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 MyTopSportsbooks.com 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 12, 2018 at 11:55 am

    Can’t get this boosting of Giorgi – she’s hardly a veteran at 26 (what does that make Kerber who turns 30 next week ?) and her results aren’t as good as they look. Sloane is seriously mifiring, Kvitova is a shadow of herself and as for Radwanska – who knows ?

    Angie had no problems with Giorgi. Didn’t look as if she had to dig very deep.

  • Hartt · January 12, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    Catherine, I don’t get enthusiasm for Giorgi either. She is ranked No. 100 and her career high, at No. 30, was over 2 1/2 years ago. And talk about a one-dimensional game!

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 12, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Giorgi just scored the three biggest wins of her career. She’s red hot right now and merits serious consideration. Pennetta Sloane and Puig showed us that women players can suddenly emerge out of the shadows, like a cobra strike.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 12, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    Hartt, True Giorgi is known as one dimensional but none of us have seen her play this year and maybe just maybe she has added a new dimension or two to her game, thus the sudden surge of surprising excellent wins. Players like Li Na, Ivanovic, Bouchard, Sloane, Maria, showed us that one dimensional / no plan B tennis works. Sometimes.

  • catherine · January 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Scoop – I’ve seen Giorgi play, there are recent matches on Youtube. She didn’t seem to find any new dimension against Kerber, who looked to me pretty much untroubled.

    And as I said, the three biggest wins of her career don’t look so big closeup.

    As for Pennetta, Sloane and Puig – Flavia had been around for a long time, known to all as a good player, Sloane has done virtually nothing since the USO and Puig regularly gets beaten. Nothing much like a cobra strike there.

    Of course Camila may have unexpected wins at the AO but I suspect they will tell us more about her opponents than about her.

  • catherine · January 12, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Interesting comment on Youtube about Giorgi’s ‘one dimensional game’ – once Kerber ‘gets dialed in to the patterns, you’re screwed’. You have to attack her with variety. Giorgi certainly wasn’t able to do that.

    Muguruza tries this a bit, which is why she and Angie have good matches and it’s a pity Garbine has had so many physical problems lately and they didn’t meet up in Sydney. I would like to see Halep/Kerber – they haven’t met for a while and almost always close contests.

  • catherine · January 12, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Barty will probably try to mix things up in the Sydney final but I expect Angie’s experience will show there and if she returns well then it’ll be SS.

    Speed around the court is probably Angie’s big improvement – she was so listless towards the end of last year. It’s like she’s got a new engine. Porsche probably.

  • Dan Markowitz · January 12, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    Giorgi’s terrible. I was watching her match at the USO a couple of years ago against Lisicki, whatever happened to her, and her father couldn’t stand to watch her hit her second serve. He averted his head every time. I’d say CC Bellis has a better chance of winning the Aussie O than Giorgi or how about Julia Georges?

    I just watch De Minaur beat Paire in Sydney. And talk about a country trumping its young player! The Aussies are falling over themselves with De Minaur. I mean seriously who has he really beaten in this fortnight? A comeback Milos Raonic, Feliciano Lopez, Paire…I like De Minaur, but please, let’s not make him out to be the second coming of Hewitt!

    Who has the worst forehand in the men’s game? I’d have to say Paire. Oh, is it awful. I’ve never seen such a bad forehand as his, and he’s no 42. Paire literally can’t come over the ball with any racquet head speed. Awful.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 12, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    Catherine; Sloane didn’t do much before the US Open either. I don’t recall any expert picking her to win. Her win was a surprise. Puig winning OLY gold was also a big surprise nobody predicted. And of course nobody predicted Pennetta to win her US Open title either. Shockers do happen. Giorgi is entering this major more confident than ever before. Anything can happen.

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 12, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    My picks are semifinalists: Cilic, Pouille, Djokovic, Del Potro. Novak over Pouille in the final!

    Women SFs: Konta, Kerber, Svitolina, Coco. Kerber over Svitolina in the final!

    First-rounders: Tsitsipas over Shapo! Bellis over Bertens! Dodin over Genie! Moutet over Seppi! Chung over Mischa Zverev! Kokkinakis over Medvedev!

