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 experts Richard Deitsch, Elizabeth Newman, S.L. Price and Andrew Lawrence discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.
S.L. Price: What I’m expecting and hoping for from the men’s tennis season are two different things. I expect that we’re going to get great matches, and like the rest of the world I know with full certainty that the days of the Big 3 (or 4) dominating the conversation—if not the game—are all but over. Otherwise? Predictions are nonsense, and contrary to everything we want from sports; if the Slams always went as predicted or as past indicators point we’d all be bored, feel cheated, and no one would watch. In other words, when I’m asked to make a prediction my ego is at war with my every impulse as storyteller and fan: I want to be right so I can show off how smart I am, and I desperately want to be wrong because the unexpected is why you suddenly get calls to “Turn on your TV...now!” I'll take Agassi in Paris, ’99, over Rafa in Paris again and again and again and again—every time. Especially if I predicted otherwise…
What are you most looking forward to in the men’s draw?
Price: What do I hope for from Australia and the nine months to follow? An accelerated version of what happened last year: More stunning, improbable, narrative-snapping breakthroughs like the ones we saw from Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. I hope for a Del Potro return to major contention, for Grigor Dmitrov to realize his vast potential (and justify my overexcited, Jon Landau-esque prediction that he’s the “future” of men’s tennis), for Milos Raonic to offset all the damage done by Rob Ford by winning Wimbledon in spectacularly subdued style. I hope for a revived Andy Murray to overcome the dread thought that he has accomplished all that he ever could’ve imagined, win two majors, and make his hiring of coach Amelie Mauresmo seem more inspired than desperate.
Richard Deitsch: Normally, my default answer is Roger Federer but I’m thrilled to see Rafael Nadal back in a major. Nadal has played just four matches since October and it has been eight months since he has faced a Top 10 player in match play. His win over Novak Djokovic at last year’s French Open feels like a lifetime ago, no? Nadal needs matches for fitness and wins to get his confidence up. He opens against Mikhail Youzhny and will play either a wildcard or qualifier in the second round. The unpredictable Richard Gasquet awaits in the fourth round and Tomas Berdych in the quarters if the seeds hold. Then comes a potential semifinal meeting with Federer, which would mean the Tennis Gods have answered our wishes. What else am I looking forward to with the men? The winner of a potential Murray-Dimitrov showdown in the Round of 16 would be in line to play Federer in the quarters.
Elizabeth Newman: I’m looking forward to two things. First, the return of Nadal. Even though the 2014 Grand Slam season ended on a high note with the emergence of Japan’s Kei Nishikori and with Croatia’s Marin Cilic claiming his first Slam by winning the U.S. Open, there was still a void left on the men’s side with the absence of Nadal, who sat out most of the second half of last season with injuries to his right wrist, back and with appendicitis. We've seen Nadal come back from injuries before and wreak havoc on the competition, so a win in Melbourne would not be the least bit surprising. If he’s healthy and can make it through the first few rounds, there's no reason why he couldn’t maintain his form and win his second Australian Open title. He is the only player in the draw who I think gives Novak Djokovic the shakes.
The second is Dimitrov. Will he finally rid himself of the “Baby Fed” moniker and find his own winning identity on the court? For the past two tennis seasons we have been bombarded with talk of how he is on the cusp of something or another. Of how Dimitrov is, “The Next Big…” Well, The Next Big what? I know he’s still only 23 (Although Federer won his first Slam at Wimbledon at age 21) and most critics believe he will win his first Grand Slam on grass, however, a real champion defies the critics and a real champion can win anywhere. If he really is the Next Big Thing, what better way to show the world than with a win at the first Slam of the season?
Andrew Lawrence: I’m looking forward to seeing if Stan Wawrinka can defend his title. Winning it all last year was such a career moment for him, one achieved after years of knocking on the door. A repeat would show that it was no fluke, especially if he can get past Novak Djokovic again.
What are you most looking forward to in the women’s draw?
