Tag Archives: Venus Williams

Wide-open Wimbledon: my pre-tournament thoughts

There’s been an extra week of the grass court season this year but it still barely feels like we have caught breath since Jelena Ostapenko smashed her way to her first major title and Rafael Nadal bludgeoned his way to a tenth Roland Garros trophy and here we are ready to embark on the next Grand Slam on the green green grass of the home of tennis. It’s really tough to pick a winner in either tournament with much conviction but here’s a quick rundown on the main contenders.

Hat-trick hero?

In the men’s draw, Andy Murray is the defending champion and world number one but comes into the fortnight as the hunted and in relatively poor form, whilst there are also concerns about a sore hip. His first-match defeat to Jordan Thompson at Queen’s should not be something to overplay but his road to a potential third Wimbledon title is rocky to say the least. He would have to get past Stanislas Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to get his hands on the cup but he could come a cropper as early as the 4th Round when he takes on the erratic, but supremely capable Nick Kyrgios. Don’t be surprised if Kyrgios blows hot and destroys Murray’s hopes of a hat-trick.

Can Stan Wawrinka complete the career Slam by adding a Wimbledon title to his haul? There is little doubt that he has the game to beat anybody on the surface on his notorious hot days but the shame is that the little doubt there is seems to lie in Wawrinka’s own head; he never seems completely at ease and confident in his own ability on the green stuff. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if he has to face Nadal for the first time since he was schooled in the Roland Garros final.

Rafael Nadal himself is a strange one here; he has won only five matches at Wimbledon since 2011 yet is a lot of people’s pick for his third title on the lawns of South-West London. It is certainly true that he was in imperious form in Paris and looked as good as ever but his struggles at Wimbledon over the past five years should not be underestimated. An early defeat cannot be ruled out, but it is hard to confidently predict who will be the next Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis or Dustin Brown. In fact, for all the potential to fall to a shock, the Mallorcan may well reach the final here but to lift the title will be beyond him.

Novak Djokovic was very sensible to ask for a wildcard into the Eastbourne Championships this past week. He has given himself a much-needed injection of confidence and just as importantly, match practice on grass. The tournament was not particularly stacked but a run to Saturday’s final against Gael Monfils means Djokovic comes in finely-tuned and takes away the likelihood of a repeat of the early exit he suffered in 2016. If he can safely negotiate a third round test against either Juan-Martin del Potro or Thanas Kokkinakis, there is no reason why the former number one and two-time champion won’t make the semi-finals. However, there it will get more difficult…

Green green grass

 

Roger Federer is striving to make Wimbledon history. Were he to win here in a fortnight’s time, he would go clear of Pete Sampras and William Renshaw to take his eighth SW19 crown, more than any other player in history. Of course, that quest has been the same every year since he lifted number 8 in 2012 and he went close in 2014 and 2015 to doing just that. Nevertheless, this is his best shot. We have not seen the Swiss since the American spring season but if his rest has done him as much good as it did before the Australian Open (and his ninth win in Halle indicates it has), then he has to be considered favourite. His path to further history will not be easy – a potential run to glory goes past Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Djokovic and Nadal but if he brings his Australian Open game to his favourite court, then Wimbledon immortality awaits.

If the men’s tournament is difficult to predict, at least it is the usual suspects who are clouding the picture. The women’s field is ridiculously difficult to fathom. You could make cases for Johanna Konta, CoCo Vandeweghe, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and even Elena Vesnina given current and/or previous Wimbledon form due to the absence of former champions like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and the continued struggles of the world number one Angelique Kerber. So which ladies have the best shot at lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish?

Lucie Safarova is a former semi-finalist and was in great form at Edgbaston recently before she had to pull out of her semi-final with a leg injury. The Czech is in Angelique Kerber’s section but she may not even have to dispose of the world number one if Kerber were to lose early again. Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 finalist, could test her but Safarova is hitting freely and accurately and has the power game to reach another semi-final. Her doubles career really feels like it has strengthened her singles game and it is lovely to see her enjoying her tennis at her relatively-veteran age.

