It’s still a novelty to come into a Grand Slam without Andy Murray being one of the favourites, definitely so with Novak Djokovic seeded as low as 14, with Serena Williams still missing and the unrepentant Maria Sharapova remaining a dangerous floater. That being said, there is solace for the nostalgics amongst us to have Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as the top seeds and Venus Williams to be amongst the favourites in Melbourne. Whatever, there is a lot to be both intrigued and excited by with the 2018 edition of the Australian Open starting in a couple of hours. Here are a few of the main protagonists to look out for.
Both Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov will be very happy with life right now. The Spaniard, after enjoying his most successful season in many, yet recovering from injury, is rightly the top seed. His capture of Grand Slams number 15 and 16 last year clearly reignited his passion and desire to create more history. He will go to Paris in spring as the most scorching favourite and has landed in an incredibly light half of the draw in Melbourne. Only Marin Cilic could lay claim to causing the marvellous Mallorcan’s sleep any trouble before he reaches the final four. Yet it is there that, if proceedings go to form, he will come up against a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov. 18 months ago, the Bulgarian appeared to be going nowhere. I watched him bundled out of the first round of Roland Garros and he looked helpless, hopeless and listless; a European Bernard Tomic, if you like. Fast forward a year and a half and he comes to Melbourne the third seed and winner of the ATP Finals, having triumphed on his first appearance in the showpiece event. Granted, there was no Federer, Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Raonic, Nishikori, or Wawrinka but the level Dimitrov showed indicates he is finally ready to fulfil his major-winning potential.
Will ‘Baby Federer’ have to dispose of the real deal if he is to win his first major? The strong likelihood is yes. Whilst the 36-year-old 19-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer is playing down his status as favourite, it is very apparent that he remains one of the two men to beat. His 2017 renaissance saw a serene Federer dealing impeccably with his previous anxiety to make history time and time again. This is a new, relaxed maestro, a man who finally believes that he has Nadal’s number. It will be of little concern to him that he has barely played since the US Open , showing himself to be in fine fettle in the recent Hopman Cup. He may have to see off an ever-more consistent Dominic Thiem to reach the final, which would take a lot out of him and leave him easier picking for his final opponent but I do expect the Swiss to line up on the final day of the fortnight, gunning for Grand Slam number 20. As for the rest, the bottom half of the draw could well have match-ups of Thiem v Wawrinka, Djokovic v Zverev, and Goffin v Berdych in the Last 16. What a treat we are in for!
Serena Williams has decided she is not yet ready to return so the scamper for majors for the top tier of women goes into an extra bonus tournament. The American sounded an ominous warning this week, stating she does not need more majors but simply wants them. Her desire is greater than any other so the field have been put on notice. In Serena’s absence, six different players reached the three Grand Slam finals last year; Simona Halep, Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams. In addition, Caroline Wozniacki won the WTA Tour Finals, rising back up to number two in the world. With the exceptions of Stephens and Keys, any one of other five women are in with genuine hopes in the coming fortnight. Simona Halep responded in positive fashion to what must have been a crushing French Open final defeat, rising to finish the year as World Number 1 and she has already struck gold in 2018, winning in Shenzhen. She does, however, have a tough draw; Petra Kvitova, Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova await before any thoughts of a semi-final appearance.
Garbine Muguruza’s toughest opponent may prove to be her thigh. She is scheduled to face up against Maria Sharapova in Round 4 which could end up being the match of the fortnight but if her body is right and her game clicks, nothing can stop the two-time major winner adding a third trophy to her collection. Later on, her big game would surely be too much for Halep to handle in the semi-finals. Speaking of big hitters, Jelena Ostapenko is no flash in the pan. A potential final for the Latvian against Muguruza would not be for the faint-hearted – it may not be full of the touch and guile to delight the tennis purists but my goodness would they smack the hell out of those poor balls. Her Round 4 opponent is projected to be CoCo Vandeweghe which would prove to be a fine warm-up for a hard-hitting final and surely Caroline Wozniacki could not live with a an in-form Ostapenko in between. However, if Ostapenko is slightly off, expect Wozniacki to give her enough rope to hang herself with. It is, however, tough to see.
Further to this, an Ostapenko-Venus Williams semi-final would be fun. The Latvian had just turned three when Venus Williams won her first Wimbledon title in July 2000 and most in tennis are rooting for the elder Williams to crown her career Indian Summer with one more major; she was the chief bridesmaid in Melbourne and Wimbledon last year as well as at the WTA Tour Finals. Expect her to go deep here again, but to not quite match last year’s achievement. She should however have a little too much nous for Elina Svitolina in the last eight. The Ukrainian is in blistering form having already won in Brisbane and has a shot at stealing the World Number 1 slot in the next fortnight, albeit along with Wozniacki, Pliskova, Ostapenko, Muguruza and Venus. Svitolina does seem to falter when the pressure is on, and with the pursuit for her first major and the ranking firmly in her head, it will all get too much.
Even thought there are four former champions in the men’s draw (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka) and another two in the women’s (Sharapova and Angelique Kerber), there may well be two new names considering a dive into the Yarra River in two weeks’ time. I wonder if Grigor Dimitrov and Garbine Muguruza have packed their wetsuits?
Grigor Dimitrov to beat Roger Federer in the final
Garbine Muguruza to beat Jelena Ostapneko in the final
Most likely to disappoint: Jo Konta, Madison Keys and Stan Wawrinka.