Lawrence: Caroline Wozniacki making another deep run. Her last came three years ago, a quarterfinal sprint that ended with a straight-sets loss to Kim Clijsters. And then she fell deeper in love with some golfer. Since emerging from that spell, and switching her racquet make, Wozniacki has regained her top-five form. Her appearance in last year’s U.S. Open final was more proof of her resurgence. The only disappointment is that it had to end so quickly against Serena Williams there, and again more than a month later in the WTA Finals. Caro’s semifinal defeat there dropped her to 1-10 against Williams. Here’s hoping this is the year she pushes her bestie a bit harder.
Deitsch: The top of the draw (where top-seeded Serena Williams stalks) is loaded, which should make for a fascinating first week. Victoria Azerenka, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend and Caroline Wozniacki are all in the same quarter, with Wozniacki opening against the promising young American Townsend. The winner of that match (likely Caro) would then be in line to meet Azarenka, the former world No. 1 and a two-time Australian Open champion who is currently at No. 41 after a 2014 featuring foot and knee injuries and off-court misery (a breakup with longtime boyfriend, singer Stefan [Redfoo] Gordy). Agnieszka Radwanska immediately became more interesting with the addition of new coach, Martina Navratilova. Radwanska and Venus Williams could meet in the Round of 16, which would be great theater.
Newman: I’m really looking forward to seeing how World No. 3 Simona Halep will fare in Melbourne. Will she build on her 2014 triumphs or is she a one-season wonder? Halep had a breakthrough season last year, winning two titles and wowing the tennis world by pushing Maria Sharapova to the brink in a fantastic, three-set French Open final. Like Justine Henin, Halep’s best surface is the clay, however, she made it to the quarterfinals in Melbourne last year so she is definitely capable of making a huge impact in this tournament.
Price: The women’s game could use the same kind of shakeup. On paper, of course, there were four different singles winners in Slams last year, but the results all read as a reaction to the vibrations emanating from the mind of Serena Williams. Rumors are that Serena is getting older, but until it happens it’s hard to accept; the tour still seems a place wholly dictated by her health and passion. I expect her to keep winning as long as she wants and expect never to be able to predict when that will end for good. I hope, for the sake of competitiveness and drama, that Sharapova and Azarenka will find the wherewithal to take Serena on at her best, beat her, and propel the latter stage of her career into a golden sliver of time for the WTA.
What qualifier or other player do you see being a dark horse this year?
Deitsch: Keep your eye on No. 32 seeded Belinda Bencic, who reached the quarters of the U.S. Open with wins over Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic. The 17-year-old Swiss—the WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2014—moves very well but her best asset is her head: She plays well beyond her years. Julia Goerges isn’t an easy opening-round match, but Bencic has what it takes to make an interesting run, even at 17.
Newman: I’m going to go out on a limb, albeit a rather long one, and say Madison Keys. Serena Williams aside, I think Keys will be the American woman most likely to make a deep run, (I’m talking at least quarters or semis) in the tournament. She is currently ranked 33 in the world and now has 2000 Aussie Open winner Lindsay Davenport as her coach. Although Keys’ serve can be inconsistent, it is still packed with power and can reach over 100 mph, which can be dizzying to opponents in the stifling Melbourne heat. New year, new coach, new attitude, new outcome?
On the men’s side, I will forever be a Juan Martin del Potro dark horse believer. Never mind the fact that he missed the last 10 months with yet another left wrist injury or that he has toppled to No. 338 in the world. If healthy, HE CAN DO IT!
Price: For the men, I agree with Elizabeth here—I like Juan Martin Del Potro. His talent and poise make him formidable forever. His health makes him questionable forever. He’s the most beloved dark horse since Goran Ivanisevic.
For the women, Wozniacki. The off-court mix has gotten so weird—Rory breakup, NYC marathon, Serena’s bestie—that it begs for some kind of on-court resolution.
Lawrence: Does Garbine Muguruza still count as a dark horse? Her quarterfinal upset of Williams in the French Open sort of blew her cover. She could face her again in the quarters. And though the rematch would be on a hard court this time, it’s tough not to like the Spaniard’s chances, especially since she’s won a title on an Australian hardcourt already (Hobart in ’14).
How do you think the Americans will fare?
Price: Americans? Put most of your money on Serena—with a side bet on Venus. Then gather the troops. It’s time to march back to the Plains of Abraham and annex Canada.
