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Tennis

Australian Open preview roundtable

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Serena Williams eyes her sixth Australian Open and third straight Grand Slam title overall.

SI.com's tennis experts take a look into the crystal ball ahead of the 2013 Australian Open, bringing you picks and predictions for what to expect in Melbourne.

Dark horses to watch

Bryan Armen Graham: Philipp Kohlschreiber has all the shots and has showed well so far in 2013. Look for the 29-year-old German to make noise in Roger Federer's quarter of the draw. Also keep an eye on Jerzy Janowicz, whose eye-popping run to last year's Paris Masters final -- where the Polish qualifier knocked out five of the world's top 20 players -- commanded the attention of the tennis world. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has been tabbed as a sleeper before. Here's where the two-time Australian Open girls' singles champion makes good on that promise with her deepest run yet in Melbourne.

Bruce Jenkins: Grigor Dimitrov seems primed for the big year everyone has expected from him, and Lleyton Hewitt will be a big local story after he upsets Janko Tipsarevic in the first round. Sam Stosur has reached the point where nobody expects even the slightest bit of encouragement in her home-country matches, and she's coming off ankle surgery, but she'll craft a personal turnaround by defeating Julia Goerges to reach the fourth round -- and at that point, she'll be dangerous.

Courtney Nguyen: The lowest seeded man I could see making a deep run has to be Bernard Tomic. I've watched almost of all of Tomic's matches over the last two weeks, and to say that he's engineered an incredible turnaround from his punchline of a 2012 would be an understatement. Tomic has clearly put in the work over the offseason, and no I don't just mean his rooftop wrestling exploits. He's been holding his serve with surprising ease. Not even Novak Djokovic, the best returner in the game, could break him. His toughest test will be against Federer in third round, a rematch of last year when Federer put on a clinic to dismiss the then 19-year-old 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. A sure-fire night match in Rod Laver Arena, I wouldn't be surprised if Tomic pulls off the upset.

Li Na should go into Melbourne believing in her partnership with Carlos Rodriguez and what he's done to give her a winning mentality. She started the year on a nine-match win streak after capturing the title in Shenzhen and then losing in the Sydney semifinals, a blessing in disguise. The loss will give her more rest before she plays Monday. A finalist in 2011, Li has played well in Melbourne over the last few years, coming within a point of defeating Kim Clijsters in the fourth round last year in a nightmare draw.

S.L. Price: I make this pick not because I just want an excuse to type, for the first time, the great tennis nickname "Tomic the Tank Engine," but because I would like the sport's traditionally great powers to stop their inexorable fade. What I mean is that the U.S., Australia and France, who all but invented the sport together and gave us its greatest male champions, are now turning into that most pathetic of beings: Party hosts who lay out a great spread, throw open their doors, seem so charming, so attractive -- and then stand idly by while everyone else has a great time scoring. And so my vote today for Tomic, the mercurial mercenary who lately seems to have hit one of those patches where he realizes that he's a professional tennis player. He's talented and motivated, for this hour anyway, and going far in Melbourne would tie his critics in knots -- so I figure Tomic into the second week out of spite, if nothing else.

And if she's healthy, Brit Laura Robson is going to make noise. Not enough to win, not yet, but plenty enough to make her a new star -- and Britain, at least, a nation on the rise.

Jon Wertheim: Inasmuch as a former top-five player in his 30s can be a dark horse -- and inasmuch as a man pale enough to glow can be a dark horse -- how about a vote for Nikolay Davydenko? The Russian veteran characteristically starts the year strong, and 2013 was no exception. What's more, hard courts are his preferred surface. Rested, healthy and sweaty, Gael Monfils intrigues. So (bandwagon alert) does 6-foot-8 Janowicz.

