SPORTS

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January 30, 2004

Belgian women put tennis world on high alert

The Australian Open, the year's first and most unpredictable Grand Slam, is well underway. What happened over the past week-and-a half? The biggest and most pleasant surprises have been the comeback of Marat Safin in the men's game and the continued Belgian dominance on the women's side.

What did Safin have in store for us this week? Safin, formerly ranked first in the world and the 2000 U.S. Open champion, has played three four-set matches and three five-set matches en route to this Sunday's final. This is an amazing streak, not even taking into account that he is currently the 86th-ranked player in the world and that he took most of 2003 off due to a serious wrist injury.

In his wild run, Safin took out the 24-year-old ousted Americans Todd Martin and James Blake, the first-ranked Andy Roddick, and the fourth-ranked and last year's Australian Open champion Andre Agassi. It is shocking that Safin was able to come out on top, especially considering how relatively fresh both Roddick and Agassi were when they faced him and how Safin's mental game has often been his biggest roadblock.

Another exciting turn in the men's side is the semifinal match-up of world #2 Roger Federer and world #3 Juan Carlos Ferrero, each with a Grand Slam win last year. Both of them had breakthrough seasons in 2003 and the match on Friday should be a memorable one, with each having a shot at securing the top ranking. Ferrero briefly held the top ranking near the end of 2003, and Federer is still looking for his first moment at the top.

The semifinals this year were also more exciting because three of the top four players in the world participated. Men's tennis had lacked a great rivalry since the American dominance years ago (Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang), and the Sampras-Agassi rivalry that grew out of it ended officially with Sampras's 2002 U.S. Open title (and his subsequent retirement in 2003). Since then, no group of players has really stayed consistently on top. Could the young guns Ferrero and Federer (and hopefully Roddick and Safin) start the men's next greatest rivalry?

On the women's side, the Belgians have again set up another Grand Slam final clash.

Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne still turn heads­—especially considering that this tournament marked the return of Venus Williams to the women's game. Even though the Belgians were definitely favorites coming into the Australian Open, everyone wondered if Venus's presence would derail them.

In the six-month absence of the Williams sisters, the Belgians had no problem asserting their dominance. However, whenever one of the sisters (or any consistent top-ten woman for that matter) has returned to the game, the return has seemed almost effortless—usually a guaranteed berth in at least the fourth round of a tournament. This was not the case with Williams. Even Venus expressed her surprise at being knocked out in straight sets in the third round by Lisa Raymond.

The real question now is which of the Belgian players has what it takes to bring in the title. Will Henin-Hardenne collect her third Grand Slam trophy in four events, each title at the expense of Clijsters? Or will Clijsters take in her first? Despite being a huge Henin-Hardenne fan, I have to say that I think it's Clijsters time. She has dealt with disappointing losses and I'm sure her hunger is there even more for this title. She has most likely spent weeks preparing for this eventual meeting and as long as her ankle holds up, hopefully she can prevail.

Either way, the women's game has come quite a long way over the past few years. A major criticism in the past was that the women's game was not as deep as the men's game. While women's tennis might not have the depth to see a 86th-ranked player reach the final of a Grand Slam, it is nevertheless interesting to note that more top-ten men reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open than top-ten women. This is a good sign for the women's game.

Let's hope that Serena Williams returns to competition as soon as possible, that Venus stays competitive, and that Clijsters secures her first Grand Slam title.

Safin has already made clear his intent to regain the world's top ranking this year. It will be a long road ahead, but based on his Australian Open performance, it's possible.

The prospect of simultaneous rivals for both genders is an exciting one. And this can all start very soon with the results of this weekend, the most unpredictable Slam, the Australian Open.