The first major of the year gets under way in Melbourne on January 17th, so after a volatile 2016, what lies in store Down Under?
When Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray to win his sixth Australian Open title and 11th major crown last January, it seemed as though the world number one was so far ahead of his competition that it was inevitable he would still be at the summit come the close of the year.
After the Serbian again bested Murray in the French Open final in June – completing the ‘Career Grand Slam’ of all four majors in the process – it was then deemed not a matter of if, but when Djokovic would eventually pass Nadal and Federer’s haul of championships and ultimately be revered as the G.O.A.T of Men’s tennis. More than 8,000 points ahead of number two Murray at that point, anyone who suggested that his ranking might come under threat in the following 12 months would have been viewed as much a fantasist as those who once said a British man could win Wimbledon.
When Angelique Kerber defeated six-time champion Serena Williams to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in the final of last year’s tournament – her first grand slam – it was seen as a blip in Serena’s quest to catch Margaret Court’s record tally of major championships. Again, no one envisioned that by the end of the year we could have a new women’s world number one either, such was Serena’s dominance of the women’s game at almost every tournament she elected to take part in.
On both tours the landscape changed dramatically however, and here we kick off 2017 with Murray and Kerber the number one ranked players in the ATP and WTA respectively.
Public perception is therefore very different to this time last year as attention returns to Melbourne Park. So what can we expect of this year’s Australian Open?
Here are Left Field Sport’s predictions for next week’s tournament:
Angelique Kerber will struggle
The world number one and defending champion has been a little out of sorts since lifting her second major at last year’s US Open, though Kerber did finish as runner up at the WTA Tour Finals in November, where she was beaten in straight sets by Dominika Cibulkova. In her first outing of 2017, the German was fortunate to make the Brisbane quarterfinals after an uninspiring three-set win over wild card Ashleigh Bart, before being dumped out in the last eight by Elina Svitolina. It may be a case of burn-out after her hugely successful 2016, but right now Kerber doesn’t look like the same player who won in Melbourne last year.
With her dwindling form and the return of a certain Serena Williams to action, there is a lot of pressure on Kerber’s number one ranking and that will only intensify when she returns to the site of her first major victory. It’s a hunch, but don’t be surprised if Kerber makes an early rounds exit. Amidst all that pressure and adversity, it will be an impressive achievement if she does retain her title.
Serena Williams will not reach the final
Serena enters the tournament as favourite, despite her only competitive tennis since the US Open coming last week in Auckland, where she lost her second round match to world no.72 Madison Brengle. That said, she’s always been a big game player and for a number of years now focused almost entirely on the major events. There’s a danger in writing Serena off at any grand slam, such is the gulf between her and the rest of the women’s field when she is at her best, but there may also increasingly be a factor now of the balancing act between her getting enough matches to be at her best, whilst not playing too often and wearing down her body at age 35.
Two matches and relatively little court time isn’t ideal preparation and as well as possible distractions in her personal life – including media coverage of her recent engagement – there’s a good chance that Serena will have to wait a little longer to surpass Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 majors. She’ll likely achieve that feat at Wimbledon later this year, setting up an opportunity to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record (24) at the US Open.
Dominika Cibulkova or Karolina Pliskova will win the Australian Open women’s title
To be honest, the women’s field looks wide open at the moment. It seems long overdue that Simona Halep will break through to win a slam and you certainly can’t write her off, but she’s typically found it tougher in Australia than at the other majors. A week ahead of the tournament, with Agnieszka Radwanska struggling for form and Garbine Muguruza a doubt with injury concerns, Cibulkova and Karolina Pliskova seem like the ripest of the outside picks.
Cibulkova of course triumphed at the WTA finals to finish world No. 5 in 2016 after starting the year at No. 38, while Pliskova won Cincinnati and reached the final of the US Open last year. She started 2017 by winning Brisbane last week, blitzing Alize Cornet 6-0, 6-3 in the final, in the process leapfrogging Cibulkova in the rankings to reach Melbourne as the No. 5 player.
Both seem to be entering the prime of their careers and play their best tennis on hard courts, so if the tournament does see the earlier-than-expected casualties of Kerber and Williams, the draw should open up for one of these two.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will cross paths
Stand by for episode thirty-five of the greatest rivalry in tennis history, although this time round it will be under very different circumstances. Federer and Nadal, who have battled in eight grand slam finals, might be on course to meet in the Australian Open. Due to their current rankings however, it could be in one of the early rounds.
Nadal has dropped to world No. 9 and will therefore likely enter as the ninth seed, whilst Federer – who took the second half of last year off after knee surgery – returns to the first major of 2017 as the world No. 17. All eyes will be on the draw this Friday, where a computer will ultimately decide their fates. Federer’s reduced ranking means he could draw one of the big guns early in the tournament. Going on previous draws, a number 9 seed is highly likely to meet the number 17 seed in the third round providing they both get there and are in the same half of the draw. With Nadal and Federer not being your typical occupants of those seedings, you’d expect them to navigate their way through the first two rounds unharmed.
Alexander Zverev will continue to impress, but will exit before the quarterfinals
The youngest player inside the ATP top 50, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev continues to attract attention and acclaim as ‘The Next Big Thing’ in men’s tennis. Zverev broke into the top 20 last year after an impressive run during the hard court season and beat Stan Wawrinka to win his first ATP title at the St. Petersburg Open. Ranked No.24 at the start of 2017, last week he beat Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup.
Having also shown glimpses of his precocious ability on grass and clay, it’s likely that Zverev will soon develop into an all-court threat capable of going deep at any major, but to this point that’s where he has faltered; in his impressive 2016 he reached the third round of the French Open and Wimbledon, to date his only ventures past the second round of a grand slam. It’s possible he does not yet have the consistency to excel in back-to-back five-set matches, but that will come as he continues to improve and gain experience.
Expect Zverev to show his potential in Melbourne and maybe score an early-rounds upset, but a venture into the tournament’s second week is a big ask.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will contest the men’s final… again
Just as Federer and Nadal contested most major finals during their glorious prime, we are currently in the midst of the Djokovic-Murray era and all signs would point to another final meeting here. They have met in the Australian Open Final 4 times previous, with Djokovic the victor on each occasion. Last year, alongside the accelerated decline of Federer and Nadal, Djokovic and Murray clearly separated themselves from the rest of the field at most events and significantly in the rankings.
And Djokovic will win…
Djokovic has won this event for five of the past six years and despite his decline in recent months, he’s still world No. 2, coming into the tournament off the back of a confidence-boosting win over Murray in Doha. The Scot will of course be determined to win his first Australian title after finishing runner-up for five of the past seven years (also losing to Federer in the 2010 final), but Djokovic remains the man to beat in Melbourne.
And the Serb won’t be beaten here.