Australian Open Women’s Finals Preview

Serena Williams (2) vs. Dinara Safina (3)

serenaAt 27 years of age, Serena Williams has seen more success than all the players on the WTA Tour combined. She has won nine singles Grand Slams and, after yesterday’s championship victory, eight doubles Grand Slams with her sister Venus. She’s been on the Tour so long that a distinctive pattern has emerged particular to the Australian Open: if it’s an odd-numbered year, Serena will win the tournament. She’s previously claimed the title in Melbourne in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Despite playing doubles and having to endure the sweltering heat, Serena has played well in every match and shown no signs of fatigue.

Her opponent is Dinara Safina, an aggressive Russian with a powerful forehand, an endless supply of energy, and an outspoken dedication to winning. It’s fun to watch her at press conferences as it almost pains her to play the sweetheart. Safina has never won a Grand Slam, though this is supposed to be her breakout year. But that’s a bunch of bunk — just about every player on the WTA Tour is supposedly having their breakout year. There’s such parity that nearly every player ranked in the top 10 will surpass world #1 Jelena Jankovic after this tournament. (Jankovic failed to make it past the fourth round.) Safina is the obvious underdog. She’s lost her last two matches to Serena in straight sets. If she were playing anybody other than Serena, I’d say she had this one in the bag.

Live coverage of the women’s finals will air early tomorrow morning (Saturday) on ESPN2 at 3:30 AM ET. It will then be replayed on Saturday at 9 AM ET and 8 PM ET on the same network.

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Australian Open Semifinals Preview

roddickWe’re down to the final four days of the Australian Open. In a few short hours ESPN2 will air its live coverage of both the men’s and women’s semifinals. So far, the tournament has been both intense and heartwarming. Jelena Dokic, after being out of the game for almost a year because of struggles with her domineering father, has made it all the way to the quarterfinals in front of a home crowd. Andy Roddick, whom many had written off last year, knocked out third-seeded Novak Djokovic and advanced to his first Grand Slam semifinal in almost two years. I’ve previewed the four semifinal matches below:

Women’s Semifinals

Vera Zvonareva (7) vs. Dinara Safina (3)
Zvonareva and Safina are just two of the eight million Russians who entered this tournament. However, along with countrywomen Elena Dementieva and injured Maria Sharapova, they happen to be the best. Whereas the talented (and pretty, pretty, pretty) Zvonareva has never advanced past a Grand Slam quarterfinal, Safina has been close to winning one a number of times. She’s coming off a semifinals loss to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open and would like nothing more than to win down under. Safina should take this one in straight sets.

Elena Dementieva (4) vs. Serna Williams (2)
Due to Jelena Jankovic’s poor showing at the Open, either Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, or Serena Williams will become the #1 ranked women’s player if they win this tournament. Dementieva is another one of those gifted players who has never won a Grand Slam despite getting extremely close over the years. Still, she won the gold medal in Beijing and made it to the semifinals at last year’s U.S. Open. Serena happened to win that tournament and has been playing beastly tennis in Australia. Expect this one to go three sets.

Men’s Semifinals

Andy Roddick (7) vs. Roger Federer (2)
Thank you, Andy Roddick. The fact that there is an American male in a Grand Slam semifinal is reason enough to celebrate. Why, you ask? Well, in the last two years an American has only once advanced to a men’s Grand Slam semifinal. That was Andy Roddick at the Australian Open in 2007. The same Andy Roddick who won the U.S. Open in 2003 and faced Roger Federer on consecutive occasions at Wimbledon, only to lose. Critics predicted Roddick would retire early and settle down with his supermodel fiancé. Thankfully, Roddick dropped 15 lbs. and got into tremendous shape. In the quarterfinals, Roddick bounced around in the 120-degree heat as if he enjoyed it. His opponent, Novak Djokovic, was forced to retire after four sets. Roddick is on his game, ladies and gentlemen. Though Federer is still struggling to find his own, he’s still Roger Federer. This match will be long, extremely competitive, and intense.

Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Fernando Verdasco (14)
Just who in the hell is Fernando Verdasco? Honestly, I’m not sure, but in his last two matches he’s beaten fourth-seeded Andy Murray and fifth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The 24 year-old Spaniard has a good serve and nice placement, but it is his speed that has gotten his this far. The kid doesn’t seem to tire and manages to chase down every ball. Unfortunately for Verdasco, Rafael Nadal is the quickest player on the Tour. He’s also the best in the sport and is at the height of his career. It’ll be tough for Verdasco to take him down but I wouldn’t doubt that he takes a set or two.

Live coverage of the semifinals will begin tonight (Wednesday) at 9:30 PM ET on ESPN2.

Australian Open Roundup

openRound 4 of the Australian Open begins today. The first Grand Slam of the tour calendar has already seen its fair share of surprises, disappointments, scuffles, and nudity. I’ve recapped the highlights below.

The top-ranked men advance

Of the top ten-seeded men in the tournament, only David Nalbandian failed to advance, losing to unknown Yen-Hsun Lu in the second round. The others, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsongo, Gilles Simon, Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro, and James Blake have all made easy work of their competition. Really, things won’t get interesting until the Quarter Finals.

Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic are eliminated

It must be said that both matches in which they lost have been the most exciting matches of the tournament. Unseeded 20 year-old Carla Suarez Navarro, in only her fourth Grand Slam main draw appearance, defeated Venus Williams in the second round. It was an amazing match and both women gave it their all. Navarro, however, was able to consistently return Venus’ 192 mph serve and never seemed to tire. Williams was on the defensive during the final set and Navarro’s fine shot placement carried her to victory. The crowd congratulated the awestruck youngster with a standing ovation. Suarez has since advanced to the Fourth Round where she will face twenty-first-seeded Anabel Medina Garrigues.

It was less than a surprise and more of a disappointment to watch Ana Ivanovic fall to twenty-ninth-seeded Alisa Kleybanova. For those who follow tennis, it’s perplexing that Ivanovic is ranked fifth in the world judging by the way she played yesterday. Strictly speaking, the Serbian lost because she couldn’t find her serve. It was painful to watch Ivanovic toss the ball five feet away from herself. She double faulted more than a few times and rarely was able to hold serve. All in all, the three-setter was intense, but undeniably sloppy. While Ivanovic made 50 unforced errors, Kleybanova committed 44, 24 of which came in the opening set alone. It’s time for Ana to take a break and try to get herself into the mindset that helped her win the French Open in 2008.

Serbian and Bosnian fans clash after Novak Djokovic/Amer Delic match

Last year at the Australian Open, Serbian and Croatian fans attacked each other with flagpoles, bottles, and boots. This year, the Balkan rivalry consisted of Serbians and Bosnians. After Serbian Novak Djokovic’s victory over Bosnian-American Amer Delic, fans from both nations pelted each other with chairs.

A streaker stalls a Williams sisters doubles match

Although this article claims the gentleman was out there for only 14 seconds, broadcaster Patrick McEnroe has him at nearly a minute. While Serena and Venus laughed bashfully during the incident, tournament officials aren’t taking this lightly. In 1993, a man stabbed Monica Seles on court during a match in Hamburg, Germany. Still, it looks like this guy was just having a good time.

Coverage of Day 7 will air at 7 PM ET and 12:30 AM ET on ESPN2.

The ATP gets serious

ATPComing off the most exciting year of professional tennis in nearly a decade, the ATP has updated the general public on what the new season will bring.

* New Structure: New tiers of tournaments have been created — ATP World Tour Masters 1000, ATP World Tour 500 and ATP World Tour 250 — leading to the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London where the ATP World Tour Champion will be officially crowned. The number represents the points awarded to the winner in each respective tournament.

* Tour Calendar: The ATP World Tour will feature 63 tournaments in 31 countries with the following breakdown of tiers — Nine ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events, 11 ATP World Tour 500 events and 39 ATP World Tour 250 events.

* Net Branding: At each of the different level of tournaments, fans will recognize the level of event as indicated by the net branding on court.

* Promotion: An enhanced TV package and web streaming proposition of ATP World Tour Masters 1000s, 500s and other key regional tournaments will allow fans to follow their favorite players from week to week around the globe. The multi-million dollar ATP advertising campaign, FEEL IT, will assist tournaments in promotion of the sport.

* Player Requirements: In 2009, players in the 2008 year-end Top 30 will be required to compete in four Grand Slam tournaments and eight ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments. In addition, the Best four ATP World Tour 500 and Best two other events (ATP World Tour 250 and Challengers) will be counted towards a player’s ranking. All direct acceptance players at the time of the entry deadline who do not play will receive a 0-pointer in their ranking.

* Bonus Pool: A $6 million bonus pool for the Top 12 players in the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings will be awarded based on fulfilling their commitment. The season will also feature a 20% increase in player compensation and a profit sharing model that will for the first time invite players to share in the sport’s growth.

* Facility Improvements: The largest ever facility investment of $800 million, including new stadia in Brisbane, Madrid, Shanghai, Valencia and Paris will be made in 2009. In addition, upgrades in Cincinnati, Rome, Acapulco, Rotterdam and Montreal deliver world class facilities.

* Tour Swings: The 2009 ATP World Tour calendar will also offer several cohesive swings within the full season. Each of these swings builds to a mini-crescendo along the way to the season’s grand finale in London. Improvements to the calendar include an uninterrupted European clay season, with a new ATP World Tour 1000 Masters event in Madrid (moving from indoor to clay). In addition, a revamped Asian swing in the fall leads to a new ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Shanghai.

Wow. Being a professional tennis player sounds pretty sweet. Not only do you get a three-month break, but when you are “working,” you travel around the globe. And look how generous the ATP is being with the Bonus Pool category. Aside from that extra $6 million, players can essentially become part-owners of the Tour by way of the profit sharing model.

Although the season kicks off January 4, the first Grand Slam takes place at the Australian Open from January 19-February 2. Rafael Nadal will be defending the #1 ranking, while Roger Federer will attempt to regain it.

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