A watchful eye on the big names

Each day at the Australian Open, ESPN.com is tracking the game's brightest stars, providing an inside look at their matches, practices and routines.

Wednesday Jan. 21

MELBOURNE, Australia -- What a year Novak Djokovic endured in 2008.

Fulfilling the promise shown a season before, the Serb became a national treasure by winning a first Grand Slam title in Australia, downing Roger Federer in the process. That was, well, most of the good news.

To succinctly sum up the bad, Djokovic retired from a few more matches, turned into public enemy No. 1 at the U.S. Open for sparring verbally with Andy Roddick and taking injury timeouts, and sorely complained about not being loved. His game, relatively speaking, fell apart for a few months, quashing any hopes of his becoming the year-end world No. 1. The latter was not unreasonably forecast after his triumph at Melbourne Park.

Chatting in a waiting area adjacent to a players' restaurant -- the food looked appetizing from afar -- Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, called the gamut of incidents a learning experience. Minutes earlier, Djokovic had eased past talented Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 in a second-round match that might have been trickier.

"It was, I don't want to say a negative in his career, but it was an experience he had to come through," said Vajda, a jovial Slovak. "As a coach, I shouldn't agree, but I support him 100 percent what happened, even though it was bad publicly. But he learned he can't do it anymore, and this is positive from him. I think he matured."

Not all of Djokovic's behavior has been indecent. In his defense, and as pointed out previously, the 21-year-old is no stranger to applauding his opponents' shots (otherwise a rarity); is as sporting as they come on controversial line calls (his parents might be a different story, if you recall Monte Carlo last spring); and offers warm handshakes, win or lose.

Vajda hopes the fans give Djokovic a break.

"He's the kind of player who loves the other players and won't hurt anybody in the locker room," he said. "In my opinion, he's too nice. People can't judge him for so long, because he's very positive for tennis, and this is what people have to take. I think they will take it like this."

The new campaign didn't start so well, though injury timeouts and the like had nothing to do with it. Adjusting to a new racket and questioned about his preparation, Djokovic lost his first match to dangerous Latvian Ernests Gulbis, an old friend and training partner. Finnish roadrunner Jarkko Nieminen subsequently eliminated Djokovic in the semifinals of the Sydney International. Djokovic, wanting more matches, received a wild card.

When Djokovic revealed he spent New Year's Eve at home instead of heading to Australia early, some argued it was the wrong choice. Vajda disagreed, countering that Djokovic spent 10 days practicing in the mountains and another two weeks in Monte Carlo.

Besides changing his tool from Wilson to Adidas, Djokovic is also tweaking his service motion. That's not an easy switch, either.

"We say in our country: Our habits are like an iron skirt, hard to change," Vajda said. "He's doing well and progressing."

Sven Groeneveld insists he's still by Ana Ivanovic's side.

The prolific Dutchman serves as a roving coach for Adidas, Ivanovic's sponsor, and was ever-present as the Serb won her maiden major at the French Open last year. When he failed to show at the Brisbane International this month, where Ivanovic attended, rumors of a split surfaced. Groeneveld's explanation?

"I didn't do the preseason, and because of that people I guess started to they made up their own stories," he said. "Obviously, if you don't do preseason, you can't just jump in. You have to take it slowly. We're building into it again and we've increased our time together."

That said, Groeneveld hasn't attended either of Ivanovic's two matches this week.

As Ivanovic dispatched Italian qualifier Alberta Brianti in straight sets Wednesday, Groeneveld split time between two other Adidas-contracted pros, Indian Sania Mirza and one of the rising stars of the women's game, Danish teen Caroline Wozniacki.

"There's no problem whatsoever between me and Ana," he said. "Obviously, we've been together for so many years now. I haven't been able to attend all the matches because Sania played today at the same time. That situation has also been adjusted because Caroline has been added."

Ivanovic went AWOL post-Roland Garros, losing in the third round at Wimbledon to tenacious Zheng Jie of China and in the second round at the U.S. Open as the top seed to, uh, French journeywoman Julie Coin. A right thumb injury exacerbated her summer woes. Ivanovic didn't entirely convince in a first-round win over German Julia Goerges on Monday, and few expect her to increase her Grand Slam tally in the next 10 days.

