quarter finals

2011 Set For a Cracker

With the dust still settling in our memories over the stunning year that was 2010 the new tennis calendar is already upon us. It seems not too long ago that Federer was dismantling a shattered Rafa Nadal at London’s o2 Arena in the ATP Tour Finals. But with Christmas coming and going with its ever-rapid characteristics Down Under has opened its tennis season with aplomb.

Everyone has their favourite star and their own pantomime villains. And everyone has an ideal year mapped out in their mind with their top men and women coming out trumps at all the major tournaments, myself included.

So, as a year-beginning blog I have decided to look ahead to the 2011 men’s tour and predict, not entirely seriously, what may (or probably not) happen throughout the year ahead…

January

The early hard court season jumps in to life at Brisbane, Chennai and Doha building up to the first slam of the year in Australia. Andy Murray falls in the second round blaming the heat and a low-flying seagull and promptly sacks his coach. Juan Martin del Potro is still suffering with his troublesome wrist but plays his way to the quarter finals using only his good hand. The final is slightly predictable with Rafa and Roger battling their way there but to spruce things up after their recent exhibition exploits on water, centre court is flooded and the pair do battle in full scuba gear. Roger comes out as winner in four sets. As January winds down in Santiago, Chile, Juan Ignacio Chela wins the Movistar Open and is touted as this year’s big hope to challenge Rafa in the clay season.

February

As the early hard season slowly slides in to clay, Thomaz Belluci lifts his home Brasil Open title while Gael Monfils dances his way to the Open 13 in Marseille where he celebrates with a perfectly executed Moonwalk across court. Four Americans reach the semifinals at Memphis and again at Delray Beach. Wayne Odesnik wins both tournaments which causes mass outrage throughout the sport. He is touted for a Davis Cup call but Jim Courier decides to take a seething Mardy Fish instead.

March

The first Masters events of the year begin and fresh off Davis Cup victory Andy Roddick, Fish, The Bryans and John Isner are on fire. A sulking Sam Querrey falls early in both. Andy Murray comes out on top at Indian Wells beating Roddick in the final but then typically falls early at Miami and promptly sacks his coach. Nadal faces Robin Soderling in the final who has been slating the ‘Big Two’ all year. Rafa takes it with two bagel sets bringing tears and tantrums from the egotistical Swede.

April

April begins with Rafa rubbing his hands and licking his lips at the prospect of another clay season. Young Yank Ryan Harrison takes the title at Houston and is the latest star to be labelled ‘the next Sampras.’ Rafa takes Monte Carlo as expected with a straight set win over Fernando Verdasco in the final. Most notably throughout the tournament he seems to be multitasking while on court, even seen filing his nails whilst rallying with his compatriot. There is no real sign of Chela. Novak Djokovic again takes the Serbia Open in Belgrade and is installed as ruler of the nation for his achievements. He decides to sit out the rest of the 2011 season to concentrate on his new role.

May

Madrid and Rome are again taken by Rafa who now appears to be growing bored on court. Whilst dismantling Marcos Baghdatis in the final in Rome he appears to give interviews to Spanish television during the match. As everyone arrives in Paris the shocking news emanates that Rafa has decided he is bored of lifting the French Open with such ease and has decided to umpire the tournament instead to see who else can win it. With the new celebrity chair the French players really kick on in the race to be crowned their nation’s new hero. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retires from his first round match injured while Michael Llodra comes through an epic five set semi with R-Fed to face Monfils in the final. The marathon man then takes Monfils through six hours of stupendous Gallic play and the greatest French Open final of all time ends with Monfils on the floor in a tantrum pounding the floor with his fists. Llodra is crowned the saviour of France.

June

As the ATP Tour comes to Britain tennis stars snap up as much Royal Wedding memorabilia as they can get their hands on as the traditional Wimbledon plate is switched for a porcelain edition bearing the faces of beloved Wills and Kate. Andy Murray takes both Queens and Eastbourne and is believed to be a dead cert for Wimbledon. But he crashes out in round three and promptly sacks his coach. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut somehow weave their way to the final and the tents are brought out in preparation for the impending marathon. Isner wins in three sets. Roger Federer makes some possible unsavoury comments about Mahut after he overcame the Swiss God in the semis and the world’s media call him unsporting and a scurvy dog for the next six months before involving him in another betting scandal claiming he and Rafa betted on many of the matches the Spaniard had chaired at the French Open.