Lawrence: The non-Serenas on the women’s side have a tough road. The only ones who seem to have a relatively easy path, and the tools to clear it, are Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands—and even then, it’s difficult to envision them advancing past the third round. On the men’s side, it still all comes down to John Isner. He’s on his best surface and shouldn’t have much trouble navigating it on just his serve until he has to reckon with Djokovic in the quarters.
Newman: Wait, they’re actually American men playing in this tournament? Well for the sake of conversation, I guess the best hope on the men’s side is Isner, who at No. 21 in the rankings is the only American male seeded in this tournament. He has only made it past the third round in Melbourne once, and that was in 2010. Unfortunately, that will probably be the best that we can do on the men’s side here.
As for the women, all eyes will be on World No. 1 Serena Williams, of course. However, Serena frequently looked a bit sluggish and out of sorts in the Hopman Cup a week ago, losing in straight-sets to Eugenie Bouchard, and then in three-sets to Agnieszka Radwanska. It could be just first of the year jitters, however, Serena hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2010, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she fluttered around the 4th round here, which is where she ended her run last year. However, we should also keep an eye on Big Sis Venus, who is currently ranked No. 18. Venus hasn't made it to the fourth round of a Slam since Wimbledon in 2011. But with both her game and body looking well rested and refreshed, I expect that to change in Melbourne this year. Also, unlike Serena, Venus has won a title this season (Auckland), where she beat Wozniacki in the final.
Deitsch: Let’s start with the women because the men are going to exit early. Serena last won this tournament in 2010, but I think that provides huge motivation. She’s the deserved favorite. I don’t think Townsend is going to defeat Wozniacki but I think she’s going to give a solid accounting and that bodes well for later in the year. Venus, full of confidence from winning just last week, is a darkhorse in her quarter with a very favorable draw.
For the men, I agree with Elizabeth’s choice here, Isner. But his best Australian Open result was the fourth round in 2010. What does that mean? It means his run ends either with Djokovic in the fourth round or before. Donald Young and Sam Querrey will also have short stays.
Who will win the men’s title?
Deitsch: Novak Djokovic. Picking the top seed isn’t sexy but nether is Novak’s draw. He avoids Federer and Nadal until the final and that’s a winning road.
Newman: The Djoker. It has been four months since Djokovic was stunned by Nishikori in the semis at the U.S. Open and I am sure he and coach Boris Becker have been frothing at the mouth ever since. I like him to win here to claim his fifth Aussie Open Title.
Lawrence: Djokovic. His mission will be clear: win one for baby Stefan, and then celebrate by giving him a ride inside the cup.
Who will win the women’s title?
Deitsch: Maria Sharapova. Going to play a hunch that Serena gets picked off before the final. Sharapova’s draw is very manageable, she’s coming off a win in Brisbane, and I think she’ll be motivated after losing early last year to Dominika Cibuklova.
Newman: Don’t look now, but Wozniacki is slowly creeping back on the come up in the women’s game. She’s a former No. 1 who made it to the finals of last year’s U.S. Open. She’s back to being fit and focused, so I like her to Break the Internet and take the title here.
Lawrence: If Serena doesn’t want it, Sharapova will surely take it off her hands. Her side of the draw seems to hold a lot less potential for an upset.
Price: I hope I’m wrong on both of my predictions.
And what do you want to see this season, generally?
Price: This is no knock on the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic: Long may they play and contend. But a mere piling up of numbers by any of them at this point, while impressive, does little to advance their claims on greatness; they’re already there. So what I’m hoping for is the filling in of career holes, psychic or otherwise. If Fed is going to win another Slam title, I want him to go through Nadal at Roland Garros to do it. If Nadal is going to chase Fed’s major total, I want him to do so in the second half of the season, when his body has long been suspect. If Nole is going to remain No. 1, let him do so in historic fashion, by reeling off a calendar-year Grand Slam. Why Djokovic never received the affection showered on Fed or Rafa is a bit of a mystery; it will take one more mammoth genius campaign, I think, for him to finally receive his emotional due. Let it begin now.