"We've basically just pointed out that this is part of her, I wouldn't say routine, but part of her career at the moment that we're trying to stabilize more," Groeneveld said. "The struggle is, the injury did more damage than ever anticipated. It changed her technique, and thus more errors came, and therefore a loss of confidence. But if you look at the first match, then the second, you see the improvement. That's what I'm looking for."

After casting aside Brianti rather comfortably, 6-3, 6-2,
Ivanovic figures to get a sterner test in the third round against big-serving Russian Alisa Kleybanova.

Marin Cilic can't stop winning.

Touted as a future member of the top 10, the Croat overcame an unpredictable foe to reach the third round and thus move a step closer to facing Roger Federer. Cilic downed Serb Janko Tipsarevic 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in an encounter thankfully devoid of any crowd trouble. Serbs and Croats clashed at the tournament two years ago, an aftermath of political strife between the nations.

Cilic entered the tournament as a dark horse, having won a title in Chennai, India, more than a week ago. At the U.S. Open, he opened a few eyes by stretching Novak Djokovic, another Serb, to four long sets in the third round. With rock-solid ground strokes, the 20-year-old is backed by a big serve.

Cilic won almost 80 percent of points behind his first delivery and smacked 22 aces. Spaniard David Ferrer, the 11th seed, awaits.

"I think Marin served well the first two sets and was controlling the match," said his erstwhile coach, Bob Brett. "Then there was just 10, 15 minutes there when he lost the momentum and then found himself in a match. He stabilized and began to serve better."

Brett has worked with Croats the last 15 years. He's teamed with the zany Goran Ivanisevic and more cerebral Mario Ancic. One of Cilic's biggest strengths is his ability to think on court, Brett added.

"What's nice is that he just has this element of peace within himself," he said. "He's really keen to improve. He's winning more and playing better. That's the bottom line. Sometimes they can hit the ball better but not win."

Tuesday Jan. 20

It's even hotter than Monday.

Approaching noon on the expansive grounds at Melbourne Park on the second day of the campaign's opening Grand Slam, the temperature veers toward 95 degrees, once more with few clouds to provide solace. Sombreros, sunscreen and the like are in full force. Minimal respite comes in the form of a swirling wind that alters Jelena Jankovic's ball toss while she practices on Court 17 in the shadow of Hisense Arena.

Jankovic works on her serve and forehand, not the strong points in her essentially counterpunching game. Later, coach Ricardo Sanchez, well inside the baseline, starts serving and instructs Jankovic to hit a stationary target utilizing her acclaimed two-handed backhand. One serve into the body forces Jankovic to scurry and offer an awkward reply, though she gets a bit of revenge by unleashing a drive near the Spaniard's privates as the drill continues. Jankovic's father, Veselin, takes in the action.

Jankovic entered the tournament amid a bit of controversy, initiated by rival Serena Williams. Williams proclaimed she was the best player in the world, not Jankovic, the computer's No. 1. Jankovic, lacking a Grand Slam title, disagreed.

Sanchez got in his two cents, taking a shot at Serena and Venus Williams when it was suggested they were among the favorites here.

"Why Venus and Serena?" the diminutive Sanchez asked. "They don't do nothing in Europe. Only they do when they play in the States. I think Jelena is the best player. She's the favorite."

It's worth noting Venus Williams is the two-time defending Wimbledon (that's in England, folks) champion. Serena Williams triumphed at the Australian Open two years ago.

Sanchez maintained his tough talk.

"I think [Jankovic] is going to win two Grand Slams" in 2009, he said. "The objective last year was to be No. 1. The objective this year is to win a Grand Slam."

Habitually ailing, Jankovic bailed on an exhibition in Hong Kong this month, citing illness. She's 100 percent and put in nine days of hard work in Melbourne, according to Sanchez. Jankovic spent part of the offseason boosting her fitness in Mexico.

"We improved a lot on the serve, forehand, the conditioning," said Sanchez, who is based in Benidorm, Spain. "Now the only question is, it's the first tournament of the year. She needs to get used to everything we've been working on this winter."

The immediate signs were ominous for Vincent Spadea on the eve of the Australian Open. The colorful Floridian was tardy in signing up for qualifying at a preparatory event in Brisbane and missed out, necessitating a temporary stint as a video blogger on the ATP World Tour's Web site instead. Spadea wasn't late for qualifying in New Zealand last week, yet blew two match points in the second round and failed to land in the main draw.

