MELBOURNE, Australia -- There's excitement at this first Grand Slam of the year because the world's top ranking can change hands very quickly. Right now, Andy Roddick holds the top spot, but it could very easily be taken by No. 2 Roger Federer, No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero or No. 4 Andre Agassi by the end of this tournament.
Roddick is facing the toughest challenge of his young career. For the first time, he is expected to win every time he walks onto the tennis court. He's never been the No. 1 seed in a major; he's never started a year as the No. 1 player in the world; and he's never been everyone's target before.
In Roddick's first-round match, he played Fernando Gonzalez, which was not expected to be a cakewalk. Gonzalez is one of the biggest hitters on tour, as is Roddick. Also, Gonzalez is comfortable enough and cocky enough to believe he could win this match. Instead Roddick got off to a good start as he won the opener 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (4).
One of Roddick's biggest rivals for the next decade will be Roger Federer. Federer undoubtedly feels he's the best player in the world, though his ranking says he's No. 2. Roddick has top billing, but you can't help remembering how efficiently Federer beat Roddick at Wimbledon and in Houston to win the Masters Cup.
In Federer's first-round match, he plays a qualifier, which can be good or bad. From Federer's standpoint, he's not going to play a highly ranked opponent; however, the qualifier will have already won four matches at Melbourne Park. Regardless of his competition, though, Federer can make players look very mediocre.
Throughout 2003, Ferrero made it known that he wanted to be No. 1, and he did achieve that for a brief time. This year, he's already said he feels he can take back the top ranking. But he's feeling the pressure, as is Roddick, to defend a lot of points.
In Ferrero's first round, he plays his countryman Albert Montanes, who will be a big underdog simply due to his lack of both experience and success on tour. Also, the match will be played on a show court. So it will be a task for him just to handle the situation, let alone the challenge of playing the No. 3 player.
Don't put a lot of stock into Ferrero losing last week to Chris Guccione. One thing about great players is that they rise to the occasion at the right moments. I think back to the mid-1990s, in Doha, Qatar, when Pete Sampras lost to Karim Alami -- then Sampras reached the final of the Aussie Open two weeks later.
Every year Andre Agassi comes to Australia, he tells me the same thing. He always tells me, you know, I feel like I'm as fit as I've ever been. If he says that again, I'm not so sure I'll believe him. At some point, age is catching up to him and his fitness level will drop. But who am I to question what the No. 4 player in the world tells me. I'm just an ESPN commentator.
I will say that his prep seems similar to previous years when he's won the title here. He reached the final of Kooyong, although he lost to David Nalbandian. In previous years when he won the Kooyong exhibition, he went on to win the Aussie.
Hopes are riding high this year for two Australians: Mark Philippoussis and Lleyton Hewitt. I think this could be a huge year for Hewitt. There's no reason why he shouldn't return to his 2001-02 form. Last year, part of his problem was his lack of focus, and the best thing he did all year was not play another ATP match after the U.S. Open. He took the rest of the year off and prepared for nothing but Davis Cup, and said that the success that he had in Davis Cup made up for what he didn't do the rest of the year. It seemed that after finishing No. 1 for two consecutive years, the stress, the nonstop travel, the expectation to do well at the Aussie -- everything caught up with him.
But he says his fitness level, which has always been tremendous, is better than ever. Consequently, he's hitting the ball as well as he did when he was No. 1. It's great to see him reach the final of Adelaide, even though Carlos Moya retired with an injury. Already we're seeing the fruits of Hewitt's break. He, too, in his first round plays a qualifier. Hewitt's never been past the round of 16 in Australia. But expect him to have the best Australian Open of his career this year.
Philippousis also could have the best Australian Open of his career if he can get through his first couple of rounds. It was great to see him have a comeback year in 2003, highlighted by his runner-up finish at Wimbledon and five-set win in the Davis Cup final. He plays in his first match the 2002 Australian Open champion, Thomas Johansson. The challenge he poses for Philippoussis is his consistency. Philippoussis relies on a big game that produces a lot of easy points. At times, he gets frustrated when his opponent can match him from the ground and handle his pace, and Johansson can. Nonetheless, Philippoussis will get past Johansson and past his second round match between either Fabrice Santoro or Peter Luczak.
A player you have to respect and expect to win a major is Tim Henman. At the end of last year, Tim Henman won his first ever Tennis Masters Series event in Paris. He's added Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras, as his new coach.
In the past, he's tried too hard instead of letting his game flow. But he said he felt like he did let it flow in Paris. If he can do that again, he can do very well on the Rebound Ace.
He's always been a player who has to get a lot of help from other players eliminating some tough opponents in the draw. In Henman's first round he plays Jean-Rene Lisnard. Henman will actually have to play extremely well in this match to win. Lisnard is a talented young Frenchman, who carries big expectations for the next couple of years. I'm not so sure Henman is a favorite in this match because Lisnard is brash enough to think he can take out Henman. But if the Brit can somehow gain some of the knowledge that Annacone was able to impart on Sampras, he might just do well at this Australian Open. He's never been able to handle his nerves. He'll have to do well here in Australia.
MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.