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Safarova is enjoying her game

 

If Safarova can be described as a veteran, what does that make Venus Williams? The five-time champion has not won the big one on her Centre Court home since 2008, and has not reached the final since the following year but her run to the semi-finals here last year as well as to the same stage in Melbourne in January means she is one of the biggest to beat here. She could have been the main one to beat until only a few days ago but it remains to be seen how she fares mentally amid rumours that she will be filed with a lawsuit due to her role in a fatal road collision. In purely tennis terms, her biggest obstacles to a further semi-final appearance would be Dominika Cibulkova and the in-form former Wimbledon junior champion Ash Barty.

Petra Kvitova would be a tremendously popular champion in the tennis world. Just seven months ago, her career looked in grave danger after being stabbed in her playing hand by an intruder to her Prague home. Her appearance at Roland Garros was already a remarkable achievement but she quickly followed this up by winning her second tournament back on tour when she lifted the title at Edgbaston one week ago. I was fortunate to be there for quarter-final day and she looked incredibly strong both physically and mentally in overcoming Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets. Her draw is an excellent one with no tough tests on the horizon until a potential semi-final with Venus. Can she win a third Wimbledon title?

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Kvitova would be a popular three-time champ

 

We could well see the first ever all-Czech final at Wimbledon. Karolina Pliskova has really kicked on in the last twelve months, her game is perfectly suited to grass and she comes in fresh from an appearance in the final at Eastbourne. A potential tussle with CoCo Vandeweghe in the quarter-finals has the makings of the match of the tournament but Pliskova’s huge serve will come good in the end and she would have the firepower to get past Safarova or Radwanska in the final four. A battle between her and Kvitova in the final would be a fantastic slog, come down to who holds their nerve and be decided by a few points either way. Kvitova would be the fans’ choice but it is important that Pliskova grabs this opportunity to shine and take her career to the next step.

Predictions:

Federer to beat Nadal to win men’s title.

Karolina Pliskova to beat Kvitova to win women’s title.

Andy Murray to go out before the quarter-finals.

Ash Barty to make quarter-finals.

A crowd to inexplicably laugh when a seagull lands on the court.

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Simply the best – what a fortnight Down Under

Time didn’t stand still in Melbourne over the past fortnight, it went back almost a whole decade. 3 of the semi-finalists were surprise contenders and the other shows no sign of slowing down. A fortnight that lost both defending champions and the men’s world number one before the first week was out delivered two dream finals along with a semi final that will be remembered for many a year.

The Williams sisters contested their first final on opposite sides of the net since Wimbledon 2009, which was also Venus’ last major final. In that time, her younger sister Serena had won an incredible 11 of 14 Slam finals she had appeared in. Serena is the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time and there is no longer any doubt in my, or indeed many, minds that she is the greatest woman to ever play the sport. The fact that she still cites Venus as her inspiration, her reason for playing, and her greatest opponent must be taken seriously. Serena has never really had a long-standing rivalry at any point during her career but the fact she struggles to mentally take on Venus gives weight to the elder being her toughest opponent. Venus has done so well to play so regularly and so late into her thirties, especially given her health worries but she will always be second fiddle on the roll of honour in the Greatest Sporting Siblings of all time. Serena will get 25 majors now, at least. The fact that she didn’t lose more than four games in any of her 14 sets shows she is head and shoulders above the rest once again. It will take monumental efforts to defeat her at Wimbledon and the US Open if she maintains this sense of purpose.