July

Serbia’s Davis Cup title defence ends at the quarter final stage and King Djokovic has the entire team executed for letting their nation down. Federer re-hits form late on again by taking Bastad and Gstaad while Roddick is doing well by taking Hamburg and Los Angeles. The Americans work themselves in to a fervour over the home prospects for the US Open and many pundits are with them because of the top form of A-Rod, Harrison and Isner. David Nalbandian wins in Atlanta and everyone once again remembers who he is. There is talk of a possible push in New York. Surely not…

August

Nalbandian again wins at the Legg Mason Classic. He takes a marathon final against Baghdatis, his other eternally injured friend. Andy Murray loses in the second round in Montreal and sees his title slip away. He again blames a lack of love for tennis and promptly sacks his coach before announcing his retirement from the sport. Roger takes the title before losing the Cincinnati final to Roddick. America is literally on the edge of its seat. Rafa ruptures the tendons in both knees in the third round at Cincy against Ernests Gulbis and will miss the rest of the season.

September

The final Slam of the year in New York explodes in to life with the partisan crowd firmly behind Roddick. He finally puts all the pain behind him by overcoming Federer at last in the semis in five sets. Federer is immediately written off by the world’s media, again. In the other semi Soderling falls to a resurgent Nalbandian and America gears itself up to crown Roddick their new leader. But he falls apart. His serve leaves him, his ground strokes are erratic and Nalbandian triumphs in four to become the second Argentine in three years to silence Arthur Ashe court. He quickly sees his title switch from the best player of the last decade not to win a major to the sixth best player of the last decade to win one.

October

With no Rafa, Murray or Djokovic to compete with Federer once again silences his critics by beginning a clean sweep of the late tournaments. He takes the China Open, Shanghai, the Kremlin Cup, Vienna and Basel without losing a set. Over in Valencia David Ferrer shoots to the final after a quiet year where he meets the marathon man Llodra. Ferrer takes the final in five much to the delight of the home fans. Murray decides he was wrong to be so hasty and announces his return to tennis, promising he will win that first Slam in 2012. Djokovic declares that all Serbian children will take karaoke lessons as well as practice tennis at school as of 2015.

November

In Paris, Federer finally runs out of steam and drops a set against Brian Dabul. Critics are again on his back saying he is finished. He manages to reach the quarter finals where he falls to Ryan Harrison. The American youth then falls to Del Potro in the semi who in turn loses to Soderling in the final. The Swede moves to No. 3 in the world and says he is ever so close to breaking the Top 2 but nobody is listening anymore. The ATP Finals kick off with a somewhat decimated lineup. Federer, Soderling, Roddick, Del Potro, Nalbandian, Isner, Ferrer and Verdasco do battle in London with the eyes of the tennis world watching on. Ferrer, Verdasco, Nalbandian and Roddick fall at the group stage leaving Soderling and Federer to battle it out in the final after overcoming Del Potro and Isner respectively. Federer triumphs in straight sets and the Swede storms off court refusing to take part in the ceremony, predictions in tatters. The USA take the Davis Cup home after defeating Russia in the final and it is seen as a victory for politics rather than tennis.

Well, stranger things have happened!

Around The Corner: A Newport Preview

With Wimbledon ended it seems odd to have any grass-court tennis left and yet that is exactly what we have in the week ahead in Newport, Rhode Island. A sparse field is set for the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championship but there are a few names worth noting.

Seeded first is American Sam Querrey. After winning the grass-court title at Queen’s Club a few weeks ago, Querrey is the favourite this year to win in Newport. He finished runner-up here a year ago to Rajeev Ram. He opens the tournament against Jesse Levine.

Ram is also back to attempt to defend his title in both singles and doubles where he was victorious in both draws in 2009.

Other notable Americans include 5th seeded Mardy Fish and the 8th seeded Taylor Dent. Fish was beaten by Querrey in the Queen’s Club finals while Dent is always dangerous on a fast surface due to his imposing serve.

