The usual suspects aren’t going anywhere at this year’s Australian Open, which begins Monday. That’s especially true on the men’s side, where a restored Novak Djokovic is the prohibitive favorite to win his seventh Aussie Open title and 15th major overall. Returning from maternity leave, Serena Williams, who landed in world No. 1 Simona Halep’s section of the draw, is less likely to clinch a historic Grand Slam number 24, but the odds haven’t stopped her in the past. Beyond the favorites, here are six players who could slip into week two and contend for the big trophy Down Under.
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty has not only a distinct home-court advantage in her arsenal, she also boasts a recent straight-sets victory over world No. 1 Halep. The 22-year-old has deep, consistent groundstrokes and a vexing slice/drop-shot combo that doesn’t let her down often. It might just be her weapon to clear past early-round, nerve-wracking opponents. At 5’5" she hardly has the wingspan to let contenders run her around, but she’s speedy, makes clever use of angles and has a solid net game. Barty reached the round of 16 at last year’s U.S. Open, her best Grand Slam result to date, and has climbed 300 ranking spots since 2016. Her side of the draw looks fairly open until the fourth round, where she could clash with defending champion Caroline Wozniacki. Hard courts seem to be Barty’s favorite, the Aussie heat is no stranger, and the crowd will be behind her.
If anyone is hungry for a maiden Grand Slam title, it’s Elina Svitolina. The 24-year-old Ukrainian had a strong 2018 season, winning tournaments in Rome, Dubai, Brisbane and the WTA Finals in Singapore, where she knocked out top a litany of elite players along the way. Her impressive athleticism has resulted in a well-deserved reputation for speed, but she offers much more than pace—a big serve, loves to play aggressive, takes every chance to step in and control points and occasionally sneaks up to net. Her go-all-out attitude has made her a consistent threat to beat the sport’s best, but it has come at a cost to her body. Svitolina lost to Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals of last year’s Australian Open, after which she admitted her injured back betrayed her and the match was too physical for what she could take that day. Her opponents often go scrappy to dim her control and tax her physically. Sans injuries, Svitolina will have no problems answering that tactic. Whether grand expectations get the best of her remains to be seen.
WERTHEIM: 2019 Australian Open Seed Reports
Another rising star poised for a deep run at the majors is 20-year-old Belorussian Aryna Sabalenka. The hard-hitting baseliner started the new year in ideal fashion by winning the Shenzhen Open. She comes off a strong 2018 hardcourt season that included two WTA titles and several finals appearances, vaulting her into the world top 15. Sabalenka’s first test at the Australian Open could come via a third-round matchup with Petra Kvitova, whom she upset at last year’s U.S. Open but lost to earlier this year. At 6’, Sabalenka has a big serve, loves to hit winners from all angles of the court, chases down just about everything and, despite her gutsy style, manages to limit unforced errors. Sabalenka has the physical strength to last deep into the tournament; if her mental state keeps up with her fearless gameface all the way through, she has a realistic shot to hold her first Grand Slam trophy in two weeks’ time.
Alex de Minaur
Australia’s top-ranked teenager, Alex de Minaur started the 2018 season ranked No. 208 and finished at No. 31. His rapid success is largely the product of impeccable court coverage, maturity in tight situations, and sheer grit. He forces his opponents to earn every point no matter who they are, leading to natural comparisons with countryman Lleyton Hewitt. De Minaur led Marin Cilic two sets to none at last year’s U.S. Open before he eventually lost a four-hour epic. What he gained, though, were scores of global fans for his ferocious spirit. He fared well among his 21-and-under #NextGenATP peers, reaching the finals in Milan last year before falling to Stefanos Tsitsipas. He hasn’t made it past the second round at the Australian Open since turning pro in 2015, but with more experience, renewed confidence and fresh off a great showing in Sydney, the 2018 ATP Newcomer of the Year could make his home crowd proud.
Roberto Bautista Agut
A lesser-known player outside tennis circles, Roberto Bautista Agut has consistently lingered around the top 30 for the past five years but hasn’t found his career breakthrough yet. This Australian Open could be his big chance to capitalize on the momentum he gained by winning in Doha earlier this year, upsetting brand names such as Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic(!) in the process. To go far in the draw, the 30-year-old Spanish counter puncher will have to do more than slug it out with his opponents— he’ll be forced to generate sharper angles and take more risks all-around. Bautista Agut won two titles last year, including the ATP 500 event in Dubai, but he has yet to make it past the fourth round at a major. Still, his superb form this year could take him to new heights. Bautista Agut will play his first-round match against Andy Murray, who could be playing his last tournament ever. If he makes it into the later rounds, he could be up against the rising Russian Karen Kachanov and defending champ Roger Federer.
SI EXPERT ROUNDTABLE: Previewing the Australian Open
Might this year finally be Alexander Zverev’s time to hold the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, or at least stand with the winner of it? Good-health permitting, it could. His past results at the majors wouldn’t lead anyone to think he’ll do big things in Australia, but the tall 21-year-old German’s impending breakthrough could arrive anytime, especially after a few weeks of rest. With powerful groundstrokes, a big serve, large reach and artful volleys, Zverev has it all…but his body doesn’t seem too keen to cooperate. He’s dealing with both a hamstring and ankle injury, the latter of which he suffered during a practice match on Thursday. The German plays 67th-ranked Aljaz Bedene in the opening round and could meet Wawrinka or Milos Raonic in the fourth round.