Time now for a long-awaited Australian open preview! We’ve now had a couple of warm-up tournaments to look at the potential contenders, and some predictions are in order for the year’s first Grand Slam. Firstly, in the warm-up tournaments, aging hometown hero Lleyton Hewitt took down perennial contender and champion Roger Federer, so don’t be surprised if Hewitt makes a Jimmy Connors-like run through the first few rounds, but eventually he’ll hit a superior opponent who takes him out. As mentioned and predicted, Juan Martín del Potro has continued to look strong, so look for him to contend for the title. Other winners on the men’s side included Rafael Nadal (expectedly) and John Isner (unexpectedly), especially considered he beat the man who eliminated him in Flushing a few months ago, Philipp Kohlschreiber. It could be the turning point that finally propels the big-serving American to his first Grand Slam semifinal appearance.
For the women, Serena Williams continued her strong play, beating chief rival Victoria Azarenka, at the Brisbane International. Other results don’t reveal much about the accuracy of the draw, as many of the top competitors and serious contenders for the title skipped the other warmups. Now, it’s possible that someone expected will get hot. But look for Williams and Azarenka to duke it out in a couple of weeks. Li Na could get there, I’m just not banking on it quite yet.
One thing to remember about tennis in Melbourne Park: it’s hot. It being Australia, we’re in the middle of summer while those of us in the northern hemisphere are freezing away in many cases. It’s always a factor for many of the less-well conditioned players, like Novak Djoković once was. He infamously retired or called for trainers often while down, something that didn’t do much to endear him to the crowds, before he started winning.
Look for Djoković to continue his strong play down under. He’s now won three straight titles, to complement the one he picked up in 2008 when Roger Federer was the two-time defending champ and played through mononucleosis. The story for the men will of course be how Rafael Nadal looks, and whether or not he can continue his breakneck pace from last season. He’ll be helped by his draw, which is favorable, and shouldn’t impact him much until the semifinals. Federer has rested the back issues that plagued him all season, so it will be interesting to see how much of his poor play was because of that and how much was just his inevitable decline. He’s in a loaded half of the draw, so look for his play to dictate how well he’s feeling, and not necessarily his results. A recent racket change will also be a big factor for him: the larger head that he switched to will doubtless compensate somewhat for his diminished skills and inability of his body and shotmaking to do what they once could.
As I mentioned before, Serena Williams is on an all-time tear. Anything that she can do at this point is gravy. The legend has already been established. She’s already one of the best ever. To continue outclassing her rivals is the stuff of greatness. She wasn’t quite at this point at this time last year, as evidenced by her earlier exit in the Aussie Open. Victoria Azarenka, with her powerful ground game and excellent footwork, has always played well in Melbourne, and has to be considered a likely candidate for a third straight title. But Williams is the favorite until someone beats her consistently. eMaria Sharapova does not even have a chance, in my not-so-expert opinion. It’s not that she doesn’t have the chops to hang with her, it’s that she has to play great and Serena has to play terribly for the field to have a chance, she’s that much better. They’re scared of her, too. You can see it when they play her. Predictions will evolve as true tournament progresses, but I can’t pick against Serena until someone proves she can beat her. She has the best serve in the game, and can adapt it to tough conditions as we saw in New York, under the toughest and most pressurized situations. Her backhand leaves her at times, but that forehand is superb. She’s lost a step or so over the years, but has made up for her diminished ability to cover the court with her blistering speed and control. She’s the one.
On the doubles side of the draw, regularity reigns. The Bryan brothers ended the season on a somewhat sour note, losing at the US Open and the Tour Finals, but they aren’t going away anytime soon and were enjoying their most historic season yet when they bowed out in Flushing. The team of Bruno Soares and Alexander Peya will be in it, too. I saw these guys live, and they deserve all the credit in the world for being resilient. They were down a set to James Blake and Jack Sock with a highly emotional crowd pulling like crazy for Blake in what could have been (and was) his last match, and stuck to their game, avoided playing into the superior ground strokes of their opponents, and never lost their composure even when down a break. They volleyed well and overpowered the error-prone Americans. Look for the usual consistency of Leander Paes and usual partner Radek Stepanek here as well. They always hang around and have superb reflexes.
For the women, look for the Williams sisters, unsurprisingly. It’s theirs to lose, as it always is. When they’re on their game, it is a beautiful thing to see. They know each other’s games so well at this point that it almost seems unfair. They rarely have miscues, and always switch and finish exceptionally well. There is nothing else to say other than watch out, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani (this year’s one-seed).
Get ready for fun-loving crowds, scorching temperatures, and world-class tennis. I can’t wait.