Thursday January 20th, 2005

1. Andy Roddick: Nasty draw has him playing dangerous Fernando Gonzalez off the bat and perhaps Taylor Dent in the third round. This year's top seed reached the semis as a ninth seed a year ago , and, of course, took the trophy at the previous Slam, the U.S. Open. Still, it's hard to see him running the table against such a tough field.

2. Roger Federer: On talent alone, he ought to win every match. But how will he fare without a coach? Or when the conditions aren't exactly to his liking? Or when the match isn't going quite as he'd hoped? Beautiful player to watch, but this event presents a unique test for Federer.

3. Juan Carlos Ferrero: Despite his brutal, confidence-deflating loss this week in the first round of the tune-up in Sydney, it's tough to think JCF will fail to survive Week 1. After that, all bets are off.

4. Andre Agassi: On history alone, it's hard to pick against the A-train. How's this for a factoid: AA has not lost a match at the Australian Open this millennium. Unlike most players, he can be counted on to arrive in shape. His draw presents few serious threats until after the first week. And he played well in the tune-up. After putting all this together, we're picking him to win it all.

5. Guillermo Coria: Has a Betty Crocker draw, to borrow a phrase. But he's in danger of simply getting served off the court by a Mark Philippoussis, Wayne Arthurs, Max Mirnyi or Greg Rusedski, all of whom are unwanted neighbors of Coria's in the draw.

6. Rainer Schuettler: The Rain Man can play, but no way will he replicate last year's feat of reaching the final, particularly since his early season play has been spotty. Could be kaput after second-round match against streaky Nicolas Escude.

7. Carlos Moya: Comes in playing some of his best tennis in years. Awfully benign draw until the quarterfinals. Might get a good workout in his opening-round match against James Blake. Star this pony in your racing form.

8. David Nalbandian: Might win the "Player Everyone Else Hates to Face" award. If he can live up to his seeding, he could face Federer in semis, a player he's owned (at least pre-Houston) in the quarters. Unfortunately Nalbandian's chronic wrist injuries could limit his effectiveness.

9. Sebastien Grosjean: Haven't heard much from the fleet-footed Frenchman, who came within a point of reaching finals in 2001. Always dangerous, but always unpredictable. As likely to reach the semis as he is to lose his first match to talented, hard-serving Russian Mikhail Youzhny.

10. Mark Philippoussis: The faster the court plays, the better he'll play. Will hometown support be a help or a hindrance? Though Thomas Johansson isa shell of the player he was when he won this event two years ago, he's Flip's first opponent.

11. Tim Henman: In his first Major with coach Paul Annacone, Henman is a player worth watching. He won't generate half the attention of his embattled countryman; but Their Tim is playing well, his draw is reasonable and the surface should be to his liking.

12. Nicolas Massu: Deserves credit for quietly climbing the ranks. We'll be surprised if he gets by both Jarkko Nieminen and Marat Safin, who are likely to be his first two opponents.

13. Paradorn Srichaphan: For all his success and popularity, he's still looking for that real Grand Slam breakthrough. Has loads of talent but it's hard to see him winning a fourth-round match against Agassi -- Wimbledon 2002 notwithstanding.

14. Jiri Novak: As usual, he's likely to live up his seeding, no more no less.

15. Lleyton Hewitt: Though Hewitt hasn't had much success at playing at home, this could be a big year for the Aussie. Provided he gets by Xavier Malisse and Rafael Nadal -- and he ought to -- a potential fourth-round encounter with Federer could be the match of the tournament.

16. Sjeng Schalken: The unsung Dutchman is playing in his 35th straight Slam. He doesn't serve well enough to win, but he's a dangerous veteran player whom no one likes facing.

SEEDS 17-32 TO WATCH

18. Younes el Aynaoui: Fresh off his ITWA award, there's a fair chance that the charismatic Moroccan will meet Roddick again.

19. Gus Kuerten: Historically, Guga hasn't done so well Down Under. And his health has become a constant concern. But you look at his draw and you go "hmmm."

20. Tommy Robredo: Not a candidate for any mental toughness awards but a solid player who is more than capable of reaching Week 2. Provided he gets past Gaston Gaudio -- another talented but mentally erratic player -- in the first round.

24. Max Mirnyi: Always fear his big serve on fast surfaces

25. Jonas Bjorkman: Playing well and has to be riding high after last week's win over Roddick. On the other hand, will doubles take too much of Bjorkman's focus?

27. Taylor Dent: Quasi-Aussie will have crowd support, and serve-and-volley will confound the right opponents.

32. Robby Ginepri: Not in the "contender" category yet, but could make life miserable for the right opponent. Same for fellow American Dent.

DARK HORSE NATION

Marat Safin: On talent alone he's dangerous. His mental and physical status is another matter altogether.

Todd Reid: Former Wimbledon junior from Down Under has played auspiciously to start the year.

Nicolas Escude: Streaky player has come out smoking in 2004.

Dominik Hrbaty: See above.

Rafael Nadal: Might be the last tournament at which there won't be a seeding alongside his name.

