Tricky opener awaits Kim Clijsters in Oz

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Day 2 of the Australian Open provides a pair of uncharacteristically fascinating duels. Lleyton Hewitt confronts familiar foe David Nalbandian, while women's favorite Kim Clijsters battles the how-the-mighty-have-fallen Dinara Safina.

That's 15 Grand Slam finals among the quartet.

There's sure to be drama, irrespective of the scores.

Kim Clijsters versus Dinara Safina

In the absence of injured two-time defending champion Serena Williams, who especially cleans up in Melbourne in odd-numbered years, all nine ESPN.com prognosticators picked the oh-so-nice Clijsters to end her non-U.S. Grand Slam drought. It was unprecedented. Aussie bookmakers list the three-time U.S. Open winner as the prohibitive favorite, too.

But away from the familiarity of New York and New Jersey, where the Belgian spends much of her time with U.S. hubby Brian Lynch and their bubbly daughter, Jada, leading up to Flushing Meadows, could Clijsters succumb to the pressure?

Well, Clijsters flinched a little at the Sydney International this past weekend, dropping the finale to dangerous Chinese slugger Li Na 7-6 (3), 6-3 -- after blowing a 5-0 lead in the first. Clijsters, as she put it, "softened the quality" of her usually penetrating strokes.

Further, fond memories of reaching the 2004 Australian Open final probably have been usurped by last year's dismal performance, when Clijsters won a solitary game versus Nadia Petrova in the third round. She had been one of the favorites heading into the 2010 edition.

Safina, the world No. 1 as recently as November 2009, hasn't had a decent tennis memory for a while, at least in terms of a result. However, at a warm-up tournament last week in Hobart, Australia, Safina proclaimed she's been healthy the past two months, not troubled by the serious back injury that led to the likable Russian's tumble to 70th in the WTA rankings last year.

Safina is 0-2 this year, and her matches produced varied performances. There were positives in a three-set defeat to tough Belgian Yanina Wickmayer but not many in a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Marion Bartoli, even if the Frenchwoman suggested that the match was closer than the score indicated. Safina dropped further, to 75th, in the rankings.

As the No. 1-ranked women's player, Safina ousted Clijsters -- in the early stages of her comeback -- in Cincinnati in 2009. Clijsters repaid the favor in Ohio last year.

"It's going to be an interesting match," Clijsters told reporters.

Interesting, yes. Competitive, no.

Safina needs a minor miracle -- or maybe her more famous brother, Marat Safin, on court -- to advance.

Prediction: Clijsters in two.

Lleyton Hewitt versus David Nalbandian

If similarity breeds fondness, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian should get along swimmingly.

They've played in Grand Slam finals, with Hewitt leading in the majors department. Hewitt overcame a fresh-faced Nalbandian in the Wimbledon final in 2002.

They possess wonderful backhands.

They've shown a willingness to move forward in recent times, Nalbandian more so.

They've had hip surgery, derailing their careers.

They love the Davis Cup and representing their countries.

Although they might have mellowed, Hewitt after getting married and having kids, they're largely known as crusty characters.

But these two don't particularly like each other, which makes Tuesday's first-round clash on Hewitt's home turf all the more enticing. Call it the blockbuster men's opener.

When they met in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park six years ago, a bump at a change of ends overshadowed Hewitt's 10-8 victory in the fifth set.

Nalbandian, whose fellow Argentine compatriot Juan Ignacio Chela spit in Hewitt's direction earlier that fortnight in reply to his opponent's frequent cries of "C'mon," said the former world No. 1 didn't have any friends on tour.

Hewitt was guarded when discussing Nalbandian this past weekend, sticking to the rather obvious.

"It's a tough draw," said Hewitt, who's trying to become the first Aussie man since 1976 to win the Australian Open. "Normally you don't mind easing into the tournament a little bit. We're both going to have to be up for the match straightaway."

Hewitt is perennially pumped no matter his physical state, so no worries there, mate. He's recovered from a hand injury and can't imagine that anyone's trained harder in the offseason. Staying motivated has never been Nalbandian's strong point, yet the 27th seed vows to return to the top 10 this year.

In his favor, Nalbandian has won two straight against Hewitt in clashes with international overtones. It was one-way traffic in the Davis Cup later in 2005, and Nalbandian edged their tilt two years ago in Sydney, where Hewitt is especially hard to tame.

They enter the affair in good form. Nalbandian reached the final of the Heineken Open in New Zealand on Saturday, and Hewitt prevailed at the AAMI Classic at Kooyong, an exhibition in Melbourne, a little weaker than usual.

Something's gotta give, although neither will give an inch.

Prediction: Nalbandian in four.