1. Ash Barty: For the first time, an Aussie woman arrives to Melbourne as the top seed and real contender. (Prize if you know that Chris O’Neill was the last Aussie woman to win the women’s title.) Barty’s game translates well to the surface but some of her success will depend on how she handles the occasion. 8-6 career record in Melbourne— but she reached the quarters last year—and comes in off a loss to Jen Brady. A tough first rounder against veteran Tsurenko might be a disguised blessing.
2. Karolina Pliskova: Again: the “Best Player Never to Have Won A Slam”—tennis’s great backhanded compliment—label persists. A semifinalist last year, beating Serena (yes, a compromised Serena). Now with Danny Vallverdu as coach, she returns to Australia—an event that should play to her strengths; and having already won Brisbane yet again, beating Osaka and Keys—hoping to snag her first big trophy.
3. Naomi Osaka: The defending champ arrives with a new coach (Wim Fissette), her fourth over the past 12 months. Getting accultured to life at the top—and all that comes with it. And there a plenty of spells when she’s looked like she would win major No. 3. Wonder how she rebounds from squandering match points in her Brisbane semi, the last match before she begins her title defense.
4. Simona Halep: The second best player of 2010s—which somehow doesn’t seem quite right; until you try and come up with a better choice—arrives fit and ready. I am still, all these months later, seduced by her play at Wimbledon, her lone title of 2019. That meet-the-moment performance was so exquisite in its poise and execution, you now almost have to consider her a contender every major she enters. (Especially one she’s come within points from winning previously.)
5. Elina Svitolina: All that’s missing is the Slam breakthrough. She fights, she moves, she strikes a clean ball. But she lacks conviction in latter stages of big matches and big events; and thus has yet to make that good-to-great jump. Losing to Danielle Collins 6-1, 6-1 last week won’t help.
(Let’s pause and express concern for Bianca Andreescu, winner of the previous major, out—distressingly and concerningly— with an injury.)
6. Belinda Bencic: Such a solid and complete and composed player. And—knock plywood—she’s been healthy of late, your 2019 Comeback Player of the Year in fact. Can beat anyone on a given day. But can also be prone to getting outhit—as was the case in Shenzhen.
7. Petra Kvitova: Came within a few points of winning the 2019 Australian Open, thus authoring the Great Tennis Comeback Story. In the past she’s been sensitive to heat and sub-optimal conditions in general that can make breathing difficult.
8. Serena Williams: Our pick— as much for storyline as for tennis. If not now, when? The pessimist points to everything from her age (38) to her three-year major dry spell. The optimist points out that Serena—alone among WTA players—has reached the finals of four Majors over the last 18 months. And she is coming off her first title post-motherhood, looking sharp in Auckland. At this stage, a lot has to go right for her to win seven matches. But a lot CAN go right.
9. Kiki Bertens: Too good a player to be below the timberline. Though at her best on clay, she’s a pro’s pro who wins many matches. (Only 4-7 for her career in Australia.)
10. Madison Keys: Still might be the best ballstriker in the women’s game. But she’s prone to fighting herself, especially when she is missing her targets. Nice prep week in Brisbane, taking out Kvitova en route to reaching the finals. Then lost a who-wants-it-more? final against Pliskova. A big ball-striker but, forgive the pun, you wish she worked in minor keys.
11. Aryna Sabalenka: After spinning like the Mac pinwheel, she finished out 2019 on an up note. Now enters with a heavy heart. Her coaching situation appears to have stabilized. And she still hits the hell out of the ball especially on hardcourts. You wish there were the proverbial Plan B.
12. Jo Konta: Remains a mystifying player. Sometimes she reaches the second week of majors. Sometimes she forgets who she is. A tricky first rounder against Ons Jabeur. Then her draw opens.
13. Petra Martic: A stylish, versatile player who deserves much credit for playing her best ball in her late 20s. 6-8 for her career in Melbourne but five of those come since 2018.
14. Sonia Kenin: The cut-and-paste….Your eyes do not deceive you. That truly is a 14 next to her name on the seedings board. In the model of David Ferrer, here is an undersized player who relishes the battle and gets everything she can from her game. Winning by out-competing the opponent is a gift that lasts.
15. Marketa Vondrousova: Like the meme of Homer Simpson backing into the shrubs, man has she retreated since reaching the French Open final (as a teenager). A fun player to watch and lots of craftiness, but still prone to getting hit off the court.
16. Elsie Mertens: Solid player who isn’t on the threshold of winning majors, but makes you beat her. A semifinalist two years ago.
17. Angelique Kerber: Former champion (2016) arrives with a new coach, Dieter Kindlmann. And it’s an even year! (Retirement in Adelaide could be a concern.)