For the women, Sloane Stephens has gotten so much these past few weeks, can she still be a dark horse? If not, how about Madison Keys? The American doesn't turn 18 until February but rides a wave of momentum into Melbourne. She booked a spot in the main draw via the USTA wildcard-a-thon in December. Last week, she qualified for Sydney and then took out Lucie Safarova in straight sets. What's that? There are talented players worth watching who aren't American? Right. The athletic Yaroslava Shvedova, who tends to play her best at majors. Sabine Lisicki is too powerful to be ranked as low as she is (37). And we've hitched our proverbial wagons to Mona Barthel.

Top players to crash out early

Graham: Juan Martin del Potro's fitness has been a question mark since his lengthy injury layoff, and the extreme conditions in Melbourne will make him vulnerable against opponents who can handle his power. Ninth-seeded Stosur is 14-10 lifetime at her home major, where she's made it past the third round just twice. The ankle injury she's battling won't make this year's experience any easier, even if the expectations are tempered.

Jenkins: It will be a shame to see Monfils go out in the first round, just as it's regrettable that such a potentially entertaining match -- Monfils-Alexandr Dolgopolov -- takes place so early. Tomas Berdych, Mister Big Talk during the Davis Cup final, will bomb out early and Tomic, not quite over the emotional hump in Australia despite his strong play of late (he still has a big-time feud in progress with Davis Cup captain Patrick Rafter), won't reach that highly anticipated third-round match against Federer. On the women's side, with close to zero buzz surrounding Francesca Schiavone, the spirited Italian will take out Petra Kvitova in the first round. I have to include Sabine Lisicki here, as well. Just when a first-round win over struggling Caroline Wozniacki seems logical, the Dane calls up a gem.

Nguyen: Janko Tipsarevic won Chennia, but he didn't face anyone ranked higher than No. 60 and was pushed to three sets by two players ranked outside the Top 80. He then withdrew from the tune-up event at Kooyong citing a wrist injury. Who knows if the injury is legitimate or whether Tipsarevic just wanted the week off, but the Serb has been handed a tough draw. He'll play Lleyton Hewitt in the first round on Monday, presumably in front of packed house at Laver, and could face either Julien Benneteau or Dimitrov in the third round, two players who have started the year well.

I thought Kvitova would turn the page and come into 2013 in resurgent form, but she lost early in both of her warm-up events to eventual finalists. She doesn't look that much fitter. Her movement is sluggish, and she hasn't been able to get enough matches to get her timing down. She opens against feisty 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and then possibly another lefthander in Laura Robson in the second round before a surging a Stephens in the third. I just don't see Kvitova getting very far.

Price: I know: We've all decided Andy Murray has arrived. Which is why I'm all but certain he's due for an early exit. There's something so contrary about the guy: He so stubbornly and admirably withstood ridiculous amounts of pressure to carve out his own path to a Slam title that I'm ready to think he'll zig now whenever the world expects him to zag. Sure he should win this Slam: Hardcourt, Miami-like heat, all the confidence in the world. I say he's gone by the quarterfinals. Then, of course, he'll go and win the French. As for the women, let's just say that Kvitova is beginning to make me think a lot about Li and Stosur and the rest of those one-hit wonders at the moment their fades became fact. I'll be stunned if she reaches the second week.

Wertheim: Stosur suppressed her nerves long enough to win a Grand Slam. But she still betrays "shaky bottles," as they say, when she plays at home. The best Australian of her generation -- male or female -- flamed out in 2012. And coming into 2013 on the heels of ankle surgery, there's little reason to think she'll fare much better.

Berdych gives new meaning to the voguish tennis word "erratic." When you are prepared to count him out, he suddenly looks like a world beater -- say, beating Federer at a major, something he has done twice. When it looks like he's about to turn the corner and max out his considerable talent, suddenly, he walks into the wall. When we last left Berdych, he was leading the Czechs to Davis Cup glory. Which -- if history is our guide -- means that the he's due to backslide.

Bold predictions

Graham: Federer's run of 34 straight Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances -- an otherworldly streak dating to the 2004 French Open -- finally comes to an end.

