By: Jane Voigt
As fast as the first week flew, one thing was clear: the old guard stands tall – even with a few hiccups.
Roger Federer reached a remarkable 1000 career match wins along with the Brisbane International crown. Compatriot Stan Wawrinka won his second straight title in Chennai, India, which certainly will stoke his engines as he looks to repeat in Melbourne. These two are likely still riding the wave from Switzerland’s Davis Cup win, too; who knows when (or if) that car will hit a bump in the road.
Maria Sharapova’s ferocity seems to have quadrupled over the off-season. Just watch her win over a powerful Ana Ivanovic in Brisbane. Over in Auckland, New Zealand, Venus Williams chugged past Caroline Wozniacki in their three-set final. Poor Sunshine; now both Williams’ sisters stand larger than life.
Yes, Rafael Nadal lost to No. 127 ranked Michael Berrer and Novak Djokovic, just about everyone’s pick to end 2015 at the top, lost to Ivo Karlovic. Outliers. Karlovic is more than capable of sneaking in a noteworthy win, but consistency is not his forte.
Is anyone out there capable of upsetting the norm? It’s complicated and not totally out of the question.
But it sure seems unlikely.
Men play best of five sets over two weeks. It’ll be hot. Fitness is the avenue for longevity or, at least, a ticket to the second week. Mental acuity is a must-have. Matches must be tucked away quickly, with a fresh outlook worn daily, like the new clothes manufacturers roll out for the occasion.
On the men’s side, Milos Raonic is looking good. Though sluggish against Federer at first, he evened the match and performed like a champ. He’s almost ready, but he just can’t double fault at the end of a match…clearly.
Raonic is one of the group that we’ll call, Big Serve-Big Forehand. Another that fits this mold is Sam Groth. He hit an ace recorded at 263 kph/163.4 mph serve in 2012, and came mighty close to that in Brisbane. Kevin Anderson is another, along with John Isner, Sam Querrey, Vasek Pospisil, Jerzy Janowicz, Jiri Vesely, Nicolas Almagro, and the aforementioned Karlovic. Marin Cilic’s name should be here, but he has already withdrawn, citing a shoulder problem.
Of these, only Raonic, Anderson, Isner, and Karlovic will be seeded. The others remain dangerous floaters. Their fates will be determined more by draw than style of play. If it’s a favorable one, they could do damage. If they make the second week, check the betting houses. Out of all of these men, and after seeing his expanded repertoire in Brisbane, Raonic stands out.
Here’s the downside. None has even a close record over the men who can plow through a Grand Slam draw.
Raonic is 0-4 against Djokovic, 1-8 against Federer, 0-5 against Nadal, 0-3 against Wawrinka, and 0-4 against David Ferrer. Even against Grigor Dimitrov, he trails 1-2; his fellow Wimbledon semifinalist is another vying for major notoriety, and has as much game as does the Canadian. Among few positives, Raonic leads Andy Murray 3-2, and Tomas Berdych 3-1.
So no matter the speed of serve and force of their forehands, they will have to weave a sticky web to trap one of the favorites.
On the women’s side, only one name shines through the crowd: Serena Williams. Her start to the season sputtered, but it may not mean much. She will be top seed, with Maria Sharapova at No. 2. Given the dismal head-to-head between these two power hitters — Williams leads 16-2 — the argument for a Sharapova breakthrough, if they make the final, is unconvincing. Yet if you take a peak at the rankings, Sharapova is but 764 points behind her biggest rival.
Williams is such a strong contender, with such dominant head-to-heads against the Top 5, 10, and top 15. It seems utterly implausible she could be upended. But watch out for Victoria Azarenka. A two-time Australian Open champion (2012-2013), she comes in unseeded for the first time in two years, having been ranked No. 2 just last January. She suffered a tough start in her comeback, losing to Karolina Pliskova in Brisbane and was ignored when she asked for a wildcard into Sydney. Anger is a good motivator for Azarenka. Additionally, she’s healthy and her personal life has calmed down after a break up with Stefan “Redfoo” Gordy.
Williams has won the Australian Open five times: 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2010. Her exits over the last three years were surprising, and came in the fourth round against Ekaterina Makarova, the quarterfinals to Sloane Stephens, and the fourth round again to Ana Ivanovic.
These results have to leave us with a question mark about her chances in Melbourne.
Potential trouble could come from Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Alizé Cornet, Garbiñe Muguruza and, at the fringes, Madison Keys.
The women’s event should bring fans more variety of play and more excitement, in the arena of who upsets who. But they do play best-of-three sets and have a day off in between matches, if the weather holds. This tempo leaves enough down time for recovery, when compared to the men’s schedule.
We can be assured upsets will happen in Melbourne Park. But not the quantity that will budge the status quo, even if Wawrinka threw in a wrinkle last year when he triumphed over Nadal.
The only thing we need now is the draw. That comes out on Friday.
Follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!