Unlike many sports, professional tennis is in large part a matter of seeding. Meet the right person at the right time and you advance. Meet the wrong person and you lose. The Australian Open is always this way. Working "Down Under" is tough enough for those who work halfway around the world. Perhaps partly for this reason, Australians dominated the event for years.
The favorites who have been here the most usually fare better than the short-timers. These players are also usually those at the top of the rankings.
This year, the two usual suspects in the Men's Draw come to mind. Roger Federer, whose Australian Open record stands far above Rafael Nadal's record, leads the way despite his No. 2 seeding. And Nadal, whose record in Grand Slam events is better than Federer's when compared at the same age.
Last year Federer did not seem the same player as in previous campaigns. Too old. Too limited. Too insecure. Too rough when he used to be so smooth. A bit herky jerky. Seemingly a bit overpowered by Nadal and others.
When Nadal dominated the last set of the US Open, it seemed all over but the shouting.
For me, age was the determining factor in Federer's downfall. Federer seemed to be less Ken Rosewall than previously thought.
This has changed. It looks like the all-time best rivalry in tennis is alive and well. And that this year could be one of the best on record between these two favorites. Unless, of course, someone like Gilles Simon comes up and once again and proves why his seedings are a joke.
While most look at the Australian Open with an eye to upsets, this tournament is generally won by a well-known favorite. This year should be no exception.
We have already seen some close calls.
When picking between Nadal and Federer, the past may be prologue to the future.
Only one player has ever won more than Federer over a seven-year period. Roy Emerson brought real meaning to the word "dominate" when he won the title six times out of seven years, winning five times in a row and placing second the other year.
So we are left to sort out whether Federer, already champion four times, whose win last year silenced doubters who had counted him out for the year and the rest of time, can make it five wins in all breaking, a tie with Andre Agassi and Jack Crawford.
At this point, Federer's motivations are clear. Win as many Grand Slams as he can in as short a period as possible. Could Federer match Emerson's impossible record of six Australian Open Championships? Probably not if he loses this one. So Federer, as much a student of the history of tennis as anyone, wants this one very much indeed.
As if this is not enough, Federer has the added motivation of stopping Nadal from his current Grand Slam streak. Winner of the last three Grand Slams, Nadal will be able to win a "Non-calendar Year Grand Slam," meaning he will have won the four Major Championships in a row.
So motivation alone can be driving Federer in this one more than in any other Grand Slam.
Yet motivation only takes you so far. When one looks at the draw, we see much the same as we saw in the U.S. Open. A slate that includes many players who pose a real danger to Federer.
Yesterday, we saw the results of this type of draw. Gilles Simon took Federer to five sets. And could have easily beaten him, just as he had done the two other times they met before.
There are several "Gilles Simons" in Federer's draw. We can include Nikolay Davydenko, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych, Andy Roddick, Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, Tommy Robredo, and Fernando Verdasco in this group. All have a chance.
Looking at Nadal's draw, we see many fewer obstacles, just as in the U.S. Open. Some might see a conspiracy in this seeding in two majors in a row, but that is just the luck of the draw.
In the end, winning on the court is going to prove more difficult for Federer who will again be more likely to arrive much less rested than Nadal. Will this make a difference?
Only time will tell.
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