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2016 Australian Open roundtable: Predictions, dark horses and more

2016 Australian Open preview roundtable: Sports Illustrated's tennis experts and writers highlight the top storylines and predict the winners. 

With the 2016 Australian Open set to kick off Monday in Melbourne (Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET), SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, S.L. Price, Elizabeth Newman, Stanley Kay and Jamie Lisanti discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners. 

What qualifier or other player do you see being a dark horse this year?

S.L. Price:Maybe it's because winter keeps forgetting that it's winter here on the East Coast, but I can't get past the idea that on-court heat will be the most defining force/story in this year's tournament—more than any surprise name. Having said that, and considering that she's coming back from that mystery concussion and an awful 2015, I'm marking Eugenie Bouchard for a breakout here. And I still think Venus Williams has one last Grand Slam singles run in the tank.

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​​Stanley Kay:When Sloane Stephens made the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2013, it seemed like a coming-out party for the promising young American. But her play has plateaued since, and she’s struggled in Melbourne, bowing out in the fourth round in 2014 and first round last year. But I love her chances this year: Coming off a title in New Zealand, where she beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, I think Stephens will fare well in Melbourne. She’ll play a qualifier in the first round, and the highest-ranked player she could face before the quarterfinals is No. 13 Roberta Vinci, last year’s U.S. Open runner-up. Now 22, Stephens has the experience and momentum to be a real competitor at this year’s event. 

Jon Wertheim: Never mind qualifier; just about any male outside the top five qualifies as a dark horse. Having beaten Roger Federer and arriving with a new coach, Milos Raonic intrigues. Same for Grigor Dimitrov, who is looking for a turnaround year. Jack Sock is a player to watch; same for Nick Kyrgios for all sorts of reasons. On the women’s side, is Victoria Azarenka a dark horse? Lots of other players to watch, too, including Samantha Crawford.

Elizabeth Newman:On the women’s side, Venus Williams. Yeah, it’s a bit weird to put the name Williams in the same sentence as the words dark horse, however, Venus is 35 years old and her last Slam victory was in 2008 on the grass at Wimbledon. Since then she has been ravaged with myriad injuries and has battled a chronic autoimmune illness, which has, at times, sapped all of the energy from her imposing frame. Nevertheless, after her resurgence in 2015—which saw her win three titles to claw her way back into the top 10 and be named WTA Comeback Player Of The Year—Venus’ performance at the All Williams party may not be over just yet. No, The road won’t be easy. If the seeds hold, Venus will clash with world No. 2 Simona Halep in the quarterfinals. Still, we should have all learned by now to never doubt the name Williams on a tennis court.

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As for the men… I’ll keep the Yankee spirit alive in Australia and make the case for Jack Sock. Although just 23 and only one ATP title to his name, the 26th ranked Sock is coming off an impressive victory over No. 8 David Ferrer to reach the ASB Classic final in Auckland, marking his 11th win over a top 20 player since the start of the 2015 season—the most of any player not ranked in the top 20. Simply put, Sock’s game is on the rise and what better way to get the American men back in the tennis conversation than to start the year with a victory Down Under?

Jamie Lisanti: After a strong start at the ASB Classic, I see Sloane Stephens making a nice run in Melbourne. She looked calm and collected in Auckland—beating Caroline Wozniacki and Julia Goerges en route to her second WTA title—and opens up against a qualifier. The 22-year-old is in Serena’s half of the draw, but I think we’ll still be talking about her into the second week. Similar to Stephens, No. 13-seed Milos Raonic earned a quality win over Roger Federer in the Brisbane final last week and he should ride that confidence into Melbourne. He’s in Stan Wawrinka’s quarter of the draw, but he starts off against Frenchman Lucas Pouille, who he just beat in Brisbane, and appears to be healthy after undergoing foot surgery in the summer.

Which top players will crash out early?

Wertheim: Injuries are really the great variable here. Can someone who’s physically compromised “crash out”? As Linda Richman would say: Discuss! If yes, then half the women’s contenders are vulnerable. Serena’s knee is allegedly in bad shape. Or it isn’t. Same for Halep’s Achilles. And Sharapova’s forearm. And Muguruza’s foot. And….

Newman: Tomas Berdych. Sure, he’s ranked No. 6 in the world and made it to the semis in Melbourne last year, but he has basically become an afterthought on the men’s tour, doing just enough to make it to the quarters here and there, but never really challenging the top 5. I’m calling a third round, four-set upset to tennis wild child Nick Kyrgios.

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As for the ladies, there’s a lot of bumps, bruises and banged-up bodies in the Top 10 right now, so an early flameout could be in anyone’s forecast. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if No. 5 seed Maria Sharapova made a quick exit. She withdrew from Brisbane last week with a left forearm injury, which means her service game will once again be in question.

Price: The early season breakdowns/withdrawals/etc. involving so many top women have softened me to the point where the question should be: Which top players won't? The tennis calendar being the slog that it is, the idea of  being “rested and refreshed” for Australia seems quite the antique these days. But for Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, the question of mind vs. body, will vs. wear and tear, seems the most acute; both are dealing with nagging knee injuries that can flare up and sap motivation overnight. I won't be stunned if both go deep into the second week. But I won't be stunned if both are gone by then, too.