19. Donna Vekic: A big slugger who is learning how to win. Faces Sharapova in R1.
21. Amanda Anisimova: A Week two player in 2019, she’s been through a lot in the last six months. So much game, but you wonder how she reacts to the 6-1, 6-1 drubbing Serena hung on her in Auckland.
22. Maria Sakkari: A fine player already, but will be elevated by Greek crowd.
23. Dayana Yastremska: Hidden a bit in the teenage brigade, but a lot of game here. Lost, tearfully, to Serena in 2019. This year she’s a seed.
24. Sloane Stephens: Been a fairly quiet season for the 2017 U.S. Open champ. Save life changes and personnel changes. So much to like here—the ball striking, the movement, the capacity anyway for competitive resolve. Now that she’s back with Kamau Murray, is she ready to salvage her season?
25. Ekaterina Alexandrova: Russian won her maiden WTA title in Shenzhen.
Dark Horse Pasture
Caroline Wozniacki: The exit interview. Two years ago, she entered as a favorite—and left as the champion. This year, she enters as a sentimental favorite, having declared this her final event.
Garbine Muguruza: Finally made the coaching change. Stunning to see her ranked like this.
Danielle Collins: A week two player in 2019. Already beaten Svitolina and Kenin in 2020.
Jen Brady: Australia becomes her. UCLAer has already beaten the world’s No. 1 this year.
Venus Williams: Crowding age 40—and coming in with zero momentum—but seven majors are seven majors!
Svetlana Kuznetsova: All 2x-Major champs get mention, even if they’re not coming off of reaching a final. Speaking of….
Maria Sharapova: Has become tennis’s forgotten woman. You wonder how long she can keep going at this rate.
Coco Gauff: Bursting into the future.
Jessie Pegula: American plugger, now up to No. 64, was the Auckland finalist last week.
First Round Matches to Watch
Venus vs. Coco Gauff: Who writes this stuff?
Keys vs. Kasatkina: Now 68, Kasatkina was the higher-ranked player a year ago.
Sharapova vs. Vekic: (And the winner likely gets Cornet.)
Halep vs. Brady: Brady took out the current No. 1 last week. Now she takes aim at former No. 1.
Doubles winner: Kiki Mladenovic and Timea Babos.
Pliskova d. total surprise
Serena d. Keys
Serena d. Pliskova
1. Rafael Nadal: Winner of the previous major—a hardcourt major at that. After a resurgent 2019, Nadal is within one Slam of Federer’s all-time mark, 20-19. (Last time the race was this close, it was 1-0.) But despite all the requisite tools, he’s only won once in Melbourne—and that was a decade ago. And he’s already lost two matches in 2020.
2. Novak Djokovic (SRB): What load management? The Joker has come out playing in 2020: exhibitions, doubles, and the triumphant ATP Cup. The defending champ—and seven-time time champ— is 68-8 in Melbourne for his career. The sun rising in the east. Facebook’s insidiousness. Djokovic romping in Australia. It’s almost an immutable truth. He’s the top pick. And it’s a long fall to second place.
3. Roger Federer: The obligatory pause to note that Federer is barely 18 months from turning 40 (!) and we are still discussing him as a top-3 contender. In a variety of ways, the majors were not especially kind to him in 2019. Returns to the scene of his most recent major, well-rested and perhaps in an unusual position: a titan poised to sneak up on the field.
[Another obligatory pause….this one to recognize the figure who usually occupies the No.4 spot, Andy Murray. He’s training and rehabbing, his camp tells us, and will be back soon, one hopes.]
4. Daniil Medvedev: As the seedings suggest, your best bet after the Big Three. Scored a breakthrough in Melbourne last year, trading blows with Djokovic. Buoyed by that, he turned in a brilliant year. But throughout his run, the cynics wondered, “When will this (over)playing begin to exact a price on his body?” When you’re pulling out of exhibitions because of hip injuries (you suffered in other exhibitions), it doesn’t bode well for your prospects in best-of-five matches. But Medvedev looked fine in ATP Cup, winning four matches and, significantly, sliding up to No. 4 in the rankings. Big foe, as it were, off the bat in Tiafoe.
5. Dominic Thiem: The Teamster is now 26. Coming off a strange 2019 that saw him play wonderfully in spurts, woefully in others and finish on a high. On a three-match major losing streak, having fallen in the first round of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
6. Stefanos Tsitsipas: Tennis’s Greek Freak closed 2019 with the biggest title of his career, taking the ATP WTF in London. A semifinalist in Melbourne last year—taking down Federer in the process—can he improve in 2020? A sensitive soul, you worry about his disastrous ATP Cup meltdown.