Sure enough, hampered by a forearm injury, a bout of illness and, of course, the heat, Spadea tamely departed in the first round in what might have been his final appearance Down Under. The 34-year-old succumbed to that household name of Denis Istomin, a wild card from Uzbekistan ranked 23 spots below, at 105th. Istomin, who produced two top-level victories in 2008, advanced 6-2, 7-5, 6-4.

"I didn't play horrendously or choke or do something that was in the depths of despair of my tennis career, but I felt it was a bad match for me," said Spadea, decked out in his usual cap in the way only he can pull off. "It was really hot out there. I just didn't play the circumstances and the opponent the right way."

The turning point came when Spadea failed to serve out the second. Facing the sun, he blew a 15-0 lead, missed a backhand down the line and erred a few more times. Afflicted by stomach pains and the chills, Spadea said he lacked the energy to patrol the baseline and thump his serve. Istomin manufactured 13 break points, converting seven times.

Will Spadea return to the site of his best Grand Slam performance -- a quarterfinal showing in 1999 -- next year? It all depends. Spadea cited the tale of Pete Sampras, who won the U.S. Open in 2002 as a 30-something when he was supposed to be slumping.

For Spadea, the equivalent is more understated.

"It very well could be my last [Australian Open]," he said. "Every day is obviously more delicate and uncertain than it used to be. But I could also find myself in the top 50 at the end of the year. I just don't know."

Pat Cash is sticking to his story.

Early in January, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, who splits time between his native Australia and London, damned world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for serial time wasting. Nadal customarily lingers between points, often picking at his derriere, while Djokovic bounces the ball more times than a hyped-up point guard. Both have been warned on court, though neither has been given a point penalty.

The ITF rulebook states that between points, a maximum of 20 seconds is allowed. The maximum time begins from the moment one point finishes until a first serve is struck for the next point.

"They habitually hold up the action by bouncing the ball far too many times before serving," Cash wrote in the Sunday Times. "Not only does this practice show contempt for the guy waiting to receive at the other end of the court, but quite frankly, it bores the pants off the fans."

Loitering in a corridor close to the player lounge Tuesday, Cash said most fans he heard from agreed.

"I was just throwing the question out, and you wouldn't believe the response I got," he said. "The response was phenomenal, saying, 'Yeah, absolutely, you have to get rid of this ball-bouncing stuff.' I understand as a player you need time to reset yourself and all that stuff. There are rules, and if they're rules, why don't we abide by them?"

Cash, still young looking at 43, suggested using a shot clock in the future. That might take the pressure off chair umpires reluctant to do more than just warn the glitterati.

"It goes on, and it buzzes if you don't serve in time," Cash said. "If it's the fifth set and guys want to take a little bit of an extra break, OK, I understand. It's when guys start going for the towel after the very first point."

At least when there's no heat wave.

Monday, Jan. 19

It's hot. Already.

Just shy of 10 a.m. on the opening day of the Happy Slam, temperatures hover around 86 degrees without a hint of gray overhead. The Australian summer is indeed in full swing. One teenaged-looking fan sneaking a peek at Venus Williams' practice session on Court 4 sums up the thoughts of many a bystander when she utters, "Is there a swimming pool around here?"

Not exactly, but the Yarra River is a stone's throw away. Maybe she can ask Jim Courier -- who famously took a dip after winning the title Down Under -- for directions. Courier is here again, continuing his work with Australian television.

Decked out in tight gray sweat pants and a green T-shirt, Williams is exchanging strokes with usual hitting partner David Witt, a former ATP pro and North Carolina native. She shows her frustration when Witt hits an ace wide from the deuce court, though she dominates the next point by pouncing on a second serve.

The elder of the Williams sisters is being picked by more than a few to win the first major of the year. They'd be happy to know that, according to Witt, she's completely healthy and suitably charged up. Williams looked sharp in an exhibition in Hong Kong earlier this month, maintaining the momentum she collected at the end of 2008.

"She's hitting the ball great, and I think she's really excited about getting the tournament going," Witt said. "She had a great offseason, really worked hard and got some good warm-up matches in."

It's hardly a secret the Williams sisters aren't devoid of confidence. They step on the court and, at least publicly, say they expect to win each time. Yet Witt acknowledged Venus Williams gained a little more by winning a title in Switzerland in the fall and going undefeated at the year-end championships in Doha, Qatar. Her 2008 record was a dazzling 40-11.

