PARIS, Dec 29: It will be the year of the Golden Slam for tennis in 2008 and realistically only two names are in the running.
Both Roger Federer and Justine Henin finished this year as clear No.1s in their sport and they are set to dominate again.
But from there to winning all four Grand Slams events plus Olympic gold in Beijing in the same calendar year is a huge step.
To date only Steffi Graf has achieved the rare feat in 1988 when tennis returned to the Olympic fold in Seoul.Since then, in Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) – no one has come close.
Having won three out of the four Grand Slam events in three out of the last four years, the 26-year-old Federer certainly looks capable.
But he still has to work out how to defeat claycourt nemesis Rafael Nadal in Paris and avoid an Olympic flop like the one he had against Tomas Berdych in Athens in 2004.
Federer is currently gearing up for the new season and his defence of the Australian Open in the second half of January under the warm, winter sun of Dubai where he has taken up residence in the brief off-season.
Two more Grand Slam titles in 2008 will see him equal Pete Sampras at the top of the tree with 14, but he is keenly aware also of the prestige that an Olympic title brings.
“I’m probably going to go in as one of the big favourites and I really expect myself to do well. It’s one of my goals of the season,” he said after winning the Masters Cup in Shanghai last month.
“But it’s going to be a tough trip, coming from the French Open to Wimbledon, over to North America and back but I’m ready for it. It’s going to be interesting to see how the surface will be played – slow or fast.”
Where the opposition will come from will largely depend on levels of physical fitness and mental fortitude when faced with the player now widely regarded as the greatest ever.
Injury doubts surround world No.2 Nadal and flashy Frenchman Richard Gasquet, while Novak Djokovic needs to temper his exhausting calendar and Andy Murray is between coaches.
The biggest obstacle in Federer’s path is likely to be Argentina powerhouse David Nalbandian who rededicated his career in the last few months of the year and took the Swiss player’s scalp at the Madrid and Paris Masters Series tournaments.
The 25-year-old Henin in 2007 put an end to a long period of fluctuating leaders in women’s tennis by winning the French and US Opens to break well clear of the chasing pack.
But she slumped badly at Wimbledon and that will be her biggest challenge once again as well as how the slightly-built Belgian can cope physically with such a demanding schedule.
Her long-time coach and mentor Carlos Rodriguez says they are fully aware of how taxing the year is likely to be for her.
“The 2008 calendar is very tough, but if Justine wants to be at the Olympics, she must do it,” he said. “When you target four Majors, the Olympics, the WTA Championships and four out of the six tournaments take place in a time frame without much breaks between them it’s necessary to peak at the right moments.
“The ideal answer doesn’t exist. If there was a solution, it would have been common knowledge and given to us.”
Who her main rivals will be remains to be seen.
The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are major threats, especially at Wimbledon, if they stay injury-free and are fully focussed, while Maria Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo can both trouble her if they are fully fit.
But it is maybe from rising Serb stars Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic that the main threats to Henin’s predominance will come.
The 2008 ATP season starts on Monday at Doha, Chennai and Adelaide, while the WTA opens up at Gold Coast and Auckland. —AFP