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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Tone set for 2008 season

If the first Grand Slam tournament of 2008 is an accurate indicator, we'll be in for a terrific if turbulent ride through the rest of the year. Here are the five most significant developments to emerge from the Australian Open, and how they may shape the tennis events of the next 11 months -- and beyond:

1. Neither of the top seeds, Roger Federer and Justine Henin, made the final. My impression is that despite the commanding way those two players dominated 2007, the slate has been wiped clean in a more dramatic demonstration of the volatility of today's game than we've witnessed in some time. Make no mistake, the way the year begins is critically important because it sets the tone for all that follows.

You'd have to be nuts to say Federer is in crisis, or that Henin has shot her wad as a dominant player. But note that the new champs (Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova) are both 20 years old, and only one of the four semifinalists (Sharapova) was a Grand Slam champion going in.

2. The name of the game is "offense." Judging from the singles finals -- and the way the four contenders in them got to the championship match -- the odds on a counter-puncher or tenacious grinder (on the order of Rafael Nadal or Jelena Jankovic) sweeping to a major title (except on clay) are growing increasingly slim. This is particularly relevant to the men, where a host of contenders (including the two David's, Nalbandian and Ferrer) will need to re-think their unwillingness to come to the net.

3. Whither the Williamses? Venus and Serena have taken turns these past few majors saving the Williams "brand", but in the wake of the Australian Open, it looks like the standard bearers for American tennis need to reassess and perhaps regroup. The rest of the WTA women no longer see the Williamses as unbeatable, and we all know that in tennis, perception is as important as reality. This situation will fester, too, because the next Slam is the French Open, where the sisters will definitely be hard-pressed to recapture this Grand Slam groove.

4. Globalization of the game continues at a breakneck pace, and nothing attests to it better than the sagging fortunes of a once dominant tennis nation. I'm not talking about the U.S or Australia. I mean Russia.

Let's leave out women's champ Maria Sharapova, who's less a Russian than an international cell-babe icon planning her world domination from a home base in California. Marat Safin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva: Wasn't it just yesterday that these folks were winning majors (or, in the case of Dementieva, reaching finals)? None of them lived to fight beyond the fourth round; only Mikhail Youzhny got that far.

And how 'bout them Israelis! Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram score Israel's first Grand Slam title -- in men's doubles.

5. Rafael Nadal will feel the heat. Sure, the world No. 2 made the semifinals (losing to Jo Wilfried Tsonga) and the clay-court season is not that far off. But Novak Djokovic has closed on him, and the various injuries that have plagued Nadal, combined with the emergence of players like David Ferrer, suggest that even his mastery of red clay may be challenged more thoroughly this year than in the recent past.