Jenkins: Venus Williams, in the defining moment of her late-in-life career, scores a third-round upset over Maria Sharapova, still struggling with her serve and overhead in the wake of a collarbone injury. In a match that will clearly define one of the sport's hottest rivalries, Laura Robson eliminates Sloane Stephens in the third round. And American Lauren Davis, looking sharp of late, upsets Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round. Lukas Rosol, that madman of a meteor at Wimbledon (defeating Rafael Nadal), takes down the heavily favored Milos Raonic in one of the most high-powered matches of any season.

Nguyen: Despite being drawn into the easier half, Sharapova won't make the final. Murray gets his first win over Federer in a Slam in a match that goes the full five sets. Pavlyuchenkova upsets Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. In his first-round match against Dolgopolov, Monfils does something that makes you want to bang your head against the wall repeatedly. Milos Raonic loses before the fourth round.

Price: Stephens, with all the weight of being the "next one" now fully on her shoulders, will lose in the third round. in honor of Cliff Drysdale, Roger Federer will attempt -- and shank -- a two-handed backhand.

Wertheim: Dimitrov -- from the Bulgarian "Dimi" meaning "lady" and "trov" meaning "killer" -- will win a match and use his post-match press conference to propose to Sharapova. More bold still, Dimitrov will be catalyzed by the wave of attention likely to come his way, given his alleged romantic entanglement. And he will reach the second week, living up to Baby Fed nickname. Neither Tomic nor anyone in his extended entourage will do anything worthy of media coverage. A player other than Serena Williams will win the women's title. Scratch that. There's a difference between a "bold" prediction and one that's unimaginable.

And the winners are ...

Graham: Djokovic has made the semifinals or better at 10 consecutive majors and is playing on a surface that's tailor-made for his aggressive power-baseline style. He's 17-1 lifetime against the top two players in his quarter -- Berdych and Monaco -- and avoids Federer and Murray until the final. Look for the 25-year-old Serb to make good on his growing reputation as the most complete player in tennis.

Since that ghastly opening-round loss to Virginie Razzano at the French Open, Serena has won 35 of 36 matches with titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the year-end championships. A decade after completing the "Serena Slam" in Melbourne, Williams is the odds-on favorite to win her sixth Australian Open and become the oldest woman to hold No. 1. But Azarenka is the defending champion -- and still smarting from her come-from-ahead loss to Serena in the U.S. Open final. Look for Vika to resolve that unfinished business against Serena in a five-star semifinal en route to a second straight Oz crown.

Jenkins: Strictly a "chalk" call in the women's draw: Serena Williams. Just the look of her says it all. She's always joking about her weight, and how she puts it on so easily, but this is a trim, well-toned champion about to lay waste to the field without losing a set. As promising as things look for Djokovic in the year's first Slam, I'll take Murray over Djokovic in a riveting final that establishes, once and for all, that Murray has joined the elite. Along the way, Murray will defeat Federer in a major for the first time.

Nguyen: I hate to be boring, but when you're good, you're good: Djokovic will beat Murray in the final to complete his historic three-peat, while Serena Williams will beat whoever is standing across the net to get back the No. 1 ranking and come one French Open away from the second "Serena Slam."

Price: Djokovic and Serena. He's the class of the hardcourt game, and she's the class of the field. Both are committed, motivated and healthy. i wouldn't be shocked if it was a cruise for both.

Wertheim: It's fun to prognosticate an off-beat choice. But how do you pick against Serena Williams? There's little indication anyone else wants to go toe-to-toe with her. And, oh yeah, she has won in Melbourne fives times before. Yes, anything can happen -- hey, she lost last year to Ekatarina Makarova. She could eat some rancid vegemite (redundant). She could be lured to fight Ronda Rousey and begin MMA training mid-tournament. But right now, I think most of us would take Serena over the field.

We keep hearing that this is the year that the ATP "B-teamers" will ascend. Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Berdych, David Ferrer, Raonic. They have to prove it first. Until then, how do you pick against the A-team? Murray won the previous hardcourt Slam and now competes free of the cumbersome never-won-a-Slam label. But Djokovic, ranked No.1, is a three-time winner in Australia and is going for a second successful defense. Says here he gets it.

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