Every January on the hard courts of Melbourne, the best players in the world of men's and women's tennis assemble for the first major tournament of the year at the Australian Open. They face a sizable challenge to be fully prepared after the off season, heading to the land "Down Under" over the holidays, honing their games over a brief span of exhibitions and official events on the ATP and WTA Tours, trying to round into their best form swiftly.
They know that peaking right out of the gates is no facile task, but the fact remains that everyone is in the same boat. Moreover, even with extreme heat always a distinct possibility, the "Happy Slam" has earned that label by treating both the players and public in the most congenial fashion possible, and putting on an exceedingly good show.
This time around, forecasting the fortnight is considerably more difficult than usual, particularly among the women. The two top-ranked players must be regarded as the clear favorites, with No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber and No. 2 Serena Williams determined to succeed at the start of a brand new season. But both the left-handed German and the explosive American displayed striking vulnerability as they set their sights on Melbourne.
Williams took the entire autumn WTA Tour campaign off in 2016 to nurse some injuries and refresh her mind, and then returned in Auckland looking rusty, disconcerted and uncomfortable, making 88 unforced errors in a surprising three set, round of 16 defeat against countrywoman Madison Brengle. Kerber was disgruntled about her showing in Brisbane, where she lost in the quarterfinals to Elina Svitolina. Worsening her plight, she was ousted in the second round of Sydney the following week by the Russian Daria Kasatkina, then the No. 26 ranked player in the world.
Kerber, who turns 29 on January 18, has entered a different realm in her career. Prior to 2016, she had never won a major or even reached a final, but last year she captured two Grand Slam titles and made it to the title round in another. Now she is defending her crown in Melbourne, and that might be a burdensome experience for a woman who is already very hard on herself. As for Williams, she is hoping to eclipse Steffi Graf and secure a 23rd Grand Slam singles title, which would place the 35-year-old American only one championship behind the all time female leader, the stately Margaret Smith Court.
The woman who must be regarded as the clear third most likely to succeed is none other than Karolina Pliskova, who moved up to No. 5 in the world after winning the crown in Brisbane during the first week of January. Pliskova is not the biggest server in women's tennis, but she is the most deceptive. In the 61 matches she played during 2016, Pliskova was the WTA Tour leader with 530 aces. In 2015, she also finished No. 1 in that category with 517 aces in 75 matches. She owns one of the game's finest forehands. On the run off that side she can be deadly. In her last Grand Slam tournament, the 24-year-old reached her first major final at the U.S. Open and lost narrowly to Kerber in three entertaining sets. I would not be the least bit surprised if she claims the crown in Melbourne, although the early rounds could be treacherous for her.
Meanwhile, the men's event figures to be particularly compelling this time around. The reasons are innumerable. Novak Djokovic will be trying to make history of the highest order. He is attempting to break a tie for the all-time male record with the revered Roy Emerson by winning a seventh singles title. In the last nine years, the Serbian has suffered merely three defeats (all in the quarterfinals)—to Stan Wawrinka in an epic five set showdown in 2014, to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a 2010 five set skirmish, and to Andy Roddick in 2009, when he retired early in the fourth set on a stifling afternoon after trailing two sets to one.
Djokovic established himself nobly as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep four consecutive majors when he captured Roland Garros last year. But then he was ushered out of Wimbledon in the third round by Sam Querrey before losing a physically brutal and mentally taxing four set final at the U.S. Open to Wawrinka. Djokovic concluded 2016 on a humbling downswing but the view here is that his recent triumphant run in Doha was just what the doctor would have ordered to repair his wounded psyche and approach the Australian Open in the right frame of mind. I make him the slight favorite to take the top honor because he always seems to find the magic in the season's leadoff major.
And yet, Andy Murray's standards as a competitor have never been so extraordinary. He will be the top seed for the first time ever in a Grand Slam event. He had a scintillating record at the majors in 2016, finishing as the runner-up to Djokovic at the Australian and French Opens, winning his second Wimbledon title, reaching the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. Now he returns to a venue where he has shined brightly on so many occasions. Altogether, Murray has been to the final round five times across the last seven years in Melbourne, losing four of those battles to Djokovic, bowing once against Roger Federer. He comes into the upcoming edition of the tournament thoroughly prepared. Although he was beaten in the Doha final by Djokovic, Murray surely benefitted from playing five matches there. The way I envision it, only Djokovic can deny the British player the prize he covets so dearly.