Dent is still trying to find his form since returning from a serious back injury that kept him off the tour for two years between 2006 and 2008. After some encouraging results a year ago Dent seems to have stumbled and holds a 4-11 record in ATP events in 2010. Perhaps a return to Newport, where he won in 2002, will help spark his game.

Canadian Frank Dancevic is also coming back from a back injury and is the lone Canuck in the draw in Newport. Dancevic will be trying to round into form as his home tournament at the Rogers Cup in Toronto is merely a month away.

Following this tournament the Davis Cup will resume with the quarter-finals followed by a few clay-court tourney’s in Europe and the start of the summer hard-court swing in North America.

Roger Federer Makes Shocking Wimbledon Exit

Roger Federer has failed to advance past the quarter-finals for a second consecutive Grand Slam tournament. The defending champion and top-seeded Federer was beaten by Tomas Berdych 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 on Wednesday.

The shocking upset improves Berdych to 3-8 against Federer all-time, including a recent victory in Miami in March.
The growing trend of Roger losing to players he had previously dominated is continuing and the fact that it is happening on the grass of Wimbledon must be particularly alarming.

Talk of Federer’s decline has been present since 2008 when he failed to win a Grand Slam until late in the year at the U.S. Open. Then in 2009 after losing the Aussie Open final to Nadal, people really started to wonder if his dominance was wavering. Just when it seemed like that might be the case, Federer rebounded by winning his first French Open and then regaining his Wimbledon crown a year ago. He then lost the U.S. Open final to Del Potro but again bounced back in Australia earlier this year. It seemed liked Federer still had a lot of gas left in the tank.

With back-to-back quarter-final exits from the last two Slams however, the situation is starting to look dire for the world number-two player. He has not won a tournament since his lone Slam down-under and continues to get beat by players like Berdych, Lleyton Hewitt and others that he had owned until the past year.

In his post-match press conference, Federer spoke respectfully towards his opponent but revealed there were some injury issues that affected his play today.

“I think he was a bit more consistent than in the past. I lost to him in Miami this year, where it was a really tight match as well. But from my end, obviously, you know, I’m unhappy with the way I’m playing. I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play. You know, I am struggling with a little bit of a back and a leg issue. That just doesn’t quite allow me to play the way I would like to play. So it’s frustrating, to say the least. Looking forward to some rest anyway.”

Whether the injury aspect was real or imagined we’ll never know for sure. It could be Federer’s way of avoiding questions of his declining stranglehold on the men’s game.

Either way, Wimbledon will have a different champion this year and for the first time since 2002 the finals will not include Roger Federer.

NADAL STILL THE HEAVY FAVORITE AT ROLAND GARROS

As the quarter-finals at the French Open are set to begin Tuesday in Paris, all eyes will be focused on front-runner Rafael Nadal. When looking at the remaining men left in the draw, this guy is the overwhelming favorite.

World-number two Nadal is the four-time champion and has been on-fire once again this year on clay. Undefeated on the dirt so far this year, he won all three Masters 1000 level clay-court tournaments and appears to be once again unbeatable at RolandGarros. A match against clay-specialist Nicolas Almagro might push him to four sets, but a quick victory in three is still likely.

His next opponent will be Novak Djokovic who could test him for sure – test him, but ultimately not defeat him in Paris. Djokovic faces Jurgen Melzer, a first time Grand Slam quarter-finalist. This is, in fact, Melzer’s first time past the third round of a major. Time for a reality check against Djokovic.

In the top-half, world number-one Roger Federer will face Robin Soderling in a rematch of last year’s final. Soderling looks to be playing quite sharp and will not have the same nerves he did a year ago versus Roger. While Federer has stepped it up once more in a Grand Slam, I think he’s going to face a stiffer test from Soderling this time. Soderling is his most difficult opponent in this tournament thus far and I think we could see a four or five set battle between them. Roger should prevail – but do not count out the upset factorwith Soderling. He is the only man to have ever defeated Nadal at this tourney.

