The draw for the 95th Australian Open was released earlier today and it presents a relatively easy road for Roger Federer to reach the final yet again. But it will prove to be an arduous passage for world number two Rafael Nadal to make the final weekend in Melbourne for the first time in his short career.
It should be obvious to readers of this blog that the author is a booster of the left-hander from Mallorca, and in fact has already predicted that Nadal will win his first Aussie Open (in addition to capturing his third consecutive French Open in June) - but these next two weeks will provide nervous spectating for any Nadal fan. To start, he'll face Robert Kendrick, the American serve and volleyer who extended Rafa to five sets at last year's Wimbledon. However, this isn't grass but a slow hard court and I predict Nadal will win his opening match in straight sets.
The next two rounds should offer up few obstacles to Rafa, but after that it will be a test of the Spaniard's mettle. In the round of 16, if all goes according to design (which it never does but I'll assume it will for the sake of this discussion) Nadal will encounter Scotsman (soon to be Californian?) Andy Murray. If reports are to be believed, the lazy, sullen but extremely talented Murray has listened to the exhortations of his always-shrewd coach Brad Gilbert and has trained hard to prepare for the rigors of competing Down Under.
Nadal and Murray have never faced each other but if they do meet in the fourth round it should be a beauty. Murray has an ideal game for the hard courts and his deceptive shot-making and all court abilities should be a wonderful equipoise to Nadal's topspin missives and not-so-surprise forays to the net. Though Murray will show off greater stamina than he's exhibited in the past, I still can't see him defeating Nadal in the hot conditions with so much at stake. If in fact they should face off, Nadal will be victorious in four entertaining sets.
In the quarterfinals - to repeat again, if the draw stays true to form - the big biceped lefty will encounter his Kryptonite - James Blake. Nadal is oh for three against the popular American and has only captured one set in their three matches. More telling than the record of futility against Blake is the fact that all three meetings have occurred in major events - most recently the Masters Cup in November and before that Indian Wells last March and the US Open in 2005. Blake's high-risk game, taking the ball on the rise and hitting flatter than most is a perfect set-up for Nadal's all too frequent habit of landing ground strokes near the service line. Nadal can get away with that against most players but to win against Blake he'll need to serve at an extremely high level in order to put the pressure back on Blake. Nadal should come through in five.
If Nadal is one of the Final Four in Melbourne, he may also face a player not too dissimilar from Blake who has also inflicted significant damage in the past - 13th seed Tomas Berdych. Though the higher ranked players in Berdych's quarter of the draw - namely David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko - will be the favorites to take on Rafa in the the penultimate round, Berdych will be Nadal's foe in the semis. The tall, hard hitting Czech has beaten Nadal in three of their four meetings, with Nadal's lone triumph coming on clay in 2005. Nadal's forehand topspin drives to a right hander's backhand is usually his most consistent strength. But Berdych's height and powerul, flat groundstrokes - a la Blake - cause Nadal fits. However, Berdych's stamina has been an issue and climate will again favor Nadal. Rafa should come through in four excruciating sets.
If in fact either Nalbandian or Davydenko do reach the semis and take on Nadal, I don't see either posing a significant threat to the 20 year old. Though he has only faced Davydenko once (at the recent Masters Cup) and amazingly has never taken on Nalbandian, neither player arrives armed with the required weapons to defeat Nadal.
Roger Federer, on the cusp of immortality with the likes of Sampras and Laver and Tilden and Borg, has a far easier journey to the final than his nemesis Nadal. Even so, some intriguing scenarios do beg for analysis.
Only a handful of players have defeated the Swiss stylist in the past several years and most of them are in the bottom half of the draw - Nadal, Murray and Berdych. However, there are a couple of dangers lurking for Federer.
Richard Gasquet, the immensely talented and pleasurable-to-watch Frenchman looms as a possible quarterfinal opponent. To face Federer, Gasquet will have to get by 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis in the third round. These two should put on a show of spectactul.ar shot-making and is the match to watch for the first week. Gasquet knows he has to make a mark in a Slam and this will be his time. Gasquet should win in four exhilarating sets.
Richard Gasquet has beaten Federer. Though it was on clay, the fact that he goes into a possible tussle with the world number one with a victory under his belt has to bolster his confidence. And in his losses to Roger, Richard has done himself proud by keeping most of the matches very lose. But Federer will probably welcome the challenge after an easy few matches and should dispatch the Frenchman in four sets.
In any sport - or for that matter any endeavor one engages in during our short stay on the planet - the greatest threat is the unknown. And with this being the case, no one embodies this notion more than Marat Safin. At times frighteningly brilliant with powerful serves and ground strokes with a lackadaisical manner belying his intensity and on other occasions acting as if he'd rather be anywhere else than on a tennis court, Safin has the ability to beat any player - past or present - on any given day, excuse the cliche.
His epic triumph over Federer in the 2005 Australian semifinals is proof of how dangerous Safin can be - usually Federer is slightly off his game during his few losses but that day he played well and Safin still triumphed.
We'll all know the first week how dangerous Safin is. In another possible thrilling third round match-up, Safin will face the revived American Andy Roddick. Though the charge will be sans mentor Jimmy Connors (due to the passing of Connors' mother) his revived game will be put to the test against Safin. The combatants have split their six matches and this one is almost too hard to call - with the winner the overwhelming favorite to face Federer in the semifinals. Roddick's obvious renewed commitment will push him past the Russian in four sets.
Can Roddick really push Federer? And by push, I mean four or five tight sets. Roddick has been able to grab a set in several of their encounters but has only managed one triumph in an unlucky 13 meetings.
Roddick pushed Federer in Flushing Meadows but Federer adjusted quickly and trounced Andy in the final set. I can't see that pattern changing too drastically and FEderer should win in four sets.
If numbers one and two were to meet in the final, would Nadal be too spent to beat his rival? Will the courts be slow enough to allow the foot speed and defensive abilities of Nadal to frustrate Federer? (quick point - the slower hard court does favor Nadal but he is still not fully comfortable on a hard court on a consistent basis).
I've picked Nadal to win so I'll stick with a 5 set prediction. But as I stated earlier, it's going to be a brutal two weeks for Nadal fans. Be prepared for several tense matches. And if the Spaniard were to emerge with the first Grand Slam trophy of 2007 and the afore-mentioned draw were to play out as predicted, then his victory would be more than well deserved - it would create significant distance between the 2nd best player in the world and those ranked below him.