Conor Byrne previews the Australian Open, and assesses some of the hopefuls chances:
On 19 January, the 2015 Australian Open will kick off in Melbourne. Last year’s tournament was packed with surprise victories and stunning upsets. Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, and the recently retired Li Na of China, were crowned champions in the men’s and women’s events. Few predicted a Wawrinka victory, while few could see past the menacing figure of Williams, five times a champion in Melbourne. Will this year’s tournament be every bit as surprising, or will the champions of the men’s and women’s singles events be just who we expected to win?
Starting off with the men’s tournament: Novak Djokovic, as world no.1 and champion in Melbourne in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013, is red hot favourite to win the men’s singles event yet again. The Australian Open is by far the Serb’s most successful Grand Slam event. There is just something about those blue Melbourne courts that sits well with Djokovic. The Serb will also be pleased with his draw: although he has the potentially tricky Fernando Verdasco and John Isner early on, and a potential quarter-final match with big server Milos Raonic, in comparison with the challenging bottom half of the draw, he has a comfortable route to the final.
Having said that, defending champion Wawrinka is in Djokovic’s draw, and beat the Serb in a sensational five-set quarter-final match last year en route to the title. The Swiss has an even better looking draw than Djokovic, and should face last year’s US Open finalist Kei Nishikori of Japan in the quarter-finals, although roadrunner David Ferrer of Spain, who has been ranked as high as #3 in the world, might have something to say about that.
By contrast, the bottom half of the draw is breathtakingly difficult, and whoever reaches the final from that half will have achieved something special. 2010 Wimbledon finalist and #7 seed Tomas Berdych sits at the top of the draw and is drawn to face 2009 champion Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals. While Berdych is in excellent form, having reached the final of a warm-up event in Qatar at the start of the year, Nadal’s first round defeat at the same tournament serves only to raise further questions about the Spaniard’s future in the game. Having been out of action last year from July to October, the Spaniard faces a challenging first round match against Mikhail Youzhny, who has been ranked in the top ten. Nadal, however, is renowned for his resilience and determination, especially when the odds are against him, and given that he has won in Melbourne before, he cannot be ruled out.
Andy Murray, seeded #6 this year, will not be displeased with his draw, although he faces a potentially intriguing fourth round match against #10 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who defeated him in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon last year. The Brit is seeded to meet #2 seed and four-time champion Roger Federer in the quarter-finals. Murray reached the final in Melbourne in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and so will be eager to finally get his hands on the trophy. Federer, however, will have something to say about that, and the Swiss is in excellent form, having notched up his 1000th career win in Brisbane a few weeks ago.
Prediction: Djokovic  d. Federer  in the final.
Serena Williams has more Grand Slam victories than any other active player. The American won her 18th major in New York last summer, leveling her with WTA greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Serena remains hungry for success, informing the press that she wants this title more than anyone else. It’s not hard to see why: Williams last won in Melbourne in 2010. She missed the tournament the following year because of injury, and was defeated early on in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by inspired opponents. At 33, the American is not short of motivation, but younger players are catching up with her. Serena’s form in the recent Hopman Cup was questionable, dropping a 6-0 set to Italian Flavia Pennetta, and losing to young guns Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Her draw is packed with a host of difficult opponents: former #1 Jelena Jankovic, 2012 and 2013 champion Victoria Azarenka, and 2014 US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, who pushed the American to the brink in all of their meetings last year. Although Williams cannot be ruled out, her position as favourite is less strong this year.
Russian Maria Sharapova won her fifth major at the French Open last year and seems more determined and motivated than ever. She was crowned champion in Brisbane alongside Federer at the beginning of the year. The Russian has a more comfortable draw than Williams, although an intriguing potential quarterfinal against Bouchard awaits. Sharapova last won in Melbourne in 2008 and suffered a surprising loss last year to eventual finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Expect Sharapova to be in the latter stages of the tournament: against anyone but Serena, she is a clear favourite.
Simona Halep reached the final of the French Open last year and is officially the most popular WTA player among fans, having been clicked on more than anyone else. The Romanian also reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year and reached a career high ranking of #2 in the summer. Having won her ninth career title in Shenzhen at the start of 2015, Halep should be seen as one of the favourites, although her lack of power and her dubious head-to-head records against Williams and Sharapova means that questions remain about her mental strength.
Similarly, #4 seed Petra Kvitova has all the weapons necessary to win in Melbourne, having twice won Wimbledon and having reached the semis of the 2012 Australian Open. The Czech impressively won her fifteenth career title in Sydney a week before the Australian Open. Her draw, however, is tricky: she potentially awaits Andrea Petkovic or Sam Stosur in the fourth round and either Venus Williams or Radwanska in the quarters. The Pole is in excellent form, having won the Hopman Cup this year alongside Jerzy Janowicz, and notched her first win over Williams en route. Radwanska reached the semis of last year’s Australian Open, and her style of play suits the courts, having won trophies in Auckland and Sydney before.
Ana Ivanovic reached the final of the 2008 tournament, and is one of the most popular players on tour. After years in the wilderness, the Serb enjoyed resurgence last year, reaching #5 in the world and winning more matches than anyone else. This included four titles and wins against Williams and Sharapova. The courts in Melbourne are well suited to Ivanovic’s aggressive game. However, her draw is not to be envied: she potentially awaits #10 seed Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round (who defeated her at the same tournament in 2011), or Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Ivanovic at last year’s US Open and is in red-hot form, having reached the Sydney final last week. Canadian Eugenie Bouchard reached the semis of last year’s tournament, beating Ivanovic en route, and went on to make the Wimbledon final in the summer.
The 20-year old has been compared to Sharapova, both in her looks and style of play. Whether she can build on her tremendous success of last year remains to be seen. Wozniacki made the semis in 2011, but the injury that forced her to pull out of the Sydney warm-up event, alongside her lack of success against Williams, means that it’s uncertain whether she will go all the way in Melbourne. Former champion Azarenka could face Wozniacki in the second round, a mouth-watering clash. The Belarusian is almost unrivalled in her intensity and focus, but her recent lack of form means it’s unlikely she’ll be crowned champion on 31 January.
Prediction: Sharapova  d. Kvitova  in the final.bookmark me