Welcome to another year of tennis. It may not be warm and sunny in Michigan, but it is in Australia and that’s what matters as the first of Tennis’s 4 Grand Slams kicks off Sunday night down under. As I did last year, I am here to provide WCBN Sports’s preview of the Australian Open. A year ago, I correctly predicted Roger Federer as the champion but I missed Caroline Wozniacki winning her first career slam. Unlike last year, I will not break this up into two posts, we’re just gonna do one long one, looking at both the men’s and the women’s side. Without further ado, off we go:
The biggest story in tennis in 2018 was the revival of Novak Djokovic. After a two year slump mired with injuries, the Nole returned to win both Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as Shanghai and Cincinnati, the latter of which I was fortunate enough to attend. He was simply magnificent, while Federer and Nadal each captured a slam in 2018, with the Spaniard's being predictably on clay, the surface where 4 of his 5 titles came last year. Federer’s year was a strange one. He started tremendously, winning Australia and triumphing in Rotterdam to return to #1 in the world at the age of 36, but then injuries began to creep back. He skipped France as usual and played well on grass leading up to Wimbledon, but then was dismissed in the quarters by Kevin Anderson. He struggled in Cincy but still made the finals and then bottomed out in the US Open, losing in four sets to Sam Millman in a stunning Fourth Round upset. To close out the year, he played okay but lost a tough three setter to Djokovic in Paris and lost in the semis to Zverev in London.
So that’s where we are entering 2018. As we take a look at the 2019 draw, the far and away favorite is Novak Djokovic. Australia is his best tournament of the four major slams, with six career championships, tied with Roger for the most. He finished the 2018 season 35-3 in his final 38 matches, simply on fire. He wasn’t impervious, of course, losing in the finals of the two tournaments he played to close out the year. One of those losses was to his chief competitor blocking him on his side of the draw: Alexander “Sascha” Zverev. Sascha is undoubtedly an incredibly talented player, far ahead of his age at just 21 years old, but the biggest question remains his failures in big tournaments. He has been a top 10 seed in seven straight slams, yet has never made it to the semis in any, and he’s only made one quarters appearance. He may well be the future of tennis, but he needs to actually win some big matches to prove it. His path to the semis is open, but of course, Djokovic looms large in that potential round. Other names to watch on this half are old friend Kei Nishikori, up-and-coming Canadian with bad hair Denis Shapovalov (who stayed across the hall from me at the hotel in Cincinnati), Borna Coric, a 22 year-old Croatian who beat Federer twice last year, and Hyeon Chung, 22 year-old Korean and last year’s Australian Open semi-finalist. Still, this feels like Djokovic’s side to lose.
Intrigue Alert: Jo-Willy Tsonga is in this tournament as a wild-card and somehow got placed in a position where he could face Djokovic in the second round, which would be a rematch of the 2008 Australian Open final, when both players were up-and-comers.
The lower half of the draw features both Federer and Nadal, who would play each other in the semis. Both players have questions, as we’ve discussed with Federer. Nadal on the other hand, has severe injury questions. He played just six matches the final 3.5 months of 2018, pulling out of Cincy to rest, then making it to the Semis at the US Open, where he was forced to retire in the middle of a match against Del Potro after the proceeding two rounds where he faced greuling matches and was visibly ailing, and then withdrawing from the Paris Masters due to abdominal injury. He has not played a match since that Del Potro one in New York and while he insists he will be ready, only time will tell. Also on this side are last year’s finalist Marin Cilic, 20 year-old Greek prospect Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kevin Anderson, and American John Isner. It’s pretty tough to see what’s going to happen on this side with so many injury questions. There are intriguing younger players, but is it their time yet?