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 12, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    Dan it’s true Giorgi has played some terrible matches but also some masterpieces of pure ball striking. DeMinaur has been shockingly good this year, absorbing the invaluable tutelage of Dr. Hewitt. It just goes to show how a young player can benefit by having a coach who knows what it takes. Thiem, Shapovalov, Sock, Dolgopolov, Goffin…are you listening? DeMinaur looks devastatingly lethal and he’s beating good players – Harrison, Raonic, F Lo, Paire, Verdasco. DeMinaur would still be in juniors right now without Hewitt’s taking him under his wing. Paire has a good forehand but it can go haywire. At any time. Not unlike Fognini’s mind can go haywire. At any time. Fog totally blew that win vs Medvedev with a sloppy patch at a set up and 3-1 deuce. Thiem, Sock, Shapo, Goffin should all inquire about hiring Guga, Safin or Kafelnikov as coaches or part time coaches during majors.

  • Andrew Miller · January 12, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Hard to top last year. I’m thinking a slam-less player will make both the men’s and women’s final. I believe a past slam winner will take the men’s title.

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 12, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    Sock really has a nice draw. He could make a run in this thing. Here are the photos of him and Micaela in Perth…

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 1:43 am

    Dan – Julia Georges has never been further than the 4th round in a GS her entire career.

    However she’s improved a lot over the past six months, easily beat Wozniaki in Auckland, so I’d like to see her go further at AO.

    (I love Julia’s Gang of Two who sit with their arms folded grimly watching her play and then when she wins they all go into a hugathon.)

    My pick for the women’s is Andrea Petkovic since I believe brains should have a part to play in tennis triumphs :)

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Kerber bt Barty in Sydney 6-4 6-4 which is about what I expected. Her first tournament win since 2016.

    ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’ Angie.

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 4:27 am

    Ashleigh hit some nice shots but she wasn’t really aggressive enough. You have to the take the game to Angie now and concentrate on undermining her confidence. The better players at the AO could do this.

    Crowd was good today.

  • Hartt · January 13, 2018 at 9:47 am

    I sacrificed sleep last night to watch both Angie and Alex. I thought Angie showed real commitment – that was good to see. I hope her taped thigh is not significant.

    The de Minaur vs Medvedev match was actually kind of boring in the first set, Alex won it so easily, 6-1. Daniil upped his level in the 2nd and won it 6-4. But the third set was the most fun. Both guys played their hearts out, had so many grueling rallies and made some incredible shots (as well as some bad UFEs). It looked like Daniil would run away with it, he led 4-0. Alex got it to 5-5, but Daniil served for the match. And was broken. Managed to break Alex and then served it out at 0.

    The Sydney championship was Medvedev’s first ATP title. In this match he could be brilliant in one game and then make a hash of the next. Alex was much more consistent, but he could not match Daniil’s best. He was very impressive for a youngster, however. His amazing speed is a huge asset. But his mental toughness is what stands out. He showed a lot of grit and determination, especially coming back from 2 breaks in the third. He stays in the moment, focuses on the current point. And never gives up – in a point, a game, or a match.

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 10:46 am

    Hartt –
    I think Angie’s taped thigh was more precautionary – she didn’t seem hampered. But she’s had a tough couple of weeks and if she meets someone who can really make her run and twist and turn at the AO then that could be difficult. I’m not making her a favourite.

    I’d like to see Angie peak in the summer and really be in form for W’don. She wants her name up there with Steffi.

    You’ve mentioned Angie’s ‘commitment’ before – I don’t think she’s ever lacked commitment, ever since she was a teenager. Her slump last year was an extended psychological collapse – not down to lack of commitment. You could see that. Perhaps you mean ‘focus’ or ‘intensity’, or ‘self-belief’ – and it’s hard to maintain the latter when you’re being whacked time after time.

    Anyway – she’s probably learned to manage herself a lot better and Fisette seems to be the right coach. Konta should be regretting slinging him overboard.

  • Hartt · January 13, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Yes, “intensity” is probably a better word. I was thinking of commitment to her shots, really going for them.

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Yes – she was holding back on her shots many matches last year. As if she didn’t trust her ability to make them.

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 13, 2018 at 1:47 pm

    Apparently the people in Auckland want to take away Sock’s appearance fee because of his tank-job loss to Gojo…


  • Duke Carnoustie · January 13, 2018 at 1:48 pm

  • Chazz · January 13, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    I really like how Kerber has seemingly overcome her mental issues from last year. That’s great to see in any sport because many times we see athletes never overcome it and their career collapses.

