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2020 Australian Open: Previewing the contenders and their potential paths to glory

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Roar Guru
18th January, 2020
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There are only a few more sleeps to go until the Australian Open gets underway and all eyes will be on some of the biggest names of the game as history beckons for the likes of Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty.

Already the first man in the Open era to be world number one in three different decades, Nadal can equal Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles with a second win at Melbourne Park; doing so would also see him become the first man in the Open era to complete a double career Grand Slam.

Either he, Federer or Novak Djokovic could also stand to become the first man in the Open era to win a Major title in three separate decades, the trio having won their first major titles in the noughties and then dominating the most part of the past decade (2010-19).

Meanwhile, Serena Williams will be aiming to at last equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, having remained stranded on 23 since winning her last Major title here three years ago.

Locally, all eyes will be on world number one Ashleigh Barty to see if she can become the first homegrown champion since Chris O’Neil won it while unseeded in 1978.

The Queenslander had a false start to the season dropping her first match at the Brisbane International, but has bounced back to reach the final at the ongoing Adelaide International in which she will face Dayana Yastremska for the title.

Here are some of the contenders for the men’s and women’s titles, as well as some of the opponents they could face on the road to glory at this year’s Australian Open.

[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Australian Open history
Best result: Won (2009).
Last year’s result: Runner-up (lost to Novak Djokovic in the final).

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Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Champion (defeated Dominic Thiem in the final).
Wimbledon: Semi-final (lost to Roger Federer).
US Open: Champion (defeated Daniil Medvedev in the final).

Titles won in 2019: Rome Masters, French Open, Rogers Cup, US Open.

If Rafael Nadal is to win the Australian Open this year, he will have to banish the demons that have haunted him at this tournament in the decade that has passed since he won here in 2009.

Historically, Melbourne Park has not been kind to the Spaniard, where he has been cursed by injuries numerous times (including aborting quarter-final matches in 2010 and 2018 and missing the 2013 tournament) and been on the wrong end of some gut-wrenching defeats.

This includes losses in the 2012 and 2017 championship matches, in which he led Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, respectively, by a break in the final set only to be overrun by his opponent on each occasion.

That one time he did win, though, he outlasted Federer in five sets to become the first (and so far only) Spaniard to win the Australian Open. En route to glory in 2009, he was also stretched to five sets by Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals, not winning until after 1:00 am.

To add a second Australian Open title to his cabinet, Nadal will face some formidable opposition, with compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta being the first seed he could face in his run to another championship match.

The Spaniard is then seeded to face either Russia’s Karen Khachanov or Australia’s Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round; get past that and he can expect to be seriously tested in the quarter-finals onwards.

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Fifth seed Dominic Thiem is expected to await in the final eight, while last year’s beaten US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev could prove to be a real roadblock between Nadal and a championship showdown against either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.

Here is Rafael Nadal’s potential path to a second Australian Open title, though this could change depending on how the tournament unfolds.

Rafael Nadal

(Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Round 1: Hugo Dellien (BOL)
Round 2: Joao Sousa (POR)
Round 3: [27] Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP)
Round 4: [16] Karen Khachanov (RUS)
Quarter-final: [5] Dominic Thiem (AUT)
Semi-final: [4] Daniil Medvedev (RUS)
Final: [2] Novak Djokovic (SRB)

Prediction: champion.

[2] Novak Djokovic (SRB)

Australian Open history
Best result: Won seven times (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019).
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Rafael Nadal in the final).

Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Semi-finals (lost to Dominic Thiem).
Wimbledon: Champion (defeated Roger Federer in the final).
US Open: Fourth round (retired to Stan Wawrinka).

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Titles won in 2019: Australian Open, Madrid, Wimbledon, Japan Open, Paris Masters.
Titles won in 2020: ATP Cup.

Of course, the major obstacle to Rafael Nadal achieving a double career Grand Slam is seven-time champion Novak Djokovic.

The Serb is coming off another phenomenal season in which he won another two Majors, including a record seventh Australian Open title at the Spaniard’s expense, and a fifth Wimbledon title in which he defeated Roger Federer in another epic five-set championship match.

However, his US Open campaign ended in disappointment when he was forced to retire hurt against Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, and if that wasn’t enough, he also lost the world number one ranking towards the end of the year.

