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2019 Australian Open mega-preview

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Roar Guru
9th January, 2019
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The year’s first Grand Slam tournament is nearly upon us, and there will be a lot of hype and anticipation around some of the world’s best players as they chase early glory in 2019.

In the men’s division, interest and intrigue will surround Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who have won twelve of the past fifteen Australian Open titles between them (six each) and will each be shooting for a record seventh title at Melbourne Park.

World number two Rafael Nadal is not to be discounted, despite the injury woes the Spaniard has encountered in the past twelve months, in particular at the Australian and US Opens, where he was forced to retire in the quarter and semi-finals respectively due to injury.

Meantime, on the women’s side of things, all the focus will be on Serena Williams and whether she can equal the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, held by Margaret Court.

This will be the American’s first major tournament since her spectacular meltdown in last September’s US Open final, in which she accused officials of sexism as she capitulated against Naomi Osaka in straight sets.

Osaka, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, world number one Simona Halep and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki are among the names that fans can expect to feature at the business end of the tournament.

Starting with the men, let’s take a look at some of the contenders for the first Grand Slam tournament of the New Year.

[1] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won six times (2008, 11-13, 15, 16)
Last year’s result: Fourth round (lost to Hyeon Chung)

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Fourth round (lost to Hyeon Chung)
French Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Marco Cecchinato)
Wimbledon: Won (defeated Kevin Anderson in the final)
US Open: Won (defeated Juan Martin del Potro in the final)

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Titles won in 2018: Wimbledon, Cincinnati, US Open, Shanghai

After a phenomenal second half of 2018 in which he claimed his 13th and 14th Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, and ascended from outside the top 20 back to world number one, Novak Djokovic is the man to watch at Melbourne Park.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The Serb’s resurgence saw him named the ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year and it proved that he is far from a spent force, as many feared he’d become after an injury-plagued 2017 season which saw him fail to win a Major title for the first time since 2010.

In addition to his achievements towards the back end of last year, the 31-year-old also became the first player to complete a Career Golden Masters (winning all nine Masters tournaments as well as the four Majors) when he defeated Roger Federer to win the prestigious Masters tournament in Cincinnati.

And now, over a decade since he won his first Grand Slam title here at Melbourne Park, Djokovic will be keen to create some more history as he seeks to become the first man to win seven Australian Open titles.

Having only reached the fourth round last year, the Serb can attain some precious rankings points and extend his lead at the top of the rankings over his fierce rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who will be defending quarter-final and championship points respectively.

Regardless of how the two fare, Djokovic will retain the top spot if he defends his points from last year, and a seventh title at Melbourne Park could set the tone for another consistent season for the Serb.

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Prediction: Champion

[2] Rafael Nadal (ESP)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won (2009)
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Marin Cilic)

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Marin Cilic)
French Open: Won (defeated Dominic Thiem in the final)
Wimbledon: Semi-finals (lost to Novak Djokovic)
US Open: Semi-finals (lost to Juan Martin del Potro)

Titles won in 2018: Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Rome, French Open, Toronto

Prediction: Quarter-finals

Despite an injury-ravaged 2018 in which he could only manage nine tournaments (his lowest number of tournaments in a season since 2002), statistically Rafael Nadal enjoyed his best ever season, winning 45 of his 49 matches for an impressive strike rate of over 90 per cent.

The Spaniard won five titles, including a record-extending eleventh French Open title as well as in Toronto which was the only hard-court tournament he could complete without withdrawing either before or midway during the tournament.

Spain’s Rafael Nadal. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

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But it was hip and knee injuries which forced him to retire from his quarter and semi-final matches at the Australian and US Opens respectively, raising questions as to whether he can win those tournaments again in the future, while he also suffered a heartbreaking five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the semi-final at Wimbledon.

Without those misfortunes, there is the chance he could have completed a calendar Grand Slam, which has not been achieved in half a century. He would have started favourite in at least the following matches:

* the Australian Open semi-final against Kyle Edmund and the final against Roger Federer;
* the Wimbledon final against Kevin Anderson; and
* the US Open final against Novak Djokovic.

In particular, the 32-year-old has been cursed the most at the Australian Open, which he could have won more than once if not for a range of injuries which saw him retire mid-match (in 2010 and last year) and miss the 2013 tournament, as well as losing to Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Federer in the 2012, 2014 and 2017 finals respectively.

It must be noted, though, that Nadal was close to winning in 2012 and 2017, having led 4-2 and 3-1 in the final set in those years respectively.

To the present now, and the Spaniard’s hopes of a second title at Melbourne Park took a dent when he was forced to withdraw from the Brisbane International last week, citing injury.

This sees the Mallorcan native enter the first Major tournament of 2019 having not served a ball in anger since being forced to retire from his semi-final match against Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open due to a knee injury. His absence from the Tour consequently resulted in him losing the world number one ranking to Novak Djokovic.