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Whilst on the subject of longevity, I look back at my first ever trip to Wimbledon in 2001. The first match I saw on Centre Court was Serena Williams in majestic form against Jelena Dokic. Williams was already a US Open champion at that point and booked a quarter-final berth in straight sets. The following match on the oldest stage of them all saw seven-times champion Pete Sampras come up against the young up-and-comer from Switzerland, Roger Federer. I have always stated my presence at that match as the reason behind my almost-obscene admiration for Federer. To see him lift his 18th major sixteen years on, and five years after his previous one, has overwhelmed me slightly. I had consistently believed he would win another one but, after his six-month injury lay-off, I had finally written him off two weeks ago. Instead, he rolled back the years to defeat Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his old nemesis Rafael Nadal to deservedly claim the title. He has looked after his body like no male player I have known in my twenty-five years of following the sport and this is just reward for his determination to hang in there whilst the ravages of time seemed to fatally weaken him. The two-slam swing that happened earlier today will surely ensure that Nadal does not now match his haul of 18 majors. The first four sets were good, but not classic. There was always a sense that it would come down to a fifth set (breakfast and cups of tea had to be strategically planned). The fifth set had it all, vintage Federer and Nadal going at it hammer and tongs for maybe one final time in a major final. For 30 minutes, we were all transported back to 2008, when Rafa finally overcame Federer on his Centre Court in a match for the ages. But this time, it was to be the Swiss who held the ‘young’ pretender off, defeating him in a Grand Slam for the first time in a decade. No two players out there bring the best out of each other quite like those two do; their styles are so polar opposite that it just feels right. This fortnight will give Nadal so much heart: he saw off Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils in varying degrees of ease but his defeat of an inspired, rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals is the true stand-out match of the tournament. Dimitrov looked every inch the Grand Slam champion, ready to smash through his own personal glass ceiling. Unfortunately, he had not counted on Nadal’s double-glazing defence, a real throwback to the Spaniard of four or five years ago. Such was Nadal’s form here that he should be odds-on favourite to claim his tenth Roland Garros in the spring, a real shot in the arm for the rest of the game.

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As for the others, it was a sobering tournament for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Agnieska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber who all massively underachieved. Murray will hope it is merely a post-Knighthood blip but Djokovic needs to take time away to reassess the lie of the land. Kerber will come back strongly in the next few months but the other two ladies have now missed the Grand Slam title boat, the ship has definitely sailed. It is dangerous of course to write people off; Roger Federer proved that and only nine months ago I wrote about how Grigor Dimitrov was wasting his talent but you do really sense that neither Radwanska or Halep have the necessary steel. What a tournament for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, reaching her first semi-final since 1999, a feat she personally accepted made up for all her tough times. Who would have thought Mischa would be the Zverev to go deepest in the men’s tournament; he was, however, full value for his four-set victory over Murray.

Whatever happens in the rest of 2017 surely cannot provide nearly as many stories as these last fifteen days in Melbourne have. The Williams sisters hugging it out on the final evening and the two greatest male players of all time having what will probably prove to be one last five-setter final.  You sensed tears weren’t far from any of their eyes and your heart goes out to the losers but goodness, when there is so much misery and hate in the world right now, didn’t tennis do an awful lot of good for us old romantics.

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All to play for in New York: US Open 2016 Preview

 

The final Grand Slam of the year rolls around in a few hours’ time with form and fitness concerns hanging over many of the usual suspects. It’s more difficult this year to differentiate the dead certs from the outsiders and the dark horses, made even more challenging by the Olympics disrupting the US Open Series, usually such a reliable barometer of form. All this being said, you’d be a brave person to back anybody from outside of Djokovic, Kerber, Murray and Williams to lift the trophies in two weeks’ time.

 

Huge doubts linger around Novak Djokovic’s chances in New York. He has even been labelled as an unknown quantity coming into this major – these claims are risible. He is not world number 1 for no reason and is the current holder of three of the four Grand Slams. Yes, he went out uncharacteristically early at Wimbledon and was dumped out of the Rio Olympics in tears, but these tears were more the result of him knowing this was his best chance of winning Gold; he will be well past his peak by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. He obviously has some slight injury concern bothering him but it would be foolish not to expect him to reach the final few days in the Big Apple. Milos Raonic, should he get that far, may well fancy his chances of upsetting the Serb at the semi-final stage, given the big-hitting games of Sam Querrey and Juan-Martin del Potro have caused the Serb problems in his last two top-tier matches. The Wimbledon runner-up comes into this tournament just days after John McEnroe leaving his coaching team – this should prove no problem as Carlos Moya can continue his excellent work with the big-serving amiable Canadian.

