Comings and Goings from Auckland, New Zealand
By Thaddeus McCarthy
As I have just returned home from covering the ASB Classic, and the Heineken Open is already underway, I thought that now would be a good time to give you a summary of the Classic and an intro to the Open.
The ASB Classic was a fantastic six day event played at the ASB Tennis Centre, Auckland. It was (pleasantly) sunny, even though the forecast had predicted rain. The play did not disappoint, and from a personal perspective, as it was my first time covering a tournament, it was brilliant, and the experience certainly lived up to expectations. It was also the dream final, the one everyone had wanted from the start, Venus Williams vs. Ana Ivanovic. Now sometimes these sort of the matches can be disappointments; like many of the long awaited finals in our sport e.g. any number of the Federer/Nadal French Open finals. But this was different; it was tight and the tennis was electrifying. In the first set, Ivanovic cruised to win 6-2. Venus saved a match point at 5-4 in the second set, and went on to win it 7-5. In the final set though Ivanovic’s younger legs proved to be springier. She caught a break at the early stages of the set, and did not let go from there, eventually prevailing 6-4, and taking the title.
Both Venus and Ivanovic said in the post-match interviews, that this tournament was the perfect preparation for the Australian Open. I think after watching both players, I would expect at least one of them to go into the second week there. They are both on comeback trails right now, but I think that Ana is the more likely one to do so. She has the younger legs, still only being 26. And has a number of weapons on disposal, such as a blistering ground strokes and strong service game. Whereas with Venus you have to say that age is catching up with her. The other player that most impressed me from the tournament was American Jamie Hampton. I was at the press conference where she announced that she was pulling out of her semi-final with Venus, due to a hip injury. Something about her struck me. She seemed in a way similar to the Mighty Fed, in that she spoke almost in third person. She seemed very sure of herself, and I am certain that if she gets over her injury in time, by the Australian Open she will do well. In her quarterfinal against Lauren Davis, I was impressed by the all-round strength of her game.
The NZ Festival of Tennis continues this week, with the Heineken Open. David Ferrer is the defending champion here, and has come back (now as the World No. 3) to defend his title. The other headline acts will be Tommy Haas and John Isner. Gael Monfils, the flamboyant Frenchman unfortunately pulled out this week citing fatigue. Being the first month of the year this is pretty doubtful, but understandable that if he is not feeling totally right, he doesn’t want to ruin himself for the coming Slam. The tournament organisers were in talks with Andy Murray’s manager about potentially getting him in on a wild card, after his early exit from the Qatar Open. Unfortunately though, this was not to be the case. In reality it was too much of a rush for Murray to suddenly come down here to play a tournament after his Qatar loss. Tournament Director Karl Budge insisted after the Murray and Monfils announcements that the tournament does still have some exciting talent, such as young American Jack Sock, not to mention Marcos Baghdadis, Benoit Paire and Phillip Kohlschreiber. Ferrer’s path to the title, will no doubt still be a difficult one, even without a Murray in his way.
As the Classic proved for the ladies, the Heineken Open will serve as a good preparation for the Australian Open, as that Slam begins on the 15th. If I were to predict a player from this tournament who has the potential to win it though, it would not be David Ferrer. Although he has a very high likelihood of winning the Heineken again, I just don’t think that he has enough firepower to win a Slam. Yes, he did reach the French final last year (where he was dually shellacked in straight sets by Nadal), but Slam winners traditionally need to have a weapon arsenal at their disposal. It is very uncommon for journeyman (such as Ferrer) to win Slams. One-Slam-Wonder Journeyman who immediately come to mind include Andrei Gomez (1990 French) and Thomas Johanseen (2002 Aussie). Now in both these cases they were lucky; in Gomez’s case, Agassi was more worried about his hair piece falling out than winning the final. In Johanseen’s case, he had a very favourable draw that year, and played the volatile and unstable Marat Safin in the final.
My pick for the surprise run of the tournament is Benoit Paire. He is a tall man, with surprising balance, and of course has a booming serve. Although he has not yet gone beyond the third round of a Slam, the Australian as we all know is notorious for unexpected runs. Marcos Baghdadis, 2006 anyone? Or how about Fernando Gonzalez, 2007, or Tsonga, 2008. All of those players had weapon arsenals; the Gonzalez forehand was, is still is legendary. Whatever the case though, surprise run or not, for all of the players involved in this lead-up tournament, the Heineken will be great preparation for the Aussie Open.
You will hear from me again at the completion of the tournament. So for now, keep well.