However, he can regain the top spot in the rankings only if he wins the title and Djokovic is beaten before the round of sixteen.

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But, with Djokovic keen to build his lead at the top of the rankings, this appears unlikely. Still, expect Nadal to feature deep in week two.

Prediction: Quarter-finals

[3] Roger Federer (SUI)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won six times (2004, 06-07, 10, 17-18)
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Marin Cilic in the final)

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Won (defeated Marin Cilic in the final)
French Open: Did not play
Wimbledon: Quarter-finals (lost to Kevin Anderson)
US Open: Fourth round (lost to John Millman)

Titles won in 2018: Australian Open, Rotterdam, Stuttgart, Basel.

A 100th career title and record-breaking seventh title all beckon for Roger Federer if he can triumph at the Australian Open for a third consecutive time.

While his two fierce rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have had a tough time of it, withdrawing from the Brisbane International and suffering a shock loss to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Doha respectively, Federer enjoyed a smooth build-up to the first Major of the year, teaming up with Belinda Bencic to successfully defend the Hopman Cup title that they won twelve months ago.

Roger Federer of Switzerland. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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His form in the first week of the new season alone, plus his overall impressive record at Melbourne Park, will be enough to see the 37-year-old start favourite to land a record seventh Australian Open title, and 21st Major title overall, though he is expected to be challenged by a pack of contenders headlined by Nadal and Djokovic.

Not only will Federer be shooting for a record-breaking seventh title Down Under, he will also be bidding to make it three consecutive Australian Open titles, something which has not been achieved since Djokovic won it for three years in a row between 2011-13.

The lure of history, potentially winning his 100th career singles title at a Major, will spur Federer on to reach at least another final, which would be his eighth at Melbourne Park. However, I can’t see him winning this time.

Prediction: Runner-up

Also watch out for: Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem.

Withdrawals: Juan Martin del Potro (knee injury), Richard Gasquet (groin injury).

Now, we cross over to the women’s side of things, in which all eyes will be on Serena Williams who will be returning to Melbourne Park for the first time since she won the title while eight weeks pregnant in 2017.

It is also the first tournament she will be contesting since last September’s well-documented US Open meltdown, and she will be attempting, for the third time, to equal the record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles held by Margaret Court.

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There is, however, a quality field of players keen to stop this happening, headlined by world number one Simona Halep, defending champion Caroline Wozniacki and 2016 champion, among many others. We start by previewing the chances of last year’s runner-up, Halep:

[1] Simona Halep (ROU)
Australian Open history
Best result: Runner-up (2018)
Last year’s result: Runner-up (lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final)

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Runner-up (lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the final)
French Open: Won (defeated Sloane Stephens in the final)
Wimbledon: Third round (lost to Hsieh Su-wei)
US Open: First round (lost to Kaia Kanepi)

Titles won in 2018: Shenzhen, French Open, Montreal.

Despite an inconsistent second half of 2018, Simona Halep did enough to finish the year ranked world number one – and rightly so.

The Romanian’s first half of the season was highlighted by a title win at Shenzhen followed by reaching the final of the Australian Open, in which she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in three sets in a match billed as the perfect advertisement for women’s tennis.

Simona Halep of Romania. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

She had to win two marathon matches en route, first defeating Lauren Davis in the third round and then Angelique Kerber in the semi-finals, saving match points in both matches.

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The 27-year-old soon buried her Grand Slam demons by triumphing at Roland Garros, defeating Sloane Stephens in three sets in the final to become the first woman from her country to win a Major in four decades.

However, her results at Wimbledon and the US Open would be far less impressive, bowing out in the third and first rounds respectively. Her first round exit at the latter tournament was the first ever by a top seed in New York.

In between, though, she claimed the title in Montreal, defeating Stephens in the final, before losing to Kiki Bertens in Cincinnati.

She then withdrew from the WTA Finals due to injury, and has only just started her 2019 season this week in Sydney where lost to Ashleigh Barty in the second round after receiving a first-round bye.

Despite her early exit from the Sydney International, there is no doubt the Romanian would love to go one better in Melbourne this year.

Given the quality in the women’s field, I have her reaching at least the final four.

Prediction: Semi-finals

[2] Angelique Kerber (GER)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won (2016)
Last year’s result: Semi-finals (lost to Simona Halep)

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Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Semi-finals (lost to Simona Halep)
French Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Simona Halep)
Wimbledon: Won (defeated Serena Williams in the final)
US Open: Third round (lost to Dominika Cibulkova)

Titles won in 2018: Sydney, Wimbledon.

After winning her first two Major titles, as well as ascending to the top of the world rankings in 2016, Angelique Kerber struggled to replicate those standards in 2017, falling out of the world’s top 20 and failing to win a single title all year.

However, the German hit back with a vengeance in 2018, winning her third Major title at Wimbledon and finishing the year ranked second in the world after going back to basics in a bid to rediscover her form and confidence.