7. Alexander Zverev: We have to talk about Sascha. After spending the off-season on the Federer goodwill tour, Zverev had a catastrophic start to the season. Struggling with his serve—the tennis barometer of confidence—is the most obvious manifestation of a player in a bad place. Enters Melbourne on a four-match losing streak.
8. Matteo Berrettini: A year ago, ranked outside the top 50, he lost in round one to Tsitsipas. By the U.S. Open, he was a formidable semifinalist. Comes to Melbourne ranked No. 8—though looking for his first win in Melbourne. An Aussie Rules football player masquerading as a tennis player.
9. Roberto Bautista Agut: Spanish veteran, now 31, beat Murray last year and reached the quarters, coming off a resurgent 2019. A strange ATP Cup—thrashing players outside the top 500; not exactly optimal tuneups—but a pro’s pro through and through.
10. Gael Monfils: If it ain’t baroque don’t fix it. He’s 33 now, but Le Monf is still at it, bringing his joie de vivre to a showcourt near you.
11. David Goffin: The Belgian, a consummate pro, has proven himself perfectly capable of reaching the middle weekend of a major and sadly incapable of advancing beyond. Beat Nadal in ATP Cup play. Can he make a deep run in best-of-five format on hard courts?
12. Fabio Fognini: A rough go of it at ATP Cup, but temperamental Italian, now 32, offers a wide range of outcomes. Has beaten Nadal at hardcourt majors; he’s also gone 10-12 for his career in Melbourne. Will he lose to Opelka—his first foe—at second straight major?
13. Denis Shapovalov: Salvaged his 2019 season with a strong fall and has looked strong to start 2020. The salon still awaits the major breakthrough—these Canadian fans suddenly have Raptors/Andreescu style expectations—but it is easy to forget he doesn’t turn 21 until Tax Day. Nice start to the year.
14. Diego Schwartzman: If tennis did weight classes, he might be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game. As it is, he’s an admirable overachiever prone to being hit off the court.
15. Stan Wawrinka: A former champ in Melbourne deserves heaps of credit for his return from injury. If his body holds up, he’s a true contender.
16. Karen Khachanov: A steady, measured guy who tends to turn in erratic results. Went 30-29 on the year for 2019 with zero titles.
Seeds 17-32 to watch
17. Grigor Dimitrov: After a worrying decline, the stock is climbing again. Beat Federer at the previous major and always a joy to watch.
18. Andrei Rublev: Major darkhorse. (Which sounds like a character in a British military spoof.) Won Doha title without dropping a set (8-0).
19. John Isner: We’re in danger of no Americans in the top 20.
20. Felix Auger-Aliassime: A teenager until August, he has no signature win, no major breakthrough….and is on the cusp of the top 20.
23. Nick Kyrgios: The pirate in the Navy. Same old storyline. (and don’t look now, Kyrgios is coming up on age 25.) The talent is not the question. It’s the commitment to excellence, both in the micro and the macro. Playing at his home Slam cuts both ways: it can bring out the best in Kyrgios. It can also freight him with unmeetable expectations (especially when Nadal is so close in the draw).
24. Dusan Lajovic: A sneaky good player who had his moments in ATP Cup.
28. Jo Wilfried Tsonga: A finalist (gulp) a dozen years ago—his best Slam showing—JWT, now 34, turned in a wonderfully perseverant 2019.
30. Dan Evans: The Great British Bake-off…playing top 10-level tennis so far this year.
31. Hubie Hurkacz: 3-0 this year with wins over Coric, Schwartzman and Thiem.
32. Milos Raonic: The serve is always formidable. And he’s been deep in this event before.
Dark Horse Pasture
Kevin Anderson: Playing his first event since Wimbledon the proverbial “player no one wants to face early.”
Miomir Kecmanovic: A top 20 player by year’s end.
Marin Cilic: A finalist just two years ago.
Reilly Opelka: On the serve alone….
Casper Ruud: Ascending Norwegian—is there any other kind?—just wrapped up a training block at the Nadal academy.
First Round Bangers (as the kids call them)
Djokovic vs. Jan-Lennar Struff: Djokovic won’t lose, but he’ll get a workout.
Medvedev vs. Tiafoe: For Frances, this is what happens when you’re not seeded.
Coric vs. Sam Querrey: Clash of styles.
Anderson vs. Fritz in round two.
Opelka d. Fognini. Again.
Doubles winner: We’ll keep calling the Bryan Bros, Bob and Mike, for the sake of sentimentality,
Djokovic d. Federer
Nadal d. Medvedev
Djokovic d. Nadal