Somewhat forgotten is the match between Mikail Youzhny and Tomas Berdych. Flip a coin in this one folks, it could go either way. Berdych has just knocked off fourth seeded Andy Murray, while Youzhny advanced when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired after just one set. I give Berdych the edge here as it seems he may finally make-good on some of that potential we have all been talking about for years. This is only the second Grand Slam quarter-finalof his career.

Ultimately everyone is no-doubt hoping for a Rafa vs Roger final. That is the most competitive final we can hope for, but even then the odds are heavily stacked inNadal’s favor. For now, enjoy some true competition as we build towards the final on Sunday.

MARIA KIRILENKO IS LOOKING SWELL AT THE AUSSIE OPEN!

So is it a surprise that the ever swell looking Maria Kirilenko has reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open? To me it is. I never expected her to reach the second week of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.  But like I wrote in my “I’ll supply the love: Maria Kirilenko” post and I quote:

I have high hopes for her this upcoming tennis season. I am actually hoping she will grab at least one title and make it into the fourth round of any Grand Slam tournament.

And she has exceeded my expectations already by reaching the quarter finals of the AusOpen 2010. Now it’s time for her to be consistent and I hope that she will be throughout the rest of the 2010 season. Just one step at a time. There is no need to rush.

When asked what she is going to do for her birthday she replied with the following:

Q. I believe it’s your birthday in an hour.

MARIA KIRILENKO: That’s true.

Q. What are you going to do?

MARIA KIRILENKO: I mean, I don’t know. When I was a kid, I had a dream, you know, to be in a Grand Slam main draw in Australia when I have a birthday. I think my dream comes true.

Q. Do you get to have champagne or do you not have that because you’re still in the tournament?

MARIA KIRILENKO: No, I don’t want to get drunk before my next match (laughter). It’s going to be difficult for me to play then. But, yeah, maybe after when I finish with my tournament I will celebrate with the girls from the locker room, with all my friends.

Anyway I am sure you have enough of my ramblings and so here we go with the photos:

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AUSOPEN PREVIEW: THE LADIES

When was the last time the women’s game had this much depth? I’m not knocking the WTA Tour, which in fact has had more depth in recent years than the men’s Federer vs. Nadal show. When I look at the Australian Open draw though, I’m just floored with the amount of talent out there. This is a fantastic way to kick-off the 2010 Grand Slam calendar.

The Favorites:

Number one ranked Serena Williams has a pretty sweet ride to the quarter-finals from the looks of it. I don’t expect her to drop a set for the first week that’s for sure. There’s simply nobody in her section of the draw that can keep up with her power, experience and winning-attitude. If she truly did tweak something against Elena Dementieva in Sydney, this draw gives her some time before she has to bring out her ‘A’ game. Williams will be the favorite to add to her existing collection of four Aussie Open titles, the most recent being a year ago.

A nice third round match-up in the top-half could include Vera Zvonareva against Ana Ivanovic. Either one of these players could use a good Grand Slam showing to correct their career progress after a disappointing 2009. Zvonareva started strong in 2009 with a semi-final showing in Australia, but after missing two months in the middle of the year with injury she never returned to top form. Ivanovic’s season was a total disaster and it was hard to believe she was ever the number one ranked player in the world. One of these two should still be able to push through to the quarters.

U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki has a great path to perhaps a semi-final berth in Australia. Only Daniela Hantuchova may cause her some trouble before the quarters, although Hantuchova has not had a big win in quite some time.

Wozniacki may meet the winner of an intriguing fourth round match between Americans Venus Williams and Melanie Oudin. A Williams/Oudin match would give tennis fans a nice glimpse of the past, present and future of American tennis and perhaps that future is now. Oudin has some winnable matches early on while Venus has looked mediocre since Wimbledon and as she approaches thirty, is only a huge threat on grass.

In the bottom-half don’t get your hopes up for second-seeded Dinara Safina. The mentally fragile Russian attained the number one ranking for a period of time in 2009, but will most be remembered for tanking in two Slam finals in Australia and Paris, along with a brutal defeat in the semi’s at Wimbledon. A back injury hampered the last portion of her season and was acting up again at the start of 2010 to keep her out of Brisbane. Safina does not have enough match-play under her belt to be considered a major threat here in Australia nor is her mental game ready to compete in this first Slam of the season.

