Observations From Oz

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Maybe it’s because the nations share a sense of longing and envy stemming from their prolonged Grand Slam droughts — Mark Edmonson was the last Australian to win the homeland men’s single title in 1976, while the U.S. hasn’t won a major since Andy Roddick donned the Flushing Meadow crown in 2003.

Whether that’s the case, or it’s just a matter of one upmanship, the hard court Slams and their U.S. media rights-holders sure have a way of stepping on each other’s service line.

Last September, as CBS televised Vera Znovera’s upset of top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, ESPN announced it has reached a new 10-year deal with Tennis Australia to extend its coverage of the Down Under major from 2012-21.

On Jan. 14, as ESPN held a press conference with analysts Darren Cahill and Pam Shriver to discuss the 2011 Australian, news broke that CBS, as long had been expected, had aced an agreement in principle with the United Tennis Association to renew its Open rights from 2012-14 at a slight rights increase in the $20 million to $25 million range per year. That makes the broadcast rights for the American Slam co-terminus with those held by ESPN2 and sublicensed to Tennis Channel.

Conspiratorial or coincidental, you decide.

As to the decisions about who will emerge from the fortnight in the Aussie summer, Cahill and Shriver were largely of the same mind relative to the “Rafa Slam,” but were less definitive on the distaff side of the draw.

Cahill, on the Friday afternoon call with reporters, labeled Nadal the “clear favorite” to add more Melbourne hardware to the mantle already housing the trophies he currently holds from Paris, London and New York.

“I think for the men that Nadal goes into the event as a clear favorite. You can forget about all the events leading up to this. Every question Nadal has needed to answer he’s answered over the past couple of years. The fact that he’s won the last three majors makes him a clear favorite for the Australian Open. He likes the surface. He likes the ball. The conditions are sort of medium paced and the ball is fluffing up pretty heavily after the first five or 10 minutes, but he can still put some spin on the ball.”

Cahill doesn’t believe that the fever/virus that short-circuited the world’s No. 1 in the semifinals in Doha two weeks ago will get in the way of his quest.

“Rafa proved he can win this event a couple years ago. He can nurse his way into the draw if he’s not feeling 100% with the virus. He doesn’t really run into any of the real danger men until the fourth round when he might play John Isner or Marin Cilic. He’s in a good section of the draw and I think he’s going to be extremely excited about coming here and chasing it [the Rafa Slam].

“The great thing about him is he isn’t scared of any hurdles put in front of him,” Cahill continued. “The fact that he won the U.S. Open, I think he’s riding an enormous wave and I think he goes into the event as the strong favorite in the men’s draw. Hopefully, for the tournament’s sake we’re looking at a [defending champion Roger] Federer-Nadal final.” Not to mention, ESPN2’s ratings.

If anyone is to “break the stranglehold” that Rafa and Roger have put on majors claiming 24 of the last 28 since 2004, it could be Novak Djokovic, according to Cahill. He pointed to the world No. 3’s play in leading Serbia to the Davis Cup and that Djokovic was seeing “the ball like a basketball” at the Hopman Cup earlier this month. Novak won the 2008 Aussie title.

For her part, Shriver wondered if Nadal had recovered from his malady, calling it a “pretty serious virus,” noting “it’s taking longer than a 24-year-old might want it to take. If he’s 100% healthy he’s the co favorite with Federer…Otherwise, I think Federer.”

Shriver was more certain of her pick among the women, saying Kim Clijsters, the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, is the “clear favorite,” despite a near double bagel at the hands of Nadia Petrova, who surrendered just one game in their 2010 opening round match in Melbourne.

Shriver mentioned former champion Justine Henin, recovering from an elbow injury sustained at Wimbledon, and another past winner Maria Sharapova, who was knocked out during ESPN2’s initial telecast last year, as women with the pedigree and games to challenge.

As to world No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki, Shriver said her ranking is “a little bit hollow,” and that she needs to better manage all of the requests for her time that come with becoming the “new, fresh star” at a time in women’s tennis, when there is “not a lot right now.”

Shriver said Wozniacki needs to “solidify her place on top, stay healthy, make smart decisions and win a major…I don’t think she’ll win in Australia, but she will win a major…But I thought the same thing about [the now retired] Elena Dementieva.”

Meanwhile, Cahill, who said there were a lot of questions surrounding Wozniacki, including changing her racquet, predicted that there are as many as 20 women capable of winning the tournament.

In addition to Klijsters, Wozniacki, Henin and Sharapova, the other notables that could be factors in Melbourne, inlcude: homeland favorite and world No. 5 Samantha Stosur; American Venus Williams, who has never triumphed Down Under; other former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina and Jelana Jankovic; two-time Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova; veterans Na Li and French Open champ Francesca Schiavone; climbers Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko; and No. 2 Zvonareva, who came up well short in both the 2010 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

Of course, if defending champion Serena Williams were in the draw, instead of still recuperating from a foot injury she suffered after stepping on a glass in a restaurant in Munich days after her win at Wimbledon last summer. Venus’ younger sister completed the “Serena Slam” in Melbourne back in 2003.