2019 Australian Open Preview Roundtable: Predictions, Dark Horses, Top Storylines

Predicting winners, highlighting the must-watch matches, picking the players who will have a big breakthrough and more for the first major of the year in Melbourne.
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With the 2019 Australian Open set to kick off Monday in Melbourne (Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET), SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim Stanley Kay, Jamie Lisanti, Daniel Rapaport and Tristan Jung pick winners, discuss this year's top storylines, highlight must-watch matches and more. 

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Which player(s) do you see as a candidate to have a breakthrough tournament? Any dark horses to win the title?

Jon Wertheim: I'm on board with Sabalenka. We saw at the last hardcourt major how a young, ambitious slugger can catch fire. (Note that at that last U.S. Open, Sabalenka was the lone player to take a set off Osaka.) As for the men, the short answer is no. A dark horse could—and inevitably will—make a nice run. Last year Hyung Cheon, then ranked outside the top 50, reached the semis. But can a player like Borna Coric and Karen Khachanov win, beating some combination of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal (even Kevin Anderson and Marin Cilic, who stand too tall to be conventional dark horses)? No.

Stanley Kay: They aren’t dark horses exactly, as both Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka are generating Beto O’Rourkian levels of hype. My prediction: Both players earn their best major results of their respective young careers, but both fall short of winning outright. (As for O’Rourke’s chances, you’ll have to wait for a future roundtable.) A few other women to watch: Madison Keys, sniffing around for her maiden slam title but hampered by injuries; Victoria Azarenka, a two-time winner who won’t be under the radar any longer if she beats Naomi Osaka in the third round; American Alison Riske, a finalist in Shenzhen to start the season.

On the men’s side, I think Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are the clear favorites—Rafa Nadal’s injuries worry me—and I don’t foresee anyone spoiling the Big Three’s supremacy. But I’ll bite on a couple dark horses: Unseeded Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, is flying under the radar, and he always seems to fare well in Melbourne. Marin Cilic jumps out as Federer’s most formidable barrier to the semifinals, but don’t sleep on heavy-hitting Russian Karen Khachanov, who could face Cilic and Federer in succession.

Jamie Lisanti: I’m envisioning the Australian Open as the beginning of a breakthrough year for Belinda Bencic, a former top 10 player now ranked No. 55 after struggling with injuries. After upsetting No. 1 Simona Halep in Sydney, Australia’s Ash Barty should be starred on your drawsheet. Sofia Kenin and Amanda Anisimova are two young Americans you should start to take seriously—as we write this, Kenin is tearing up the draw in Hobart.

With Andre Agassi on his team, can Grigor Dimitrov finally make some waves? 19-year-old Alex de Minaur has started the 2019 season strong and, though he’s drawn into Rafael Nadal’s half, he’s definitely worth a mention. (Here’s what Roger Federer had to say after watching the Australian play: “I really like what I saw, especially at the U.S. Open when he led [Marin] Cilic two sets to love. He really has a good game that’s built to be successful for a long time, like Lleyton Hewitt.”)

WERTHEIM: 2019 Australian Open seed reports

Daniel Rapaport: On the women's side, I'll go with free-swinging Camila Giorgi. On her day, the Italian possess the sheer firepower off the ground to outhit anyone. Off her day, she's capable of losing to just about anyone in the draw. The No. 27 seed has a relatively straightforward path to the third round before a likley matchup with Karolina Pliskova. 

For the men, how about Tomas Berdych? Now 33, the lanky Czech has battled back from a back injury and put forward some solid showings recently, including reaching the final in Qatar. He's a two-time semifinalist at this event, and if he can get past a first-round matchup with Kyle Edmund, he could very well face Rafa Nadal in the fourth round. That could be a tight match; the pace of Berdych's groundies could give Rafa some issues, and we don't know how Rafa's body will be feeling by then. 

As far as dark horses to win the title, it would feel like sacrilege to not mention the in vogue pick, Aryna Sabalenka. Australia's own Ashleigh Barty has what it takes as well. On the mens' side, none exist. It's just that simple. There are precisely three (really two) players who realistically could win the title. More on that in just a second.

Tristan Jung: For me, 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka is the most dangerous player in the bottom half of the women's draw. She compiled an impressive 30-9 record with three WTA titles after Wimbledon last season and was the only player to take a set off Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open. Her shot-making ability is must-watch television, and she should be able to power through to at least the fourth round. After that, the title could be within reach. On the men's side, the two young Russians–Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev–are the best candidates for a breakthrough. Both players have tough roads. Medvedev is likely to face Djokovic in the Round of 16 and Khachanov will probably need to defeat Cilic and Federer just to make the semifinal. But both players showed they could compete with the big names during the Asian swing. 

Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki are the defending champions. How do you see the two of them faring this year?