While Djokovic and Murray must be classified as the prohibitive front runners this year to ultimately prevail in Rod Laver Arena, two other men stand a notch behind them as serious candidates for success. Wawrinka has now won a Grand Slam championship in each of the last three seasons, starting with his 2014 Australian Open victory, continuing at the French Open in 2015 and concluding with the sparkling fortnight he celebrated at Flushing Meadows last summer.
The 31-year-old Swiss is now among the upper crust and a genuine threat every time he plays a Grand Slam tournament. He could be more vulnerable than other leading players in the first couple of rounds, but the deeper he goes in the draw, the more dangerous this burly man becomes. He is 3-0 in major finals, defeating Rafael Nadal once and Djokovic twice. In my estimation, Wawrinka stands at No. 3 among the favorites for the first Grand Slam title of 2017.
Right behind the Swiss is the steadily evolving yet enduringly enigmatic Milos Raonic, who is seeded one place above Wawrinka. Raonic made serious inroads on the sport's premier stages in 2016, advancing to the penultimate round of the Australian Open and losing a five set confrontation against Murray in Melbourne, surging into his first "Big Four" final at Wimbledon, where he was upended by Murray again. Raonic just might be ready at last to secure his first major crown. His largest drawback is a somewhat alarming susceptibility to injuries. A leg issue last year was a critical factor in Raonic's loss to Murray; all through the fifth set of that gripping clash, his mobility was significantly impaired.
To be sure, luminaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will make their presence known in Melbourne despite being seeded so low. Federer has won the Australian Open four times, but last secured the crown in 2010. He has not played an official tournament since losing to Raonic in July at Wimbledon in the semifinals. He will undoubtedly be inspired by being back to perform in his 69th career major and his 18th in a row at the Australian Open. He will be highly charged and revitalized, exhilarated and deeply determined, and buoyed by crowds that will cheer his every move effusively.
And yet, the fact remains that he needs to play his way back toward the top of his game and that will require more time and additional match play to do that. Federer gifts will not be gone at 35 but inevitably he will not be as sure of his form day in and day out, and match by match in Melbourne.
Nadal took most of the autumn off to work on his game in practice and heal an ailing wrist rather than compete in tournaments down the stretch. He has endured too many absences these last couple of seasons and nowadays does not seem to be the same big match player he once was. Four matches spring to my mind that are illustrative of his current predicament. He was beaten in five sets by Fernando Verdasco in the first round of the Australian Open last year despite leading by a break early in the fifth set. He had openings to oust Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals of the Olympics over the summer but was beaten in a final set tie-break by the towering Argentine. At the U.S Open he led 4-3, 30-0 in the fifth set in the fourth round against Lucas Pouille but allowed the Frenchman to shake free in a tie-break.
The charismatic Spaniard took on Raonic in the quarterfinals of Brisbane the week before last and Nadal was up 5-3 in the first set. With Raonic serving in the ninth game, Nadal had a couple of set points, but missed a routine inside out forehand on one of them.Although he closed out the set 6-4, he had squandered the chance to start serving in the second set. Raonic was not broken again and he toppled Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. These losses are becoming part of a worrisome pattern. Nadal may well find his range in Melbourne and be a factor, but can the 2009 champion come though again on one of the premier stages? I have my doubts.
Others who could make an impression include world No. 5 Kei Nishikori, No. 6 Gael Monfils and No. 7 Marin Cilic. The latter may well be the most dangerous member of that trio. The 2014 U.S. Open champion is playing the best sustained tennis of his career. He beat both Murray and Djokovic in 2016. He can account for anyone when his serve is at peak efficiency. Monfils is coming off a semifinal appearance at his last major in New York and his level of consistency has improved, but he can still injure himself needlessly with inexplicably bad shot selection overall and demonstrably questionable decision making on the vital points. Nishikori is a dynamic shotmaker and a perennial contender at the majors, but will he ever win one? I thought a year or two ago that he would, but am beginning to doubt it now.
