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Sunday, 14 January 2018

AusOpen Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi
The first grand slam of the tennis season kicks off in Melbourne


Memories of one-year ago are overflowing through me this week as the Australian Open kicks off in Melbourne.  Last year at this time I was Down Under soaking in the sun (a little too much perhaps) and checking off a huge sporting bucket list item, attending the Australian Open!


For those who are sports fans, not just tennis fans, I would highly recommend making the trip and checking out the #AusOpen.  The cost of tickets is VERY affordable.  The weather is PERFECT!  The tennis action is OUTSTANDING!  My first night I was watching #GOAT Roger Federer take on a personal fav of mine, Austrian Jurgen Melzer in R1 action en route to claiming another slam title.

The big questions heading into 2018 are whether Mr. Federer can collect grand slam title #20 and what to make of a WIDE open women's draw with the absence of Serena Williams?


The opening slam of the season can always be a bit of a guessing game.  Many of the players have yet to play competitive tennis matches or, if they have, perhaps have only played one or two events on tour to start the year.  The prep time is minimal and players may not always be able to bring their best right away, sometimes causing a few shocking upsets in the early rounds.

The other big concern the Australian Open faces is the injury bug.  Players who perhaps took the second half of the previous season off usually make their return to tennis in Melbourne (see Stan Wawrinka).  Are these players fully back to 100%?  Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  But even if they are feeling 100% they lack the competitive game experience while being off on the IR so, again, they may be prone to early upsets.

The Aussie Open draw can be shaken up early in the opening week and, usually due to the intense heat, can see injury walkover results throughout the two week event.  The players who can navigate the draw, survive the temperatures and avoid the injury bug could end up taking home the winner's cheque at the end of 7 grueling rounds of competition.

Without further adieu, the nets are set, the balls are fresh and the sun is shining, time to serve up the #TwineTime preview:

AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Melbourne, AUS

2017 Champions:  Roger Federer and Serena Williams


MEN

Section 1

The number one player in the world, Rafa Nadal should easily move through this section of the draw and play well into Week 2.  The question for him early on will more be on his health than the competition taking him out.  Nadal is the perfect example of the player who can make a deep run here, perhaps even replicating the finals appearance, should he stay healthy and not suffer any injuries (or further enhance the nagging injuries he already has).  Advantage Nadal if he can pound out a few quick 3-0 matches early.

There could be two players in the section who may be able to seize the advantage of a vulnerable Nadal should the opportunity present itself.  #24 Diego Schwartzmann will look to build on his outstanding QF run at the US Open last year.  Unseeded Borna Coric is also an up and coming #NextGen player still looking for that breakout slam showing, although he has never won a match in Melbourne.  And pay attention to qualifier Casper Rudd from Norway.  If he survives another strong qualifier in Quentin Halys in R1, he could be ready to give Schwartzmann a run in R2.  As for #16 John Isner?  The less time on court the better for him early on.  He will need to ride that serve early....but could be in trouble with a possible R2 match vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov (assuming he even survives a tough R1 battle with Ebden).

4th Round Prediction: (1) Nadal def. (24) Schwartzmann

Section 2

#6 Marin Cilic will get most of the attention in this section and for obvious reasons.  He is a past US Open champion and highly ranked.  The issue with Cilic is his lack of strong results in Melbourne.  Cilic has failed to go beyond R4 since his SF showing in 2010.  Last season he was upset in R2 remember.  I for sure remember because I was thinking of watching him play his R3 match....he just failed to show up for that #brodate!  The guy to really watch here is #10 Pablo Carreno Busta.  PCB is coming off a SF appearance at the US Open last season and, with a section of the draw pretty wide open, he could make another deep run here, perhaps setting up an all-Spanish R4 battle with rival Nadal?!

The toughest opponent standing in PCB's way may be his possible R2 opponent Gilles Simon.  It is tough to see Simon, a former #6 ranked player in the world, unranked and sitting outside the Top 50 in the world.  Simon has reached R3 or better every year here since 2013 and is always a threat in early rounds of slams.  He also won a tune up event in India to kick off his season a few weeks ago.

4th Round Prediction:  (10) PCB def. (31) Cuevas

Section 3

This is the #BabyFed section of the draw.  #3 Grigor Dimitrov is the favourite to navigate this section of the draw.  Dimintrov won the year-end title in London and kicked off 2018 with a SF showing in Brisbane.  He was also had a SF showing last year here and the hard courts seem to play to his advantage.  With a vulnerable Nadal, he is the favourite for the top half of the draw.

