WASHINGTON, January 11, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Last year’s Australian Open singles finals pitting sisters Serena Williams versus Venus Williams followed the next night by Roger Federer beating Rafael Nadal in five grueling sets is about as good as it gets in a grand slam. Right?
Well, it’s a year later and just two weeks into the 2018 tennis calendar, once again, we’ve arrived at the year’s first major. Looking over the men’s and women’s draws, which were revealed to much pomp and ceremony inside Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne on Thursday night, it’s too early to predict how it will all shake out. However, it didn’t keep tennis writers and bracketologists from lighting up social media with their picks and predictions. When I awoke this morning in the U.S., my Twitter feed was lit up with lots of tweets from Down Under, where all of the excitement took place while I was trying to get a good night’s sleep after staying up late to watch my beloved Golden State Warriors’ NBA basketball game on ESPN.
On the men’s side, it takes putting together seven consecutive best-of-5 set victories to win it all – not an easy feat where it’s not uncommon for triple-digit heat to be a factor on the sizzling and fast hard courts. And yet, one has to like Federer’s chances to repeat and win his 20th major. Despite his age (36), he still is grace under pressure and seems to always have all the right shots. As for the women, a new champion will be crowned during this fortnight as Serena Williams decided she’s not ready to return to competition, just four months after giving birth to her first child.
Survival Of The Healthiest In Melbourne
Of the Big Four men (Federer, World No. 1 and top seed Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray), if health is a great variable in tennis, it should be noted that only the Swiss maestro arrived in Melbourne totally healthy. He prepared well by teaming up with Belinda Bencic (who will face No. 5 seed Venus Williams in a first-round match) to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland. Meanwhile, Nadal has been recovering from a wonky knee injury, which forced him to withdraw from playing warm-ups in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. As for Djokovic, he is recovering from an elbow injury that curtailed his 2017 season and saw him drop out of the Top 10 because of his inactivity. Finally, Murray, who has not played since Wimbledon last summer, underwent successful hip surgery earlier this week after withdrawing from a tune-up tournament in Brisbane. He will be sidelined until at least this summer’s grass court season. Add to the mix, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Juan Martin del Potro, all whom are either injured and missing or recovering and tentative, and it becomes a survival of the healthiest in Melbourne this year.
Defending champion Federer, seeded No. 2, begins his title defense against Aljaz Bedene. Possible foes later on include 29th-seed Richard Gasquet in the third round, 2016 AO semifinalist Raonic in the fourth round, and seventh-seeded David Goffin or del Potro in the quarterfinals. Remember, Goffin beat Federer in the ATP Finals in London last November and del Potro defeated Federer in the 2017 U.S. Open quarterfinals.
The No. 1 seed Nadal, last year’s runner-up, faces Victor Estrella Burgos in his first match and could meet No. 16 seed John Isner in the fourth round. A possible quarterfinal foe for the Spaniard is either No. 6 seed Marin Cilic or No. 10 seed Pablo Carreño Busta. Looking ahead to the semifinals, how about a Nadal versus No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov or No. 8 seed Jack Sock, both whom came on strong at the end of 2017 with Dimitrov winning the ATP Finals. Hmmm … very intriguing!
Meanwhile, the six-time AO champion Djokovic, a No. 2 seed a year ago but whose No. 14 seed is reflective of his six-month absence while recovering from injury, is grouped with last year’s #NextGen ATP breakout star Alexander Zverev, seeded fourth, and fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem. Ouch! Djokovic faces Donald Young in the first round, then could get Zverev in the fourth round, and either Wawrinka, Thiem or Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarterfinals. And, if Djokovic’s elbow is still fit by the second weekend – which isn’t a sure thing just yet – he could meet Federer in the semifinals.
Women’s Draw Without Defending Champion
If the men’s draw is characterized by an abundance of injuries due to overplaying, the women’s draw has its own personality quirks. Namely, stars such as Serena Williams, Vika Azarenka and Petra Kvitova have underplayed as of late. Last year, after Serena Williams announced she was pregnant and left the tour, it seemed, there was a new No. 1 atop the WTA rankings nearly every month. Last week, Serena Williams announced she would not defend her title as she regains her fitness following her recent childbirth and, as she revealed in a Vogue cover story this week, a debilitating blood clotting that followed. Two-time AO winner Azarenka, whose ranking has plummeted to 210th, has been largely inactive of late, sadly owing to an ongoing child custody battle. As for Kvitova, who missed the entire Australian season last year, thankfully, she is returning to normal after being victimized by a knife-wielding intruder in a home invasion back in December 2016.
Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo, speaking this week with Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim on his Beyond the Baseline podcast, said she wasn’t surprised by the absence of Serena Williams. “I don’t want to see Serena come back and try to find her form and lose in the second round trying to defend her title. I never expected her to come to Australia. I think the first Grand Slam she’ll be totally fit and ready to play is Wimbledon.”
Earlier today, as if to follow up on Carillo’s point, Wertheim tweeted that “these brutal first rounders carry extra weight in Australia; a long way to go to lose early.” He cited Bencic versus Venus Williams as an example of a tough first-round match.
Halep Facing Tough Draw
Well, current No. 1 and AO top seed Simona Halep was given a brutal path that she will have to tame and conquer if she’s to win her first major – and avoid being a first-round casualty. She opens against wild card Destanee Aiava. Then, she could face 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, followed by a third-round head-to-head with the 27th-seeded and two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova. And, let’s not forget, sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova and ninth-seeded Johanna Konta find themselves in Halep’s quarter of the draw, too.
Meanwhile, current Wimbledon champion and No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, who has withdrawn with an injury from two consecutive Australian tournaments, is also in the upper half of the women’s draw and could find herself facing either 2016 AO champion Angelique Kerber or 2008 winner Maria Sharapova in the third round. Speaking of Sharapova, she raised just a few eyebrows by carrying the women’s trophy into the arena during the draw ceremony, returning to Melbourne two years after testing positive at the AO for a banned substance, meldonium, and serving a 15-month suspension.
On the bottom of the women’s draw is No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, ranked in the Top Two in the world for the first time since 2012. In the way of Wozniacki reaching the final weekend is a possible quarterfinal match with either seventh-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion, or 10th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe.
Without Serena Williams, the women’s draw seems wide open and for the taking to whomever can put together a good two-week run. Personally, while I would love to see Halep win her first major, it would also be nice to see Wozniacki finally achieve the great pinnacle that’s been missing for so long in her career, winning a Grand Slam title.
It was Billie Jean King, who once said “tennis is perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.” Well, whomever can hit the biggest shots and maintain their cool under the pressure of the summer Australian heat will be the last man and woman standing in two weeks. Until then, let the fun and games begin!
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.