Meanwhile, No. 8 seed Dominic Thiem will try to live up to his top ten status and recover the inspiration he had for much of last year until exhaustion set in and his performance level declined. A much more confident individual at the moment is Germany's remarkably versatile and unmistakably ferocious Alexander Zverev. He and the Australian Nick Kyrgios are two enormously talented players who could make any of the leading competitors apprehensive on any given day over the fortnight. Kyrgios might get a crack at Wawrinka in the round of 16, and that showdown would be a beauty.
Aside from Kerber, Williams and Pliskova, which women figure to play prominent roles in Melbourne? Clearly, world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has the skills and the motivation to more fully exploit her match playing potential. She will be 28 in March and delights everyone from the casual sports fan to the tennis cognoscenti with her large imagination, match playing ingenuity and intuitive counter-attacking acumen. In two of the past three years, she has been a semifinalist. Since 2011, she has only once failed to reach the quarterfinals. Under the right circumstances this year, Radwanska just might find herself in the final of a major for the first time.
Other veterans who have the propensity to do some damage include the diminutive yet ever perspicacious Dominika Cibulkova and the wily Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. Cibulkova feeds off pace as well as anyone in women's tennis. She was a finalist at the 2014 Australian Open and now, coming off an important win last fall at the season ending WTA Finals, she is poised to back up that achievement with an impressive showing in Melbourne. As for Kuznetsova, at 31 she remains formidable. The Russian is among the most complete players in the sport. Victorious at the 2004 U.S. Open and triumphant again at the French Open of 2009, Kuznetsova knows how to navigate the process of surviving seven matches across a fortnight at a Grand Slam event. Yet this sporadically fragile competitor can get in her own way at times.
The draw will as always be a significant part of the proceedings. Murray should meet either Nishikori or Federer in the quarterfinals. Either way he will be tested. Nishikori toppled Murray in a riveting five set quarterfinal at the U.S. Open last year and nearly beat the British competitor again at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in the round robin. Federer has dominated Murray the last couple of years. But could he impose himself as persuasively now against a decidedly more confident Murray after so long away from the game in a bruising, best of five set skirmish? Consider me skeptical. Murray might well meet Wawrinka in the semifinals.
On the opposite half, Djokovic must deal with the wildly unpredictable Verdasco in the first round. The Spanish left-hander had five match points against the Serbian in the semifinals of Doha before losing an agonizing encounter. Djokovic is unlikely to let his guard down this time. The No. 2 seed could well have a difficult clash with No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16. Dimitrov just won the tournament in Brisbane.
If all goes well, Djokovic could take on Raonic in the semifinals, although Nadal might just make it to a penultimate round meeting with the man who beat him in an epic, five hour, fifty three minute final in 2012, a fellow named Djokovic. But the Spaniard will almost surely have a third round appointment against No. 24 seed Zverev, and that one has five sets written all over it. Nadal will need to exploit his vast experience and extraordinary match playing acuity to the hilt if he is going to prevail over the magnificent German.
As for the women, the quarterfinals figure to pit Kerber versus No. 7 seed Garbine Muguuza; No.4 Simona Halep against No. 8 Kuznetsova; No. 5 Pliskova meeting No. 3 Radwanska in a battle tailor made for the cognoscenti; and No. 2 Williams confronting the sprightly No. 6 seed Cibulkova. Looking at that lineup, Kerber and Williams would like their chances. But Pliskova knocked Williams out of the U.S. Open last year in the semifinals and would have no qualms about revisiting that lofty level once more.Williams, of course, has to tend to her knitting carefully. She could face Lucie Safarova in a dangerous second round match, and there will be other emotionally taxing tussles.The same could well hold true for Kerber.
No matter what transpires, though, this is going to be a tournament that fans will celebrate incorrigibly in many different ways for a multitude of reasons. I am eager to see it all unfold in my second visit to the land "Down Under."