Australian Open preview roundtable: Predictions, top storylines
With the Australian Open set to kick off at 11 a.m. Monday morning in Melbourne (7 p.m. ET on Sunday), SI.com tennis analysts Bruce Jenkins, Courtney Nguyen and Jon Wertheim dig into the most tantalizing storylines and predict the winners.
What are you most looking forward to in the men's draw?
Jenkins: The projected quarterfinals look pretty compelling, especially Andy Murray-Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic-Stanislas Wawrinka. Not so good: Tomas Berdych-David Ferrer. I'd love to see Tommy Haas take out Berdych, and although no one would give Alexandr Dolgopolov a shot against Ferrer, that would be a tremendously satisfying upset (Dolgopolov coached by Fabrice Santoro, a perfect match for his inventive mind? That's too cool). Jack Sock-Ryan Harrison would be a dream second-rounder for the United States, but asking Harrison to beat Gael Monfils might be a bit too much. I'd like to see Donald Young get back on the map by giving Lleyton Hewitt a spirited test (in defeat, most likely) in the second round. And it should be a treat watching Federer try his latest version of a 98-inch frame, with Stefan Edberg in a coach's role. More trips to the net, perhaps?
Nguyen: Most of the early buzz centers on the first-round blockbuster between Rafael Nadal and Australia's Bernard Tomic, but I'm ignoring the hype to zero in on the potential quarterfinal between Murray and Federer. So many question marks surround both players as the season starts, Murray's recent back surgery and Federer's recent woes top the list. Even though Murray holds a slim lead in their head-to-head and beat Federer here last year, if both men make it to the quarterfinals it would be a tough match to call and the result either way would be a significant one for Federer.
Wertheim: This ongoing Big Four opera. Can Rafael Nadal stand his ground? Can Djokovic re-re-defend as champion -- thus taking pole position of the field, regardless of what the rankings say? Can Federer survive late into the second week, something he failed to do much of in 2013? What is the state of Murray's game and, more specifically, his back? Yes, there are stars from the '80s returning as coaches; there is the one-man reality show that is Tomic, who, of course, drew Nadal in the first round; there is the dispiriting fate of the American men. But -- as has been the case for upwards of a decade -- they're all subplots that ultimately lead to the Big Four.
What are you most looking forward to in the women's draw?
Jenkins: Ideally, Sloane Stephens' new coaching arrangement with Paul Annacone will be more significant than her wrist injury, and she's able to get past Yaroslava Shvedova and Svetlana Kuznetsova (third round) to face Victoria Azarenka in the fourth. That's a Melbourne rematch everyone wants to see. Let's hope to see Samantha Stosur in vintage form take Serena Williams to three engaging sets in the fourth round instead of flaming out miserably in front of her home fans. And let's get a long look at Madison Keys and get another young American, Christina McHale, back on track (one win for McHale and she faces Caroline Wozniacki).
Nguyen: If I could hit the fast-forward button to get to the quarterfinals, I would. I want to see the seeds hold so that we get these three matches among the quarterfinals: Li Na vs. Petra Kvitova, Jelena Jankovic vs. Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Victoria Azarenka. Each clash has its own quirks in terms of playing styles and off-court tension, and that keeps it fun.
Wertheim: I'm wondering if Serena can win the title -- which sounds so obvious as to be rhetorical, but keep in mind, she hasn't won this in four years. Also, this tournament could be a big opportunity for Keys. No one does hype quite like the American tennis establishment, but the body of evidence suggesting that Keys is the real deal is mounting by the week. Also, let's see if Simona Halep -- on the cusp of the top 10 -- can bring her winning ways to a major.
Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova are both playing their first big tournament since long layoffs. Is either a threat to contend for the title?