    I kind of get what Sock is saying but hitting a tweener down 5-3 or so in the second set was a really weird thing to do. And not being able to return basically any decent serve in the court was really weird too. Their suspicion is warranted. His match against Sugita in a few days will be a must-see.

  • catherine · January 13, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Angie is saying she’s ‘never been better prepared for the Australian Open.’

    Uh uh….

  • Hartt · January 13, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    I did not see Sock’s match against Gojowczyk so I can’t comment on whether Jack gave a good effort. But Gojowczyk is capable of playing well. I remember when he won over Raonic in Halle in 2014. That was a big shock, but he performed very well that day.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    Duke, well only natural for Sock to lose a fraction of focus on the ball and winning matches with that kind of distraction. Some players forsake all women and dedicate all to tennis. I remember a Spanish player said this about unnamed other Spanish players.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    I might pick Petkodance too, because then if she wins the title we would see the all time greatest celebration dance :)

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    Could see it after her first Hopman Cup match that Kerber was in top form and spirits. She is the favorite now to win Melbourne.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    Hartt that was a superb match. De Minaur somehow has that magical ability to hang in there and trouble bigger stronger more experienced players. He made Medvedev earn that the hard way. Both players were very impressive. Medvedev is really good and has easy power but I don’t like how he can go haywire and suddenly stop grunting and lose focus/intensity. He has to sustain the high intensity and killer instinct. De Minaur is so very tough to kill though, like he has nine lives in every match.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Sock probably tanked or subconsciously tanked it. He and Kyrgios and Tomic are experts at that art. But let’s move on…

  • Joe Blow · January 13, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Socks Colleg GF is doing “ Junior year aboard Sock”

  • Michael in UK · January 13, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    I agree with Scoop, I thought Medvedev v De MInaur was a terrific match. Both players very impressive, and Medvedev did well to win the second set and then sustain his level in the third, and then to hold his lead. But wow, De MInaur at only 18 seems the real deal, it will be interesting to see how he manages with 5 set matches.
    And yes, this really is a fascinating Aussie Open, a real treat for tennis lovers whose interest goes beyond national allegiances and the old top 4,

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 13, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Michael, it really is a special AO. So many threats and so much vulnerability in the top players. Djok hurt. Rafa rusty. Fed 36. So many fast rising teenagers. The women’s draw is an absolute crapshoot. About 15 players could win. And that’s not even counting the under the radar Pennettas lurking and believing out there. And then there is the shock players that will suddenly get hot and play the best of their lives, Thomas Johansson, Dokic, Clement, Schuettler types. Fasten your seatbelts and put on the popcorn…

  • Andrew Miller · January 13, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    Hoping for: Fewer mid match retirements. Only thing I fear this Aussie open is a new record for first and second round retirements.

  • Andrew Miller · January 13, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    Henin’s retirement versus Mauresmo was a new low in tennis at the time, only to be “beaten”, in terms of new lows, by the widespread retirements at slams these days.

    I recognize it’s impossible to reign in the tour, reducing the number of tournaments or ending the season a month earlier.

    But I’m disgruntled with the injuries. We’re at the point where players suggest they don’t win slams because they aren’t healthy in a final, etc. It’s not acceptable.

  • Andrew Miller · January 13, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    I agree with Scoop that there should be some interesting breakouts. To me they usually require a player hitting a hot streak and getting over their fear of losing through playing through it, Ostapenko style (Ostapenko has become my go to “get over yourself” example of a player who recognizes how scared they are and plays even better because of it).

    I think at least on the women’s side there are a lot more champions in waiting. More Pennertas and Stephens and Ostapenkos, maybe because we are sort of at the tail end of Serena Williams dominance, as she will not be winning four slams a year (at least she’s unlikely to do so and will not this year).

    Players on the women’s tour are gradually getting used to the idea that each slam is seemingly open to anyone.

    I’d argue it’s a preview of the men’s game either months or a year or two years from now, depending on how urgent the young players feel they must win, or if Tsonga etc Monfils feels capable of a miraculous run, or Berdych gets over himself and defeats a big four on his way to beating everyone else in a slam.

    Australian lends itself to this and in the past players have broken through here.

