by: Tom Cochrane
The year’s first major gets underway on Monday and, as usual, poses plenty of questions for tennis fans. Can new world number Andy Murray finally win the Australian Open after five unsuccessful trips to the final? Will Serena Williams and/or Novak Djokovic add a seventh Melbourne Park crown to their respective major collections? How will Roger Federer fare in his return to Grand Slam tennis? Just how will Angelique Kerber perform after a fairytale 2016? All will be revealed over the course of what promises to be an enthralling fortnight of tennis.
To my mind, there are only three realistic contenders for the men’s singles title at Melbourne Park this year. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have squared off in multiple Melbourne Park finals in the past, and are the two most consistent players on the ATP Tour at present. Stan Wawrinka, after capturing three majors in the last three years, is the other genuine title threat. The Swiss star has shown an ability to produce his best tennis on the sport’s biggest stages, and the pace and bounce of the Melbourne Park courts suit Wawrinka’s game. Wawrinka can be erratic, but if he is able to negotiate his way through the first week of the tournament then he will be a major danger in week two.
In my opinion, neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer has the match fitness at present to survive seven consecutive best-of-five matches, but I’m expecting both to perform creditably in this tournament. Federer looked good at the Hopman Cup in Perth, and will play qualifiers in rounds 1 and 2, but thereafter the going gets much tougher for the 17-time major winner, with Berdych a likely third round opponent. Nadal also has a pretty favourable draw and, given the vast experience held by both he and Federer, it’s fair to say that neither man can be definitively counted out in terms of title hopes.
In terms of dark horses in the men’s tournament, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori present the most compelling cases. Raonic is coming off the best year of his career in 2016, whilst Nishikori beat Murray at the US Open last year and had a good start to the year in Brisbane, making a run to the final before losing to Dimitrov. However, neither Raonic nor Nishikori has won a Grand Slam to date (although both have made finals), and I’m not convinced they have what it takes, at least at this stage, to go all the way in a field containing Murray and Djokovic.
Djokovic has a tough first round assignment against Verdasco, although I think the second seed will make a statement by winning this match with relative ease. Murray has an easier start to the tournament but tough match-ups are scheduled for later on, including predicted duels with Nishikori and Wawrinka.
After losing five finals in Melbourne, including four against Djokovic, it would be heartwarming to see Murray finally take the title and cement his position as world number one. Based on his form in the latter stages of 2016, I think the Scot can do it, notwithstanding the loss to Djokovic in Doha last week. As usual, Djokovic will be difficult to dethrone but I don’t think the Serb is currently in the same place mentally or physically as he was in the first half of 2016.
Winner: Andy Murray
Finalist: Novak Djokovic
Semi-finalists: Wawrinka, Raonic
Angelique Kerber had a breakout season in 2016, and the German’s sustained excellence throughout the majority of the season meant she was a well-deserved year-end world number one. Can Kerber maintain that level in 2017? I’m not so sure. 2016 saw the German make giant strides in terms of confidence, consistency and fitness, but I suspect the world number one will have a hard time staying at the top of the tree this year. I think Kerber will end 2017 in the top five, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her struggle, in relative terms, under the weight of increased expectations and additional off-court obligations.
Serena Williams had a relatively disappointing year in 2016 by her own incredibly lofty standards, the American superstar capturing just one major for the year from three finals appearances. I predict Williams will collect at least two majors in 2017, as she looks to cement her place in history as one of the greatest players of all time.
Karolina Pliskova proved in New York last year that she has the game to win a major and, whilst the Czech ultimately came up short against Kerber in the US Open final, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her crowned a Grand Slam champion in the coming years. Pliskova was impressive in claiming the Brisbane International title a week ago and, if her big serve is firing, the Czech is very difficult to beat.
Dark horses in the women’s tournament include Dominika Cibulkova, who had a terrific end to 2016 and who is a former Australian Open finalist, Svetlana Kuznetsova, the rejuvenated Russian veteran, and Brit Jo Konta, who underlined her title credentials with a win over Aga Radwanska to capture the Sydney title. Radwanska, along with fellow seeds Halep and Muguruza, could make deep runs in the tournament, but none of them is a genuine title contender in my opinion.
Williams has a tricky opening match, squaring off against former world number seven Belinda Bencic in the opening round. Assuming she can get past the Swiss player, Williams would then face Yanina Wickmayer or Lucie Safarova in round 2. I actually think the tough draw will serve to focus the newly engaged Williams on the job at hand and, whilst the American did look rusty in Auckland, I expect she will scrap her way into week two of the tournament and elevate her game at the business end of the tournament. I’m backing Williams to gain revenge over Pliskova and Kerber for painful 2016 losses and to move clear of Steffi Graf by claiming major number 23 at Melbourne Park this year.
Winner: Serena Williams
Finalist: Angelique Kerber
Semi-finalists: Kuznetsova, Pliskova
That’s it for now. Enjoy the tennis from Melbourne Park and I’ll be back shortly with another serve.