Jenkins: Given the recent evidence that Murray may not be 100 percent recovered from back surgery, at least in terms of his overall fitness, I can't see him winning the title -- or even making it through to Federer in the quarterfinals. Look for him to be sharper by the Indian Wells-Miami swing in March. I can't imagine Sharapova falling short of the semifinals, as we learn along the way that her new coach, Sven Groeneveld, can't really teach her anything (nor could anyone, at this stage of her career). But I'll take Azarenka over Sharapova at that stage.
Nguyen: No. For Murray, even if he were 100 percent, he would be an underdog against Nadal and Djokovic for the title. The fact that he's still working his way into top form and has drawn a potential quarterfinal against Federer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pretty much rules him out for me. As for Sharapova: Look, out of respect for all parties involved, there's no logical integrity in picking Sharapova to upend Serena when she hasn't beaten her in 14 matches dating to 2004. Sure, if Nadal, Djokovic and Serena crash out early, then Murray and Sharapova are in a great position to capitalize. But the odds on that happening are slim.
Wertheim: Sure, in the sense that two A-listers who have both won Grand Slams in the last 18 months can contend. But they're definitely on the B-list for this major. In Sharapova's case, even if her shoulder can withstand the stress, there's the bugbear that is Serena Williams to confront. (Maybe you've heard: She tends to fare about as well against Williams as saplings fare against chainsaws.) In Murray's case, the layoff, the slow rehab and his early loss in his one tune-up don't augur success for the 2013 finalist.
Sloane Stephens was a surprise semifinalist last year. Do you see a Stephens-like dark horse in either draw this year?
Jenkins: If you're looking for someone who will fly under the radar to the semifinals, that won't happen. I'll take a flyer on 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard, who had some great results over the second half of last season and seems to have everything it takes to be an elite player. Her big win in Melbourne will be a third-round upset of Sara Errani.
Nguyen: If there's a youngster who has the talent and draw to make a deep run, it's Bouchard. She's the youngest seed in the field and closed out the 2013 season with strong wins over Jankovic and Stephens, making her first WTA final in Osaka, Japan. She's in that soft section that includes Errani and Roberta Vinci. A quarterfinal clash with Serena isn't out of the question.
Wertheim: Tsvetana Pironkova is a journeywoman everywhere but Wimbledon, but she dazzled to win the Sydney title. If she can keep her form together, she could win a few matches in Melbourne. Also, Venus Williams won't be seeded, but she's always worth watching. And I'm definitely going to keep an eye on Stosur, despite her dismal track record at her home Grand Slam.
Who will win the men's tournament?
Jenkins: Djokovic. I like him to win his fourth title in a row, for a number of reasons. He got a huge break in the draw and looks like a cinch for the final. Because he hired Boris Becker with the idea of becoming mentally tougher, I think he'll have some points to prove; after all, Djokovic has been exceptionally tough, quite often, with his ranking and reputation on the line. Nadal will have more difficult road to the final. I like Djokovic to win what should be the first of many battles this year.
Nguyen: Djokovic. It's his house.
Wertheim: Djokovic. It's not quite Federer at Wimbledon in the mid-2000s or Nadal in Paris. But Djokovic is the Monarch of Melbourne until deposed (and that won't happen this year).
Who will win the women's tournament?
Jenkins: Azarenka. Speaking with reporters in Brisbane, Azarenka admitted that in the wake of last year's Australian Open, and that lamentable episode in the semifinals against Stephens, "I need some space for new memories." Here's one: the 2014 title. I can't forecast the exact details, but I see Serena being increasingly off-form as the tournament continues, probably due to some sort of injury. That's the only reason I'd pick against her. I also feel that Azarenka is about to make tremendous strides in her emotional maturity.
Nguyen: Serena. Only an act of God (i.e., rolling an ankle or food poisoning) can stop her, and we should savor it while we can.
Wertheim: Serena. We all like the counterintuitive and the unexpected. We all like daring picks. But, realistically, how do you pick anyone else? Provided she manages to avoid injury (especially to the ankle, her Achilles' heel in Australia), it's hard to conceive of a scenario in which she loses.