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Australian Open 2019 preview
Jan 9, 2019, 3:21:00 PM

Australian Open 2019 preview

It may have seemed like the tennis offseason was a bit of a drag, but with the festive period to contend with, it has all come round pretty quickly. The first Grand Slam of the year comes early on in 2019 as always, just two weeks into January.

With the Australian Open beginning on Monday 14 January, we take a look at the favorites in the men’s and women’s games, as well as which stars may struggle and which young talents may well pose the best chance of causing an upset.

Australian Open Men’s Tournament

In the last few years, it has been hard to look past the so-called big four for many of the Grand Slams. However, there is a growing sentiment that their time may well be up. The likes of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have suffered a whole raft of injuries over the last few years and, although both are expected to take part in the tournament, it is not likely that anyone is expecting too much from either of them.

Nadal is still world number two, but has barely featured since retiring hurt in the US Open semi-finals last year, and has had to ditch a comeback at least twice. This has even seen him withdraw from the Brisbane International last week, citing issues he picked up in his first exhibition games of the season. While he has been playing in the Fast4 tournament this week, and says he is feeling better, previous instances would indicate it may only be a matter of time before he pulls up short.

However, on his day, he is a match for anyone, and should not be discounted. He is currently third favorite, and his ability to keep on bouncing back is one of the major reasons for this.

When it comes to Andy Murray, it gets a little trickier. He has done well to come back this far, but his ranking has slipped to the 200s while he has been ruled out through a series of injuries. Although he made his comeback in the Brisbane International last week, he was humbled in the second round by the Russian Daniil Medvedev, and the Australian Open may well have come too soon for him. He has the problem of the low ranking, meaning he will be unseeded, but his protected rank status has allowed him to enter without qualifying.

With a general lack of fitness and match practice one of the main concerns for Murray, he is not being backed as one of the favorites this year, but being unseeded may well mean he can cause a relative upset or two in the draw.

Roger Federer has continued to defy time to still be one of the best in the world, which is astonishing given that he first reached world number one way back in 2004. However, he has been in and out of the top two for some time, and although he won the Australian Open last year, many will remember how he was beaten by Alexander Zverev in the ATP Finals in London at the tail end of 2018.

Plenty will remember how Novak Djokovic was well beaten there, too. With Zverev now being tipped by many as the one to finally break the dominance of these four players, many eyes will be on him to see how he does.

However, one aspect that stands the big four in good stead is their tournament experience. They have got this far time and again, and know how to grind out results even when things are not going their way.

Admittedly, that does not seem to happen too often to them, and this is why these four are considered the ones to beat in every tournament. That said, Federer is 37, and there have been some signs that the pressure of constant matches may not be aiding his cause for longevity. He is just one title shy of the big century that only Jimmy Connors has reached so far, and has 109 titles to aim for if he wants to go down as the greatest tennis player to ever grace a court. He will no doubt be desperate to get to 100 with a Grand Slam.

As for Novak Djokovic, it had seemed as if the current world number one had lost his way somewhat and a couple of niggly injuries, as well as some patchy form, had led many to believe he had lost his aura of greatness. There was a period where he simply beat anyone he went up against and appeared completely unstoppable. However, that came and went, and 2018 saw a slow start. By the end, he had regained the top ranking from Nadal and was looking pretty. That was, until he came up against Alexander Zverev.

Although the draw is yet to be made, this is the matchup everyone is likely to be talking about. Despite Zverev being way behind in the odds, at around 8/1 with the Serb just above evens, many feel it could finally be the German’s time.

Given how ably Zverev was able to see off both Federer and Djokovic at the season-ending tournament in London, plenty of fans and pundits alike acknowledged he may well have finally come of age. However, it is a different thing to do it in a short-tournament format with just eight players and a maximum of three sets per match. Five-set matches are notoriously harder, and only the strongest athletes can manage all the way to the final on that basis. If he is to convince everyone he is ready for the major stage, he will have to start with the Australian Open.

Many feel that it may still be too soon, but with current form behind him, and the fact his odds have pretty much halved on the eve of the tournament compared to last November, if he gets a good start there is no telling how far he can go.