This sees him enter his pet event as the world number two, and he’ll have to buck some history if he is to reign Down Under for the eighth time – he has not yet won the Australian Open as the second seed.

The 32-year-old heads to Melbourne Park on a high, helping Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney thanks to his two wins in the championship tie against Serbia, including defeating Nadal in the second singles rubber to level it at one apiece.

That could give him somewhat of an edge if the pair do meet again in the championship match at the Australian Open, which is again slated to happen if seedings hold.

The Serb isn’t expected to face any real threats until the quarter-finals, where last year’s semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas could await. Get past that and then Roger Federer is likely to be waiting in the wings in the final four stage.

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Djokovic’s potential path to a record eighth Australian Open title is as follows:

Round 1: Jan-Lennard Struff (GER)
Round 2: Tatsuma Ito (JPN)
Round 3: [30] Daniel Evans (GBR)
Round 4: [14] Diego Schwartzman (ARG)
Quarter-final: [6] Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)
Semi-final: [3] Roger Federer (SUI)
Final: [1] Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Prediction: final.

[3] Roger Federer (SUI)

Australian Open history
Best result: Won six times (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2017, 2018).
Last year’s result: Fourth round (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas).

Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Semi-finals (lost to Rafael Nadal).
Wimbledon: Runner-up (lost to Novak Djokovic in the final).
US Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Grigor Dimitrov).

Titles won in 2019: Dubai, Miami Masters, Halle, Laver Cup, Basel.

Six-time champion Roger Federer is always a fan favourite at the Australian Open.

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The Swiss Maestro could see his record of 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles equalled (and possibly broken) by his career nemesis Rafael Nadal this year, so the incentive is there for the 38-year-old to succeed at Melbourne Park in 2020.

Federer was slated to participate at the inaugural ATP Cup but withdrew citing his desire to spend more time with family before jetting south for the Australian Open, so the year’s first Major tournament will be his first outing for the new year.

Last year marked the first time since 2002 that he was not ranked number one or two, but you get the feeling he’ll want to remain at the top of his game by the time he retires, whenever that may be.

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An analysis of his draw sees him not facing a top-fifteen seed until the fourth round where he is likely to face Canada’s Denis Shapovalov. While he is drawn to face Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz in the third round, he could also face his 2018 US Open conqueror, John Millman, at that stage too.

In the quarter-finals, he is drawn to face Matteo Berrettini, who rose up the rankings in the second half of last year thanks to his run to the semi-finals of the US Open and eventually qualifying for the ATP Finals.

Get past him and then he may have to face Novak Djokovic in an Australian Open semi-final again (Federer is 0-3 against him at this stage of the tournament, though did beat him in the fourth round in 2007) for a shot at Rafael Nadal in the championship match.

Here is Federer’s potential path to Grand Slam title number 21:

Round 1: Steve Johnson (USA)
Round 2: Filip Krajinovic (SRB)
Round 3: [31] Hubert Hurkacz (POL)
Round 4: [13] Denis Shapovalov (CAN)
Quarter-final: [8] Matteo Berrettini (ITA)
Semi-final: [2] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
Final: [1] Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Prediction: semi-finals.

Also watch out for: Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece

(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

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Notable absentees: Alex de Minaur, Juan Martin del Potro.

And now we swing over to the women’s side of things, where Ashleigh Barty and Serena Williams are two of the biggest names to watch in the draw, for contrasting reasons.

Barty, the world number one, will bear the hopes and expectations of the nation as she bids to become the first local champion in 42 years, but she will have a tough ask coming up against some very tricky names from the get-go.

Williams, meanwhile, will head to Melbourne Park with some confidence up her sleeve after ending her near-three year title drought in Auckland last week.

Triumphing in New Zealand saw the American claim her first title since giving birth, and having come up short in her past four Major finals, she will be hoping that it is fifth time lucky as she attempts to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Major singles titles Down Under.

One major name who will be absent from the Australian Open is reigning US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who ruled herself out of the tournament due to a knee injury.

Now, let’s have a look at some of the female contenders for the tournament.

[1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)

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Australian Open history
Best result: Quarter-finals (2019).
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Petra Kvitova).

Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Champion (defeated Marketa Vondrousova in the final).
Wimbledon: Fourth round (lost to Alison Riske).
US Open: Fourth round (lost to Qiang Wang).