JW: Those wins really represented the pinnacle of their respective years. Wozniacki plays her best tennis on the courts of Melbourne, but I worry about this rheumatoid arthritis she is combatting. And Federer dipped in the second half of 2018 but uses his off-time more wisely than any player and, at 37, has looked terrific so far this year. But can he stop the Djokovic Express? That's the big question.

SK: I think both players will benefit from the offseason layoff. At 37, Federer is more susceptible than ever to wearing down over the course of a season—hence his delicate schedule management the last couple years. Considering its proximity to the offseason, Melbourne might be his best shot at a major title this year. He has a challenging draw, but he’ll avoid Djokovic until the final. I like Federer’s chances to reach the semifinals, but I doubt he’d be able to beat Djokovic in a final.

Wozniacki revealed last fall that she has rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause fatigue and joint pain. It’s unclear just how much her condition will affect her going forward, but she’ll benefit from an offseason of recovering and adjusting to her new circumstances. I expect Wozniacki to string together a few wins, but she’ll face a difficult match in Ashleigh Barty come the fourth round.

JL: Both defending champions will have solid tournaments, but don’t expect a repeat title winner in either draw. For Federer, it’s the carryover of Djokovic’s 2018 resurgence—plus the Serb’s undeniable reign on the Melbourne courts—that presents the challenge. For Wozniacki, the women’s draw is simply too saturated with breakout stars who are drooling at the sight of a anyone-can-take-it tournament. 

DR: Fed is a legitimate threat to win the title. The biggest issue at this point in his career is fitness/freshness, and he'll hugely benefit from a full offseason to rest, recover and prepare. He was really, really impressive at the Hopman Cup, dispelling of Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Cameron Norrie and (a less-than-healthy) Alexander Zverev without dropping a set. Let's also not forget that he's the two-time defending champion at this event. The fast courts bring out the best in him, and he's been able to use his backhand as a weapon. I fully expect him to reach the final. 

WERTHEIM: Why Ending the Hopman Cup Makes Little Sense

On the other hand, it's hard to predict how Woz will fare, given her early loss to Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu in Auckland and the general unpredictability of women's tennis. I don't see her making it past the fourth round, where she could face Barty.  

TJ: Wozniacki is certainly the more difficult player to project right now. She was knocked out in the second round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and suffered a left knee injury during the summer which prevented her from making a real run at No. 1 in the world. She won one of the biggest titles of the year in Beijing, but she looked shaky at Tour Finals and again in a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu in a warm-up tournament. Wozniacki was lucky to avoid the absolutely stacked top half of the draw, but I still have her losing to Ashleigh Barty in the Round of 16, if not earlier.

Federer, after an extended period of rest, however, has been remarkably consistent. He's gotten a favorable draw and shouldn't have a real test until Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round. Even at 37, Federer has a very good chance at making the semis. 

Which top player(s) is in danger of losing early?

JW: For the men, do we count Zverev and Murray who are both deeply compromised with injury? Nadal is also playing (as I write this) but brings to bear deep health concerns. As for upsets, watch Tomas Berdych and Kyle Edmund.

For the women, everyone one no one. Simona Halep, your top seed, lost to Kaia Kanepi in the first round of the U.S. Open. Guess who she faces Monday here? Sloane Stephens is again playing peek-a-boo with her results. Wozniacki lost to a teenager (Bianca Andreescu of Canadian) to start the year. Drink game: shot of Aussie beer every time you hear that the women's draw is "wide open"

SK: Don’t underestimate the role injuries could play in this tournament, especially on the men’s side, where the favorites are all in their 30s. (Just saying: Best-of-five doesn’t do us any favors here.) Alexander Zverev, with just one major quarterfinal to his name, seems poised to break through this season, but don’t count on it happening in Melbourne. He’s nursing a hamstring injury, and though his draw isn’t especially difficult, it’s not hard to imagine him losing in the first three rounds.

Likewise, Rafael Nadal’s body could complicate his bid for an 18th Grand Slam title. Like last year’s U.S. Open, when Nadal outlasted Dominic Thiem in five sets before retiring against Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, Nadal’s body might not be able to recover from the physical punishment of a marathon match. 

I’m also closely watching Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza. Both players have won slams, but they share a perplexing tendency to lose early at slams. Halep made the final last season, but she exited in the first round each of the previous two years; Muguruza was a quarterfinalist in ‘17, but otherwise she hasn’t made much of a mark in Melbourne. I think Halep will slide past Kaia Kanepi, who ousted her in the opening round of the 2018 U.S. Open, but she’ll fail to escape her difficult quarter, which features Serena Williams.