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Kay: Rafael Nadal enters the tournament seeded No. 5, but after Novak Djokovic wiped the floor with the Spaniard in Doha, it’s difficult to see Nadal doing much damage in Melbourne. Nadal crashed out in the quarterfinals last year and it seems doubtful he’d advance further this year, especially with a difficult quarter featuring Stan Wawrinka. Milos Raonic, fresh off a title in Brisbane, would also be a difficult quarterfinal opponent. The bigger question: Will Rafa even make it that far?

Lisanti: Whether it’s the sophomore slump setting in or simply a struggle with injuries, No. 3-seed Garbine Muguruza won’t make it to the fourth round in Melbourne like she did in 2014 and ’15. On the men’s side, I’m tagging No. 7-seed Kei Nishikori to make an early exit. He had a so-so year after a big surge in 2014, but I don’t see him making the quarterfinals like he did last year, especially with a tough first-rounder against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Also, watch out for a Murray takedown in the first round, courtesy of Sascha Zverev.

Which first round matches are you most looking forward to?

Wertheim: Serena against the plucky, delinquent CamilaGiorgi is a rough first rounder for both. Belinda Bencic-AllieRiske is a nice veteran/newcomer matchup. Djokovic gets an interesting comer in Hyeon Chung. Noah Rubin/Benoit Paire is a classicist’s delight. Baghdatis/Tsonga puts two former finalists against each other. Nadal/Verdasco will be played wearing brown socks. And how about Brian Baker back in a Major?

2016 Australian Open men's seed report

Kay: I’m really looking forward to watching a Spanish civil war: Nadal against Fernando Verdasco. Nadal has dominated Verdasco throughout his career, and he entered last year 15–0 against his compatriot. But Verdasco beat Nadal in Madrid and Miami last year, later falling in three sets in Hamburg. 

On the women’s side, I’m excited to see how cancer survivor Vicky Duval fares in her first Australian Open main draw. The American will face No. 18 Elina Svitolina in the first round. Duval has a wonderful comeback story, and tennis fans from around the world should be interested in her return to the court after a lost year in 2015. 

Price: Serena vs. Camila Giorgi on the women's side, to assess Serena's state against a very dangerous floater. And on the men, Janowicz-Isner: Contrast in temperament and styles, with each player a different kind of head case, each player possessing more potential than results, each player hearing the clock ticking. Fun stuff.

Newman: Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco. All together now…Viva España! Remember the epic five-hour, five-set match between Nadal and Verdasco at the 2009 Aussie Open? (Nadal won, and then went on to beat Roger Federer in another five-set grudge match in the final.) With Nadal trying to prove that he hasn't seceded his tennis swag to Novak Djokovic and Verdasco holding on to his last little bit of ATP relevancy, this is a must-see.

2016 Australian Open women's seed report

Serena’s opening match vs. Camila Giorgi is another great first-rounder. Serena has been basically incognito since her gut-wrenching ouster in the U.S. Open semifinals last September. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s she’s got and if I should start hyping the 2016 calendar Grand Slam, back-to-back SI Sportsman of the Year chant.

Lisanti: The Murray-Zverev first round match is circled on my draw sheet, which is oozing with storylines of first-time fatherhood and rising ATP stardom. No. 2-ranked Murray, who has reached four Australian Open finals but has yet to claim the title, will be tested against the 6’6” Zverev, who beat Djokovic and Kevin Anderson last year.

In the women’s draw, there are quite a few must-see matches in the opening round. But I’m most looking forward to Eugenie Bouchard-Aleksandra Krunic (it will be interesting to see how Bouchard can respond after a deep run in Hobart), Madison Brengle-CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams-Johanna Konta.

Name one offbeat and/or off-court story you will be following during this year’s Australian Open.

Kay: Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic are nothing if not entertaining, at least off the court. I’m expecting at least one epically absurd controversy involving one of these young Aussies during this year’s tournament. With Lleyton Hewitt on his retirement tour, S.L. Price’s excellent story from September on the new era of Australian tennis is worth another read. 

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Wertheim: Two Australians at much different phases in the careers: Nick Kyrgios has that magnetism. When he is good he is very, very good; when he is bad he is horrid. But too often this gets lost in the conversation: he’s a really good tennis player. And Lleyton Hewitt will be playing his final tournament. Also, we love the Brian Baker story. What an understatement to say that tennis owes him one.

What makes the 2016 Australian Open courts unique to Melbourne?

​Other storylines? This is inside baseball, but what’s the fallout from Lagardere blowing up their tennis division? We’ll get our first data point on some of these coaching changes, including Federer-Ljubicic. What’s the state of Rafael Nadal? Of course these big events always have a way of generating their own offbeat stories. Put hundreds of athletes from all over the world in a competitive environment and you seldom want for material.

I also wonder if there will be a meaningful conversation—maybe even with a goal of action—about this rash of injuries. Something is profoundly wrong when almost the entire Top 10 of a tour is coming into the first major of the year, two weeks after what passes for an offseason, with an ace and pain.