  • Andrew Miller · January 13, 2018 at 8:09 pm

    A non slam winner cam win the Australian on the men’s side. It’s unlikely, but it’s far from impossible. I’m surprised that a lot of tennis pundits believe it’s inevitable and that it will happen at the Australian

    I don’t think it’s inevitable as of today. I think it’s possible and unlikely. And this is coming from me, someone who felt the tenure of the big four was ending as of several years ago. Not even remotely true – see Federer and Nadal at two slams a piece last year!!!

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 13, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    Scoop I agree that we should move on. I’m more surprised at the fact that he got $100,000 to appear in NZ. How much money does that tourney have?

    Sad ending for Taylor Fritz. He may not have what it takes. Kozlov and Fratangelo also out. Amazing how many quality players are in the qualies. Meanwhile Kudla moves on and Escobedo in a third set. I am trying to watch Tomic try to get into the draw now, third set vs. Sanogo.

  • Chazz · January 13, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Very rough for Fritz, he was the #1 seeded qualifier and blew it.

    Tommy Paul almost came back and beat Tomic but came up short. Paul was down 6-0, 5-2 and came back to win the second set but lost the third in a tiebreaker.

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 13, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    Tomic is out of the Australian Open! He saves two match points but not the third in an epic encounter.

    Up next for him: some celebrity TV show…


  • Duke Carnoustie · January 13, 2018 at 10:41 pm

    Tomic after losing in the qualies: “All I do is count my millions, you try doing what I do.”

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 14, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Let’s give a T-P hand to another American we can now scrutinize in Kevin King, who has qualified for a Slam for the first time! He played college tennis at Georgia.

  • Duke Carnoustie · January 14, 2018 at 1:25 am

    Kevin King draws Tsonga with the winner to face Shapo or Tsitsipas. Let’s hope King can do that and advance to the third round and play Kyrgios.

    Steve Johnson plays our old friend Denis Kudla.

  • Hartt · January 14, 2018 at 2:13 am

    Pospisil got through the qualies and Polansky was a LL. Making it through is tough, so good for Vasek. This means 5 Canucks – they join Raonic, Shapo and Bouchard.

  • catherine · January 14, 2018 at 2:15 am

    Scoop – problem with Angie being the favourite is that she does have this habit of tempting fate with her pre-tournament pronouncements which are doubtless heard and noted by her opponents.

    I agree lots of possibilites in both draws but my final thought is that we’ll end up with winners who will be familiar faces.

    Petkos visit to AO is going to be brief because she has drawn Kvitova first match. But she’ll doubtless fit in numerous cultural activities. Have you ever done a Biofile ?

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 14, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Catherine; despite your pessimism I still favor Kerber to win it all :) Yes I have done a Petkodance Biofile. One of the best ones too. She’s a reporter’s dream and a super nice person.

  • Scoop Malinowski · January 14, 2018 at 8:48 am

    Because there have been so many first and second round retirements in majors, I do suspect if they are disguised tanks? Players should not be quitting at the starting gate of the new season when they are fresh and ready to roll. Fishy stuff.

  • catherine · January 14, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Scoop – you’ve got tanks on the brain :)

    However, I do think some of the retirements are strategic, especially before a GS. Can think of a couple recently, naming no names.

    Not really fair on the tournament organisers though. Or the public.

  • catherine · January 14, 2018 at 10:06 am

    Scoop – just read Andrea’s Biofile. I do hope, when her tennis career winds down finally, that she can find something fulfilling to do. She’s had a few ups and downs, admits to having lost her ‘Lebensfreude’ at one point. I found a couple of short interviews on Youtube but unfortunately I can’t understand them. (in German,her English is excellent actually.)

    Andrea’s always been a great team player, obviously loves Fed Cup – you can tell from Fed Cup photos.

    A couple of days ago ex-captain Barbara Rittner held a Fed Cup dinner with all the German girls in Melbourne (minus Kerber absent on business) and Andrea was there of course, obviously in her element.

    It’s a shame Germany hasn’t been more succesful in Fed Cup – I think only two wins, and that was in Steffi’s day. Rittner built a terrific team . A great Youtube clip is the 3rd tie in Prague, Kerber v Kvitova, Petra won on her (3rd I think) match point. Martina in the stands. Angie was shattered but the team spirit is wonderful to see. Barbara’s dog Sophie was in the cheering section too :)

  • Hartt · January 14, 2018 at 10:45 am

    Catherine, I love reading transcripts of Petko’s post match press conferences. She gives detailed, thoughtful answers and, along with discussing the match, may talk about reading Goethe or collecting art.

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