JL: The popular pick will be World No. 1 Simona Halep, who received no help from the tennis powers that be during the draw ceremony. Without a coach and riding a five-match losing streak, Halep drew Kaia Kanepi in the first round for the second straight Slam. What happened last time? At the 2018 U.S. Open, Kanepi dominated and beat Halep in straight sets. The Romanian also struggled with a back injury towards the end of 2018 and lost her first match of this year to Ash Barty—all this to say, things are not looking good for Halep. 

Beyond that, Mihaela Buzarnescu could challenge (coach-less) Venus Williams in the first round. 

DR: Two pretty clear-cut answers here, methinks. Simona Halep has lost five straight matches and just lost in the first round of her one tuneup event. She enters this tournament having played one match since the U.S. Open, and it was a loss. Alexander Zverev is dealing with a littany of lower-half injuries, including a hamstring strain and a turned ankle he suffered during a practice match. He's a serious candidate to lose in the first or second round. In fact, I'd be pretty surprised if he made it past then. 

TJ: I hate to say it, but my answer is still Alexander Zverev. For one, Zverev has been dealing with a lingering hamstring injury and took a nasty fall during a practice session on Thursday. If he gets through his opening two rounds, he is set for a nightmare matchup against No. 29 seed Gilles Simon in the third round. It would be completely in character for Zverev to lose to Simon, completing the trio of "oh wow, that guy is still playing" Slam losses for Zverev (Kohlschreiber at the U.S. Open, Gulbis at Wimbledon). 

Which first-round matches are you most looking forward to?

JW: A lot of matches intrigue. (And we say that as someone who supports 32 seeds.) Kyrgios-Raonic...for Kyrgios this is what happens when do you don't get seeded. Isner-Opelka for the height. Berdych-Edmund. For the women, I'll go with the Halep-Kanepi rematch. Imagine if the world No. 1 lost in the first round of consecutive majors to the same unseeded player.

SK: In 2015 or so, we might have pegged Nick Kyrgios vs. Milos Raonic as a potential 2019 major final; we'll have to settle for the first round. Recent history elevates the intrigue of Simona Halep’s matchup with Kaia Kanepi. But most of all, I’m looking forward to watching Andy Murray play—possibly, but hopefully not, for the last time. He’ll face Roberto Bautista Agut, who enters the year’s first slam after an impressive title run in Doha.

WERTHEIM: In Andy Murray, Tennis to Lose One of its Grand Sportsmen

JL: All eyes will be on Halep vs. Kanepi, for the aforementioned reasons. Hometown boy Nick Kyrgios vs. No. 16 Milos Raonic should be a treat, because when is a Nick Kyrgios match not a spectacle? Speaking of Australians, Bernard Tomic vs. No. 6 Marin Cilic could be fun. It’ll be fun to see 6’11” Reilly Opelka matched up against 6’10” John Isner in the first round—three cheers for the newly-instituted extended final-set tiebreak! 

With his tearful announcement of a 2019 retirement—perhaps as soon as this fortnight—Andy Murray’s opening match ranks even higher on my list of matches to watch in the opening days of the tournament. While I was looking forward to simply seeing him back in action at the Slams, I’ll be paying extra-close attention (as I’m sure many others will) knowing that his days on the court are numbered. Murray opens against a surging Roberto Bautista Agut and, regardless of result, I think many are hoping that he finds it in him to continue playing beyond the Australian Open. 

I’m also gearing up for (29th-seeded!) Donna Vekic vs. Kristina Mladenovic, Belinda Bencic vs. Katerina Siniakova and Venus–Buzarnescu . Great to see Bethanie Mattek-Sands back in a singles draw after that nasty Wimbledon injury—she faces Australian wildcard Zoe Hives.

DR: It has to be Murray vs. Bautsista Agut. Anytime a Hall of Famer could be playing his last match ever, you have to pay attention. I can't help but feel for Bautista Agut—who is streaking at the right time and will like his chances to make a run—as he has no choice but to play villain. 

TJ: The Halep/Kanepi rematch should be interesting enough. I was at Halep's U.S. Open loss to Kanepi, and it was fairly clear Halep was dealing with some injury problem back in September. The rematch should be a real test of whether Halep has recovered from her herniated disc. I assume everyone will be focusing in on Kyrgios/Raonic and Murray/Bautista-Agut for the men's side, so I'll shout out 2018 semifinalist Kyle Edmund, who has a very important match against Tomas Berdych. With Berdych coming off a six-month layoff and Edmund in terrible form, I'm not expecting great tennis, but it should be compelling. 

Name one offbeat/off-court storyline you'll be following during the tournament.

JW: Andy Murray and his emotional farewell. How will Naomi Osaka fare at the major of the Asian/Pacific region? Whither Serena? ATP hijinks.

