The stifling heat that usually blankets this tournament had yet to arrive, and the chanting, chest-painted fans who fill the stands were still taking their seats. Still, there was no doubt at Melbourne Park today that the Australian Open had begun, as players from all over the world arrived ready to make a fresh start at the first Grand Slam of the year.
Like baseball players during spring training, the tennis elite are here carrying clean slates and big dreams for the season ahead. This is the tournament where anything is still possible, and everyone is aiming high. Established players such as top seed Andre Agassi and defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov are looking for titles and bragging rights, while No. 3 seed Pete Sampras is trying to set a record by winning his 13th career Grand Slam title.
In the women's draw, the four-way rivalry that dominated last year has, at least temporarily, been turned into a three-way battle, with No. 2 seed Lindsay Davenport, top seed Martina Hingis and No. 3 seed Serena Williams left to fight it out as Williams's older sister, Venus, sits at home in Florida with a wrist injury.
Others, such as French force Amelie Mauresmo, local favorite Lleyton Hewitt and hard-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis, also lurk, and--at least for a few days--the tournament is as wide open as the hopes of its participants.
"Every year you have the chance to do this, have a [fresh start] every year, every time," said Jennifer Capriati, who looked strong in a 6-1, 7-6 (7-1) win over Barbara Schwartz. "I think I started off the year pretty well in Hong Kong, even though it's an exhibition, and it's all preparation for here, which is where I want to do the best."
Now 23, Capriati's emotional and erratic career seems to be settling down into a calmer rhythm, with her Hong Kong performance giving her a quiet confidence she has not displayed in years. Capriati defeated Hingis and Mary Pierce on her way to winning the title in that tournament, and her win today should help her inch back into the WTA Tour's top 20.
More importantly, she just feels better, saying she has put her troubled teen years and even her emotional breakdown at last year's U.S. Open behind her.
"I think it was really just about time that I really get consistent and get into it," she said. "I went through everything, all the ups and downs in my game, and finally it's . . . I just found a way to get my game back and feel comfortable and confident.
"Maybe I walk around with my head a little higher and my shoulders back more."
Joining Capriati in the second round will be Davenport, who breezed through a 6-3, 6-1 match against Sarah Pitkowski; Agassi, who had an equally quick 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Mariano Puerta; and Philippoussis, who struggled before finally defeating Noam Okun, 6-4, 6-2, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. Two-time Australian Open champion Jim Courier was not so fortunate, falling 6-7 (7-4), 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 to Frenchman Nicolas Escude, and Spain's Carlos Moya also had a bad day, withdrawing from the tournament with a back injury.
Sampras and Mauresmo were scheduled to play later today, with Mauresmo, a finalist here last year, already one of the tournament's more intriguing stories. A stunning series of matches, including wins over Pierce, Hingis and Davenport, in a warmup tournament in Sydney last week earned her a second career title, and she enters her matches here with a huge dose of confidence. Hewitt, the feisty 18-year-old who burst into the ATP Tour's top 25 last year, is on a similar roll, having won the first two ATP tournaments of the year. He has also reached the top spot in the ATP's new champions race, the system that has replaced the standard rankings this year.
Hewitt is not seeded here, although he will still be an enormous handful for Rockville native Paul Goldstein, who drew Hewitt in the first round. Goldstein reached the third round at last year's Australian Open by defeating then-No. 8 seed Greg Rusedski, and he feels he will have to come out with a similar effort this year if he is going to have any chance against Hewitt.
"Obviously the guy is in great form," Goldstein said. "But you have to look at it as a challenge. If I play my best, you never know. Anything can happen."
When: Today through Jan. 30.
Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2.
Defending champions: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, men's singles; Martina Hingis, women's singles.
Yesterday's results: Men--Andre Agassi (1) def. Mariano Puerta, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3; Nicolas Escude def. Jim Courier, 6-7 (7-4), 6-3, 7-5, 6-1; Paradorn Srichaphan def. Karol Kucera (14), 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Women--Lindsay Davenport (2) def. Sarah Pitkowski, 6-3, 6-1; Mary Pierce (4) def. Linda Wild, 7-5, 6-3; Nathalie Tauziat (5) def. Henrieta Nagyova, 6-1, 2-6, 6-1; Jennifer Capriati def. Barbara Schwartz, 6-1, 7-6 (7-1).
Today's featured matches: Men--Pete Sampras (3), United States, vs. Wayne Arthurs, Australia. Women--Anna Kournikova (11), Russia, vs. Patricia Wartusch, Austria.