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The 2012 champion will be looking to add to his amazing 12 months

 

The bookmakers may disagree but I consider Andy Murray to be the strong favourite heading into the tournament in which he broke his Grand Slam duck four years ago. On that occasion, he defeated Djokovic in five gruelling sets and it is surely only his poor record against the Serb in recent years that is stopping more people marking him as the man to beat here. He is 19-2 in the majors this year and became the first singles player in history to retain Olympic Gold in Rio earlier this month. His absorbing duel with Juan-Martin del Potro in that final will do him more good than any match he played at Wimbledon; he may need to tough it out in New York and that final proved he can not only stand toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sloggers the game has ever seen, but ultimately overcome him. Murray will need to be wary of Lukas Rosol in the first round as we all know he is capable of turning it on every now and again but should then face no troubles until he faces a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the Last 8. His potential semi-final looks easier on paper than the other half of the draw so he could come into the final weekend feeling relatively fresh, which could prove crucial if it is Djokovic on the other side of the net. I may be biased but I see little way past the Scot this fortnight.

Others to watch include two-time champion Rafael Nadal who seemed in much finer form in Rio and is obviously refreshed by his decision to once again skip Wimbledon, del Potro who is still capable of hitting anybody off the court and finally appears to have put his injuries behind him, and Nick Kyrgios whose enforced absence from the Olympics has allowed him to get accustomed to the American hard courts. It remains to be seen which Kyrgios turns up.

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Two more former champs in with a fighting chance

 

Serena Williams comes into her home major aiming for her 23rd Grand Slam. She is the six-time champion in New York but will want to make amends for the aberration that was her inexplicable semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci last year. Williams has some minor fitness concerns coming into the final major of the year but should she successfully negotiate a tough opening round against Ekaterina Makarova (an Australian Open semi-finalist just eighteen months ago), Serena is likely to go all the way through to Finals weekend. Of course one can never fully discount an off-day such as when the resurgent Elina Svitolina thumped her out of the Olympic Games earlier this month but Serena will have a further layer of dominance added to her now she has moved ahead of Steffi Graf in major titles. The biggest roadblock to a potential final could be her elder sister. It is seven years since Venus last lifted the title in New York but she will be the overwhelming crowd favourite were she to get anywhere near the business end of the tournament; tennis loves a fighting ex-champion and Venus ticks every box.

Madison Keys will be delighted she has landed in the opposite side of the draw to the top two Americans. Keys looks the very clear favourite to carry American hopes for the next generation if the Williams sisters ever stop playing. She gives off a Petra Kvitova impression; if her game clicks in any particular fortnight she is going to blow everybody away. A semi-final in Rio will be small comfort to her as she lost out on a bronze medal to Kvitova but a favourable draw here could see her advance all the way to Finals weekend. She has found a way past Venus Williams in the past but is yet to prove she is a match to Serena. If the Williams’ slip, Keys could be the one to capitalise.

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Outsiders: Konta and Svitolina

 

Elsewhere, Angelique Kerber appears to be the non-American who stands the best chance of lifting the trophy. Kerber v2.0 has had a wonderful 2016, currently tied at 1-1 with Williams in their major finals. However, her defeat to Monica Puig in the Olympics final smacked of the old Kerber, failing to beat an inferior opponent due to apparent mental fragility. There is no doubt that Puig played the tournament of her life but Kerber should have had enough wherewithal to get past her when push came to shove. The world number two will come into the Open determined to prove that was an anomaly and a deciding rubber against Serena appears to be the most likely outcome on the women’s side. Backed by a home crowd, one would have to assume that Serena would come out on top again in another closely-fought tussle.

Expect strong tournaments from Dominika Cibulkova as she looks to round off an impressive showing at the year’s majors, as well as Agnieszka Radwanska and Johanna Konta who currently lead the US Open Series. Radwanska can always be relied upon to disappoint but she should seal a quarter-final place, and Konta will be hoping to push towards the Top 10 by matching that performance. A step further than that appears to be a little out of their collective reaches at this moment in time.

Predictions

Murray to beat Raonic in the final

Serena to beat Kerber

Most likely to surprise: Monica Puig, Elina Svitolina, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem

Most likely to disappoint: Stanislas Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova and Borna Coric

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Wimbledon 2016 – how they rated

Andy Murray 9/10

Two-time Wimbledon champion

 

The Brit exceeded pre-tournament expectations but, more importantly, dealt with the burden of becoming favourite over the final nine days of the tournament. His run to the title was stress-free save for a tough two sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Crucially, the Scot kept his head when so often in the Lendl-free days he would have lost it. A first major for three years is a great way of starting his partnership with Jamie Delgado, with Lendl back in the mix too. Expect Murray to go close in New York after helping Great Britain into the semis of the Davis Cup but don’t rule out an early exit in Rio where he will defend his Olympic crown.

