Australian Open preview: Can Federer do it again?

Deputy sports editor Joel McInally offers his thoughts, tips and predictions for the Australian Open.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last year’s Australian Open has been dubbed the throwback grand slam, with the women’s final being contested by Serena and Venus Williams, with the men’s final seeing Rafael Nadal go down to Roger Federer. Given that few in the sport would have predicted this resurgence by the legendary veterans, I perhaps risk embarrassment by attempting to preview and predict this year’s tournament. While the theme for last year’s open may have been the year 2009, this year it appears to be uncertainty. On the men’s side this revolves around injuries, with Nadal and Djokovic approaching the slam with injuries that make them doubts for not just the second week, but for appearing at the tournament at all, whilst Andy Murray was forced to withdraw following a recurrence of the hip injury that so plagued him last year. A similar uncertainty with regards to the readiness of the big names is replicated on the women’s side, with Serena Williams withdrawing just a week before the tournament was due to begin, while a lengthy custody battle has forced Victoria Azarenka to withdraw.

To predict a winner of either of the singles titles is difficult. In recent years women’s tennis has become incredibly unpredictable, with there being at least ten serious contenders for every grand slam. While the 2018 tournament could feature a host of the top female players such as Venus Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka, it is difficult to make a case for any of them to win it as they all have their own issues that would make glory unlikely. This leaves several top players who all could potentially lift the trophy at the end of the fortnight, with it being possible to make cases for any of Muguruza, Halep or Pliskova. However, while my head may be saying that Muguruza will be emerge victorious come the end of January, I have a feeling that Johanna Konta will become Britain’s first female grand slam champion since Virginia Wade in 1977. While Konta has been in poor form of late and doesn’t appear to be 100%, she has a strong record in Melbourne and a combination of her new coach and an Australian crowd that will readopt her will guide her to the title.

While the men’s side is arguably easier to predict given the lack of serious contenders for grand slam titles, question marks hang over the usual suspects. At the US Open and World Tour Finals, last year’s Australian Open champion Federer appeared fatigued, losing to Del Potro and Goffin in the latter stages. Nadal, the other favourite for the title, is a doubt for the tournament, as is Djokovic with an elbow injur. While at this stage it would be bold to rule out Federer or Nadal completely, I am not confident that either will lift the title. Despite being very tempted to predict that Alexander Zverev will make his major grand slam breakthrough in style by going all the way, I think he may just fall short. Instead, I believe that Grigor Dimitrov will build upon his heart-breaking semi-final loss to Nadal last year in Melbourne, as well as his world Tour Finals victory to allow him to finally fulfil the nickname ‘Baby Fed’.

To choose a potential ‘dark horse’ for the title is slightly easier as both draws are wide open. For the women’s title, I am going to pick the French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, who wowed tennis fans with her aggressive style that led to her fairy tale victory in Paris. While it may be pushing it a bit to describe the world number eight as an outsider for the title, her age and lack of experience at the Australian Open mean she should not be seen as a favourite for the title. However, if Ostapenko can find the kind of form that fired her to the French Open, then she has the power to hit through any player on tour. As for the men’s draw I am going to give Juan Martin del Potro the ‘dark horse’ label. Before his injury del Potro would be seen as one of the big contenders for the title and he undoubtedly has the power and skill required to win his second slam. However, doubts remain over his fitness and whether he has the longevity to win seven five set matches in two weeks. If del Potro is fit, then he could go far in Australia, but until all doubts over his conditioning have been proved wrong, he should be viewed as an outsider for the title.

Fortunately, the number of question marks hanging over the sport’s biggest names make it easy to predict which big names will fall early in Melbourne. While Angelique Kerber has slid down the rankings, and is seeded just 21st for this tournament, as a multiple Grand Slam champion and former Australian Open winner, she should not be losing in the early rounds. However, her inconsistency in recent months will be her undoing and will be a big miss for a tournament lacking star names. With regards to the men, the injuries that plagued Djokovic and Wawrinka in the latter half of 2017 mean that at least one, if not both, will fail to make the latter stages despite their impressive records in Melbourne.

The final category is the young players to watch. CiCi Bellis is one of the most promising young women on tour having reached the US Open second round at the age of just 15, and has reached the third round of both the French and US Opens in her short career. If Bellis can make it into can make it past the third round then it will be a true demonstration of her potential. Another young player who is one to watch in the Australian Open is Francis Tiafoe who has already defeated Alexander Zverev, as well as pushing Federer to five sets at last year’s US Open. Tiafoe may be yet to reach the third round of a slam, but with the right draw, he could make a push for the second week.

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