Tennis Prose



Australian Open 2018: So Many Contenders

By Scoop Malinowski

With the sudden emergence of such a remarkable number of spectacular young talents to threaten the still-reigning veteran tennis elites, this year’s edition of the Australian Open is the most intriguing in a long time.

The top seed and ATP world no. 1 Rafael Nadal is the man of the moment and he has ample motivation to prove a point. Last year Nadal lost an epic five-setter in the final to Roger Federer despite being up 3-1 in the decisive final set. But so far this year the 31-year-old lefty remains a question mark. He lost an exhibition match last week to Richard Gasquet in straight sets and has not played an official ATP match yet this year. Nadal’s last ATP match was a loss in three sets at the ATP World Tour Finals to no. 7 seed David Goffin in November. Not to discredit Nadal’s chances with pessimism, but he is a “confidence” player who needs to play a lot of match activity to build up his “match tough confidence” and right now it’s fair to wonder if Nadal could be vulnerable if he runs into a red-hot, unseeded player.

Roger Federer, the world no. 2 and defending champion, looked sharp in winning all four of his matches at Hopman Cup two weeks ago. The 36-year-old Swiss, who has won in Melbourne five times, is the odds-on favorite to conquer again. Some sportsbooks such as 888sports set the odds at 7/4 in favor to Roger Federer to win the Australian Open this year, but Geoff Johnson of says that this is an emotional price, and not great value. Federer should be the favorite, but not this strongly.

Federer’s half of the draw is loaded with danger, particularly in the form of six-time Australian king Novak Djokovic who is back with a vengeance and a new coaching staff after a substandard 2017. Djokovic is now coached by the recently retired Radek Stepanek and Hall of Famer Andre Agassi. A Federer vs Djokovic clash could happen in the semis, if both can survive that far into the tournament.

One player who Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will be especially wary of is Australian super talent Nick Kyrgios, who is the only player in history besides Lleyton Hewitt, to have defeated Fed, Rafa and Djokovic the first time he played each. The 22-year-old Kyrgios looked as good as ever last week in winning Brisbane, defeating no. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov, Alexsandr Dolgopolov and Ryan Harrison in three absolutely thrilling performances.

Bulgarian Dimitrov is another top contender for the title. The 26-year-old lost a heartbreaking semi-final last year to Nadal in five sets in Melbourne but rebounded to have an excellent year in which he achieved a career-high ranking of no. 3 in the world as well as winning the most prestigious title of his career, the ATP World Tour Finals in London, defeating Goffin in three superb sets.

Goffin, the diminutive, soft-spoken Belgian, is another wondrous talent and must be regarded as a chief threat, because he has proven on many occasions he can beat any player in the world, including even Federer and Nadal.

This year’s Australian Open is special because there are so many dangerous players in the draw who are capable of causing stunning upsets and doing major damage. Some of the players to keep an eye on are Aussie 18-year-old Alex De Minaur, who is red hot this year after winning a handful of matches already. Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 winner, is also a threat at age 32. Veteran Gael Monfils is unseeded but he just won the title in Doha. Juan Martin Del Potro is 29 and showing signs of reaching his top form again. Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov is another extraordinary player but will need to re-discover the winning touch he displayed at US Open last year where he qualified and reached the round of 16 before losing to Pablo Carrena Busta. American Jack Sock, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, Germany’s Alexander Zverev, Croatia’s Borna Coric and Marin Cilic, and Russians Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Danill Medvedev are other players capable of headline-making results.

On the women’s side, Serena Williams has decided to pass on playing because she is not yet ready for Grand Slam competition after taking most of 2017 off to get married and giving birth to her first child. With Serena’s absence, there are an abundance of determined players eager to fill the void left by the American super champion who will return to tennis in March or April.

Angelique Kerber, the former champion and WTA world no. 1 has looked the most impressive so far this year with her dominant displays in Perth at Hopman Cup and this week in Sydney where she will contest the final against Ashleigh Barty. The 29-year-old is ranked 22 after a poor 2017 which followed her historic 2016 highlighted by US Open and Australian Open titles. Kerber is still undefeated in 2018.

WTA world no. 1 Simona Halep has never won a major title, despite two very close calls, but she is in the best form of her career and fresh off a title in China. It could be her time right now.

Belinda Bencic of Switzerland is another player who has been winning steadily since late last year, including winning Hopman Cup with Federer earlier this month, and she could also emerge in Melbourne as champion. Bencic has proven when she is at her best she can beat the best, as proven by her win against Serena Williams in the United States three years ago. Bencic has drawn 38-year-old Venus Williams in the first round.

If you like darkhorses, Camila Giorgi is a choice to consider. The veteran Italian has not been a factor in any majors in her career but the hard hitting baseliner could be ready to blossom as a star. So far this year Giorgi has already scored three of the best wins of her career as she has defeated reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova.

Garbine Muguruza, the WTA no. 2 player, is another force who must be considered a top challenger to win in Australia. Former no.l Muguruza, who surely would like to regain the top ranking, is no stranger to major titles, having won a Wimbledon plate.

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine has been threatening the elites for the last two years and could be finally ready to breakthrough.

American Madison Keys lost in the US Open final last year and certainly has the capability to do even better in Melbourne.

Of course, there is still Maria Sharapova looming large and still motivated to regain her winning touch, following the year suspension for using a banned substance meldonium. Sharapova lost in the US Open second round last year to Anastasija Sevastova and could meet her conqueror again in a second round rematch in Australia.

Caroline Garcia, the Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova, Joanna Konta, Ashleigh Barty, Daria Kasatkina, and Coco Vandeweghe must also be considered as serious contenders that must not be written off.

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  • catherine · January 14, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Hartt – yes, Andrea’ll be a voice that’s missed on the circuit when she calls it a day. And as she’s now about to leave the top 100 that may not be far off. Let’s hope she stays around in some capacity.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 14, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    The WTA and ATP need more Petkovic type personalities, she is a classic.

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