SK: I was dispirited by Andy Murray’s announcement early Friday in Melbourne that he’s planning to retire after Wimbledon, if not well before—possibly as soon as his exit from the Australian Open. There’s plenty to say about Murray’s decision and his legacy, and I’ll have more thoughts on SI.com in the coming days. But we’ve already seen an outpouring of support from Murray’s colleagues on both tours, a testament not just to his incredible career, but also to his professionalism and character. I’m looking forward to hearing from more of Murray’s fellow professionals over the coming days, and I’m hoping he’ll find the strength to retire on his own terms. From a selfish perspective, I hope he continues playing as long as possible, but not at the expense of his well being.

Another story to watch: the weather. And not just because I’m in cold, gray New York while Wertheim basks in the Aussie sun. Recall last year’s U.S. Open, where the only thing hotter than the takes after Osaka–Serena was the temperature during the tournament’s first week. A staggering 12 men retired from their matches in the first two rounds alone. And with Melbourne temperatures expected to approach 100 early next week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see several players—especially men, considering the best-of-five format—wave the white flag because of heat exhaustion. 

JL: The Australian Open app currently has a two-star review in the App Store. What gives? People expect a major sporting event’s mobile app to provide up-to-date scores and information, but this continues to be an issue. Apparently some players are having problems with it, too. 

Will Serena address the Naomi Osaka-U.S. Open situation? If asked in a post-match press conference, her response will likely be headline-making news. 

Something that’s always interesting at the start of a new season: Who’s dealing with injuries? Who has a new coach? Who practiced with who in which country during the offseason? The first few days of the Australian Open always have that first-day-of-school feel—and I can’t get enough of the hallway gossip.

DR: Not sure if this qualifies as off-court, but I'm going to be following Andy Murray's every move with keen interest. If he loses in the first round, does he call it quits? I'm also curious to see how the Australian crowd receives Serena in her first major after the Osaka incident. Serena will forever be beloved in America, but it'll be interesting to observe whether that ugly spectacle damages her reputation at all abroad. 

TJ: 39-year-old Ivo Karlovic is making his 57th Grand Slam appearance, seemingly defying all rational aging curves. Karlovic being 6-foot-11 certainly helps. He just served his 13,000th career ace during his run to become the oldest ATP Tour finalist since 1977 in Pune last week. 

Who wins the women's title?

JW: I'll go off the board and say Sabalenka. Because why not?

SK: Angelique Kerber, the '16 winner and a semifinals last year, will take advantage of a friendly draw to win her fourth major title. 

JL: Last year, after years of runner-up finishes, top-10 finishes and the inevitable murmurs of “will she ever win one?”, Caroline Wozniacki finally captured her first major title. Will we see yet another maiden Slam winner in the first major of 2019? I’m going to take a chance and say yes: Elina Svitolina, your 2019 Australian Open champion. Because hey, why not her?

KAY: Breaking Down the 2019 Australian Open

DR: Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy! Oy! Oy! I'm going with Ashleigh Barty, the up-and-coming 22-year-old who is on the precipice of international stardom. What better way to announce herself than by winning her first major title on home soil?!

TJ: I'm taking Serena Williams over Aryna Sabalenka in the final. Halep is still shaky, Naomi Osaka has had a hard time dealing with pressure of late. Serena should end up with Halep's vacated path to the final, and the only player who I trust to stop her is Angelique Kerber, who must come through the stacked bottom half before she faces Williams. Given that she should be fully recovered from maternity leave, I think she finally ends the streak of eight different Grand Slam champions.

Who wins the men's title?

JW: It seems almost "hot takey" not to take Djokovic, who has won the last two majors, monopolized tennis, and  won this event six times before.

SK: Don't overthink this one. Novak Djokovic wins his 15th major title and reignites the GOAT debate. 

JL: Like peanut butter and jelly, like chips and guacamole—or shall we say: like gluten-free flax crackers and hummus?—Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open are better together. Further declaring his dominance down under, Djokovic will beat Cilic for his record seventh title in Melbourne and 15th Grand Slam overall.

DR: As Drake said best- "Mind in one place, heart in another." I'd so deeply love to see Federer win No. 21, or Murray make the Cinderella runs of all Cinderella runs, or Rafa get No. 18 after yet another injury, or one of the young guys break up the triumvirate oligarcy. But you have to go with head over heart. It's gotta be Djokovic d. Federer.

TJ: I am irrationally hesitant about taking Djokovic. There is no reason Djokovic should not be the overwhelming favorite. Nadal has not played a competitive match in nearly five months. While Djokovic was busy resurrecting his career, Federer has looked old and vulnerable. Even if they face off for another epic final, Djokovic will be significantly favored. And yet, this is not the dominant Djokovic of 2015. He's going to have a match in the heat in Melbourne where he plays like garbage, and if he drops a tiebreak or two, we might be asking questions about his conditioning and his aging curve. Since this is my first SI Tennis roundtable, I might as well go on a limb and take...Kevin Anderson to win it all.