- Sports Illustrated's tennis experts and writers highlight the top storylines, pick the best first round matches to watch and predict the winners for the first major of the year in Melbourne.
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, Richard Deitsch, 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?
Richard Deitsch: Given what she did at the Shenzhen Open – upsetting top-10 players Simona Halep and Johanna Konta on the way to winning her first WTA title — keep an eye on 20-year-old Czech Katerina Siniakova. Here’s a three-minute clip of her comeback win over Konta, where you can see the pace on her two-handed backhand:
Siniakova made two finals last year including Tokyo and says Melbourne is her favorite tournament. Julia Goerges will be a tricky first round match but Siniakova’s draw looks promising.
Jamie Lisanti: One theme that seems to apply to both the men and women when it comes to dark horses this year: The Comeback. After struggling to find form and consistency over the last few years, both Eugenie Bouchard and Grigor Dimitrov have turned in decent results to start the year in 2017. Dimitrov beat Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori en route to the title in Brisbane last week, while Bouchard strung together impressive wins over WTA Finals champ Dominica Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Sydney before falling to eventual champion Johanna Konta in the semifinals. Is this the tournament where things finally turn around? If either can stick around to the end of next week, it's a step in the right direction.
I also like the chances of hometown favorites Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova; Caroline Wozniacki and Konta are poised to make deep runs; and Milos Raonic will prove he belongs in the World No. 3 spot if he can win a potential fourth-round meeting against Rafael Nadal.
Jon Wertheim: An overarching theme of this entire year: will we finally have transition? Or do the Big Four/Five still take the big prizes?
Grigor Dimitrov: Playing well again after two or so lost years.
Nick Kyrgios: Will the emotional maturity finally catch up to the talent?
Alexander Zverev: Are we ready to go from dazzling prospect to week-in-week-out factor?
Lucas Pouille: Can he build on a breakthrough 2014?
Elina Svitolina: Some big wins, including takedowns of Serena and Kerber. Can she do it in a major?
Genie Bouchard: Is the magic back?
Katerina Siniakova: The best player you’re unlikely ever to have seen.
Monica Puig: Not much in the way of results since Olympics.
Stanley Kay: I like Grigor Dimitrov’s chances to continue his hot start to 2017. In Brisbane, he beat Steve Johnson, Nicolas Mahout, Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori on his way to his first title since June 2014. I don’t want to read too much into Dimitrov’s early success—it’s just the first week of the season, and players are still finding their form—but you couldn’t ask for a much more impressive list of vanquished opponents. Dimitrov’s draw sets him up to face Richard Gasquet, who has beaten the Bulgarian in five of six meetings, in the third round, but Dimitrov’s early success should build his confidence entering the season’s first Slam.
On the women’s side, I think Naomi Osaka is a player to watch. The draw feels wide open, and low–seeded or unseeded players (think Jo Konta and Madison Keys) have had some success in Melbourne the last few years. Only 19, Osaka is one of the brightest young talents on tour; she reached the third round in three Slams last year and saw her ranking skyrocket to No. 40 by the end of the season. (She’s currently No. 47.) If Osaka wins her first round match, she’ll likely play Konta in the second round—a tough matchup, but also an opportunity for a breakthrough win.
Which top players will crash out early?
Deitsch: This is always a tough one to predict given it’s early in the year. I’ll play a hunch that Gael Monfils gets picked off in one of the first three rounds after finishing a career-high No. 7 at the end of 2016. It would also not surprise me to see Serena get knocked off before the semis.
Lisanti: Both Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber drew tough first-rounders to open the tournament. Instead of easing into the first major of the year, they'll have to come out and play from the start, but the world's top two players will pass the test—don't expect last year's finalists to go down in round one.
Instead, I think we may see No. 3 Agnieskza Radwanska head home early, even after her run to the Sydney final this week. Garbine Muguruza is another top seed to worry about. After retiring with a right thigh injury in a match against Alize Cornet last week in Brisbane, Muguruza said the injury would not affect her in Melbourne but cited fatigue as a big reason for her dropped level of play, saying, “I just felt a little bit exhausted on the court, and I have been dealing with tiredness and issues with all these hard matches I have been playing, and today I was just far from 100%.”
Along the same lines, has Thiem recovered enough after burning out towards the end of last season? He's seeded No. 8 and it will be interesting to see how he fares physically. If he hasn’t taken the time to recuperate, he could go down early.
Wertheim: The injury list is long enough already. Here it is the first few weeks of the year and—for an astonishingly vast variety of reasons—the non-starters include: Maria Sharapova (doping ban), Victoria Azarenka (maternity leave), Sloane Stephens (foot), Madison Keys (wrist), Juan Martin del Potro (rest) and Petra Kvitova (injuries suffered in a home invasion.) We all like upsets and early crash outs but this tournament could benefit from chalk. The later Federer and Nadal play, the better.
On the women’s side especially, you wish the contenders were in with more momentum. Name a top ten player—starting with Serena and Kerber—and odds are good she has lost or been injured this year. But there’s a world of difference between a tune-up and a major.
Kay: Roger Federer’s first two opponents will be qualifiers, which will help him ease back into a rhythm. But I think Tomas Berdych has a good chance to upset a rusty Federer in the third round. Rafael Nadal is also a strong candidate for an early exit, based on recent history. Alexander Zverev could be a challenging third-round opponent.
I can’t decide whether Garbine Muguruza is going to crash out early or win the tournament, which I know is exactly the sort of expert insight you’ve come to expect from this roundtable. But Muguruza has been wildly inconsistent. We all declared her the Next Big Thing after she won the French Open, but her runs at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were shorter than Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. Muguruza looked good in Brisbane, but I think she’ll lose early in Melbourne. Or she’ll win the whole thing.