"She's coming into this year I think confident, feeling good about herself, feeling good about her game, and confidence can take you a long way when you're on court," said Witt, who added that the sisters' dad, Richard Williams, won't be in attendance during the fortnight.

A reminder: Venus Williams hasn't won a Grand Slam title outside the less balmy surroundings of London in eight years. Her opener is against German Angelique Kerber, with Italian nemesis Flavia Pennetta looming in the fourth round. Sister Serena Williams is potentially a semifinal foe.

When Williams departs, most of the fans remain: Hunky German Tommy Haas, coming back from never-ending shoulder woes, is up next.

Now this is no way to treat a relatively new coach, is it?

Rafael Nadal, sporting his now familiar collared Nike T-shirt splashed in yellow, unleashes a serve from the deuce side on Court 16 that slams Ivica Ancic, Mario Ancic's older brother, squarely in the butt. A quick apology, no less than what you'd expect from the Spaniard, ensues. A few minutes later the incident lingers and Nadal lets out a smile accompanied by, "I never hit no one."

All is forgiven and, still later, Nadal shakes his head in disappointment as he converses with Spanish Davis Cup captain and former Grand Slam champion Albert Costa. He lost a point. Costa is, for Monday anyway, filling in for an ailing Toni Nadal, or Uncle Toni, as he's commonly known.

About this time, a security guard walks by and tells the slew of onlookers standing on seats to get down. They listen -- for the time being. When the guard is out of sight, a youngish fan persists and yells, "I love you, Rafa."

Unlike Venus Williams, Nadal, despite being No. 1 in the rankings, isn't considered one of the two favorites in Melbourne. His knee problems toward the end of 2008, no doubt exacerbated by a grueling schedule, ensured that. Three-time champ Roger Federer and his recent tormentor, Scot Andy Murray, are widely seen as the top two contenders.

What does the affable Costa think about Nadal's prospects?

"It's not going to be easy to start, but I think he's playing good, and if he can play some matches, three, four matches, then he'll get dangerous," Costa said.

When it was pointed out that Nadal has perhaps the trickiest quarter of the Big Four, filled with the likes of Frenchmen Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and the seemingly rejuvenated Richard Gasquet, Costa replies, "Yes, but Rafa is one of the toughest."

Toni Nadal, according to Costa, has a back injury and couldn't get out of bed. Rate him probable for Tuesday.

"I think maybe tomorrow he's going to be feeling better," Costa said.

If there's a guy who could use a break, how bout Mario Ancic?

Ancic suffered a serious bout of mono just when he was making a charge into the top five in 2007 and sustained a less serious relapse last year. Lauded as a future Grand Slam champion when he reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2004, "Baby Goran" is struggling to reposition himself in the top 30.

There was more woe in the fall, as Ancic split with Swedish coach Fredrik Rosengren. Rosengren, who used to work with former world No. 2 Magnus Norman, got fed up traveling the globe and wanted to spend more time at home with his family. In stepped Ancic's older brother, Ivica.

"Fredrik and I had a really great relationship, much more than coach and player," said Ancic, his gray T-shirt soaked following a practice session with top-ranked Rafael Nadal. " We were in good times and bad times. We were together in the top 10 when everything was great, and then throughout the whole injury he was 100 percent next to me. He opened up his home in Sweden to me whenever I want to come and train, and Croatia is like home for him now."

Better news for the intellectual Ancic -- he owns a law degree -- is that his body is holding up. He went full tilt in the offseason after tests confirmed no abnormalities, Ivica Ancic said.

"So far, so good," Mario Ancic said. "I'd really like to try to forget the last two seasons. They've been very frustrating, but I think whoever gets out of that, like I did, gets even stronger mentally."

Ancic made substantial progress under Rosengren, becoming a much better all-round player. Critics, however, suggested that dismissing his attacking style made him less dangerous against the cream of the crop. Ivica Ancic seemed to agree, at least a little.

"That's what his game has to be," he said. "He has to be aggressive, sometimes serve and volley and change the rhythm. Also, when he's returning, he has to be much more aggressive and be on top of the players, no matter who he's playing."

Ancic meets U.S. qualifier Wayne Odesnik in his opener before a probable clash against countryman Ivo Karlovic, who makes the 24-year-old's serve look downright tame.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.