Titles won in 2019: Miami, French Open, Birmingham, WTA Finals.
Finals pending in 2020: Adelaide.

Without a doubt, all of Australia will be getting behind Ashleigh Barty in her quest to win her national championships – the Australian Open.

The 23-year-old Queenslander enjoyed a phenomenal 2019 season, first reaching the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park 12 months ago before going on to win her maiden Grand Slam title on the clay courts of Roland Garros in June.

After ascending to the top of the rankings, she proceeded to reach the fourth round at both Wimbledon and the US Open, before capping it all off with the most prestigious title of her career outside of the Majors – the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.

Accordingly, expectations will be high as she attempts to do what no Australian man or woman has done since 1978 – win her home Grand Slam tournament.

The last local player to be given top billing at Melbourne Park – Lleyton Hewitt in 2003 – managed to reach only the fourth round where he was defeated by Morocco’s Younes El Aynaoui (who then lost a marathon quarter-final against Andy Roddick by 21-19 in the final set).

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Barty has been handed a tricky draw which kicks off with her facing Lesia Tsurenko – a player who defeated the Australian at the Brisbane International over 12 months ago.

Following that, she could face Slovenian Polona Hercog in the second round before her first seeded threat comes in the form of Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina in the third round.

A quarter-final rematch against Petra Kvitova remains a possibility, should both players get this far, before reigning champion Naomi Osaka looms in the semis.

As is convention, the second seed in the draw, Karolina Pliskova, is in the opposite side of the draw and hence Barty cannot encounter her until the championship match.

Here are a list of opponents Ashleigh Barty may have to face if she is to create her piece of history at Melbourne Park this year:

Round 1: Lesia Tsurenko (UKR)
Round 2: Polona Hercog (SLO)
Round 3: [29] Elena Rybakina (KAZ)
Round 4: [13] Petra Martic (CRO)
Quarter-final: [7] Petra Kvitova (CZE)
Semi-final: [3] Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Final: [2] Karolina Pliskova (CZE)

Ashleigh Barty

(Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Prediction: semi-finals.

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[2] Karolina Pliskova (CZE)

Australian Open history
Best result: Semi-finals (2019).
Last year’s result: Semi-finals (lost to Naomi Osaka).

Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Third round (lost to Petra Martic).
Wimbledon: Fourth round (lost to Karolína Muchova).
US Open: Fourth round (lost to Johanna Konta).

Titles won in 2019: Brisbane, Rome, Eastbourne, Zhengzhou.
Title won in 2020: Brisbane.

The biggest threat to either Ashleigh Barty winning the title or Naomi Osaka defending her title is second seed Karolina Pliskova.

Already the Czech has made a huge statement ahead of the first Major of the year, successfully defending her title at the Brisbane International and becoming the tournament’s first three-time champion.

Now, undoubtedly her next goal would be to go one better and step up to become tennis’ newest Grand Slam champion, which she had the chance to do at the 2016 US Open only to fall to Angelique Kerber in the final.

Last year, the 27-year-old showed nerves of steel, saving match points en route to defeating Serena Williams in a quarter-final epic before falling to eventual champion Naomi Osaka in the final four.

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This time, the pair will not face to face each other until the final, but before all that, Pliskova must encounter a potentially tricky draw which sees her up against former French Open quarter-finalist Kristina Mladenovic in the first round.

After that, she could face, in order, former Australian Open semi-finalist Coco Vandeweghe, veteran Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova before the quarter-finals.

In the final eight she is drawn to face fifth seed Elina Svitolina, and then reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the final four. Thus, Karolina Pliskova is going to have her work cut out if she is to go all the way at a Major for the first time.

Round 1: Kristina Mladenovic (FRA)
Round 2: Coco Vandeweghe (USA)
Round 3: [30] Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS)
Round 4: [15] Marketa Vondrousova (CZE)
Quarter-final: [5] Elina Svitolina (UKR)
Semi-final: [4] Simona Halep (ROU)
Final: [1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)

Prediction: final.

[3] Naomi Osaka (JPN)

Australian Open history
Best result: Won (2019).
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Petra Kvitova in the final).

Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Third round (lost to Katerina Siniakova).
Wimbledon: First round (lost to Yulia Putintseva).
US Open: Fourth round (lost to Belinda Bencic).

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Titles won in 2019: Australian Open, Tokyo, Beijing.

