The year may be young but there are an awful lot of tennis players with something to prove at the first of the 2004 Grand Slams, the Australian Open, starting tomorrow; not least our gallant Brits, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, with one hot on the comeback path and the other battling to keep his reputation afloat.
Then there are the Australians. Although it is a statistic quietly ushered into the long grass in such a sports-mad country, home players last won the men's and women's titles a quarter of a century ago. Add to the mix Venus Williams coming back after a six-month break, Andy Roddick keen to confirm his No 1 spot and Andre Agassi in pursuit of his fifth success in Melbourne and you have ingredients for a rousing tournament, notwithstanding the decimation of the women's field.
Because of injury neither of the British men contested last year's Australian Open. In Henman's case it was the first Grand Slam he had missed since he broke on to the scene at Wimbledon in 1995. Ailing shoulder now cured, Tim started 2004 as he ended 2003, in fine form. Winning the Paris Indoor Masters title in November boosted ranking and confidence and, as the 11th seed, Britain's top player and his new coach, Paul Annacone, have to be content with a draw which offers three eminently winnable matches before a possible fourth-round tie against Argentina's David Nalbandian, who beat both Roddick and Agassi en route to lifting the Kooyong title yesterday.
Although something of a Henman nemesis, the eighth-seeded Nalbandian, beaten by Tim at Wimbledon last summer, has been blighted by wrist problems. So a victory there could mean a quarter-final with the second seed and Wimbledon champion, Roger Federer, one of Henman's victims en route to the Paris title. Pat Rafter considers Federer "the greatest, most complete player I've ever seen'', but the Swiss himself is complaining he is struggling after losing 6-2 6-4 to Agassi in a Melbourne exhibition event.
Rusedski, the focus of attention for matters other than his tennis, must play Spain's Albert Costa, 26th seed and 2002 champion of Roland Garros, and even if he wins this one - as he could if mind and method are aligned - a fellow left-handed big server, Wayne Arthurs, awaits, possibly followed by the fifth seed, Guillermo Coria of Argentina.
No Australian has won this Slam since Chris O'Neil was women's champion in 1978 and Mark Edmondson took the men's title in 1976. In those days, when most of the top people missed the event, Edmondson was ranked 212, a record low for a Grand Slam champion.
The two men best positioned to win for Australia, Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis, have never been beyond the fourth round. But they thrashed Spain in last month's Davis Cup, and Hewitt - who took the Sydney international title yesterday when Carlos Moya retired with an ankle injury in the first set - certainly knows the route to the winner's podium as 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon champion. Since then his ranking has slipped (he is seeded only 15th) and he will not relish the prospect of Federer in the quarter-finals. But both Aussies are capable of wowing the faithful, if perhaps not going the distance.
Agassi is one of only two former Australian champions to toe the start line. The other is Sweden's Thomas Johansson, the 2002 winner, whose reward for missing the whole of last year following a knee operation is Philippoussis first up.
The fourth-seeded Agassi, closing in on his 34th birthday, probably regrets shunning the Australian for the first nine years of his career. When he finally turned up in 1995 he won it, and is undefeated there (21-0) in this century, having become champion in 2000, 2001 and last year, missing 2002 with a wrist problem. The only non-Australian to have won four times, Agassi is, as ever, finely tuned and playing well, explaining: "I've been doing this for almost 18 years now so I feel I have learned how to be at my best. It's about pushing the right buttons.''
Title No 5 is not beyond Agassi, though young lions like Roddick and Federer should bar the path. Roddick, top- seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time and champion at the last big event of 2003, the US Open, is still fêted in Melbourne for his five-hour quarter-final with Younes El Aynaoui 12 months ago and that unforgettable 21-19 fifth set. Since then this 21-year-old has come of age, in all senses, though his current indifferent form and a tough draw are a worry.
Also short of success is the third seed, the French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, but he has become the likeliest Spaniard to progress following the ankle injury suffered yesterday by Moya.
So depleted is the women's draw that not a single former champion will be competing if Lindsay Davenport, the winner in 2000, fails to recover from shoulder problems, although she is hopeful of taking her place in the first round. The reigning champion, Serena Williams, has made her excuses, saying she lacks match play. True enough, since she has not been seen since lifting the Wimbledon trophy and undergoing knee surgery. Sister Venus, also sidelined since Wimbledon, will be participating, with the benefit of a ranking bumped up to three and a kindly draw.
For those who have made it as far as the starting blocks, the biggest worry concerns Hewitt's fiancée, the second-seeded Kim Clijsters, who is determined to play despite damage to a foot. This could be more good news for Venus in her half of the field. A sign of the times is that eight Russians are among the 32 seeds but not a single Aussie. Alicia Molik, ranked 40, is their top hope. Not that there appears to be much hope of anyone preventing Justine Henin-Hardenne claiming her third title in four Grand Slams.
Form and fitness being the basic requirements, the French and US champion looks unstoppable, and it could be an all-European triumph if Federer unveils enough of his style to stand up what Rafter says about him.Reuse content