FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Anastasija Sevastova, of Latvia, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, in New York. Serena Williams was named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Anastasija Sevastova, of Latvia, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, in New York. Serena Williams was named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)|Associated Press

Tennis: Dissecting the field at the Australian Open

Expect a new champion from the men and maybe the women.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

The 2019 Australian Open is set to get underway shortly. The start of the new tennis season coupled with the first in the year’s series of four Grand Slam tournaments presents drama and storylines for the ages. Can Roger Federer, at 37, and a father of four (two sets of twins) win his 21st Grand Slam tournament? Can Serena Williams come back from having a baby, getting married, and experiencing an epic emotional meltdown at the 2018 U.S. Open? And who in the field can outlast the 100-plus degree temperatures that hang over the tournament and always adds an extra sense of drama?

The Women

As Novak Djokovic has said, “. . . the margins are small” in this game. An awful lot depends on the draw, as individual matchups really matter, and almost anyone in the draw can beat almost anyone else on any given day, which makes the consistent champions all the more easy to pick as eventual champions. With that said, it is easy to pick among the women former champions or reigning champions Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens. Other players worth a look include Elina Svitolina, Jelina Ostapenko, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, and Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova, in particular, looks like she could contend.

Last year’s semi-finalist, American Coco Vandeweghe (her mother was an Olympic swimmer, her grandfather and uncle were both NBA stars and her aunt was captain of the U.S. polo team), faltered the rest of 2018 and now is ranked 100. Not only is she not a contender, if her ranking drops two more places she will have to qualify to get into the main draw of the other Grand Slam tournaments. Other Americans? Well, Venus Williams is playing, but at 40 I’d not expect her to be there at the end. Seventeen year old 2009 U.S. Open Quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin? She’s been retired since 2017. Teenager Cici Bellis, (who hails from Atherton, CA, the second richest zip code in the United States), blew off a tennis scholarship to Stanford to turn pro and the USTA is counting on her to compete for championships. She’s out recovering from an injury.

Who else is a bad bet? Maria Sharapova. Sharapova, who once showed the ability to win any tournament at any time has seen her time come and go. She has not recovered well from her mandatory PED enforced suspension, and cannot be counted on as a contender. Other “names” who will be familiar but who are in Melbourne playing for a paycheck (last year first round winners collected $90,000 and just appearing in the draw earned each player $60,000!) include Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur, or popular photogenic Canadian Eugenie Bouchard—this generation’s Anna Kournikova.

Serena can win. Let’s put that out there. She is clearly the best women’s tennis player in history, and can win this tournament, as she has done seven times previously. But her results from 2018 have shown that she is not in world-class shape (although, she admittedly has won championships before not in world class shape), and she has other things that she focuses on right now. Her daughter, her husband, her marriage, her business empire, and hopefully her anger management, are clear priorities, and she just has not played great tennis since returning to the game after giving birth. I don’t doubt that Serena has another Slam or two in her, but she hasn’t shown that her game has caught up with her reputation. She’ll win again, but not here, and not now.

So, with all those mentioned above as also-rans, who do I think will rise to the top of the women’s game and claim the first Grand Slam tournament of 2019? Tune back for my pick in early January.

The Men

The Men’s Draw has effectively been the personal domains of Federer and Djokovic for the past fifteen years, winning twelve championships between them. Let’s put that statistic in perspective: these two players have dominated this tournament since before President George W. Bush found himself immersed in the financial crisis. Heck, these guys have dominated this tournament ever since Kodak (remember them? They made film for cameras!) was a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Defending Champion Federer, “the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)” is clearly a threat. As defending champion, being the shot maker that he is, and the personality that he is worldwide, he will probably get more night matches than any other men’s player, which will save his 37 year old body from the rigors of competing with players fifteen years his junior in the 100+ degree heat. But is he really the GOAT? I don’t think so. How can a player who is not even the greatest of his time be the greatest of all time? He holds losing head-to-head records against both No. 1 Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. Both Federer and Djokovic have won six Australian Open Championships, but both have come back from serious injuries in the past few years that can nag and re-occur with the grinding game that professional tennis is. Remember, men play best of five sets in singles, which can mean matches sometimes last five hours, which can be particularly taxing to men pushing 40. Because of this and other intangibles, I believe that Federer’s time is over.

