Tough tour and hard courts blamed for 'Attrition Open'

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One of the top-billed quarter-final night matches at the Australian Open last week featured the Austrian Stefan Koubek versus Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic. The tournament organisers helpfully pasted up photographs of the two men outside the Rod Laver Arena so that spectators would know who was who.

Rarely have the likes of Novak and Koubek received as much attention as they did here at Melbourne Park, thanks to the havoc wreaked among seeded players by injury and upsets in the early stages. Tournament officials winced as one draw card after another hobbled off court and headed to the airport.

One commentator called it the Attrition Open, and there was speculation that the trophies would go to the last man and woman left standing. The men's draw was particularly hard hit, with the top five seeds eliminated before the third round for the first time in Grand Slam history.

Andre Agassi, the defending champion and No 3, left town without hitting a ball, blaming a wrist injury during a warm-up event. The top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, recovering from chicken-pox, was knocked out in the first round, as was the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, the No 2.

Sebastien Grosjean, the fifth-seeded Frenchman, complained of neck pains after falling to the unseeded Spaniard, Francisco Clavet, while the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov – the No 4 – could not explain his second-round defeat by a qualifier, Alex Kim.

The women's competition opened without the player who would have been seeded No 1, Lindsay Davenport, who was unable to compete because of a long-term knee injury. She was joined by Serena Williams, who withdrew on the first day after twisting her ankle the previous week.

Serena's sister, Venus, sporadically troubled by tendinitis in her knee, strained a hamstring in her quarter-final defeat to Monica Seles. Jennifer Capriati successfully defended her title with both thighs taped because of a hip flexor problem.

The perennial grumble that the timing of the Australian Open allows players little time to rest in the off-season was given added weight this year by what Marat Safin called the curse of the Masters Cup. Of the eight men who took part in the year-ending tournament in Sydney in November, not one survived the second round at Melbourne Park.

Pete Sampras echoed Safin's reservations, saying: "It's the beginning of the year, and there's not much of an off-season for guys to recover. Then to come down here in a Grand Slam atmosphere, having to practise hard and train hard, you're going to have guys that get hurt."

The Rebound Ace court surface also came under scrutiny, with numerous players criticising it as stickier and slower than in previous years. America's Andy Roddick blamed the surface when he retired in the second round after twisting his ankle twice in two matches.

In the past, there was speculation that tournament organisers made the courts faster to suit native serve-volleyers such as Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis. This year they opted to lay one coat of Rebound Ace rather than two, in order – so the conspiracy theorists say – to favour Hewitt, a baseliner.

Seles, who wore shoes with worn soles as a precaution, said: "On this surface, no matter what you do, the chances are pretty high that you could sustain an injury."

However, the tournament director, Paul McNamee, disagreed. "Hard courts are tough on the body and they always have been," he said. "There's no connection at all between the injuries and this year's court surface."

After a fortnight marked by absences, withdrawals and shock defeats, it seemed fitting that the men's title should be won by an anonymous Swedish journeyman, Thomas Johansson.

The result bodes ill for Britain's Davis Cup team, who are back in the World Group and meet Sweden in the first round in Birmingham next month. The Swedes are expected to include Johansson, brimming with confidence after upsetting Safin in the final, and Jonas Bjorkman, who ended Tim Henman's hopes of a first Grand Slam in the fourth round.