The Australian Open is upon us as fans and commentators get ready for the new tennis season. Eilis Brennan breaks down the contenders for the first Grand Slam of 2015.
Defending champion Stanislas Wawrinka has been drawn against Marsel Ilhan in the opening round. He could face No.16 seed, Fabio Fognini in the 4th round. Novak Djokovic would be his quarter-final opponent – their 3rd straight meeting in Melbourne. “I feel good and I’m happy to be back for sure,” said Wawrinka at the draw ceremony on Friday.
After his triumph in Australia last year, things went a bit pear-shaped for the Swiss. Early round losses became more common and it seemed like he couldn’t get his head around being a Grand Slam champion. However, when the Davis Cup final rolled around in November, Wawrinka was back to his best and was definitely the best player that weekend. His victory in Chennai last week will give him a boost as he looks to successfully defend his Australian Open title.
Five-time Aussie champion, Roger Federer, will be hoping to add Grand Slam No.19 to his collection this month. 2014 turned out to be a great year for Federer. 5 titles, Wimbledon finalist, reached the World Tour final and winning the Davis Cup are just some of his highlights. His game looked great in Brisbane last week, easily defeating Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic on his way to the title.
Unfortunately, the draw hasn’t been good to Federer in Melbourne. Andy Murray is a potential 4th round opponent, following that it’s Rafa Nadal then (probably) Novak Djokovic or Stan Wawrinka in the final. It’s a tough route for Federer if he’s to win the title but stranger things have happened in tennis! His opening match is against Yen-Hsun Lu.
Speaking of Novak Djokovic, he is the favourite this week and rightly so as he won the tournament 3 of the last 4 years. The draw has been good to Djokovic. He opens against a qualifier on Tuesday but there are a couple of big obstacles after that. John Isner, who has beaten the Serb twice, is a potential 4th round opponent. Also lurking in this part of the draw are Gael Monfils, Lleyton Hewitt and Milos Raonic. If Raonic plays as well as he did in Brisbane, he could cause Djokovic a lot of problems.
Question marks surround Rafael Nadal after an injury-hit 2014. He could be quite vulnerable to an upset in Melbourne. Two men looking to do just that are his 1st round opponent, Mikhail Youzhny, and Lukas Rosol, who he’s scheduled to play in the 3rd round. Both players have Slam wins over the Spaniard and have a great chance of doing it again. Nadal has been, “working big time” to return to top form. Whether it’ll come together in Australia remains to be seen. I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on his progress during the tournament.
After reaching the U.S. Open final, there is really only one more step Kei Nishikori needs to take – Grand Slam winner. He’s been to a final (and lost badly) so he’ll know what to expect should he reach another one. Nishikori thrives on the hardcourts, with 6 of his 7 titles coming on the surface. He has gone from strength to strength since joining the tour in 2008. Nishikori needs to prove that his run to the final in the US was not a fluke and that he’s a legitimate threat. His 1st round match is against Nicolas Almagro.
Sleepers: Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic
With defending women’s champion Li Na enjoying retirement, the way is clear for someone new to win. But whether it’ll be a brand-new name on the Daphne Akhurst trophy is another thing!
Bookies favourite, Serena Williams, begins her campaign for a 6th Australian Open title against Alison van Uytvanck. Williams may not have played well in the Hopman Cup but she’s still the one to beat. She has quite a tough draw on paper with Wozniacki, Azarenka, Jankovic, Kvitova, Radwanska and Venus Williams all in her half. But, realistically, how many of them have beaten Serena regularly? Garbine Muguruza could get another shot at beating Williams at a Major – her first being the French Open last year. They could face off in the 4th round. Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka are potential quarter-final opponents.
A champion in Australia in 2008, Maria Sharapova will be hoping to add to her Grand Slam collection. Last year was very up-and-down for the Russian. She suffered a shock defeat to Dominika Cibulkova in the 4th round at the Aussie Open last year but bounced back in spectacular fashion to win her 2nd French Open title. Back to No.2 in the world, Sharapova showed excellent form in Brisbane last week as she defeated Ana Ivanovic to win her 34th title. Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova are lurking in her part of the draw, with Eugenie Bouchard as a potential quarter-final opponent. It could be a tough road to the title for Masha. She will open against Croatia’s Petra Martic.
Simona Halep had a break-through season in 2014, impressing many when she pushed Sharapova to the brink at Roland Garros. And even more so when she demolished Serena Williams in the round robin stage of the WTA Finals.Unlike last year, Halep is a proper title contender now. She has already started the season with a title in Shenzhen and looks fit and healthy. Ana Ivanovic is a potential quarter-final opponent then there’s the chance of a French Open rematch against Sharapova in the semi-finals. Halep will play Karin Knapp in her opening match.
Last year, Petra Kvitova was knocked out of the Australian Open in the 1st round. It wasn’t until the grass season that she found her game.With a big serve and powerful ground strokes, Kvitova should be more dominant at the Australian Open, but her best showing was a semi-final appearance in 2012. It just hasn’t really come together for her here; perhaps it’s the extreme heat – a reason bandied about by many tennis commentators. With a new trainer/physio on board, Kvitova is looking good and won in Sydney. Her first round opponent is Richel Hogenkamp.
Not many players reach the Wimbledon final in their second season on the tour but 2014 saw Eugenie Bouchard do just that. She reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year and followed that up with a semi-final appearance at Roland Garros. She burnt herself out towards the end of the season, with a surprising 4th round loss in the U.S. Open and a poor showing at the WTA Finals. She’s got a new coach and agent on her team and goes into Melbourne with all eyes on her. Bouchard is in the same half of the draw as Sharapova, Halep and Ivanovic. Her first test could be against either Caroline Garcia or Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 3rd round. Bouchard will play Germany’s Anna-Lena Friedsam in the 1st round.
Sleepers: Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki
Coverage of the Australian Open begins on Sky Sports from January 19th (12.00am)
Eilís Brennan, Pundit Arena.