Santa Claus has eaten all your biscuits and you’ve already broken three New Year’s resolutions, which means its time for the season’s first Grand Slam event.
As always we’ll start with the Ladies. Last year we had four different Slam champions, Serena in Melbourne, the surprise winner Ostapenko in Paris, Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon and first time Slam winner Sloane Stephens in New York. Serena announced recently that she isn’t ready for high-level match play after giving birth last September, meaning she’s a no-show.
Jelena Ostapenko backed up well after her Roland Garros shock win, the most famous player in Latvia won Seoul , QF at Wimbledon and made the tour finals in Singapore and now has Aussie coach Dave Taylor by her side which should bring a calming influence, if she can keep her head on court look out, very dangerous. An interesting first round against Italian road runner Francesca Schiavone.
Since Muguruza’s Wimbledon triumph the Spaniard has won Cincinatti, 4th round US Open and didn’t make it out of the group stage at the WTA Finals. Her Australian Open preparations hit a snag with a retirement due to cramps during a 2nd round match in Brisbane and another retirement in Sydney with a thigh injury, if she recovers in time for Melbourne except to see her in week 2, probably the best pure ball striker out there. A potential 4th round against a red hot former world number one Angelique Kerber looms.
Sloane Stephens lived up to her potential by winning last year’s US Open, her causaly list; Vinci, Cibulkova, Barty, Goerges, Sevestova, Venus and American Madison Keys in the final. The problem is the 24 year old hasn’t won a match since, including a 6-3,6-0 drubbing by Camilla Giorgi in Sydney this week, she won’t survive the first week.
World number one SImona Halep who is still looking for a first Grand Slam win will come into Melbourne with good form, having won the lead up event in Shenzhen, China. Darren Cahill will have the Romainian primed to go, if she can pull the trigger in the big moments she could win it all. Could have a tricky 3rd round against Petra Kvitova.
A dangerous floater that nobody will want to see next to their name is Maria Sharapova, the 47th ranked Russian knows how to win a Slam, comes into Melbourne unseeded and with solid form having made the semi’s last week in China. A tough 2nd round match up could be ahead against 14th seed Sevastova, win that and Kerber could be next.
Other players to watch; world number 2 Wozniacki, Venus, Svitolina, Pliskova and the 19th ranked Ash Barty, who had such a great season last year. The further the 21 year old goes in the draw momentum will build, the crowd will rally and something special could happen, dare I think it. In the same section as Halep and Kvitova.
So, there you have it, tough to pick a winner. With Serena you had a certain level of certainty but so many players who haven’t won a Slam (Halep, Wozniacki, Pliskova) are capable and you match that with players who know ‘how’ to win a Slam (Sharapova, Muguruza, Venus) and it becomes a game of who gets hot and holds their nerve at the end.
The court speed always plays a factor; if its medium-quick and Simona Halep doesn’t get into negative rally-mode in the big moments she’ll win her first Grand Slam.
Moving over to the Men is like the doctor doing his hospital rounds and checking who still has a pulse. Murray is out and just had hip surgery, Wawrinka is a starter but is returning from 7 months out after knee troubles, Djokovic is still dealing with elbow soreness after having 6 months out, however at this stage is a starter but I can’t see the Monte Carlo resident being a factor, even if he plays there’s no way he’ll get through 7 best of 5 set matches to win the event with so little match play and his elbow issues which now has caused an abbreviated service motion. He could make a 4th round against 4th seed Zverev.
There were also doubts surfacing that World number one Rafael Nadal would make it to the Australian Open after withdrawing from last season’s end of year ATP Finals with knee problems. At this stage he is a starter and is competing in this week’s exhibition Kooyong Classic. Rafa is the kind of player who doesn’t need a lot of matches coming into a big event, would he prefer it? Yes, but he competes so well and has his patterns of play so baked in that he’ll work his way into a favourable draw until a potential 4th round against big server John Isner, regardless it will take a herculean effort from somebody to knock him out.
Now we come to the seemingly ageless Federer. At 36 years old the Swiss is heading up into the rarified air of making Slam finals at 39 as the great Ken Rosewall did in 1974. Federer has had good preparation in getting a few matches in at the Hopman Cup exhibition in Perth. If he can stay injury free these next two weeks he’ll be hard to beat. An interesting 3rd round awaits against the Frenchman Gasquet.
Other players to watch; Dimitrov, Zverev, Thiem and Juan Martin Del Potro who had a good season last year in working his way back from multiple wrist surgeries. The wildcard, and I mean that literally in all this is Nick Kyrgios, a winner last week in Brisbane where he took out Dimitrov in a semi, he has the ability to go deep into the second week but your guess is as good as mine, he could be out on day one, if not a 3rd round against former finalist Tsonga could happen.
So, time for a prediction. It’s hard to see anyone else other than Federer or Nadal. For Federer can he repeat the magic of last year? It depends on court speed, the quicker the better for him, if it’s playing fast it helps him in the rallies, if it’s playing medium the advantage is with Nadal. Tournament Director Craig Tiley suggests the courts are playing the same as last year, if that’s the case I see Federer winning his 6th Australian Open.