Oh really, we’re here already? The tennis off-season whizzed by in a flash, seeming like mere weeks since Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic swept all before them in their respective end-of-season Championships. The big names have taken different warm-up routes prior to arriving in Melbourne but, with the Australian Open’s propensity to throw in one or five surprises, a cracking fortnight of tennis is in store.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams looked everything but invincible during the Hopman Cup, losing heavily to both Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska, whilst being pushed to the very limit by Lucie Safarova. She will not like the fact that she faces tricky likely encounters with fast-rising Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza in the first week. I will not be surprised if the latter, who reached the fourth round here last year, springs a big shock. Maria Sharapova beat Ana Ivanovic in a classic Brisbane final eight days ago, both ladies going at it hammer and tongs for two and a half hours with an intensity belying the fact that it was the first week of the new season. Both of them will fancy their chances this fortnight, Sharapova admitting that she is only here to win. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Ivanovic to go deeper into the tournament and match her semi-final appearance of 12 months ago.
Agnieszka Radwanska is a tough one to call. In the past, I’ve been critical of her mental fragility, especially when a draw opens up. She has the game to trouble anybody on tour, as borne out by her demolition job on Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion of the time, in the quarter finals last year. But her mind simply goes AWOL on occasions, which has cost her dear time after time in her career thus far. She has now done well to seek out help in the form of her new coach Martina Navratilova. One can only assume that only good will come out of this partnership. There’s not a lot wrong with the Pole’s physical game, and if she gets it right between the ears, she will end her Grand Slam duck sometime in the near future. Having said that, this fortnight will come too soon; a place in the quarter-finals would seem reasonable reward. Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki will look to carry their fine 2014s into the new season but the latter has the prospect of a mouth-watering clash with Victoria Azarenka on the horizon in the second round. If it’s the Wozniacki of late summer and the Azarenka of the same period, the Dane will be a shoe-in. However, if Wozniacki does not bring her A-game, we all know that it’s power-hitters who have the ability to smash her off the court. Halep will not face too many hurdles en route to the quarters, and I would say anything after that is a bonus for the Romanian who is looking to consolidate her place at the very top table.
My strong suspicion is that it will be the Wimbledon finalists who meet up once again on January 31st; both Genie Bouchard and her conqueror Petra Kvitova have looked tough and uncompromising so far this year. Kvitova has never been fitter and the confidence that she can hit through most of the tour, aligned with her new-found fitness, should see her strike through the field. Bouchard has an inner-steel that sees her through the tough battles. Expect a quarter-final classic against Sharapova – for sheer intensity if not for quality. Despite Kvitova being the bigger and better hitter, something’s telling me that Genie’s time has come.
If I’m uncharacteristically writing off Serena Williams, I might as well dismiss Rafael Nadal too. The Spaniard has of course come into tournaments before when his fitness has looked suspect but this time he appears unfit and off-form. I don’t see any Steve Darcis or Lukas Rosol escapades on the horizon, but I do think the second week will see the 14-time Grand Slam champion come up way short should he have to take on one of the world’s top six. It always amuses me how people immediately start looking to a Roger Federer-Nadal semi-final when the draw is made, almost making the first eleven days of the tournament redundant. Despite the Spaniard’s current shortcomings and the great Swiss’ early season success, I actually see it being Federer who fails to meet the expectation of the draw analysts; he’ll fend off youthful challenges from the likes of Borna Coric and Nick Kyrgios but will likely fall at the Last 8 stage. Don’t write these two old frenemies off completely just yet – I’d put good money on them sharing the following two majors.
Stan Wawrinka starts his title defence as somewhat of an unknown quantity. He finished the best year of his career atop the shoulders of his victorious Swiss Davis Cup team and may find it tough to live with life as the hunted, rather than the hunter here in Melbourne. On the flip side, he has been given a bobbydazzler of a draw. There is nothing to be afraid of until a potential quarter-final match with his conqueror from the US Open, Kei Nishikori. I’d still anticipate Stan’s feeling of home comfort here to take him over the line in that tough match-up. A semi-final showing wouldn’t exactly match up to last year’s triumph but it would show that he deserves to be respected at the top of the game and can play the big matches well. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Milos Raonic in the Last 8 club, along with Tomas Berdych. Raonic’s game is of course suited to this surface but, against the very best, he needs to find some variety to his game. Berdych arrives in Melbourne looking super-relaxed. He could even spring a minor surprise by ousting Nadal but a quarter-final berth would be a good start to what is an important year for the Czech; the male equivalent of Radwanska, he needs to sort out the mental aspect of his game as his talent deserves at least one Grand Slam.
I sometimes fail to give Novak Djokovic the praise and attention his career deserves. Whilst I didn’t write during Wimbledon, I was genuinely pleased that he added a second All-England Club championship to his trophy cabinet. A man that Nick Bollettieri calls the most-perfect tennis player that ever lived, a man with no weakness, is not a man who should have only a handful of major titles. He is unfortunate to have played during this period but he has made the most of his talent too. He’ll come up against big-servers at pretty much every turn here in Australia, but I expect him to have little trouble negotiating a path to a finals shoot-out with….Andy Murray. The Brit looks as relaxed as Berdych, appears to be fully fit, in form and, most importantly, free of doubt in relation to his previous injury. He’s a three-time runner-up at the Australian Open, and whilst his potential run to the final is a hazardous one (Dimitrov, Federer, Nadal…) I just think the fact that he could come through under-the-radar will help him immensely. He has the game to win this one day, and I think that day is here right now.