Angelique Kerber of Germany. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

Now, with a new coach in former Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuettler in her corner, the 30-year-old (she will turn 31 next Friday) will bid to add to the title she won in 2016, in which she defeated Serena Williams in the final in three sets.

Already Kerber has started the season impressively, going undefeated in her four singles matches at the Hopman Cup as Germany came so agonizingly close to winning the title, losing on a winner-takes-all championship point in the mixed doubles.

She is currently participating at the ongoing Sydney International, where she has made the quarter-finals after defeating Camila Giorgi in her first match.

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With this being her last chance for match practice ahead of next week’s Open, she will want to get enough matches under her belt before she embarks on a path that hopefully leads to her lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy for a second time.

As she will be on the opposite side of the draw as top seed Simona Halep, it means the two, which contested a heart-stopping semi-final last year, will not face each other until the summit match.

Given her impressive form over the past twelve months, I have Kerber again reaching the business end of the tournament.

Prediction: Runner-up

[3] Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won (2018)
Last year’s result: Won (defeated Simona Halep in the final)

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Won (defeated Simona Halep in the final)
French Open: Fourth round (lost to Daria Kasatkina)
Wimbledon: Second round (lost to Ekaterina Makarova)
US Open: Second round (lost to Lesia Tsurenko)

Titles won in 2018: Australian Open, Eastbourne, Beijing

The spotlight will be on third seed Caroline Wozniacki who will enter the Australian Open as the defending champion, having won last year’s title by defeating Simona Halep in what can only be described as one of the greatest Grand Slam women’s finals in tennis history.

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By virtue of this victory, the 28-year-old put to bed all the criticism that came with her stint as world number one earlier this decade, during which she had yet to win a Major title and had suffered some early defeats along the way, as well as losing to Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the 2011 US Open.

However, her results at the Majors for the rest of the year would be less than impressive, as she fell in the fourth round of the French Open and then failed to even reach the third round at Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Ekaterina Makarova and Lesia Tsurenko respectively.

She would only win two more titles for the rest of 2018, triumphing in Eastbourne and Beijing, and finish the year ranked third after having briefly reclaimed the world number one ranking in the aftermath of her victory at Melbourne Park.

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Because she will be defending maximum points at a Major for the first time, Wozniacki risks the possibility of dropping out of the world’s top five with an early defeat.

Her only warm-up tournament saw her bow out of the ASB Classic in Auckland in the second round, losing to eventual finalist Bianca Andreescu after defeating lucky loser Laura Siegemund in her first match.

Still, while I expect the Dane to feature well in the second week of the tournament, I can only see her reaching as far as the quarter-finals.

Prediction: Quarter-finals

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Serena Williams (USA)
Australian Open history
Best result: Won seven times (2003, 05, 07, 09-10, 15, 17)
Last year’s result: Did not play

Grand Slam results last year
Australian Open: Did not play
French Open: Fourth round (withdrew due to injury)
Wimbledon: Runner-up (lost to Angelique Kerber in the final)
US Open: Runner-up (lost to Naomi Osaka in the final)

Titles won in 2018: None

It’s rare that Serena Williams enters the New Year off the back of a title-less season, but that’s exactly what happened for the first time in twelve years as the American embarked on her comeback from maternity leave, having had her first child in September 2017.

But if past history is anything to go by, then this could be a huge tournament for the 37-year-old, who has her sights well and truly on equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

Williams came so close to doing that on two occasions last year, falling in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open to Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka, respectively.

This pressure came to its head in New York last September when the American blew up big time after accusing officials of sexism after it was alleged she received illegal coaching from Patrick Mouratoglou in the second set.

Serena Williams plays at the French Open.

Serena Williams of the USA. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena )

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Last week’s Hopman Cup aside, in which she won all three of her singles matches, the 37-year-old has not played for rankings points since then, but has the chance to break back into the world’s top ten, should she go all the way.

There would be some striking similarities if Williams does salute at Melbourne Park, as it would come two years since her last title anywhere, as was the case in 2007 when what was her eighth Grand Slam singles title also ended a near-two-year title drought.

On that occasion, Williams, then 25, was ranked 81st in the world with many questions being asked about her fitness and motivation after having endured an injury-riddled 2006 season.

But she famously hit back hard at her critics, destroying top seed Maria Sharapova in the final and subsequently getting her career back on track.

This time, Williams, now 37, is in much better shape despite her recent time off the circuit and a record eighth Australian Open title would see her triple the amount of Grand Slam titles she had won at this point twelve years ago.

Despite her failing to win a title for nearly two years, I can see her going all the way in 2019. The question is, can she?

Prediction: Champion

Also watch out for: Karolina Pliskova, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova.

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The Australian Open starts next Monday, January 14, on its new television home for at least the next six years, Channel Nine.