The 26-year old Dimitrov is considered the old man almost in this section with numerous #NextGen future ATP stars waiting to steal the spotlight here.  The home crowds will be rallying behind #17 Nick Kyrgios.  Kyrgios has had a strong start to the season winning the title in Brisbane.  I was at the match last year when he was "upset" in R2.  I say "upset" because he really seemed to tank the end of the match and looked to give up when the match was really still within his grasp.  If he plays to play, he will be tough to beat.  If he gets lost in his head again and turns negative, another early exit is a possibility....upsetting the Aussie fans once again!

Don't forget #NextGen stars Denis Shapovalov, qualifier Elis Ymer, #30 Andrey Rublev, WC Alex Bolt and Stefanos Tsitsipas (who faces Shapovalov in R1).  All of these players could be ready to make a breakout appearance at a slam.

4th Round Prediction:  (3) Dimitrov def. (17) Kyrgios

Section 4

Another section of opportunity presents itself for 16 players slotted in this part of the draw.  #11 Kevin Anderson would appear to be the front runner here based on reaching the US Open final last year.  Anderson missed the Australian Open last season but his game and explosive serve can be a huge advantage of the Melbourne courts.  He has never advanced past R4 here but this could be the perfect draw for him to make a second week run.

What do we make out of #18 Lucas Pouille?  Can you believe he has NEVER won a match at the Australian Open?  How is that possible considering his high ranking and seed?  If Pouille can get over the R1 hurdle (weird to even type for a seeded player) he could make a deep run here and possibly challenge Anderson in a R3 clash.

As for #8 Jack Sock....we aren't sure what to make out of him heading into the season.  He had a breakout 2017 and came into 2018 poised to be a possible slam contender.  Unfortunately he started his season looking very lackluster with fitness and preparedness as well as questions swirling around injuries.  Could he make a deep week two run?  Yes.  Could he be eliminated in R1 to a strong Yuichi Sugita? 100%!  And a Sock early exit will be advantage #27 Phillip Kohlschreiber, who seems to bring out his best tennis at slam event in the early rounds.

Outside of Sugita, unseeded big server Dr. Ivo Karlovic is always a threat based on serve alone.  And never count out Denis Istomin right?  Istomin reached R4 last year, including knocking off defending champ and then-#2 seed Djokovic in R2.  I remember sitting in Hisense Arena watching the Istomin result play out.

4th Round Prediction:  Karlovic def. Istomin

Section 5

Two of my fav players lead this section with #5 Domi Thiem and #9 Stan Wawrinka.  Thiem is not a huge fan of the super fast courts so it does work against him in Australia.  However, Domi did open the season with a SF showing in Doha and sitting as a Top 5 player should be considered a player to make the second week.  As for Wawrinka, welcome back to the court #StanTheMan!  The #Stanimal has been absent from tour for quite some time, recovering from a knee injury.  Wawrinka is the 2014 champion here remember but the question of his health and how the knees are holding up could be the big question mark for him.

The next seed who could seize the advantage of a vulnerable Wawrinka is #20 Roberto Bautista Agut.  The Spaniard reached R4 in three of four slams last season, including here.  RBA may not be a threat to win the title but could be a threat to survive this section.

A few unseeded players could create havoc in this section.  American Steve Johnson has become known as a grand slam giant killer.  Frenchman Jeremy Chardy has lots of experience and is a former QF, although back in 2010.  Richard Berankis, Wawrinka's R1 opponent, is also capable of making a few waves down under this year.

4th Round Prediction:  (5) Thiem def. (20) RBA

Section 6

Anyone else find is weird to see Novak Djokovic in the middle of the draw and not near the top or bottom sections?  Djoker is the #14 seed and will be returning to the court after an elbow injury last season.  Again, similar to Nadal and Wawrinka, how is the nagging injury and is he really ready to play 100% and be a slam threat once again?  It might be too early to tell.  But imagine the possible R4 match....

Against #NextGen star, breakout player of 2017 and #4 seed Alexander Zverev.  This is the year for Zverev to cement himself as a top slam contender.  We know he can play the Best-of-3 matches week in and week out on tour and win matches and events.  But can he do it for 7 Best-of-5 matches?  We just do not know yet.  His best slam result is the R4 appearance at Wimbledon last year.

