Monday January 10th, 2011

Not only is tennis' offseason farcically scant; we don't exactly ease into the campaign. Here it is, the first week of January, and -- apart from being a week away from commencing a Slam -- most name players were in action. We caution reading too much into one week of play, especially the first week back from vacation. Still, there were some curious results.

1. Federer the Aussie favorite?: Two months ago, it would have been an absurd proclamation, not so long as Rafael Nadal would be riding a 21-match win streak at majors into Melbourne, attempting to become the first man since Rod Laver to win four consecutive Slams. Yet Roger Federer is a) the defending champ in Australia, b) the winner of the last head-to-head against, played against Nadal on a similar surface no less, and c) winner of the Qatar event they both entered. Last weekend, Nadal took ill during his semifinal against Nikolay Daydenko and lost badly. (He recovered to win the doubles which has both encouraged the Nadal-philes and aroused suspicion and complaints among the Nadal-phobes.) Federer, meanwhile pulled off another one of these and cruised to his first title of 2011, beating Davydenko in the final.

2. Rockin' Robin: Inasmuch as a top-five player can be a "dark horse," you could do worse than backing Robin Soderling in Australia. Apart from the encouraging track record of Swedish players Down Under, Soderling looked dashing last week. The 26-year-old didn't lose a set -- and lost serve only once in four matches -- taking the Brisbane title, beating Andy Roddick in the final. Now working with new coach Claudio Pistolesi, Soderling loves a slick surface. He's also moved ahead of Andy Murray to No. 4 in the rankings, meaning that his seeding will be favorable.

3. Hong Kong hooey?: Again, one week of tennis is of limited predictive value. But there were some odds scores coming out of the Hong Kong Tennis Classic, an exhibition that draws the bigger names than the concurrent tournaments. The WTA's top-ranked player, Caroline Wozniacki, fell to Vera Zvonareva, 6-1, 6-0. For a player searching for her first major, this isn't exactly a confidence boost. Venus Williams, meanwhile, was seen clutching her abdomen as she lost two singles matches, one to Zvonareva and one to Li Na, both in straight sets. Meanwhile at the WTA's Brisbane event, Sam Stosur, another player with high expectations in Melbourne lost to Jarmila ("The Tourist") Groth. All adds to the intrigue ...

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