Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
For the first time in a long time, we have an Australian player capable – and with a good chance – of winning the Australian Open.
Ash Barty comes into the first grand slam of the year ranked No.15, and with good form behind her at both the Hopman Cup and the Sydney International where she knocked out world number one Simona Halep in the second round.
Sure, it was Halep’s first match of the year after a break – but Barty played well, using her wonderful slice to great effect.
By anyone’s standards, 2018 was an excellent season for Barty. She started by spearheading Australia to victory over the Ukraine in the home Fed Cup tie in February 2018.
She made the fourth round of the US Open, and won Nottingham and the season-ending WTA Elite trophy, the biggest title of her career.
She played well consistently, making at least the quarter-finals of five other tournaments.
While her performances at the other three Slams would have disappointed her – she lost in the third round of the Australian Open (to Naomi Osaka, who at that time was ranked 72 in the world) and Wimbledon (to Daria Kasatkina, ranked 14), and at the second round of Roland Garros (to Serena Williams) – the fact that she was beaten by high-quality players will give her confidence of improving that formline this year.
Her seeding at each Slam last year likely played a role in these early defeats – the highest she was seeded was 17, putting her in the 17-32 bracket.
This meant she was theoretically scheduled to meet an opponent ranked from 1-32 in the third round, making her run much harder.
This year, she’ll be seeded 15, which will put her in the top 16 seeds bracket, and spare her an encounter with another top-16 player until at least the fourth round.
At her best, Barty is one of the most challenging players for opponents to get a handle on. She utilises her backhand slice to perfection as an attacking weapon, rather than a defensive stroke, uses a kick serve, and, thanks to her doubles prowess, is comfortable coming to the net.
She mixes up her game style well, and what she lacks in sheer power, she makes up for with her tennis brain, which is always working out how best to work over her opponent.
Her draw for the Open is favourable – she could face either Jelena Ostapenko or Maria Sakkari in the third round, with defending champion Caroline Wozniacki likely waiting in the fourth round.
Barty should be confident against Ostapenko, having defeated her at Sydney this week. Wozniacki will be a tougher proposition – they’ve played three times, all in the last two years, and Wozniacki has won all three matches.
However, Barty will be confident about her form leading into the tournament, so if there was ever a time to reach her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final, it’s now.
On the men’s side, look for two players in particular to do well – Alex De Minaur and John Millman.
De Minaur’s 2018 season, his first on the ATP tour, was nothing short of remarkable. His ranking rose from outside the top 200 to the top 30, he won his first ATP title at Nottingham, made the final of five tournaments, including the ATP Next Gen final, and reached the fourth round of an ATP premier-level tournament in Shanghai.
He was valiant in an epic five-set loss to former champion Marin Cilic in the third round of the US Open, and reached the same round at Wimbledon.
He’ll be seeded 27, which will see him avoid a top-16 seed until the third round; however, the seed he’s likely to face will be Rafa Nadal, with British 13th seed Kyle Edmund to follow in the fourth round.
De Minaur expressed his disappointment with his losing performance against Nadal at Wimbledon last year, and will be eager to make amends.
He’s got much more experience under his belt this season, and comes into the Open in excellent form, reaching the semi-finals at Sydney this week.
Millman is another who had an excellent 2018 season, and is becoming a consistent, solid player.
He has boosted his ranking to 38, won two titles, and, most famously, won an absolute epic over Roger Federer in the fourth round at the US Open, going on to make his first Grand Slam quarter-final.
It was the performance that really heralded his status as a top-50 player. He’s got a tough Open draw, slated to face either Andy Murray or solid Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut in the second round, with 10th seed Karen Khachanov waiting in the third round.
However, Millman’s current confidence on the court is evident, and he’d back himself to make it through to at least the third round.