Without a doubt, the player with the biggest target on her head is defending champion Naomi Osaka.

Since shooting to stardom by winning her first two Major titles in consecutive fashion (at the 2018 US Open and last year’s Australian Open), and ascending to world number one, the Japanese star has struggled under the weight of expectations.

She had to battle through consecutive three-set matches, including defeating former world number one Victoria Azarenka, to reach the third round at the French Open, while at Wimbledon, she bombed out in the first round losing to Yulia Putintseva.

Then, at the US Open where she was the defending champion, the 22-year-old fell to Belinda Bencic in the fourth round.

Now, Osaka will risk dropping out of the world’s top five when 1,990 of the 2,000 rankings points she is defending go on the line over the next fortnight.

The first serious threat she could face is in the fourth round, where rising American star Sofia Kenin could await.

While the Japanese player won their most recent meeting in Brisbane just last week, Kenin won their previous meeting before that when Osaka was forced to retire due to injury in Cincinnati last August.

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After that, a quarter-final showdown against Serena Williams could eventuate; if so it will be their first meeting at Grand Slam level since the infamous 2018 US Open final in which the veteran American launched a series of tirades towards the chair umpire.

World number one Ashleigh Barty is likely to wait on the other side in the semi-final before a possible championship showdown against Karolina Pliskova in what would be a rematch of last year’s semi-final, which Osaka won.

Round 1: Marie Bouzkova (CZE)
Round 2: Zheng Saisai (CHN)
Round 3: [32] Barbora Strycova (CZE)
Round 4: [14] Sofia Kenin (USA)
Quarter-final: [8] Serena Williams (USA)
Semi-final: [1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
Final: [2] Karolina Pliskova (CZE)

Prediction: quarter-finals.

[8] Serena Williams (USA)

Australian Open history
Best result: Won seven times (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017).
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Karolina Pliskova).

Serena Williams at Wimbledon

(Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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Other Grand Slam results in 2019
French Open: Third round (lost to Sofia Kenin).
Wimbledon: Runner-up (lost to Simona Halep in the final).
US Open: Runner-up (lost to Bianca Andreescu in the final).

Titles won in 2019: None.
Title won in 2020: Auckland.

After four near-misses in the past two years, could this finally be the time in which Serena Williams finally equals Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles?

The American has been solid in her return to the tennis circuit after giving birth to her daughter in September 2017, but until last week’s victory at the ASB Classic in Auckland had not been able to get her hands on any silverware.

In the intervention, she has finished runner-up twice at Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep at the former event in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and finishing second-best to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu in New York in those years.

In addition, she also blew a couple of match points in her quarter-final loss to Karolina Pliskova here, while she was forced to retire in the final of the Rogers Cup against Bianca Andreescu due to injury.

The American has been handed a manageable draw in which she will not have to face a seed until at least the third round, where China’s Qiang Wang, the same player she breadsticked at the US Open last September, could await.

Former Australian Open semi-finalist Johanna Konta is expected to loom in the round of 16; it was the Sydney-born Brit who handed the 38-year-old her worst career defeat at San Jose in 2018, winning just one game in a 6-1, 6-0 defeat.

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Beyond that, a potential quarter-final clash against her US Open nemesis Naomi Osaka could eventuate, while the stakes will be high should the American advance to a semi-final against local favourite Ashleigh Barty thereafter.

Second seed Karolina Pliskova or reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep could then await the American in the championship match, should she get that far. Here is the list of opponents Serena Williams may have to beat to win an eighth Australian Open title:

Round 1: Anastasia Potapova (RUS)
Round 2: Tamara Zidansek (SLO)
Round 3: [27] Qiang Wang (CHN)
Round 4: [12] Johanna Konta (GBR)
Quarter-final: [3] Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Semi-final: [1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
Final: [2] Karolina Pliskova (CZE)

Prediction: champion.

Also watch out for: Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova.

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Notable absentees: Bianca Andreescu, Victoria Azarenka.

Other: This will be Caroline Wozniacki’s final tournament before she retires from professional tennis at the end of this month. She is unseeded and will face Kristie Ahn in the first round.

The Australian Open gets underway this Monday, with the women’s top half (led by Ashleigh Barty and Serena Williams) and the men’s bottom half (Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer) in action.

The women’s bottom half (Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep) and men’s top half (Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem) matches will start on Tuesday.