Whilst both draws have been hampered by injuries and doubts over form and fitness, the wise money would be on a repeat of 2016’s finals in Melbourne although it is hard to pick a winner in either tournament. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive rundown of who to look out for in the next 14 days:
Andy Murray (I’m not calling him Sir whilst he remains an active sportsperson) comes into this year riding the crest of a wave. There was no doubt that he was the man to beat in the second half of 2016, nobody managing to beat the indefatigable Brit during the final four months of the season. He lost to former number one Novak Djokovic in Doha two weeks ago but he will expect to reach his sixth Australian Open final. Don’t forget that age-old idiom…sixth time lucky?! Djokovic himself is almost impregnable in Melbourne – he has already won the title on six prevous occasions and it takes an almost-superhuman effort to even come close to challenging him on the Rod Laver Arena. His split with coach Boris Becker could cause him problems, the German having cast doubt on Djokovic’s recent hunger but the Serb looked pretty hungry to me in Doha, appearing to be revitalised after the winter break. Let’s also be clear that Djokovic did not play badly in the final six months of 2016 – save for his two off-days againat Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. The ATP Tour was ripped apart by Murray and Djokovic’s level dropped slightly; he was still the second best player over the final part of the year.
Angelique Kerber comes into the defence of what was her breakthrough Slam in shaky form. She lost early to an inspired Daria Kasatkina in Sydney last week but arrived in Melbourne with almost a week to spare and I expect her to go deep again in the year’s first major. She should draw as much inspiration from her opening round last year as the final itself; the fact she came back from match points down ought to give her strength to come through any tough matches. Her route to a second final looks relatively stress-free but if Serena Williams is waiting in the final, the world number one will have to produce a similar display to her stunning performance in last year’s final if she is to stop the American winning her 23rd Grand Slam. Serena has an extremely tough first round against Belinda Bencic, only unseeded due to an injury lay-off, but this usually results in the former number one kicking into top gear right from the start. If she does get through to the final, I tip Serena to take Melbourne revenge on Kerber and get one notch closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record.
Ones to watch
There is no Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Juan-Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka for a variety of both pleasant and unpleasant reasons but there is a sense that anybody could come through and challenge last year’s finalists. Could it be a fourth year in five that a teenager reaches the women’s semi-finals? I can’t see it but then not many predicted Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard or Keys in 2013-2015. If Venus Williams hits the ground running, she could reach the semi-finals and expect Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the same stage. Johanna Konta had an incredible rise up the rankings over the last 18 months and put paid to both Radwanska and Bouchard easily in Sydney but a quarter-final may be the best she can hope for here. Karolina Pliskova is the wildcard here; she seems to be playing with extreme confidence since she dispatched both Williams sisters in the US Open. If she serves so well again, she can be a big danger to the top two.
Don’t anticipate a second-week appearance for Roger Federer – nobody will want to see the 17-times major winner in their section but he will have to beat Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in successive rounds merely to make it to the quarter-finals and he isn’t capable of doing that at 35 after a six-month injury lay-off. Rafael Nadal is a different kettle of fish altogether and a favourable draw could see him into the last four for the first time since 2014; a third round showdown with Alexander Zverev would be a real inter-generational blockbuster but Nadal should still just about have enough, for the moment. Stan Wawrinka will reach the semi-finals and, as we all know, nobody can stop him if he is on. He’s coming into the tournament a little under the radar which suits him down to the ground. Remember he is the only man to have beaten Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2010. Should he squeeze past Murray in the semi-finals, another classic chapter of Djokovic v Wawrinka would await.
The Aussie fans are desperate to see their players go the distance and despite a talented group of young men, the dream still looks a way off realisation. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios could both reach the second week but tough draws mean that their challenges would hand at the ends of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Wawrinka respectively. As for the women, Sam Stosur will hope to reach the fourth round for only the second time but you cannot expect her to get the better of Radwanska. Likewise, feisty Dasha Gavrilova will harness the energy of the crowd although that would not be enough to see her past Pliskova in the last 16. The wait for a winner, or even a finalist (Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 the last person to do so), will go on.
Semis – Kerber v Venus Williams and Radwanska v Serena Williams, Murray v Wawrinka and Nadal v Djokovic
Final – Serena to beat Kerber and Djokovic to beat Murray