It’s an open field

Belgian Kim Clijsters made a remarkable comeback last year to win the U.S. Open. Her triumph has inspired countrywoman Justine Henin (right), who is making a comeback this year.-Pics: AP Belgian Kim Clijsters made a remarkable comeback last year to win the U.S. Open. Her triumph has inspired countrywoman Justine Henin (right), who is making a comeback this year.

Going by the events of last year and the Australian Open’s tendency to throw up surprise finalists, it might be tricky to pick a winner, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Last year’s Australian Open final seems a long way back. Rafael Nadal let Roger Federer spill his emotions after inflicting yet another Grand Slam final defeat on the Swiss. The season took a different turn a few months later as Federer achieved the French Open-Wimbledon double and reclaimed the No. 1 spot. Juan Martin del Potro then established himself as a serious Grand Slam contender, and Nikolay Davydenko finally claimed a big prize.

The women’s game had its strange mix of bona fide champions and comeback stories. Serena Williams won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, two majors less than what she might’ve believed she deserved. Svetlana Kuznetsova ended a ridiculously long wait for her second Grand Slam title, at the French Open, but the most remarkable story of the year would have to be that of Kim Clijsters coming back after motherhood and insufficient match practice to win the U.S. Open.

Going by the events of last year and the Australian Open’s tendency to throw up surprise finalists, it might be tricky to pick a winner. Tennis’ short off-season will not allow too much of a loss of momentum, but don’t bet against a first-time finalist to emerge.

The men’s game looks like sorting itself out and picking a winner from amongst Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Del Potro and, if fate intervenes, Andy Murray. The women’s game is yet again unpredictable.

No doubt, inspired by Clijsters’ triumph, Justine Henin is making a comeback. The former champion’s intensity and combative instincts will ensure she gives it her very best. The Belgian believes she’s a better player with a fresher perspective.

“I believe I can be a better player, I believe I can use my experience more than in the past. It’s been a great experience to go out of the tennis world for 18 months and to come back because I feel I grew up.

“I really needed to come out of this bubble. The tennis world is a small world. There are so many things around that and I never realised that before. To come back to my passion, to what I love so much, after this part of my life is such a great feeling. I’m 27, now I just want to live my second career differently to how I did in the past. “Of course I will need some time to be 100 per cent, to be at the level I was when I stopped my career, but I’m ready for anything here.”

As has been proved in the recent past, the women’s field isn’t conducive to a competitive environment with enough depth. Everyone seems capable of a meltdown or an outburst or a serious injury. Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champion, has recovered from a persistent shoulder problem, but it does seem to have removed some menace from her serve.

Serena Williams is a favourite again this year. Elena Dementieva (below) of Russia is one of the strong contenders for the title.-

Serena Williams

Dinara Safina’s Slam finals meltdowns have been painful to watch, and it does seem like the Russian will have less of a chance this year than she did last year.

Defending champion Serena Williams should go down as the favourite. That she is the most wholesomely gifted player on the Tour has been proved, but the American will be keen to wipe out memories of her tirade against a lineswoman at the U.S. Open last year. Her sister Venus though looks less likely for an Australian Open win, even taking into account that the Williamses can never be written off. There will be other interesting contenders such as Elena Dementieva, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

Wozniacki, 19, had a splendid 2009 when she made it to the U.S. Open final. The World No. 4 looks to break into the Top-3 and improve on her performance at last year’s Australian Open.

“It is important to take small steps in terms of goals and also have goals that are realistic in the short term and I think three is realistic right now,” said Wozniacki ahead of the Hong Kong tournament. “I need to have great results at all the Grand Slams if I want to make it up to one or two.

“It is tough to set specific tournament goals as everybody is playing well. It is tough to make a final and to win a Grand Slam, you have to play seven great matches, so I don’t really have a tournament goal but, looking at Australia, I will look to improve on my third round last year.”

The Serbs, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, had a quiet 2009 when compared to the heights they scaled in the previous years. Not much is expected of them at the year’s first Slam besides gauging the extent of their recovery from last year’s injuries.

The women’s game will enter a new phase in 2010 when the comeback players, the strong contenders and the up-and-coming players will determine the direction that the Tour will take. While the return of Clijsters and Henin is welcome, it will strengthen and deepen the WTA field if there is a stronger and larger presence of the game’s future.