Precisely half of his ten triumphs at Grand Slam championships have occurred at the Australian Open. He took his first title (and first major) there back in 2008, and since 2011 he has been beaten only once at that venue. The hard courts “Down Under” suit him to the hilt, even more than those at the U.S. Open. The night matches down the stretch are entirely to his liking. The conditions are ideal for the game’s ultimate all surface player, and he seems primed to collect another of the sport’s premier prizes in the fortnight ahead.
Selecting a clear favorite for the women is a far more arduous task. To be sure, Serena Williams stands alone at the top of the women’s game. She is the defending champion. She has won four of the last five majors, and was only three sets away from winning the Grand Slam last year. At her best, she is better than anyone else.
But she did not play a tournament in 2015 after her shattering U.S. Open semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci. Preparing for the Australian Open, she had problems with an ailing knee and had to retire in her only match at the Hopman Cup. She is apparently healthy now, but her lack of match play and proper preparation will diminish her chances this time around in Melbourne. To capture a seventh crown “Down Under”, Williams will probably need more than her share of good fortune.
Due to the weight of her reputation, Williams may still be the favorite, especially with so many other leading players battling their own injury woes. The way I see it, this tournament is the most wide open major for the women in a very long time, with six or seven players having a decent chance to win it all.
Let’s examine the path of the top players and look at their draws, starting with the men. Djokovic seems to have a favorable draw. He may collide with Andreas Seppi in the third round. Seppi registered one of the biggest upsets of the Grand Slam season last year in Melbourne when he upended the four time Australian Open champion Roger Federer in the third round, but Djokovic will defeat the Italian in three or perhaps four sets. Gilles Simon—the perpetual pest with a limitless supply of ball control— figures to take on Djokovic in the round of 16, but the Serbian will account for the Frenchman in straight sets.
Kei Nishikori is seeded seventh many anticipate that he will face Djokovic in the quarterfinals, but his self conviction is wavering these days. I believe 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is going to defeat Nishikori in the round of 16, as long as he avoids a first round upset against the ever dangerous but enigmatic Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round. Baghdatis is 30 now and has left most of his best days behind him, but not necessarily all of them. The Cypriot has fond recollections of reaching the Australian Open final ten years ago. He will be inspired against Tsonga, but the Frenchman will prevail in four hard sets—at least the way I see it.
Tsonga should keep advancing past the likes of countryman Benoit Paire and Nishikori, although Nishikori may have his hands full if he meets Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the third round. In any case, Tsonga should confront Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and the world No. 1 will prevail comfortably despite possibly losing one set.
That puts Djokovic through to the penultimate round, where he should take on the No. 3 seed Federer. Federer’s draw is challenging yet not all that daunting. He could meet No. 27 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. The Bulgarian has been ascendant as of late, taking a set off Federer in Brisbane and reaching the final of Sydney, losing a heartbreaker there to Viktor Troicki in a final set tiebreak. Dimitrov will make Federer work diligently, but the Swiss will win in four sets.
Federer could be given a thorough test in the quarterfinals by 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. Cilic is seeded 12th at the Australian Open, and he has a potentially difficult third round skirmish against No. 24 seed Roberto Bautista Agut. Bautista Agut just won the title in Auckland, and is a tough competitor. Another formidable player in that section of the draw is the unseeded Borna Coric, and Cilic will probably need to tackle him in the second round. In any case, Cilic is my pick to get through that section, and then play either Nick Kyrgios or No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in the round of 16. Cilic might prefer to meet Berdych rather than the gifted and explosive Kyrgios, who would inevitably have the fans jumping out of their seats in recognition of his flaring temper and immense talent. Be that as it may, I pick Cilic to reach the quarters.
Federer could take on either Dominic Thiem or David Goffin in the round of 16. He will withstand either challenge. Confronting Cilic, however, will be a much taller task. In his blazing run through that 2014 U.S. Open, Cilic crushed Federer in a straight set semifinal. The conditions in Australia are slower than in New York, but if Cilic has a golden serving day like he did at the Open against the Swiss 16 months ago, he will be awfully hard to beat. Ultimately, though, Federer’s guile, fierce determination, vast experience and variety will carry him to an exhilarating five set victory.
That will set the stage for Djokovic versus Federer. They stand at 22-22 in their riveting career series. Djokovic has worked long and hard to reach this point in the rivalry. Federer, in turn, will walk on court with characteristic optimism. Djokovic will win the first set but Federer will recoup to take the second. The Serbian will be unstoppable thereafter, coming through commandingly in four sets to seal his place in the final. The depth of his ground game, the strength of his returns and some clutch serving will make the difference for Djokovic.
The opposite half of the draw will be fascinating. 2009 champion Rafael Nadal is seeded fifth this time around. He will cross paths with compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the first round, calling to mind their classic five hour, 14 minute, five set semifinal meeting seven years ago. Nadal will win this time more comfortably, perhaps in straight sets. He figures to face No. 11 seed Kevin Anderson in the round of 16, and that will be no simple assignment. But Nadal will get the job done in four sets. He will then have a quarterfinal appointment against Stan Wawrinka, the man who beat him in the 2014 final.