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCH

Roddick vs. Gonzalez: Note to ballkids and linesfolk (note the gender-neutral terms): wear helmets.

Massu v. Nieminen: This would be a respectable semifinal match at most events.

Moya v. Blake: Nirvana for fans of the sleeveless look. Plus two good players whose styles match up well.

PREDICTION

SEMIS: Moya vs. Agassi, Federer vs. Someone Outside of Top 40

FINAL: Agassi vs. Federer

WINNER: Agassi

1 Justine Henin-Hardenne: She has to be considered a fairly strong favorite to win the whole thing. In winning two of the last three Majors, she's had to negotiate tougher fields. You hate to say that the tournament is hers to win, but ...

2. Kim Clijsters: Before the ankle injury, Aussie Kim would have been our pick. Everything was breaking right: Mrs. Hewitt-to-be would have had the crowd support; the surface suits her great; and if she's going to break through, it's likely to be at the Slam with the least pressure. Unfortunately, it's hard to see her fulfilling her destiny with limited mobility. That said, if she can miraculously recover and locomote into Week 2, look out.

3. Venus Williams: The big wild card. On both talent and experience she'd be a good bet to win. We wonder, however, what the loooong layoff (only six events played over the past year and none since July) has done for her match toughness? And has she found the confidence that was missing in 2003? We'll know for sure in two weeks, but we still have a hunch that Henin-Hardenne will prevail.

4. Amelie Mauresmo: It was -- gulp -- five years ago that she emerged from obscurity and reached the final. Unfortunately for her, she has yet to replicate that performance. The game is there but what happens to her in the late rounds when it's 4-4 in the third set? On the other hand, she ought to cruise through semis like a hot knife through vegemite.

5. Lindsay Davenport: Say this: she's unlikely ever to play another Slam under such favorable circumstances -- a ravaged field, a generally benign draw, a surface to her liking. Suddenly Davenport has a real shot to win her fourth Slam. The problem is getting by Henin-Hardenne in the quarters. Head over heart, we don't see it.

6. Anastasia Myskina: Solid, talented player utterly deserving of her ranking. But is she ready to take the next step? Possible third-round Battle of Russia with Maria Sharapova could be entertaining.

7. Elena Dementieva: Quietly made a nice mini-comeback since dropping out of the top ranks. We like her baseline game but her punchless serve will haunt her against the Big Babes.

8. Ai Sugiyama: Japanese veteran enjoying a nice career resurgence has already won a title this year. A peg down from the Big Babes but a good bet to survive the first week.

9. Chanda Rubin: Here's a player well worth keeping an eye on. (Of course, we said the same thing before the U.S. Open and she was bounced in the first round.)

10. Nadia Petrova: She's a complete player and good athlete, but her durability is open to question. Latest injury is a gluteal strain -- a real pain in the butt.

11. Vera Zvonareva: Wish she were 10 percent bigger, but she doesn't miss much and she likes to compete.

12. Paola Suarez: She may live up to her seeding, but she'll go no further at a hardcourt Slam. At least not in singles.

13. Conchita Martinez: Her best days are behind her, but she will make life hell for the right (wrong?) opponent.

14. Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi: We love the name; we're enamored with her track record at Majors.

15. Daniela Hantuchova: There's little indication that her wayward ship is headed to calm waters.

16. Magui Serna: The Massu of the women, she deserves props for her stealthy upward mobility, but it's hard to see her exceeding her seeding.

SEEDS 17-32 TO WATCH

17. Meghann Shaughnessy: Reached quarters last year and tends to start the year strong.

18. Francesca Schiavone: A pesky, feisty baseliner.

27. Amanda Coetzer: Best days are behind her, but she usually plays well in Australia and her fitness is unimpeachable.

19. Eleni Daniildou: She played a nice tournament to start the season and it's high time her results catch up to her explosive game. Plus, her country of origin will make her a crowd favorite in Melbourne.

28. Maria Sharapova: Just to cover our bases.

29. Nathalie Dechy: We've always liked her elegant game. She's never failed to disappoint us. We'll keeping going back to the well.

DARK HORSE NATION

Dinara Safina: A much better player than her ranking suggests.

Amelie Loit: Tricky lefty came close to beating Serena last year in Melbourne.

Julia Vakulenko: Just because.

FIRST-ROUND MATCHES TO WATCH (and there ain't many thanks to the 32 seeds)

Shaughnessy v. Nicole Pratt: Feisty homegrown Pratt will make Shaughnessy work to advance.

Adriana Serra-Zanetti v. Hantuchova: If Serra-Zanetti can coax coach Ubaldo out of retirement, it could make all the difference.

Sugiyama v. Tatiana Pavova: Battle of the mighty mites.

Karolina Sprem and Lina Krasnoroutskaya: Two of the better players you've likely never seen.

Ashley Harkleroad v. Venus Williams: Want to bet ESPN televises this one?

PREDICTION

SEMIS: Henin-Hardenne vs. Mauresmo, Venus Williams vs. Clijsters

FINALS: Henin-Hardenne vs. Venus Williams

WINNER: Henin-Hardenne

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