Which first round matches are you most looking forward to?
Kay: Serena Williams–Belinda Bencic is an intriguing opener for both players. Bencic had a rough 2016, but she’s talented and actually beat Williams in their last meeting in 2015. I also think CoCo Vandeweghe’s match with Roberta Vinci will be a fun contrast of styles.
On the men’s side, I’m primarily looking forward to the most stylish man of 2016’s return to high-intensity tennis. (Why didn’t we do a roundtable on Federer’s chances to win that competition?) Fernando Verdasco upset Rafa Nadal in last year’s opening round, and this year he’ll face Novak Djokovic after failing to convert five match points against the Serb in Doha last week. Djokovic ended up winning the tournament. And while I fully expect Milos Raonic to ease by Dustin Brown, the German always makes for good entertainment.
Deitsch: This is going to be the pick of everyone on the panel I’m sure, but Serena Williams-Belinda Bencic is the marquee opening round match on either side. Bencic’s seed is down only because of a long injury lay-off. She’s a Top 10 talent with a win over Serena. I’m not sure Serena has had a tougher first round challenge in a major in the past five years. I’ll go a little off the board on the men for Fabio Fognini-Feliciano Lopez, two crowd-pleasing players. They had a great match at Wimbledon last year. I’m not one who buys Novak Djokovic will have issues with Fernando Verdasco.
Lisanti: The all-America matchup between Samantha Crawford and Lauren Davis. Simona Halep vs. Shelby Rogers. Australian teenager Omar Jasika vs. No. 21 David Ferrer. Milos Raonic vs. Dustin Brown. And just for fun: The battle of the Ekaterinas: The seasoned vet and 2015 Australian Open semifinalist, Makarova vs. the 22-year-old who took out Ana Ivanovic in the first round at Wimbledon last year, Alexandrova.
Name one offbeat and/or off-court story you will be following during this year’s Australian Open.
Wertheim: The blight of match fixing remains. Last year it dominated the first few days of coverage and already there have been unfortunate headlines in 2017. While it's a problem largely confined to lesser lights—“hobbyists,” a friend calls them—who are multiple rungs away from playing in Grand Slams, the casual fan doesn’t make this distinction. Also, Serena will surely be asked about her engagement. If she loses, it will inevitably be cited as a “distraction”; if she wins, we’ll hear about how this year is off to a blissful start.
Kay: Donald Trump will become President of the United States on Jan. 20. The Australian Open is thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C., but if the last 18 months are any indication, the first weeks of President Trump’s administration will not be uneventful. American tennis players are an ideologically diverse bunch, and I’m curious whether any players will speak up in the event of some seismic political episode. Nicole Gibbs and James Blake are among those who regularly tweet about politics, but I’m interested to see whether it will be a topic of discussion for others in Melbourne.
Deitsch: Whether we will see any non-American players follow the lead of Nick Kyrgios to make some kind of political statement on the President Elect, vulgar or otherwise. Kyrgios will certainly be asked about it in Melbourne.
Lisanti: It’s not necessarily an off-court storyline, but I’m so intrigued by the role of injuries (and recovery time) in tennis. So many big contenders are missing this tournament due to injury—Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Thanasi Kokkinakis, to name a few—and several players are returning to the court after an injury-filled 2016 season. Will there be any new methods players turn to for recovery once matches are over? Who will push through pain and play injured, and who will call it quits and retire in the first major of the year? The amount of fatigue, number of retirements and extent of injuries we see in Melbourne each year continues to amaze me, given the tournament is the first major of the year.
Also, Serena’s surprise engagement before the tournament will surely be a topic of discussion among many. The real question: will she reveal the ring?
Who will win the men's title?
Deitsch: Djokovic. Murray may be the top seed but look at the Djoker’s history here. He’s a six-time winner including four championship wins over Murray. He’s also motivated after losing the No. 1 He’s my pick.
Wertheim: It’s hard to pick against Djokovic. It’s almost at the point that he is to Melbourne what Nadal is to Paris. We all know about his struggles in the latter half of 2016; but I read a lot into that three-set win over Murray last week. That was a well-articulated statement. “The ranking may indicate that you’re ahead of me; but on the ground, it’s a different story.”
Kay: Novak Djokovic.
Lisanti: Novak Djokovic will break his own record of the most Open Era Australian Open titles—and tie his record for most consecutive—and win his seventh trophy in Melbourne.
Who will win the women's title?
Deitsch: Staying No. 1 is much more mentally challenging than getting to No. 1 but Angie Kerber showed her mettle in the second half of 2016 and she’s going to have a great year. I’m not concerned with her losses in Brisbane or Sydney and it would it not surprise me if she repeats in Melbourne. But I’m going with Karolina Pliskova. Call it a feeling after watching her run to the U.S. Open final last year.
Wertheim: Even at age 35… even having taken the fall off. …even having committed a ghastly 88 errors in her last match….Serena is the favorite. (That tells you plenty about either the betting markets’ confidence in her or their lack of confidence in the field.) Kerber is the defending champ; but note she has not won a title since becoming No.1. I’ll go off the board and try Pliskova. She came within a match of winning the U.S. Open. And you sense that she’s ready for the next step.
Kay: Serena Williams wins and gets a Twitter shout-out from the President. (He has mentioned her 10 times on Twitter in the past.)
Lisanti: Angelique Kerber will summon the magic of a year ago and beat someone not named Serena Williams in the final.