Milos Raonic 8/10

Make no mistake – Carlos Moya is taking this guy to a new level. There’s been a lot of credit given to the latest ‘super coach’ John McEnroe yet it is Moya who is adding steel to Raonic’s game. The Canadian’s rise has been solid and he now finally looks capable of being a Slam winner. He should and will be disappointed with his inability to figure out Murray’s brick wall in the final but he will get another shot in the US Open and his game suits three of the four majors so expect him to win one sooner rather than later. He found a way to get past the legend that is Roger Federer in the match of the tournament and will now feel he belongs in every conversation about possible winners at the next two Slams.

Roger Federer 6/10

This may seem harsh but Federer missed his last chance here. His comeback win over Marin Cilic was dramatic but the chinks in his game were spotted and exploited by Raonic. Federer schooled the Canadian at Wimbledon 2014 but whilst the younger man has moved on, Federer’s body has finally refused him any further progress. It remains to be seen if the Swiss will take part in the 2017 season. Will he still be a major semi-finalist should he decide to go on? Probably. Can he win another? The answer to that is a categorical no. Federer’s joie de jouer may now dip if he feels he cannot make it to Grand Slam #18. One thing’s for sure – a more popular player Centre Court will not see for many a decade.

Federer victorious in 2011

17 and most probably out…

 

Novak Djokovic 6/10

Not as disastrous as it first seems. This guy has been putting his body and mind under insane pressure in his quest for the Calendar Slam. His early exit here coupled with his usual sitting-out of the Davis Cup quarter-finals will give the world #1 the necessary time to recuperate from what has been a stunning year in which he held all four majors. The pressure will have been notched down rather than up for a change so don’t be surprised to see Djokovic return fitter, stronger and just as good as before.

Nicolas Mahut 10/10

The genial Frenchman has ensured that his name will not just be remembered for THAT 2011 match which he lost. As well as reaching the last 16 in the singles, the 34-year-old has found a young doubles partner capable of complementing his game perfectly. They are now holders of two of the four majors and are the best doubles team in the world right now; Pierre-Hugues Herbert can achieve things in singles also but I’m sure most neutrals were more delighted for his partner Mahut as he became a Wimbledon champion on Saturday evening.

Nick Kyrgios 2/10

Everybody knows I’m not a fan so I won’t write too much. Get a grip, Kyrgios. People are paying big money and to tank when you lose a set is pathetic. Hire a coach who will test you, not pander to you. Want to be a champion or not? Talented players without the desire to win are ten-a-penny and are forgotten overnight. Kyrgios has the ability to win Wimbledon but right now he is a million miles away as he has the heart of a pea.

Serena Williams 10/10

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22 not out

 

If Kyrgios wants an example of how it is done, he should look no further than the seven-time Wimbledon champion who now has 22 Grand Slams to her name. At the age of 30, she took the decision to hire Patrick Mouratoglu as her coach and their partnership has reaped gigantic reward. Serena has never lost a mental battle on court and her Wimbledon fortnight is one to be cherished. She was pushed in round 2 by her compatriot Christina McHale but came through in three sets. From there, her route was relatively straightforward but when pushed by Angelique Kerber in the final, she came out on top. This will be of huge relief to the American after losses at the business end of the previous three majors. If I had a mansion, I would put it at stake to back Serena to win #23 in nine weeks’ time.

Angelique Kerber 8/10

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Kerber v2.0 can win more majors

 

The Australian Open champion made serene progress during the first week before knocking out Simona Halep and Venus Williams in consecutive rounds. She could not repeat her feat of defeating Serena but her overall fortnight has lain to rest any lingering remnants of the old mentally-fragile Kerber. Angie v2.0 is a force to be reckoned with. It would be a major surprise if she fails to surpass her previous best of a quarter-final berth in New York in September and she is likely to once again provide the younger Williams with her stiffest competition. Let’s hope the Wimbledon champion’s longevity encourages Kerber that she too can maintain this level for a good few years.