Wawrinka will need four tough sets to oust Jack Sock in the third round. In the round of 16, Wawrinka will find himself up against the resurgent Milos Raonic, who recently recorded only his second victory in eleven career meetings against Federer by ousting the Swiss 6-4, 6-4 in the final of Brisbane. Raonic and Wawrinka will have little to separate them in this gripping clash. It will go right down to the wire, but Wawrinka will prevail in five sets.
Nadal will be ready for a quarterfinal with Wawrinka in every way. The extreme wear and tear of a best of five set match will be to the Spaniard’s advantage. He will battle from behind to win in four sets, coaxing the Swiss into too many mistakes with his heavy topspin.
Andy Murray, meanwhile, will be somewhat preoccupied with the impending arrival of his first child, but he will keep his mind on his business when it matters. The No. 2 seed has been to the final in four of the previous six Australian Opens, falling thrice against Djokovic and once versus Federer. Murray has a terrific draw in my view. He should play Bernard Tomic in the round of 16, and either John Isner or David Ferrer in the quarters. Either way, the British warrior will make it to the semifinals.
In that penultimate round clash, Murray and Nadal will put on a dazzling show under the lights. Both men will be near peak efficiency. Murray will be opening up the court with his trademark two-handed backhand crosscourt, pulling Nadal wide as often as possible to create chances to attack down the line. Nadal will move his serve around skillfully and take control of points with brute force,unanswerable inside out forehands and uncanny precision. They will split the first two sets, and go to tie-breaks in the third and fourth. But Nadal will be the stronger man mentally. He will succeed in four spectacularly well played sets.
And so it will all come down to Djokovic and Nadal, ready to do battle in their 48th career showdown. Djokovic beat Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the recent final of Doha, and that may well have been the finest tennis match he has ever played. He now leads 24-23 over the indefatigable Spaniard. In this confrontation, Djokovic will be striking the ball meticulously from the back of the court, and his underrated first and second serves will also keep Nadal at bay.
For his part, Nadal will compete like the singularly unshakable fellow we all realize he is. He will play some top of the line tennis, but in the end Djokovic will be too masterful. The Serbian will secure a sixth Australian Open crown in straight sets with uncanny court craft and precision.
Let’s shift to the women’s draw. I make my prognostications with far more hesitancy. Serena Williams could well meet No. 16 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16, but the early rounds might be precarious territory for the 34-year-old American. I predict tenuously that Williams will somehow survive some rough contests and then outperform a persistent Wozniacki in three sets to make the quarterfinals. If the seedings hold up, the world No. 1 and top seed will play No. 5 seed Maria Sharapova in a rematch of the 2015 final.
But Sharapova has an exceedingly tough draw. She is expected to face No. 26 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, and either two-time major singles champion Svetlana Kuznetsova or No. 12 seed Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. I am going with Bencic. Moreover, I see Bencic toppling Williams in three sets when they do battle in the quarterfinals. She has accounted for Williams once before on hard courts, and she can do it again. Her backcourt consistency and match playing skills will be fully on display, and Williams will be outmaneuvered on this occasion.
Coming through to play Bencic in a semifinal will be No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who overcomes Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. The Polish stylist is back to her old winning ways, and her Australian Open record is stellar; in her last eight appearances, she has advanced four times to the quarterfinals and once to the semifinals. Radwanska is a defensive genius in many ways, but so, too, is the shrewd Bencic.
Their semifinal will be stirring, featuring absorbing rallies, major momentum shifts and superb tactical acuity on both sides of the net. Radwanska can expect to be pushed to her limits, but she will survive by the slimmest of margins, winning in three tightly tested sets.
The bottom half of the draw is every bit as hard to forecast as the top. The seedings tell us that No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber will confront No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza in the quarterfinals, but I believe 2012-2013 champion Victoria Azarenka—seeded 14th this year—will beat Muguruza and then topple Kerber. Azarenka will then find herself up against Simona Halep in the semifinals. At the U.S. Open last year in the quarterfinals, Halep ousted Azarenka in a close contest.
This time, Azarenka will establish herself as the better player. Under pressure, her forehand will hold up better than Halep’s, and she will be sturdier on the big points as well. Azarenka will beat Halep in two hard fought sets for a place in the final.
Azarenka and Radwanska will delight the fans with a high quality final. They will both be deeply motivated and highly charged, tactically agile and technically sound. Radwanska will take the first set comfortably before Azarenka finds her range. Gradually, Azarenka will elevate her game, impose her will, and gain the upper hand. She will become the Australian Open champion for the third time, and reemerge among the elite.
I am looking forward to it all. It will undoubtedly be a fortnight that will keep us captivated from beginning to end. It could be a magnificent fortnight, a hard court festival of the highest order, and a celebratory time for all of the sport’s closest followers. Something tells me that this Australian Open is going to be extraordinarily enticing.