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AUSTRALIAN OPEN PREVIEW

Australian Open Loses Some of Its Charm

The year's first tennis Grand Slam is robbed of key personalities in the men's field, as Agassi, Nadal and Safin are out because of injuries.

January 15, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — Charisma 3, Australian Open 0.

The first significant tennis news of 2006 was the subtraction of 11 Grand Slam singles titles from the Australian Open men's field. And if that sounds rough, the names behind the numbers do not make the medicine go down any easier.

Out are Andre Agassi (winner of eight majors), Marat Safin (two) of Russia and Rafael Nadal (one) of Spain.

Agassi and defending champion Safin combined to win two of the last three titles here.

Safin was greatly limited by a nagging injury to his left knee in the latter part of 2005. Nadal pushed hard to win the Masters Series event in his native Spain in October and found himself nursing a persistent left foot injury. And Agassi, having injured his left ankle playing racquetball, made the mistake of trying to play the season-ending tournament in Shanghai and suffered a major setback.

On the other hand, there is former U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, who will be playing here. He wisely opted to skip Shanghai rather than twist his ailing back into a seat for a long flight to China.

Roddick took six weeks to work on his fitness and mull a certain left-hander from Luxembourg named Gilles Muller, who'd upset Roddick in straight sets in the first round at the U.S. Open. A shot at Slam redemption has been a long time in coming.

"To be completely frank, it ... kind of put a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," Roddick said during a recent conference call with reporters. "But I think I work better like that. It gives me something to prove, which is nice. Who knows, maybe it was a blessing in disguise."

Roddick, who will play Swiss qualifier Michael Lammer in the first round here, said the loss to Muller served as motivation through the fall.

"It's probably the most disappointing loss I've had," Roddick said at a news conference today. "I was talking to my parents and a bunch of other people. They say it's how you bounce back from something like that. You can either kind of lay down or try to turn it around. I've chosen the latter."

Ordinarily, the loss of three leading men's players would greatly dent the marquee. But not when current No. 1 Roger Federer is still on it, along with two former No. 1s -- Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, whose presence is of great importance here in his home country.

Safin's departure could greatly benefit Federer, considering the Russian is one of two players to beat Federer in Melbourne the last three years. David Nalbandian of Argentina is the other.

Nadal's withdrawal assisted Roddick, who became the No. 2-seeded player. Of course, the one guy Roddick needs to be injured, Federer, appears to be doing just fine. But at least Roddick, who faces a qualifier in the first round, could avoid Federer until the final.

Federer and Hewitt, seeded No. 3 and a finalist last year, are in the same half of the draw and could meet in a semifinal. Roddick and No. 4 Nalbandian, who beat Federer in the Shanghai final, are in the other half.

Federer followed roughly the same path of preparation for the Australian Open as he did last year. The only minor difference: He spent more time training with coach Tony Roche in December. Similar to 2005, he opened his season in Doha, Qatar, and did not drop a set on his way to the title. Last year, he lost only four of 85 matches and won two Slams -- Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The quest for his second Australian Open title and seventh Grand Slam will begin against wild-card entrant Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan -- not to be confused with the Chicago Blackhawk hockey prospect from Russia with the same name.

Federer's dominance is such that the slightest wobble is big news, as it was when he lost to Tommy Haas of Germany in an exhibition a few days ago in Melbourne.

"Even if he has a bad day he will probably still win most of his matches against other players," U.S. Open women's champion Kim Clijsters said. "But with the women, that's not the case. ... There's no 'Ms. Federer.' "

Not when there were four different champions at the Slams last year -- Serena Williams (Australian Open), Justine Henin-Hardenne (French Open), Venus Williams (Wimbledon) and Clijsters.

And not when Serena Williams, who huffed and puffed her way to the title last year, has been the subject of inordinate tabloid attention in Australia, mostly devoted to the size of her posterior.

Though No. 13 Serena Williams drew a potentially difficult first-round opponent in Na Li of China, she avoided the quarter of the draw featuring older sister Venus, who is seeded No. 10, top-seeded Lindsay Davenport, a finalist last year, and No. 8 Henin-Hardenne.

But former Wimbledon champion and No. 4 Maria Sharapova of Russia could be a fourth-round opponent for Serena, a rematch of their dramatic semifinal last year in which Williams saved three match points.

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