Djokovic is a safe and trendy pick, having won last year’s U.S. Open, regaining his No. 1 ranking, and returning to the form that made him unquestionably the best player in the world for more than 3 years in the mid 2010’s. He possesses the best return of serve in the game, and he will be the No. 1 seed. But playing in the irrepressible heat and humidity of New York last September showed, at times, a punch-drunk player stumbling around behind the safe confines of the baseline between points. That he was able to regroup, come back, and claim a championship after being out on his feet was remarkable, but futile, in my opinion. He is an aging champion susceptible to injury and lack of focus who will not claim this tournament as his own this year.

Nadal is another story entirely. He is clearly a dominant player who can win any tournament he enters. Clearly, he is a physical marvel. But his game and his history have suited him better on the slow clay of Stade Roland Garros in Paris, where he has won eleven French Opens. To put that in perspective, Federer, "the GOAT,” has only won one. But Nadal is a tricky pick. He has fought injuries over the past six or seven years, and whispers have spread about doping. Jealousy? He has had trouble with heat and humidity in both New York and Melbourne, and though he has had a stellar career, he has only collected one Australian Open title. Nadal’s game is the most physical of any other player’s. Can his shaky knees hold out for two weeks of pounding on the hard courts in Australia?

Who else is not a contender? Well, five time Runner-up Andy Murray, for one. The Brit will be in the draw, as will fellow Brit, last year’s losing semi-finalist Kyle Edmund. But Murray has not shown that he has been able to come back from the series of injuries he sustained that knocked him down from his No. 1 World Ranking as recently as 2016, and Edmund didn’t follow up his fine showing in Melbourne with equally successful showings the rest of 2018. Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, who owns one of those three mysterious Australian Open titles not held by the Big Two, and who also is a three-time Grand Slam Champion in his own right is also not a contender. Yes, he’ll make an appearance. But don’t expect too much from Stan-the-man, who lost to the last American in the draw, Tennessee’s Tennys Sandgren (the journeyman who wants the U.S. Open moved from New York City to the South, because he says that’s where “patriots live”) in straight sets in last year’s second round. When healthy, Stan is a beast. But this year, he’s just a beauty.

Last year’s Runner-Up, Croatia’s Marin Cilic is a terrific player and is a past U.S. Open Champion. But he has taken advantage of times when the draw has been particularly kind to him (let’s face it, who else just had to beat Kei Nishikori to win the U.S. Open?), and don’t expect that to happen this year in Melbourne. Additionally, South Korea’s Chung Hyeon, a losing semi-finalist last year when he had to retire with blisters on his feet against Federer also cannot be realistically seen as a title contender. He is unique in that he is the only men’s player to play in glasses—he prefers corrective squash goggles, and he may be a future champion, but this year is not his future.

There has also been a lot of media attention paid to the No. 1 Junior, Taiwan’s Chun Hsin Tseng ever since an article appeared at the end of December in the New York Time’s Magazine. But the media doesn’t make champions. Nothing beats talent and fitness considering that all of the draw’s players are phenomenal athletes. We’ll check back in February to see what road Tseng begins his professional career on.

Are there any American threats in this years’ Men’s Draw? Quite frankly, no. The highest ranked American professional, John Isner, has one of the greatest serves in the game, but cannot be counted on to win seven matches in two weeks. Sam Querry, another American with a big serve, has the laid back attitude of a Californian, which he is. We’ll have to wait for the next generation of Americans, which includes Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlof, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Michael Mmoh, and Tommy Paul to mature before we see another American male threaten for a championship. Tiafoe is knocking on the door and may break through soon. But not this year.

So, who does that leave? Three maybes: Bulgaria’s Grigor Dmitrov, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipis, and Russia’s Karen Kachanov, and two honest-to-goodness contenders: Germany’s Sasha Zverev, and Austria’s Dominick Thiem.

We’ll cover them next time when I reveal my pick as to who I think will hoist the trophy at the conclusion of the first Grand Slam of 2019. Hint: get ready for a new champion!

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