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Let the real show begin

Week 2 of the Aussie Open is where heroes are made

Posted: Monday January 23, 2006 11:25AM; Updated: Monday January 23, 2006 5:27PM
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Unseeded Marcos Baghdatis and his raucous Cypriot cheering section has been one of the revelations of the Australian Open.
Unseeded Marcos Baghdatis and his raucous Cypriot cheering section has been one of the revelations of the Australian Open.
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- The second week of a Grand Slam is when things start to heat up, where contenders separate themselves from the rest of the field, dreams are fulfilled or dashed and greatness is earned. The players still standing at this Australian Open is a roll call of household tennis names, with many familiar champions challenging for the first major title of 2006. Here's a rundown of some of them:

Roger Federer has been in stellar form, dominating each of his opponents on his way through to the quarterfinals. His only real challenge thus far was an intriguing matchup with talented Tommy Haas. The German is one of the few players on tour with the physical and technical skills to challenge Federer, and he made the overwhelming tournament favorite work hard to beat him.

Ivan Ljubicic was the dominant men's player of the fall season, winning two tournaments, reaching the final of two more and leading his native Croatia to its first Davis Cup title. He has maintained his momentum, winning the first title of this year in Chennai, and has been very impressive here thus far. I watched most of his match on Sunday against former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, and Ljubicic was flawless.

He is currently the best server in the world, has one of the purest backhands and is playing with the confidence of someone who believes he belongs among the game's elite. Ljubicic is in uncharted territory, having never been to a Grand Slam quarterfinal, but he plays with a resounding calmness that I fully expect him to maintain.

The real men's revelation of the tournament, however, is Marcos Baghdatis. The Cyprus native ignited hysteria in his homeland with a riveting upset of No. 2-seed Andy Roddick on Sunday. The 20-year-old is a very charismatic, languid player who moves and hits with an ease worthy of someone much higher then his No. 52 ranking would suggest. I lost to him in the first round and got a first-hand look at his vast array of skills. He has a big first serve (out-acing Roddick in their match) as well as ground strokes and court movement that can challenge the best players in the world.

Baghdatis will play his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal against Ljubicic on Tuesday, a rematch of their first-round matchup at the '04 Aussie Open, which Baghdatis won. The Cypriot's energy, flare and raucous supporters have been one of the most refreshing stories of the tournament so far.

David Nalbandian, the '05 Masters Cup champion has quietly soldiered through the draw and into his fourth straight Aussie quarterfinal. He is the one player in the remaining field who has been able to disrupt Federer's flow, and has the confidence, strength and game to win a Grand Slam. Nalbandian will face 33-year-old Fabrice Santoro on Tuesday, a 13-year veteran who will be competing in the first major quarterfinal of his career. Santoro is one of the most frustrating players in the world to play against, a guy everyone in the locker room respects immensely for his feel and variety of shots. His mixture of slices, loops and lobs can drive any player insane.

The most exciting storyline of the women's event has been the reemergence of former Aussie champion Martina Hingis. She has improved after her first two comeback tournaments (a semifinal loss in Hobart followed by a first-round drubbing at the hands of Justine Henin-Hardenne in Sydney), and is determined to reclaim old glory.

Hingis has been up early practicing every morning at a private court at the same hotel where I'm staying, and has improved in every match. She has been fortunate to stay away from the big hitters so far, but she has displayed the same consistency and court management that enabled her to become the youngest holder of the No. 1 ranking in women's history.

One problem: Hingis has a date with Kim Clijsters on Wednesday, a player who is one of the biggest of those big hitters. If Clijsters is healthy -- and she looks like she is -- Hingis' biggest weakness will be exposed. The rest of the women's draw has gone pretty true to form. Lindsay Davenport, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters have advanced relatively comfortably.

The notable absence of the Williams sisters from the late rounds isn't lost on me. At this point, they'll benefit from lowered expectations. With better preparation and more match play, they will become forces in the game again -- but not until then.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is participating in this year's Australian Open and is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He and partner Ashley Fisher will face Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg on Tuesday in the men's doubles quarterfinals.