There are plenty of other top-level players ready to contend for the title in the bottom section of the draw however, and the Belgians are leading the charge.

Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Yanina Wickmayer are all in the same quarter of the draw, which is unfortunate because they could all have easily advanced quite far given their play of late. Clijsters has the most favorable path and should get past Svetlana Kuznetsova to make the quarter-finals. A second-consecutive Slam is a distinct possibility for her.

Henin, entered as a wild card, is not going to enjoy the same Grand Slam return that Clijsters had at the U.S. Open. After a first round match with up and coming Sorana Cirstea, Henin will most definitely face fifth seeded Elena Dementieva – the same Dementieva who just won in Sydney defeating Serena in the finals. Henin leads their head-to-head battles 9-2, but will have to fight hard to beat the in-form Russian. I think Henin can beat Dementieva, but expecting her to have a similar Cinderella-run like Clijsters did in Flushing Meadows is unlikely.

The third Belgian, and the future of tennis in that country, Yanina Wickmayer, has already fought through three qualifying matches in order to secure entry into the tournament. Wickmayer was not allowed to take the 16th seeded spot that she is due because of the timing of her return from a mishandled doping violation. She may face Italian Flavia Pennetta in the second round and either Henin or Dementieva in the fourth round. Regardless of how she fares here in Australia, the twenty year old has a bright future ahead of her.

In the very last quarter of the draw we’ve got the unpredictable Jelena Jankovic. Fairing no better than the fourth round of any Slam in 2009, Jankovic has much to prove this year. She has a nice section of the draw and should stay untroubled until the quarter-finals. Don’t expect her to move much farther than that however, as the Serbian is not the huge threat she used to be.

Do keep an eye on Maria Sharapova to have a big Aussie Open. The talented Russian has come back admirably from shoulder surgery last year and has the power game to defeat anyone on tour. If she can keep her serve consistent and free of double-digit double faults, then she is more than capable of winning this tourney. If she does come up against Safina in the round of sixteen, I see Sharapova advancing with ease. There are more Grand Slam titles within her and this could be the next one on her list.

Anticipated First-Round Matches:

Kimiko Date-Krumm vs Yaroslava Shvedova: The 39 year old veteran Date-Krumm has been very impressive since returning to the tour in 2008 and has worked herself back into being a dangerous player to face. Her return is even more impressive given the fact she was away from the sport for six years. She’ll face a difficult player in Shvedova, who impressed in the late stages of 2009 with victories over Daniela Hantuchova in Toronto and Jelena Jankovic at the U.S. Open.

Caroline Wozniacki vs Aleksandra Wozniak: It amazes me how often these two near-identical names get paired together in so many tournaments. Unfortunately for the Canadian Wozniak, it rarely ends up in her favor. The fourth seeded Wozniacki has won five of their six meetings although the pair have usually produced closely contested matches. Wozniak is ranked 34th in the world right now, so this is a fairly strong first rounder.

Jelena Dokic vs Alisa Kleybanova: While it was nice to watch Dokic have her fairy-tale run to the quarter-finals in last year’s edition, the same fate will be difficult to duplicate. Dokic faces hard-hitting Russian Kleybanova whom she defeated here in the fourth round last year by a tight score of 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. Kleybanova’s court movement is limited due to her stature, but she can really hit the ball and was able to defeat Venus Williams, Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic (twice) in 2009.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN MEN’S PREVIEW

The first Grand Slam of 2010 is about to get started in Melbourne and with the draw announced we can now start to debate who will be crowned champion in two weeks time. Will it be someone from the usual suspects – a Federer or Nadal perhaps? Or will someone new like Fernando Verdasco or Andy Murray breakthrough and claim their first major? Let’s take a look at who has a strong shot at the title and some of the potential dark-horses as well.

The Favorites:

Every Grand Slam begins by looking at world number one, Roger Federer, and rightly so. Having “only” won the Aussie Open three times, Federer has not had as much success at the start of the year as you might imagine. He is three years removed from his last victory in Melbourne and with the draw he has in 2010 I wouldn’t expect Federer to be the last man standing. In fact, I think this is the Slam where his record of twenty-two straight Grand Slam semi-finals may finally come to an end. It has to at some point, right?