And if Alexander is not ready, perhaps his brother Mischa is?  Mischa is ranked #32 in the draw and could face his brother in a R3 family battle.  Mischa did upset Andy Murray at this event last year remember too.  Another name to watch out for and shocking to see his placement in the draw is Gael Monfils.  Monfils won a season opener event in Doha yet is unseeded here.  Crazy right?

4th Round Prediction: (4) A. Zverev def. Monfils

Section 7

The two big seeds here will be favourites for a potential R4 David vs. Goliath battle (literally based on height anyways).  #7 David Goffin continues to impress and stay in the Top 10 while never advancing beyond the QF at any slam.  Speaking of QF showings, Goffin did reach the QF here last season and reached R4 at the US Open at the end of last season.  A threat to win the championship?  Probably not.  A threat to live up to his seed?  Certainly!

But here comes Goliath....otherwise known as past US Open champ #12 seed Juan Martin del Potro.  I was disappointed to not see him play here last year as he skipped the event due to injuries.  If we ignore the seed and rankings though, could anyone argue his is not a Top 5 player and on the short list of title contenders here?  6'6 Del Po vs. 5'11 Goffin would be fun to watch!

Don't pencil both of these players into R4 quite yet though.  A few players in this section could create a few problems for the two favourites.  There are some big unseeded threats looking to make a slam breakout here.  Home fav Alex de Minaur is the leader of the pack.  De Minaur reached the final in Sydney this past weekend and the SF in Brisbane the week prior.  I watched de Minaur's R1 5-set blockbuster W last year....an over 4-hour affair in the blistering sun that I could not move from because the action on the court was amazing.  This guy is the real deal...best R1 upset special over #19 Tomas Berdych!  A few Russians could make some noise here too: Karen Khachanov and Evgeny Donskoy could surprise.  A Khachanov vs. delPo R2 match up would be fun.

4th Round Prediction:  (12) del Potro def. (7) Goffin

Section 8

Roger, Roger, Roger!  This is all Federer in the final section of the draw.  Sure the defending champ is 36 years old but last year he was 35 years old and came to Melbourne off a recent knee injury and seeded outside the Top 16.....how did that work out for him?  He comes to the 2018 Australian Open as the defending champion, ranked #2 in the world with a shot at the #1 ranking and fresh off a season opening Hopman Cup title.  He is playing outstanding tennis right now and, honestly, is the threat to win the entire event and grand slam title #20!  If he does succeed it will be #AusOpen title #6 for him as well.

So who can stop him in this section?  Honestly probably nobody...and no offence to those drawn against him.  #13 Sam Querry and #22 Milos Raonic are probably the best best to give Federer a pre-QF battle.  Both Querry and Raonic have the big serves and have been known to make some noise at slam events in the past.  Querry reached the Wimbledon SF last year...but has a TOUGH R1 battle ahead of him vs. Feliciano Lopez (who loves the fast courts more than the clay).  And Raonic, he is coming back from an injury that derailed his 2017 season.  But he is a former SF here too (2016).

4th Round Prediction: (2) Federer def. (22) Raonic


Quarterfinals:

(1) Nadal def. (10) PCB
(3) Dimitrov def. Karlovic
(4) A. Zverev def. (5) Thiem
(2) Federer def. (12) del Potro

Semifinals:

(3) Dimitrov def. (1) Nadal
(2) Federer def. (4) A. Zverev

Australian Open Men's Championship:  (2) Roger Federer def. (3) Grigor Dimitrov - 4 sets

Australian Open Men's Doubles Championship: (2) Henri Kontinen / John Peers


WOMEN

Section 1

With defending champion Williams skipping the event due to the recent birth of her child and wanting to take more time to get in competitive shape, new #1 player in the world Romanian Simona Halep has played her way to the top of the tennis mountain.  The Australian Open has not always been kind to Halep however, losing in R1 the past two years.  But Halep is also a two-time slam finalist (French Open, 2014 & 2017) and does have the game to make a deep run here.  Plus she already has a title to her credit this season (Shenzhen Open)  Her draw will not be easy though.  A possible R2 awaits with former slam finalist Genie Bouchard or up and coming Ocean Dodin while two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and Andrea Petkovic (what a R1 match up btw) awaiting as possible R3 opponents. 

