Saturday, January 24, 2004
Roddick, Agassi look strong
By MaliVai Washington Special to ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Typically when you get toward the end of the first week of a major, you have a really good feeling about who is hitting the ball well. You can look at the scores and see who is injured and make some good picks about who is going to be standing on the final day.
Out of the final 16 this time, you could make a legitimate case that seven of them could be standing on the final day. Whether it's Andy Roddick, Roger Federer or Juan Carlos Ferrero, who are all playing great, or Marat Safin who is making his comeback, or Andre Agassi, who is a four-time champion. You can never discount the big-serving Mark Philippoussis, nor my dark horse David Nalbandian. There are so many players right now who can legitimately win this tournament. This is what Grand Slam tennis is all about.
Andy Roddick (1), United States, vs. Sjeng Schalken (16), Netherlands
Roddick is playing at a consistently higher level than we've seen before. There were times last year that he would play very good tennis and then proceed to have a down period, mostly at the beginning of the season. In this tournament, in his one real test against Fernando Gonzalez, Roddick shut Gonzalez down and never let him have a chance. Then in Roddick's next two rounds, as the heavy favorite, Roddick was able to jump on top of his opponents from the very beginning and squash any notion that they could win the match.
If Roddick continues his consistent play, Sjeng Schalken will have to play as well as he can play to win. Schalken doesn't have the firepower or ability to tremendously hurt Roddick, either with his serve or with his groundstrokes. Roddick will have the ability to control his own service game, and his return games because Schalken won't be getting a lot of free points with his serve. Pick: Roddick in three setsMarat Safin, Russia, vs. James Blake, United States
Safin is starting to show the form that won him a Grand Slam title in 2000. Probably what is most surprising is that he's been able to keep his emotions in check. In his last two sets against Todd Martin, he played as composed a two-set stretch as I've ever seen from him.
Safin is going to be the favorite in this match, but James Blake is having a very good tournament. Thus far, however, Blake hasn't played someone with the quality of power that Safin has. For Blake to win this match, he will need to have a first-serve percentage around 65 percent. Also, he needs to do a better job returning first and second serves than he usually does against big servers.
If Blake can't break serve, he won't win this match because at times his serve has deserted him, whereas Safin is equally lethal while serving or returning. It's time for Blake to make a statement. Winning this match would be making a huge statement to everyone in the locker room saying, "I'm someone to be reckoned with in 2004." Pick: Blake in five sets Andre Agassi (4), United States, vs. Paradorn Srichaphan (13), Thailand
Even though Agassi lost to Paradorn Srichaphan in their only other meeting, there's no scenario whereby Srichaphan wins this match. That's less of an indictment against Srichaphan and more a credit to how Agassi is playing right now. It never ceases to amaze how he seems to hit the ball as cleanly as anyone in the tournament, and this year is no exception. If Srichaphan can push him to four sets, he's done an admirable job. Pick: Agassi in fourSebastien Grosjean (9), France, vs. Robby Ginepri (32), United States
In the same way that Blake can make a statement, so can Robby Ginepri if he beats Sebastien Grosjean. It's matches like this at the majors that build character and let the other players know you're a threat.
This matchup is between two of the quickest guys on tour. Grosjean has been in this situation many times before. Though he is not being talked about by the media as a potential champion here, he might be the darkest horse in the tournament.
You could argue Grosjean is going to win this match, just because of the fight in him against Dominik Hrbaty last round, while arguing that Ginepri is playing as well as he ever has in his career. This match is going to go the distance. However, experience will win out, and Grosjean is the man with experience. Pick: Grosjean in fiveMaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.