Federer, Mauresmo Advance in Australian Open

In Melbourne, Australia, Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo advance to the second round in the Australian Open; each won the contest in the men's and women's division, respectively, last year.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, tennis's grand slam season is underway this morning. In Melbourne, Australia, Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo are defending the Australian Open championships that they won one year ago. Commentator John Feinstein joins us now, as he often does at times like this. John, good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with Roger Federer, still very dominant.

FEINSTEIN: To say the least. He had one of the most extraordinary years in the history of tennis last year. He won three of the four major events. He lost the fourth one, the French Open, in the final to Rafael Nadal who may ultimately be his nemesis. Certainly, he is on clay. But he won 92 out of 97 matches over the course of the year. And frankly I think, Steve, you can make a case that he was the sportsman of the year in 2006. He was that good.

INSKEEP: When you mention Nadal, is there any chance of a kind of Connors/McEnroe rivalry?

FEINSTEIN: I think it's possible because Nadal made it to the Wimbledon final last year on grass. He's not just one of those European clay courters who can't win on any surface except for clay. He made it to the Wimbledon final. He played a solid match before he lost to Federer. He has beaten Federer on a hard court in the past.

He's only 20 years old. He's still improving. He's five years younger than Federer, and I think he's got the kind of attitude where he wants to keep improving. He doesn't just want to be a rich guy who wins on clay. He wants to be the number one player in the world, and that would be good for tennis if he and Federer became that sort of rivalry.

INSKEEP: How about some Americans whose names are familiar to some? Andy Roddick, James Blake.

FEINSTEIN: Both played very well at the end of last year. Blake got to number five in the world, Roddick made it back to the U.S. Open final after having a terrible first half of the year, so there's some hope for them. But you wonder - they're both in their mid-20s, which in tennis makes you getting at least toward middle age if not old age, unless you're Andre Agassi or Jimmy Connors.

And you wonder if either can jump that fence and get to the level where Federer and Nadal are. Right now they're not there. They're going to have to up their game - and Blake's going to have to win tough five-set matches, which he hasn't done yet - if they're going to be elite players.

INSKEEP: So these are some of the characters and subplots that John Feinstein is following on the men's side of the Australian Open. Let's look at the women's side. Amelie Mauresmo is a name that is not as familiar to tennis fans, although obviously she's been around a little while.

FEINSTEIN: She has been around a while and last year was her breakthrough year. She had been close to winning major titles in the past, hadn't gotten it done, finally won in Australia last year and then won Wimbledon, which established her as a clearly very important player in the tennis pantheon.

And she and Maria Sharapova, who won the U.S. Open last year, go into this tournament as the clear-cut favorites because once again we have a number of key players injured. Justine Henin-Hardenne, who would've been the number one seed, isn't playing. Venus Williams who's been on and off the circuit for the last few years isn't playing. You wonder how long her sister Serena will be around. So there are a lot of question marks on the women's side.

INSKEEP: I suppose you got times when the men's game outshines the women's game and times the women's game outshines the men.

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. And for a while it had swung to the women. When the Williams sisters were at their zenith they were playing primetime matches. People wanted them to see them play against one another. But then with injuries, with distractions, they haven't been a significant part of the women's game the last couple of years.

And the other problem, Steve, is so many of the women the last two years have been injured at key times. If you're going to have star players, they need to be playing for the sport to be appealing to their fans. It's not appealing when they're sitting in the stands like you and I watching.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentary from John Feinstein, author of "Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open."

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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