Change can happen fast in tennis. Coming into last years’ Australian Open Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams were the overwhelming favorites to win in Melbourne, both having dominated the previous season.
Now only days away from this years’ first Grand Slam and the draw being released tomorrow morning, Andy Murray is perched on top of the Men’s game and Angelique Kerber is 2000 points ahead of Serena Williams in the WTA rankings. Lets start with the Ladies. Kerber had a career year last season, winning the Australian Open (Serena) US Open (Pliskova), Olympic silver medal and Runner-up finishes at Wimbledon (Serena) and the WTA Finals (Cibulkova).
It will be interesting to see after such a heavy schedule of playing 83 matches last year and now being the player that’s chased instead of doing the chasing how the German will back up this season, she has already lost early in Brisbane and Sydney.
In contrast Serena played a light schedule last year, with a view in preserving her fitness as a ‘veteran’ on tour, the Florida based champ played only 8 tournaments and shut it down after a semi final loss to Karolina Pliskova in September at the US Open. In keeping with the high standards of previous seasons she also won Wimbledon (Kerber) but finished runner-up at the Australian (Kerber) and French Opens (Muguruza).
At 36 years of age you wonder when the proverbial cliff will appear and as every player who plays into their 30’s she’ll fall over it, but as long as the body holds up and that serve keeps firing she’s always a chance, even though she committed 88 unforced errors in an Auckland loss recently.
The final Slam winner from last year was Garbine Muguruza winning in Paris but doing little else in any other event bar semi finals in Rome and Cincinnati, her preparation for Melbourne has been solid, making the semi’s in Brisbane although a thigh injury forced her to retire, so keep a watch on the Spaniards’ fitness.
Besides last years’ Slam winners a few other players could make a deep run into week 2, look for Radwanska, Halep, Cibulkova or Pliskova and spare a thought for two-time Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova who won’t be in Melbourne following a knife attack a few weeks ago by an intruder in her apartment. She’ll be out for months after surgery for a knife wound on her playing hand. On the local front Sam Stosur had a tough first round loss to Pliskova at last years’ Australian Open and other than semi final showings at the French Open and Rome did little else.
Ok, time for a prediction. Its tough the first Slam of the season, sometimes pre tournament form in the lead-up events matter, sometimes it doesn’t. How prepared are the players, what kind of off-season have they had, all these are unknowns. Its time some of these top players who haven’t won Slams before step up and the player who did take a step last year was Karolina Pliskova in making the US Open final, she also won the lead-up Brisbane event. The Czech will take that form to Melbourne and win her first Grand Slam.
Lets move over to the Men. Last season was a tale of two halves with Novak Djokovic dominating before August. He won 7 tournaments including the Australian (Murray) and French Opens (Murray) but didn’t win a single event after that but did get to the final at the US Open (Wawrinka) and ATP Tour Finals (Murray). This time around coach Boris Becker is gonsky and a new ‘guru’ is part of the team, Pepe Imaz. Novak completed the career Grand Slam by winning in Paris last year and it will be fascinating to see where game is at as the season develops, the Serbian has had a good start by winning the Doha event in a marathon final over Andy Murray.
Despite the Djokovic loss new world number one Andy Murray won 9 events last year with most success coming from July onwards, which coincidently was when former coach Ivan Lendl rejoined the team. Murray won the ATP World Tour Finals, Paris Masters, Vienna, Shanghai Masters, Beijing, Rio Gold medal and Wimbledon. At the US Open he lost a 5 setter to Kei Nishikori in the Quarter Finals. Expectation will be huge for the Scotsman to win in Melbourne, something he has never done despite being to five finals (Federer, 4 x Djokovic).
The man with the sublime backhand, Stan Wawrinka had a solid year winning 4 events highlighted by winning his 3rd Grand Slam, the US Open (Djokovic). Its hard to know what you’ll get from the Swiss native, at the last 3 Australian Opens he lost 4th round (2016), lost Semi Final and Won but some other Grand Slam results are littered with early exits, 2nd round (2016 Wimbledon) and 1st round (2014 French), but if those groundstrokes are hot and he is in the mood, lookout.
Rafa Nadals’ year was besieged with injury (wrist) with multiple withdrawals and a ranking drop to 9, the Spaniard finished the year failing to reach a Grand Slam QF for the first time since 2004. At last years’ Australian Open he lost a marathon to Fernando Verdasco in the 1st round. The man from the island of Majorca is always dangerous so never count him out but if the Melbourne courts are playing fast look for an early exit.
Another star that had a season last year wrecked by injury (back, knee) was Roger Federer, the Swiss also didn’t win a tournament for the first time since 2000, saw his ranking drop to 16 and didn’t play a single match after Wimbledon. Don’t expect much from Roger in Melbourne, he’ll be a dangerous seed but playing so little competitive tennis for so many months he won’t have the legs under him, even if he wins a 5 setter expect him to go out next round.
On the local front you could say it’s been interesting for Nick Kyrgios and Bernie Tomic. In some ways Kyrgios had a career year, winning his first ATP event (Marseille), then winning two others (Atlanta, Tokyo). It was also a year filled with withdrawals, fines and a suspension for tanking. At last years’ Australian Open he lost in the 3rd round to Tomas Berdych. Anything is possible with Kyrgios, he could make the semis or lose 1st round. Bernie had an injury filled year with withdrawals and retirements and has never made it past the 4th round at the Australian Open in 8 years so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make the second week.
Ok, lets do a prediction, I got it right last year with my pick for Novak to win, not exactly a stretch. This time around it’s a bit tougher although it seems to be a two-horse race, Murray and Novak. It’s almost impossible to think at least one of these two won’t make the final unless Raonic, Dimitrov, Wawrinka or Nadal cause some upsets. I still have to believe Murray is just a tad hungrier for this Australian Open, to finally break the drought, for that reason alone I’ll tip him to win in Melbourne.