Who is the most likely man to take Federer out? Igor Andreev is hoping it might be him in the opening round, and Andreev is a tricky player who just might be up for to the task. The pair have only met twice before, but Andreev gave Federer a rough-go at the 2008 U.S. Open where he pushed him to five sets before losing 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Andreev is as inconsistent as they come, but has come up big in the past during high-stakes matches as he displayed in ending Rafael Nadal’s streak on clay back in 2005. This is not a guy that Roger wants to face in his opening match.

Federer may also have to face either Marcos Baghdatis or Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, and potentially Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko (who defeated him in Qatar two weeks ago) in the quarter-finals. Sure, Roger is still favored to make it deep in this tournament – but the potential for upset grows stronger each year.

Also in the top-half of the draw is third-seeded Novak Djokovic who has a nice section at this year’s edition. The first seeded player he may face is little-known Jeremy Chardy of France in round three and the only true opposition I can foresee would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Tsonga actually leads their career head-to-head by a 4-2 margin, but Djokovic won their last encounter on hard courts easily in 2009.

Djokovic has not chosen to play any ATP tournaments thus far in 2010 which is puzzling. Instead he showed up at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament where he beat an aging Tommy Haas and then went down to Verdasco 6-1, 6-2 in an apparently meek effort. To make the start of his season even more troubling, Djokovic then played a friendly match against Australian Bernard Tomic and was beaten 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. These are not your typical Djokovic results but makes one question his off-season preparation.

Despite these early upsets and the fact that Djokovic’s frail physique is not meant for the brutal Aussie heat, he does have a good path in front of him to succeed. A couple of easy wins could boost his confidence and make him tap into the success he had here when he won his first and only Slam in 2008.

Fernando Veradsco is a player to watch and just came off a victory at Kooyong over Tsonga in the finals. Verdasco pushed Nadal to his limits at the Aussie Open in 2009 and came ever so close to defeating him before falling in the fifth set. His problem is that he usually does not trouble the top-fve and lost to all his matches at the season-ending championships in London to Federer, Del Potro and Murray in November.

The bottom-half of the draw contains some serious fire power with Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal all lumped together. Picking one of those four players to make it to the finals is easier said than done – although it will without a doubt come from this talented pack of four. I would be shocked if anyone but these four made it to the quarter-finals in the bottom of the draw. I will be glued to my television for the expected Roddick/Del Potro and Murray/Nadal matches.

Roddick already won his first tournament of 2010 by defeating Radek Stepanek in Brisbane. Looks like he is healthy and should breeze through the early round matches.

Del Potro has broken through the Grand Slam barrier with his win over Federer in New York last year. His confidence should be high, but it remains to be seen if he is prepared to challenge at the Slams on a regular basis. Success can affect people in different ways, so Del Potro will want to start the year off strong so that everyone knows he is for real.

Andy Murray is aware that it’s time to show the world he is capable of winning a major. He set high hopes after making the finals at the U.S. Open in 2008, but his results at the Slams in 2009 left a lot to be desired. The talent is there with Murray, but we’ve yet to see the mental consistency on the big stage.

Finally, defending champion Rafael Nadal must also be mentioned – I mean, he did win the thing a year ago! With no titles in the past nine months and injuries that derailed his season in 2009, it is easy to forget about Nadal’s potential impact on the game in Australia. Due to last year’s circumstances, the pressure will not be very high for Nadal in Melbourne and he is a strong possibility to repeat as champion.

Anticipated First-Round Matches:

Mikhail Youzhny vs Richard Gasquet: These two have only met three times before, and you can ignore the results in that series. Youzhny defeated a sixteen year old Gasquet at this tournament in 2003, Gasquet won on hard-courts in 2005, and then Youzhny won a tight five-setter in 2007 on clay. Youzhny is the 20th seed, while Gasquet should be ranked higher if not for his suspension last year. A coin-toss that I’d give the edge to Gasquet based on recent results and a heck of a first round match to watch.

