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Headlights and Shadows 01/27/2009 - 9:06 AM

Good evening from Melbourne, where a heat wave is on the horizon. Temperatures will reach into the 100s the rest of the week and are bound to affect the remaining day matches. (You think Fernando Verdasco wants to play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with the roof closed? I don't.)Federerpotro

Will Serena handle the heat and the volatile Svetlana Kuznetsova? Can Carla Suarez Navarro, the tiny Spaniard who upset Venus Williams, stand her ground against Elena Dementieva's rugged baseline game? Can Gilles Simon, the clever Frenchman, set a trap for Rafael Nadal? We'll learn that and more later today. Until then, here are my observations from Tuesday of week two at the Australian Open.

Big Talent, Bad, Bad Night
Can Juan Martin "Deer in the Headlights" Del Potro become a great player? Many people believe so, and I want to agree with them. Two years ago, when the Argentine had a string of retirements and poor showings, I wondered whether he had the resolve to compete on the game's biggest stages. Last year, the 20-year-old erased many doubts by winning four titles and becoming the youngest man to finish inside the Top 10. The doubts returned last night in Melbourne.

Del Potro played an absolute stinker of a quarterfinal. Yes, Roger Federer was in form--by far and away his best form of the tournament--but it takes two to produce a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 score in a men's quarterfinal. Federer rattled off the final 13 games of the match as a sulking Del Potro retreated from the challenge.

Del Potro showed poise when he defeated Marin Cilic in the fourth round (he lost the first set before winning the next three). Clearly, though, he wasn't prepared to play Federer under the lights in a major tournament. We'll see over the next few months how much this hurts him.

Federer was fabulous. He drilled forehands, dinked drop volleys, served aces, and generally made the 6-foot-6 Del Potro seem like a boy of 12 years old. I can't help but wonder if Andy Roddick's victory over Novak Djokovic earlier in the day gave Federer an added burst of energy. He likes playing Roddick--they have a good relationship, whereas his rivalry with Djokovic is a bit more strained--and holds a 15-2 record against the American. Right now, the tennis world is just as Federer wants it. The Big Four is no more; instead, Federer and Nadal are on top, and everyone else lags miles behind. Are we on track for our first Federer-Nadal final at a hard court major?

Fast and Fit
Make no mistake, this was Andy Roddick's most important victory at a major tournament in quite some time. Since he won the U.S. Open in 2003, Roddick has played in two Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final, losing to Federer on all three occasions. In all those years, though, he has never beaten a Top 5 player at a major.

We all know what people say about the best-laid plans. Well, Roddick and his coach, Larry Stefanki, are not listening. So far, their approach to the Australian Open has been perfect: Lose weight, run fast, withstand the heat, serve big, and watch your opponents wilt.

Djokovic, who retired with cramps early in the fourth set, was at a disadvantage in this match. After his Sunday evening contest against Marcos Baghdatis, Djokovic went to bed at 5:30 a.m. He didn't practice on Monday; he also requested a night match on Tuesday, but the request was denied (not surprising considering Federer's popularity here--he belonged on prime time television). Still, the long night isn't the only reason for Djokovic's loss. He had to adjust to a new racquet and he also started his pre-season preparation a bit late. Djokovic didn't seem quite as fit, or composed, this year as last year. Credit to Roddick for exposing those weaknesses.

Me, Myself, and I
Dinara Safina did it again: She beat her opponent--the remarkable Jelena Dokic--and narrowly escaped defeating herself. Dokic's run to the quarterfinals has been the highlight of the tournament. She has overcome depression, ended her relationship with her temperamental father, and regained the form that once took her to No. 4 in the rankings. Here's hoping her good fortune continues.

If Dokic is the most inspiring woman in the draw, Safina is the most entertaining. One minute, she clubs four deadly winners, launches three aces, and belts a few swinging volleys. The next she smashes a racquet, draws a code violation for foul language, double faults four times in the decisive game of a set, and spikes a ball as hard as she can. How is it that this long, lean, gifted athlete can do no wrong for long stretches and then, at a moment's notice, become incapable of tying her own shoes? I asked Safina if she is her own worst enemy.

"Most of the time it's me against myself playing," she said, smiling. "You know, I play against me, my shadow, myself, everything against me. If one day I will play only against [my] opponent, this will be the perfect day."

Sign of the Apocalypse
I'm not trying to stir up trouble here, but I just can't resist a little speculation. What if Serena Williams falters in the heat, or if Svetlana Kuznetsova plays way over her head on Wednesday afternoon? I don't give Kuznetsova much chance, but if she does win, we might well have four Russians in the semifinals. And not just any four Russians, but Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Kuznetsova, and Vera Zvonareva, who crushed Marion Bartoli on Tuesday. Yes, that's right, these are the four Russians most incapable of winning big matches at majors, the ones most susceptible to dramatic collapses and mind-blowing defeats. Kuznetsova is the only member of the group who has won a major, and she did it with a lot of help from Dementieva, who couldn't cope with the pressure of the U.S. Open final. If it happens, what we lose in quality tennis we'll make up for in fine theater.


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Posted by E. Thomas 01/28/2009 at 07:00 AM

To add on to my previous comments (I know I am aggravating some of you there), we are making some criticism on Djokovic, not to deny any of his tennis talent. To the exact contrary, it is because he has such talent we want him to be a complete player, a better player in terms of not just technical aspects but also sportsmanship.

Posted by Mayes 01/28/2009 at 07:05 AM

It never fails to amaze me that a lot of the posters, while accusing others to be biased, are actually more biased than the accused.

Posted by Candace S. 01/28/2009 at 10:17 AM

All those in favor of the sleeves coming off nadal raise your right or left handed raquet. Rafael, those sleeves just aren't you man.

Posted by tina (double-posting amnesty, please) 01/28/2009 at 03:48 PM

As a woman, I'm all for women getting equal prize money for shorter matches, even though that irks some people. But now, at least for the only tournament that even has an Extreme Heat Policy, it's easy to see a double-standard. I love Serena, and I'm sure she would've found a way to win her match with Kuznetsova, but I don't blame Sveta for being angry. And looking back now - it does make one wonder why the roof wasn't closed for the Djokovic/Roddick quarter. I didn't hear a single ESPN person mention the dichotomy - and I'm listening to it again right now.

Posted by kim 01/29/2009 at 01:45 AM

live tv video australian open

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