Venus Williams 9/10

There was nothing spectacular about the elder Williams’ run to the semi-finals, defeating nobody that she hadn’t been expected to. However therein lays the sheer quality of her tournament and level; at the age of 36 she is still living with players in the Top 10. She is still capable of winning slams – yes it requires a favourable draw and a Serena slip but Venus is as capable now of winning the US Open or Wimbledon as at any other time in the last five years.

Elena Vesnina 9/10

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Vesnina’s stand-out single performance

 

‘The Vesh’ finally gets a mention on this page for her singles exploits. A multi-slam doubles champion, she went deep into a major for the first time on her own. Knocking out Andrea Petkovic, Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova meant that she deserved her place in the last four. Granted her semi-final appearance was over quicker than it takes to fly from Paris to London but for somebody who has seen her suffer so many tough first-round losses over the past ten years, it is amazing to see somebody like Vesnina get her moment in the spotlight.

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Blushing bride

 

Dominika Cibulkova 10/10 – Wimbledon quarter-finalist and made it out of there in time to get married. Ace fortnight!

Petra Kvitova 2/10 – Must do better, especially on grass.

Garbine Muguruza 5/10 – Early loss will do her good and keep her feet on the ground.

Simona Halep 7/10 – Back to her best, will go deep in the US Open.

Tomas Berdych 6/10 – Perennial semi-finalist.

Sam Querrey 8/10 – Backed up shock win by making the last eight.

Lucas Pouille 9/10 – Making great strides. Not seen him play yet, but surely one to watch?

Marcus Willis 10/10 – Tested Hollywood scriptwriters. We will NEVER see him again but nice story.

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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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Rod Laver Arena at its best

 

The Australian Open often prompts claims from tennis journalists and pundits alike that it is the least predictable major of the year, yet a look at the roll of honour in recent years suggests that if Novak Djokovic plays, he wins. In the women’s tournament, just like the other majors with the exception of Roland Garros, should Serena Williams come in fully fit and focussed then she too takes the title. There is evidence to suggest that we see some breakthroughs earlier in the draws, with Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard and Madison Keys making their maiden semi-final appearances in the last three tournaments. Last year’s tournament was also a stellar one for the home favourites, with Nick Kyrgios reaching the quarter-finals, maintaining home interest well into the second week. Whilst Aussie eyes will be on Lleyton Hewitt as he ends his career on Rod Laver Arena, there is plenty elsewhere to whet the appetite for a fab fortnight in the Melbourne sunshine, even if the most likely outcomes do involve Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic retaining their titles.

It is extremely difficult to look beyond the world number 1 from Serbia as he aims to equal Roy Emerson’s record of six titles, Emerson’s haul being achieved before the professional era. Djokovic’s form is imperious; he lost only six from 88 matches in 2015 and has already won the Doha title this year, demolishing one-time nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final, after which the top seed admitted that he was playing the best tennis of his life. It must not be forgotten that that demolition in Doha was over 2016 Nadal, not 2010 Nadal. The Mallorcan endured his first title-free season in more than a decade in 2015 and although his recent form is more promising any claims that he can compete in the last two rounds in Melbourne are nonsensical; the prospect of the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis in Round 3 may already be cutting into Rafa’s sleep.

Djokovic on course for a sixth Australian Open title

I’m hard-pressed to pick anything but a Stan Wawrinka-Andy Murray semi-final in the bottom half of the draw. Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, plays some of his best tennis when he goes down under and there is nothing too scary on the horizon to block a third consecutive appearance in the final four. The likes of Jack Sock, Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson could come calling but their styles all suit Wawrinka’s game so he should be fine. If Nadal does make it through the first week, I expect him to pose very few problems to the Swiss number 2, who collected a title in Chennai a couple of weeks ago. As for Andy Murray, he will be hoping that it is fifth time lucky as he aims to improve on his record of four runner-up appearances. There is very little to trouble the new world number 2 as he aims to push on from propelling Great Britain to their first Davis Cup title since before World War 2. A semi-final tussle with Wawrinka would most likely be the match of the fortnight with a toss of the coin seeming to be the fairest way of settling it.