In terms of home favorites to back, it is harder to look further than Alex de Minaur. The current Australian number one broke into the top 30 this year, and has already set his sights on climbing higher. Do not be surprised if the 19-year old ends up in the semifinals next week, and this is worth considering.

Other players who could go far but have plenty of obstacles in their way include Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, who will be unseeded after coming back from an injury layoff. While they, as well as the likes of Kevin Anderson and Karen Khachanov are all strong players, expecting any of them to get further than the semis is unlikely. However, Nadal and Murray not being at peak fitness gives them a way in.

Australian Open Men’s Predictions

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Runner-up: Alexander Zverev

Semi-finalists: Roger Federer, Alex de Minaur

Australian Open Women’s Tournament

It feels as if the women’s game is as open as it has been for some time. No player really looks like a complete favorite above everyone else, like Djokovic seems to be on the men’s side of the draw. Last year’s winner Caroline Wozniacki was unfortunately diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and has said the only way she can compete is by sitting out several tournaments so she can play in the big ones. Although she will be present, her lack of ability to warm up as effectively as she used to may well cause problems.

Simona Halep, the world number one who made it to the Australian Open final last season, is in a similar position to the woman who beat her last year. Halep suffered a herniated disk in the last few months of 2018 and has only really just got back on the court in a competitive way. She was humbled this week by Ashleigh Barty in the Sydney International, and there will be concerns about how appropriately she may have recovered from injury. Her preparations will also have been rocked by the loss of her coach of four years, who has left her camp due to family reasons.

This means Serena Williams will start as favorite, and although she still carries the pedigree that has seen her become the second best women’s player of all time after Margaret Court, she has yet to win a Grand Slam since giving birth to her child in 2017. However, she almost seized two chances to win, at Wimbledon and in the US Open, but ended up with neither. If she gets two more, she will go above Court to become the player with the most Grand Slams for either men or women, and would no doubt love to start her year off in such fashion. That said, her struggles against Naomi Osaka in the US Open last year were well documented and, given this is the first big tournament since then, how she reacts to any negativity that comes her way could be key. On her day, she could beat anyone, and it would be hard to discount her.

Leading the rest of the pack is the German Angelique Kerber, whose storming start to the season could well see her carry momentum all the way through into the tournament next week. She is hoping to get a second consecutive Sydney International trophy, and if she manages it, she will be one of the firm favorites for the Australian Open. It will all likely depend on who she gets in the draw, as she can beat anyone on her day, but if she gets taken to three-set matches and tiebreaks all the way, she may struggle.

Naomi Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam last year against Serena Williams, has been tipped to carry on her form and work her way towards another slam, but she will be faced with plenty of obstacles. Her main threat appears to be the level of confidence she has in herself, and whether she can implement the kind of belief her coach keeps instilling in her to go on and make a big name for herself in tennis. She is still young and developing, with time on her side to improve, but if she can go far in this tournament, it could set her up for a strong 2019.

Sloane Stephens, who won the US Open in 2017, is clearly talented but not without problems relating to consistency either. She seems to be able to play incredible tennis, but is not always able to keep it up for a whole match, never mind whole tournaments. With fairly long odds compared to her rivals, it is clear she is not the most fancied, but her determination to grind out results should not be discounted, and getting into at least the last eight should be a minimum expectation of her.

In terms of who else is fancied to make a name for themselves, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus has been tipped in some quarters, and won the Shenzen Open last week, but had a thoroughly up and down 2018. At number 11 in the world, she has enough talent to go further, but given she went out in the first round last year, not many will be tipping her. However, at just 20, and with three WTA titles under her belt, she is one that could well go on to win it in the future.

The likes of Garbine Muguruza have struggled for form, while Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens have yet to convince on a consistent basis.

The home crowd favorite will be Ashleigh Barty, who has begun to make a name for herself in the last year or so. After swatting aside world number one Simona Halep in the Sydney International this week, her stock will be higher than ever. With a strong home support, she could well go far, and getting to the semi-finals is not a bad bet.

Australian Open Women’s Predictions

Winner: Serena Williams

Runner-up: Angelique Kerber

Semifinals: Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka

Words: Jennie Beck

Images: PA