Ones to Watch: Australian Open
If you thought tennis lasted for just two weeks of the year, was only played on grass and in front of spectators full to the brim with Pimm’s and strawberries then think again. Unlike the rest of us, the men and women who make a living hitting a ball with a racquet have no time for the January blues as they get set for the first Grand Slam of 2018 in the heat of Melbourne, where the Australian Open gets underway on January 15.
If you turn the clock back 12 months for a minute, both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer rolled back the years. Against the odds, the serial winners battled back from injury and a loss of form to waltz their way to the final where the Swiss came out on top in a five-set thriller to lift his fifth title and 18th Grand Slam.
Legends of the game also stole the show in the women’s draw with sisters Serena and Venus Williams powering their way into the showpiece match on Rod Laver Arena. The former triumphed in two sets to take her seventh win in Australia and an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title – an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact she was eight weeks pregnant at the time of lifting the trophy.
Now, fast forward again to the current day, and there’s a real air of unpredictability heading into the 2018 tournament.
On the men’s side, Andy Murray is sidelined, Novak Djokovic and Nadal have just returned from their respective injuries, while Federer plays on a restricted schedule and is now 36 – not that age held him back last year.
Serena, who has since given birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., is not ready to return, despite attempting to at the end of last year. And with six players capable of leaving Melbourne as the world number 1 (currently held by Romania’s Simona Halep) the women’s game is extremely hard to call.
So with the ‘big four’ now a creaking ‘big three’, and Serena still finding her way back to the court, here’s three players from each side of the draw we think could break their Grand Slam duck over the next fortnight.
This man’s like Marmite or, as the Aussies might say, Vegemite – you either like him or you loathe him. The temperamental 22-year-old divides opinion so much that he won’t even have the full backing of a home, patriotic crowd due to previous misdemeanours. But after a couple of years saying “this is Nick’s time”, there’s a real belief that 2018 really could be. He beat World Tour Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov (more to come on him) on his way to winning impressively in Brisbane (his first title on home soil) and has shown in previous victories over Nadal, Federer and Djokovic that he has talent by the bucket loads. If he now has the temperament to match, his accurate serve, aggressiveness and flair could see him make a charge and at least match the quarter-final he reached in 2015 – the longest he’s gone in a Grand Slam to date.
First Round: Rogério Dutra da Silva
Best Aus Open: QF (2015)
Best Grand Slam: Aus Open QF (2015), Wimbledon QF (2014)
Nicknamed ‘Baby Fed’ for what seems like an eternity, Grigor Dimitrov is tipped year in, year out to break his Grand Slam duck. Now aged 26, you’d think he should be heading into his ‘peak’ and, with others flailing, 2018 is one of great opportunity. The Bulgarian certainly took his chance at the ATP World Finals, where he won the biggest of his eight career titles to date. That victory in London elevated him to number 3 in the rankings and will have given him the self-confidence in believing he can have a real run at the four slams, something he admitted he didn’t possess, despite narrowly losing in five sets against ‘Father Fed’ in last year’s semi-final. Dimi reached the same stage in the recent Brisbane International, where the defence of his title was ended by the previously mentioned Kyrigos. Depsite that defeat, his form and athleticism should see him flourish in Melbourne.
First Round: Dennis Novak
Best Aus Open: SF (2017)
Best Grand Slam: Aus Open SF (2017), Wimbledon SF (2014)
Touted as a future number one, there’s no doubting Alexander Zverev is the brightest wonderkid on the circuit. The German has dragged himself inside the world’s top-four and already has six titles to his name, including the 2017 Italian and Canadian Opens where he defeated Djokovic and Federer respectively in straight sets. After narrowly losing to Nadal in five in the third round 12 months ago, another year of progression is again expected, meaning he should at least reach a career best fourth round at a Grand Slam. If he gets his two-handed backhand and serve going in the early rounds, Alexander, whose most recent matches came in the Hopman Cup, could wow the crowds down under as much as elder brother Mischa did when he defeated then world number 1, Andy Murray, in 2017’s fourth round.
First Round: Thomas Fabbiano
Best Aus Open: 3R (2017)
Best Grand Slam: Wimbledon 4R (2017)
Now in her 13th year as a professional, things seem to have clicked of late for Julia Görges. Winning her last three tournaments, the 29-year-old has escalated herself to a career-high ranking of 12. The in-form German lifted the Kremlin Cup in October, WTA Elite Trophy in November and the Auckland Open earlier this month – all of which are played on a hard court surface. Those victories didn’t come against just any old average Joe either, with Coco Vandeweghe and Caroline Wozniacki both seen off in straight sets in the latter two finals. However, for someone who’s competed in all four Grand Slams in the last nine seasons, her record on the big stage isn’t mightily impressive having failed to advance past the fourth round, which she’s reached on five occasions. Three of those did come in Australia, though, and one of the other times in the last slam at Flushing Meadows, suggesting she’s ready to make that breakthrough following her best ever year.
First Round: Sofia Kenin
Best Aus Open: 4R (2012, 2013, 2015)
Best Grand Slam: Aus Open 4R (2012, 2013, 2015), French Open 4R (2015), US 4R Open (2017)
A lot has been expected of Carloine Wozniacki ever since she finished runner-up at the 2009 US Open at the age of just 19. But nine years down the line and the Dane has yet to break her Grand Slam duck, only reaching one other final (US Open 2014). A lot has happened both on and off the court in that time with injuries, loss of form and various commitments all factors in her failure to produce what she’s capable of on a consistent basis. However, after a strong 2017 which saw her finish the year in the top-3 following victory at the WTA Finals, Wozniacki seems to have rediscovered that swagger she possessed when she burst onto the scene. Add to that her engagement to NBA star David Lee and run to the final in Auckland, the Scandinavian star seems in the perfect place to mount a serious challenge in Melbourne.
First Round: Mihaela Buzărnescu
Best Aus Open: SF (2011)
Best Grand Slam: US Open F (2009, 2014)
The big-serving Coco Vandeweghe definitely proved in 2017 that she has the tools to win a Grand Slam – especially on the hard courts. The American reached the last-four in Melbourne (losing to Venus Williams in three sets) and at Flushing Meadows, plus the quarter finals at Wimbledon. She finished last year in the top-10 for the first time after reaching the WTA Elite Trophy Final and went undefeated as she guided United States to Fed Cup glory. Strong performances in January’s Hopman Cup, where USA reached the final, has only confirmed that the 26-year-old looks ready to take yet another step up the tennis ladder. And with the inside knowledge of Melbourne-born legend Pat Cash in her corner, Coco could go one step further than her coach managed on Rod Laver Arena by lifting the trophy on January 27.
First Round: Tímea Babos
Best Aus Open: SF (2017)
Best Grand Slam: Aus Open SF (2017), US Open SF (2017)