2014 Champion Wawrinka should make his third consecutive semi

Roger Federer is the one member of the current Top 4 who could come a cropper before the semi-finals. He’s playing well, with a final appearance in Brisbane under his 2016 belt but there are potential matches against Grigor Dimitrov, Julien Benneteau who has pushed him all the way in a Slam before, and Nick Kyrgios. Dimitrov in particular needs to push on this year as his career is in serious danger of stalling altogether. I think he has the best shot of stopping the 17-time major winner from reaching the last four, but if Federer does come through his tricky run he will not be able to overcome eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Message to the field: do your best but this is Djokovic’s title – I firmly believe he is as close to unplayable right now as I have ever seen anybody.

Whilst Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite to lift the men’s title, his fellow defending champion Serena Williams is an extremely strong one, but not quite overwhelmingly so for the women’s championship. The world number 1 is chasing her 22nd Grand Slam title, which would equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era haul. Serena is no stranger to shock defeats in Melbourne, having lost to Ekaterina Makarova, Sloane Stephens and Ana Ivanovic here in the last four years but it would be a massive surprise to see her lose early as defending champion, even if she did get literally the worst possible first round draw; a match-up against big-hitting Camila Giorgi, the highest-ranked unseeded player in Melbourne. A potential fourth-round match-up with BFF Caroline Wozniacki could be fun; however the Dane hasn’t reached the second week in Melbourne since 2013. From there, Maria Sharapova lies in Serena’s quarter and we have to discount the Russian as her long winless streak against the American simply means that she does not stand a chance.

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Serena is gunning for Slam number 22, but there are others who can outshine her this time

 

Agnieszka Radwanska is one to watch over the next fortnight; her best result came two years ago when she reached the semi-finals but she must be confident of at least matching that record. Whilst she faces a blockbuster encounter with an unseeded yet improving Eugenie Bouchard (finalist in Hobart this week) in the second round, as well as being in the same quarter as a resurgent Sloane Stephens (winner of Auckland) and the emerging Aussie star Daria Gavrilova, the Pole comes into 2016 on the back of a successful week at the End of Season Championships, in which she became the first non-Slam winner to be crowned year-ending champion since Amelie Mauresmo in 2005. Back then, Mauresmo took that momentum into the following season and lifted two majors, starting with the Australian Open title. The ever-popular Pole won the title in Shenzhen earlier this month so comes in carrying form; do not discount her from kicking on and bettering her previous record here, and with a bit of luck lifting the title. A potential semi-final with Serena could be a real classic clash of styles.

Radwanska would be a popular first-time winner

The number of times I have written about how Victoria Azarenka comes into a tournament with as good a chance as any of getting the better of Serena….and here we go again. The former world number one looks like she has finally recovered from her injury time-out, lifting her first trophy since 2013 last week in Brisbane, fair pummelling Top 10 player Angelique Kerber in the final. Vika comes in sharp, confident and with an insistence that she will take it one step at a time. However, with doubts over whether Serena is fully fit (an oft-written phrase) media attention will be fierce on Azarenka’s run. I have a sneaking suspicion that she will reach the final four with very little fuss or effort, largely due to a kind draw despite her lowly seeding of 14; indeed, many higher seeds would gladly swap their draws with Azarenka’s.  The bottom half of the draw is wide open, which plays into the hands of the two-time champion. If form holds, expect her semi-final to not be one for the purists, pitting her against Venus Williams (who would need to see off world number 2 Simona Halep who is aiming to ‘do a Wozniacki’ and change her defensive game into more of an attacking one – this may take some time to reap rewards). The elder Williams sister holds a winning record over Azarenka, but I’d expect the Belarussian to come through in three exhausting sets. Is she capable of defeating Serena Williams in the final? Yes. She came so close last year on three occasions, even holding match points in Madrid. She doesn’t quite have Serena’s number yet, let’s say rather that the last digit is a little bit smudged. Will she have to beat Serena to the title here? If pushed, I’d say no. An Azarenka v Radwanska final looks the most likely, another classic style clash. Whilst Azarenka has more fans in Melbourne than in any other part of the world, most neutrals would love to see Radwanska take the final step that her career has always promised possible.

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Disappointed to be missing out this year!

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