featured in the Top 10 American players in both singles and doubles. In 1968 he and Jim Osbourne reached the semifinals at the US Open, probably his greatest moment as a player. But it is after retirement that he really made his mark. Employed by the ATP for 28 years he worked on rankings, tournament representation and development, pension plans, player entries, the Senior Tour and alumini services as well as being one of the original Board of Directors. “It is with great sadness that we learn of Jim’s passing,” said Adam Helfant, the ATP’s Executive Chairman and President. “From his early days as a player, and later as a founding member of the ATP, Jim was always regarded as a true pioneer of the game of tennis. On behalf of the ATP, I can say that men’s tennis has truly lost one of its greatest and most significant figures.”

*There is an interesting piece written on Maria Sharapova and how her recent engagement could affect both her playing career and her assets in comparison to former Russian pinup Anna Kournikova. It is written by Mark Hodgkinson of The Daily Telegraph in London and can be read at the website for the Montreal Gazette.

*The GOAT race enters week two with both Roger and Rafa competing at this year’s Australian Open. Both gain 20 points for their troubles and have the chance to add mega bucks to their totals next week.

Roger: 230, Rafa: 80

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