Monday marks the start of the first Grand Slam of 2019. As always, there’s plenty of news ahead of the commencement of action at Melbourne Park, none more so this year than Andy Murray’s shock announcement that the 2019 Australian Open could be the Scot’s final tournament.
Can Murray finish on a high? Will he in fact retire after the tournament? Read on to find out my thoughts on both questions, along with my predictions as to what will unfold in the men’s and women’s singles over the next fortnight of action.
The present state and the (predicted) future state of men’s tennis can be summarised with a couple of much-used terms. The “Big Four” of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray (or “Big Five”, if you include the enigmatic Stan Wawrinka) have dominated the majors over the past decade or so. At some stage, their dominance has to end, and in this regard the “Next Gen” group of players have been identified as players likely to succeed once these four (or five) legends of the sport finally retire (or at least fall back to the pack). Talents such as Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem all form part of the “Next Gen”, although none has made a real impact at a major, except for clay-court specialist Thiem and his run to the French Open final last year.
At this point in time, the “Big Five” (let’s be generous and include Wawrinka for his trio of major titles) has effectively been whittled down to a “Big Two” – at least for the purposes of forecasting the winner of this year’s Australian Open. Wawrinka, Murray and Nadal are all on the return from injury, with Murray’s retirement seemingly imminent, Nadal’s body seemingly still very brittle and Wawrinka clearly a long way from his explosive best. I can’t see Murray or Wawrinka doing a whole lot in this tournament, though I do think Murray will keep playing and try to make it to Wimbledon, where he is two-time winner and where an appropriate celebration of his wonderful career would certainly be arranged.
Nadal, on the other hand, has battled injuries throughout his career and is a master at bouncing back from serious setbacks. The Spaniard has been handed a fairly helpful draw and I think he will grit and grind his way to a decent showing, making the round of 16 at least and perhaps even the quarters or semis. Federer, however, is in the same half as his great rival Nadal and the Swiss master is not only the two-time defending champion, he’s also in excellent form, having recently captured the Hopman Cup with Belinda Bencic without losing a singles match.
I predict Federer will make it through to the final and face 2018’s comeback king, Novak Djokovic. The Serb had a remarkable end to last season, winning Wimbledon and the US Open and resuming the kind of dominance that had made him the world’s best player for several seasons. Djokovic has some tricky potential match-ups, including Tsonga in round two and Shapovalov in round three, but I think the top seed will rise to the occasion in each case.
Of the “Next Gen”, I think Zverev has the best chance, but I’m still not convinced that the German has the fitness and stamina to grind out wins over five sets in the brutal Australian heat – last year’s loss to Chung being a prime case in point. With Lendl in his camp, Zverev will be more professional and focused, and I have no doubt he’s a major champion in the making, but I do think that his time is not here quite yet.
A Djokovic-Federer final would be a surefire crowd-pleaser, and I can’t see much separating the pair. I’ll back Djokovic in a tight one, based on the Serb’s terrific end to 2018.
Winner: Novak Djokovic
Finalist: Roger Federer
Outside Chance: Nadal, Cilic, Zverev
If the last few years in the women’s game have taught us anything, it’s that Grand Slam champions can come from anywhere. There have been success stories for long-time fighters, such as Halep and Wozniacki, turnaround acts like the one completed by Sloane Stephens, and the emergence of new stars, such as Jelena Ostapenko and Naomi Osaka.
Accordingly, it feels trite but true to say that this year’s Australian Open women’s singles tournament is a wide-open affair. That said, to my mind top seed Simona Halep isn’t fit enough to lift the crown, with the Romanian’s nagging back problems causing her movement problems. I also don’t think Caroline Wozniacki will be able to repeat her 2018 triumph, the Dane having been recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
As usual, Serena Williams is capturing plenty of headlines and the American superstar is a good chance to do well in the tournament. Seeded sixteenth and in Halep’s quarter of the draw, I can see Williams improving with each match and being a major danger at the business end of the tournament. Williams may get a chance to avenge her loss to Osaka in New York last year should the pair meet in the semi-finals. I’m not convinced that US Open champion Osaka will handle the pressure of being a major champion that well, but the Japanese star has an abundance of talent and is certainly capable of winning the title if she can get herself together mentally.
Other dangerous dark horses in the tournament include the Ukrainian Svitolina, who is desperate to register a breakout Grand Slam performance, and the local hope Ashley Barty, who provides the Australian public with their best hope of a women’s singles champion in a long time. I also rate the prospects of the Russian Kasatkina, who has a crafty game and a sharp tactical mind. My pick for the women’s title however is German Angelique Kerber. A former champion in Melbourne and last year’s Wimbledon winner, Kerber looks fit and confident at the moment and she loves the pace and bounce of the courts at Melbourne Park. In 2016, her Australian Open title was a huge surprise; if Kerber collects a second trophy this year it will be far less of a surprise.
Winner: Angelique Kerber
Finalist: Serena Williams
Outside Chance: Osaka, Kasatkina, Svitolina
That’s it in terms of my predictions for this year’s Australian Open. Enjoy the fortnight of tennis from Melbourne Park and keep up to date with my additional thoughts as the action unfolds on Twitter: @satelliteserve.