Price: It's all about the home setting for me. As a longtime fan of Aussie tennis—and who isn't?—I want to see how Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios are received and supported after a dodgy 2015, how they play and react under pressure and behave and speak during and after each round. No nation more deserves great players winning Slams again, and both these guys have the physical goods to realize and expand on that grand legacy. The daily ups and downs, the readings of their moods and play and the fans' response—and most of all, their results—during this tournament could well set the tone for Australian tennis for the next decade.

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Newman: Eugenie Bouchard vs. the USTA. In October 2015, then 25th-ranked Eugenie Bouchard (a 2014 Wimbledon finalist) filed a lawsuit against the USTA following a concussion she suffered in a locker-room fall at the U.S. Open. In the suit, Bouchard claims she “was caused to slip and fall by a slippery, foreign and dangerous substance on the floor that the USTA knew, or should have known about.” She said that her injury caused her severe pain and that she was forced to miss several tournaments, slipping more than 20 spots in the rankings and forfeiting millions in earnings potential. The USTA has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the “Plaintiff [Bouchard] was experienced and well-versed in the procedures and protocols of the women’s tour, both in the United States and internationally, and knew or should have known the procedures and protocols as they related to the operation of the physiotherapy room adjacent to the women’s locker room at the National Tennis Center and the attended rooms.” Both sides have asked for a jury trial, however, no date has been set. Still, it will be interesting to see how the two sides play nice at the year’s first big event. What happens if Bouchard takes another tumble, either on the court or somewhere else at the tournament’s facilities? Would that strengthen (proof of a hazardous environment) or weaken (maybe she’s just clumsy) her claims? Has the USTA—or Tennis Australia, for that matter—taken any extra precautions to insure players’ safety? Points to ponder. 

Lisanti: Will Grigor Dimitrov’s new girlfriend watch any of Maria Sharapova’s matches? Just kidding! I’m looking forward to the antics of Kyrgios and Friends, especially on home soil in Australia. It will be interesting to see if the offseason has helped Kyrgios and Tomic, both on and off the court, and if Thanasi Kokkinakis, who underwent shoulder surgery, will make an appearance to cheer on his countrymen.

Also, will Drake make another appearance at a Grand Slam?

Who will win the men's title?

Price: Djokovic. He is Serena without the question marks: Wholly dominant, fully engaged, healthy and confident. It's a measure of his playing level that, even while contending with a raft of future Hall of Famers, the results now seem fully up to him. If he's on point, he will not be stopped—and everyone knows it. I expect him to be on point.

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Wertheim: It’s hard to pick against Djokovic. His record over the last 12 months is virtually umblemished. He has won in Melbourne FIVE times. His confidence is impermeable. So, for that matter, is his defense. Federer is always a sentimental pick. Stan Wawrinka, of course, won the title in 2014—and is the only player to beat Djokovic in a major in the last 15 months.

Newman: The Djoker. It’s not even worth a conversation at this point, unless you just like to hear yourself talk. Even his fellow opponents acknowledge that his game is on a whole other planet right now. Djokovic over (Fill In Name Here) in four sets.

Kay: Novak Djokovic. The disparity between Djokovic and the rest of the field is the biggest it has ever been, and it is approaching Federer’s level of dominance before Nadal’s rise. 

Lisanti: Djokovic, but he’ll have to fight for it. I expect a little bit of drama from the undisputable No. 1 along the way, plus a blockbuster five-setter vs. Wawrinka in the final. Get your popcorn ready now.

Who will win the women's title?

Wertheim: I will cheat and issue two answers. Serena if health is not an issue. Victoria Azarenka if Serena is compromised.

Newman:  I absolutely hate voting against Serena, even if she is injured and a bit rusty. Her ability to will herself to victory against all odds should be a U.S. patent by now. However, in an effort to spice things up, I’ll choose former No. 1 and two-time Aussie Open champ Victoria Azarenka. She demolished No.  7 ranked Angelique Kerber in straight sets last week to take the title at Brisbane. And more than any other female on the tour she is able to glare at Serena from across the court without the least bit of trepidation and fear. Plus, her No. 16 ranking has put a huge chip on her shoulder. If nothing else, expect the cacophony of Vika grunts and screams to be more loud and clear than ever.

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Kay: Picking Serena Williams to win is so 2015. SI’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year is still clearly a strong favorite, but I’m going with contributor Victoria Azarenka. Finally healthy, Vika looks primed to return to form this year after kicking off 2016 with a title at Brisbane. I like her to win a third career Australian Open title. 

Price: As it has been for nearly four years, this is again all on Serena. If she's healthy, she'll be a force. But she has also played almost no tennis for three months, so her caliber and fitness will be less than ideal—especially in the withering Melbourne heat. And those dodgy knees have me wondering....So I pick Azarenka, primed and hungry, to win her third Aussie title.

Lisanti: Victoria Azarenka made a statement in Wuhan in the fall when she walked off the court and vowed to return healthy—and she made another with a commanding performance in Brisbane last week. Vika is back, and with Serena’s health in question, she’ll add a third Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to her collection. And we’ll get lots of dabbing Vines along the way.