Marin Cilic vs Fabrice Santoro: Just when you thought the magician had retired he is coaxed back onto the court to become the only player to appear in four decades as a professional tennis player. This will also mark Santoro’s 70th career Grand Slam. The 37 year old has been training hard in order to make this a competitive appearance, but don’t expect him to defeat the 14th seeded Cilic. It will be their first career meeting and I’m sure the veteran will have some tricks up his sleeve that the young Croat has likely never seen before.

Radek Stepanek vs Ivo Karlovic: The 13th seeded Stepanek surely hoped for an easier starting match than big-serving Ivo Karlovic. This match will feature two completely-opposite styles of play and probably not too many lengthy rallies.

Darkhorses:

As I mentioned before, beware of Igor Andreev to give Federer a stern test in the first round. Qualifier Xavier Malisse could push through a few rounds and upset Nicolas Almagro in the opener as well.

Overall though, this does not look like a tournament where someone is going to surprise us and come from nowhere to make headlines. It is a strong field with a small cluster of top quality hard-court players. One of the regulars should be hoisting the trophy when the final Sunday comes around.

AROUND THE CORNER: AUSSIE OPEN TUNE UPS CONTINUE

With the Australian Open just a week away, many players are using this time to rest from tournament play and work on their game in practice only. You won’t find Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Andy Roddick playing any real matches this week. All of those top-dogs have already notched several wins under their belts and are feeling confident heading towards the first Slam of the year.

For some players though, they have yet to gain enough time on the court and are looking to take advantage of some precious ranking points and prize money while the big guns rest up. This week there are two ATP tournaments and one exhibition tourney set to begin.

Heineken Open – Auckland, New Zealand:

Tommy Robredo is the number one seed in Auckland this year and is coming in with a big win off Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup last week. The Spaniard defeated Murray 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 to help lead Spain to victory. He has a first-round bye and may face big-serving John Isner in the quarter-finals.

The only other big name in the top half of the draw is veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero who will likely face a qualifier or two on his way to the later rounds. Ferrero is still kicking his tires on tour, but expectations are low even in a tournament of this scale.

In the bottom half Philipp Kohlschreiber has the not-so-enviable task of facing David Nalbandian in his return to tour action. Nalbandian has not played since May of 2009 due to injury but started his season a year ago with a victory in his first tournament of the year. It will be interesting to see what kind of shape Nalbandian is in and whether or not he can be considered a threat at the Aussie Open.

David Ferrer is the second seed in Auckland and has a fairly open section of the draw which should enable him to reach the semi-finals. The bottom half also welcomes Sebastien Grosjean back to the tour. The Frenchman had a record of 2-6 in 2009 as he too was plagued with injury problems.

Medibank International – Sydney, Australia

There will be a new champion in Sydney this year, as defending champion David Nalbandian is in Auckland instead. It’s hard to figure out why the Argentine would make such a move, but he never really has been an easy one to figure out.

Gael Monfils is seeded number one and should advance to face Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals. It is surprising that Wawrinka is choosing to play in Sydney, since he already reached the finals in Chennai where he lost to Marin Cilic last week. I would not be surprised if Wawrinka drops out at the last minute to rest up for the Open.

Igor Andreev and Richard Gasquet are also in the top half of the draw and are capable of causing some damage. We’re still waiting on Gasquet to deliver some results since returning from his shortened drug-related suspension from last season.

Lleyton Hewitt, who has won here four times before, will represent the local hopes. Hewitt is eager to return to the top ten this year and with a higher ranking he should be seeded at most tournaments he enters in 2010.

Sam Querrey and Tomas Berdych are also in this section of the draw. Querrey lost in the first round last week in Brisbane, while Berdych made it to the semi-finals before falling to eventual champion Andy Roddick.

Kooyong Classic – Melbourne, Australia

The annual Kooyong Classic exhibition normally attracts some big-name players and this year is no exception. Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro will both be in attendance, as will Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Haas, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling.

While there will be no ranking points awarded here, the prize money must certainly be enticing and the players have the luxury of putting as much or as little effort as they see fit in the week before the Open. The draw will not be out until January 12th.

While players are eager for some more match play before the Aussie Open, it may be more of a burden for those who advance deep into the draws. Best-of-five-set matches are just around the corner and having some gas left in the tank is going to be a necessity for most.