The Pick: As much as I would love- and want to pick- a youngin heavy final, I just can’t do it until it happens. I can’t wait to watch Zverev, Tsitsipas, Chung, Coric, and Tiafoe, but none of them are compelling me to pick them to win or final yet. I also am still very weary of Nadal’s injury issues, not to mention the fact that hard court is not his surface. I will pick Nadal to win the French Open until he’s 97 years old and even if he’s got an amputated leg and a glass eye. He’s unbeatable on that surface. But hard court? Ehhhhh. I’m also queasy about Federer, at least until I see him play, but he was still a guy who won 80+% of his matches last year. So I’ll go with what I want to see: a Roger-Novak final and at this point, I’d be a fool not to pick Novak.
Final Word: I have to mention Andy Murray, who announced this week that he will be retiring from tennis sometime, potentially after this tournament, but hopefully after Wimbledon. I will give him the due he deserves when he officially hangs them up, but I felt it was important to mention it here. He’s dealing with a devastating hip injury and it really is sad to see him go. Hopefully he gives Australia hell one last time.
Women’s tennis is, and has been for awhile, far more fun to follow because of its unpredictability. Last year’s season saw four different players win the four different slams: Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Angie Kerber, and Naomi Osaka. It also saw the return of Serena Williams, who managed to make it to the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open, though she fell just short in those matches. Sloane Stephens also remains a factor, having one of the most mind-numblingly strange seasons. She had experienced a career renaissance in 2017, managing to snare the US Open in stunning fashion and then she proceeded to lose eight straight matches immediately afterwards. She snapped back and won Miami and made the French Open finals before promptly losing in the first round at Wimbledon. However, she did finish the year solidly, making the finals of Canada and the WTA Finals, and making the quarters at the US Open.
Looking at the draw, Halep is the #1 overall seed but she got screwed over by luck and somehow got Serena Williams, who is still hilariously underseeded due to the WTA’s insane maternity leave ranking policies, in her eighth(!!!!). Jo Konta and Garbine Muguruza are in the next quarter down, a draw really lacking in top tier talent. Both struggled in 2018 and have left themselves without a high seed, but Konta was the #4 player in the world just under two years ago and Muguruza was world #1 in late 2017, so they are players to watch. The second quarter of the bracket features superstar-in-the-making Naomi Osaka, who managed to turn last year’s US Open into a coronation, losing just one set along the way. The 21 year-old Japanese (though she is a product of USA Tennis) player is going to be a star for a long, long time in this sport. Her path to the semis isn’t super fearsome, with Elina Svitolina and Madison Keys being the potential competitors but no one stands out.
The bottom half of the draw includes Stephens and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, as well as Angelique Kerber, who saw a dramatic revival last year after a catastrophically terrible 2017. Lurking in this half is Jelena Ostapenko, the 21 year-old Latvian who stunningly won the 2017 French Open but has yet to find the consistency necessary to be a top tier player. Kiki Bertens is a player I like on this half and she’s playing the best tennis of her life, at #9 in the world, the highest ranking of her career. She won Cincinnati last August and also made the quarters at Wimbledon. Maria Sharapova is still bouncing around, seeded 30th on this side of the draw and #15 seed Ashleigh Barty will be the hometown favorite, a 22 year-old Australian who is the Next Big Thing in Aussie tennis.
Intrigue Alert: I suppose I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but this is the first Australian Open to play a third set (and for men, fifth set) tiebreak. Rather than going on forever like always seems to happen at Wimbledon, the players will play a tiebreak to 10 points, with the usual win by two rules applying, instead of a never-ending final set like old.
The Pick: This one is tough. Osaka’s performance in New York was unforgettable, but she also hasn’t showed the consistency to make her a safe pick, yet. It’s also going to be hard to pick against Serena, since she’s made two straight finals and is looking to tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam titles record. Angry Serena is the most unstoppable player in tennis history, but she is 37 years old. This is such a stab-in-the-dark, but I think I’m going to pick an Angelique Kerber vs. Osaka final, with the German taking it home. There’ve been rumblings about how good Kerber has looked in the matches leading up to this tournament and she’s won down under before. Thus, she’s my pick in a wide open field.