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Monday, January 17, 2005
At the Australian Open today

By Cynthia Faulkner
ESPN.com

Roger Federer was asked by Jim Courier, who is working for an Australian TV station, who his main competition is at the Australian Open. Ever diplomatic, Federer listed the top three seeds -- and four-time champion Andre Agassi. When pressed, though, Federer admitted that it's Hewitt. Yep, he skipped right past No. 2 Andy Roddick and picked No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt. (Marat Safin is the fourth seed for those of you counting at home.)

Hewitt
Hewitt

It's not surprising since Hewitt came close to overtaking Roddick for the No. 2 spot before the tournament started. Not to mention that Federer once again defeated Roddick in an exhibition final last week. Officially, Federer holds an 8-1 record against Roddick, who himself said after their Wimbledon final that he'd have to start winning before you could call it a rivalry between them. Still, Hewitt didn't fare much better in the final of the U.S. Open.

Hewitt begins his quest to become the first Australian man to win the title at home since 1976 in the last match of the night. Hewitt faces Frenchman Arnaud Clement, who -- just like Hewitt -- enjoys chasing down balls. Expect a lot of running. Roddick, who has a new coach, plays Irakli Labadze, who has never gotten out of the first round of the Australian Open. Labadze also hasn't won a match since July. Labadze says his forehand is his best shot; unfortunately, it's also Roddick's best ground stroke.

Potential show stoppers
  • James Blake returns to Grand Slam play after a year of injury, illness and personal tragedy. Blake broke a vertebra in his neck in May, and his father died in July. Also in the summer, Blake fell ill with Zoster, which affected his vision and hearing and caused paralysis on one side of his face.

    Blake plays young German Florian Mayer, who reached the second round of the Australian Open last year before falling to David Nalbandian.

  • Venus Williams opens play against Eleni Daniilidou. Although much hasn't been made of it, the Williams sisters are once again on opposite sides of the draw and cannot meet until the final. Venus' road, however, is more difficult than her sister's. Daniilidou didn't finish the year ranked as highly as she started, but she's still not someone you'd want to meet in the first round.

  • No. 1 seed Lindsay Davenport, in her 12th appearance at the Aussie Open, takes on Conchita Martinez, making her 15th appearance at the event. Martinez holds an 8-7 record over Davenport. In 1998, the two met in the semifinals, where Martinez defeated Davenport. It also was the last time Martinez defeated Davenport on a hard court.

  • Elena Dementieva plays Alyona Bondarenko of Ukraine. Dementieva has not been bearing up well under the Australian summer heat. Now, she's one of three players facing some unorthodox accusations about doping (the tests were taken at an exhibition and were not in any way affiliated with the International Tennis Federation).

    Dementieva's weak serve is offset by seemingly reaching any ball as she races side-to-side. Sometimes players find it difficult to get into a rhythm against Dementieva because there's so little pace coming off her serve and then she hammers a groundstroke past them.

  • Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden plays Greg Rusedski of Great Britain for the 12th time in their careers. Although Rusedski once held the fastest serve ever recorded until Roddick came along, expect Bjorkman to put up a fight. Bjorkman will serve with plenty of spin and can vary his serve's pace unexpectedly. Bjorkman holds an 8-4 record against Rusedski, but they've split their past four matches.

  • No. 9 seed David Nalbandian finally has David Ferrer where he wants him: off clay. Ferrer holds a 3-0 record against Nalbandian, a former Wimbledon runner-up, who much prefers a faster surface to that of the slow dirt where they've always met.

  • Argentina's Guillermo Coria, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in August, made a comeback attempt at the Masters Cup -- but lost all three matches in the round robin event. Things went better this month at the Hopman Cup, where he and fellow Argentine Gisela Dulko reached the final of the team exhibition.

    Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this preview.