The bottom section of the draw is also littered with trap opponents.  Australia's Ashleigh Barty went from comeback story of the year last season to serious slam contender in 2018, plus comes here off a finals appearance in Sydney.  Speaking of Sydney results, Italy's Camila Giorgi reached the SF and seems to have rejuvenated her career.  And watch out for 20-year old Japanese player Naomi Osaka.

4th Round Prediction:  (1) Halep def. Giorgi

Section 2

Is time already running out on Czech's Karolina Pliskova?  Last season she was the fav to win Wimbledon and just a few months later she has fallen outside the Top 5.  Yet, Pliskova is in the running for the #1 spot in the world should she go on to win the title here.  The sixth-seed has the game for a deep run though and her draw to R4 is not overly difficult, perhaps being challenged by the #29 Safarova - Diyas R3 survivor.

The top half of this section also should be a clear advantage to #9 Johanna Konta from Great Britain.  The Aussie Open has been kind to her in the past reaching a SF and QF so expect a second week run from her once again.  Her toughest challenger may be #20 Stycova but she should survive.

4th Round Prediction:  (9) Konta def. (6) Pliskova

Section 3

A French Open title in 2016 and Wimbledon win last year, Spain's Garbine Muguruza looks to add to her trophy case down under and kick off the 2018 with a bang.  Last season was her best result here when she reached the QF.  The biggest question this year may be the lingering health but wasn't that the same issue at Wimbledon last year and look how that turned out.  Muguruza is also in the running for the top ranking, needing to reach the final here.  #26 Aggie Radwanska would love to turn her career around with a deep run here, being a two-time SF (2014, 2016).  If Muguruza does have a nagging injury bothering her and Radwanska can rediscover the game she had when she was #2 in the world, an upset could be on the horizon.  Plus Radwanska has reached the QF in both her events to start 2018.

Without question the focus may be Angelique Kerber in this section though.  The former #1 ranked player in the world and 2016 Aussie Open champ has dipped to #16 in the world and is seeded #21....shocking to see considering last year I was there opening night watching her as the #1 seed survive a tough 3-setter to kick off the campaign.  And who also happens to be in this bottom half of the section but Maria Sharapova!  Everyone knows Sharapova's resume and recent comeback, the question is whether she is still a slam contender or just a second week attendee?  She did reach the SF at her season opening event in China though.  Worth noting, Sharapova's R1 opponent is Germany's Tatjana Maria meaning the scoreboard will actually read Maria Sharapova throughout the match....that has to be a first.

4th Round Prediction:  (21) Kerber def. (3) Muguruza

Section 4
This is one of the most wide open sections of the tournament and could easily produce a surprise R4 match up and/or QF showing.  #11 Kiki Mladenovic seems to have not won a match since last summer.  Same with #17 Madison Keys.  #28 Marjana Lucic-Baroni was a surprise SF last year but it is questionable if she can make the same deep run from a year ago.

Enter advantage to #8 Caroline Garcia.  She recently reached the Top 10 but her best performance here is reaching the third round (2015, 2017).  And she also gets the toughest R1 opponent in the section with Germany's Carina Witthoft.  A few dark horse players to keep your eyes on could be Sasnovich, Putintseva, McHale and Alexandrova.

4th Round Prediction:  (17) Keys def. (8) Garcia

Section 5

Ok so Section 4 seems to wide open and almost anyone's guess on who will survive, this section is tough because of the high quality of players drawn into it.  The headline R1 match comes here with #5 Venus Williams taking on former Top 10 player Belinda Bencic.  Bencic is returning from a long injury layoff and started this season looking back to her old ways winning the Hopman Cup alongside Roger Federer.  And Williams....well we all know how good she is.  Heck she reached the final here last season....at the age of 36!  Whomever survives this battle should be the fav to reach R4 or maybe even the QF and beyond.  But watch out for Romania's Irena Begu.  Begu reached the SF in China to start her season and has looked strong.

As for the bottom part of this section, home nation fav #23 Daria Gavrilova will be looking to improve on her R4 appearance the past two years here.  I saw Gavrilova compete live last year and she really rally's behind the fan support....and they do love her!  She could get a tough R2 opponent in Elise Mertens though.  Mertens won in Hobart only a few days before the start of this slam.  Watch out for #12 Julia Gorges too.  Gorges won her season opening event in Auckland a few weeks back and looks to be moving into career contender mode this season.

4th Round Prediction:  (23) Gavrilova def. Bencic

Section 6

Can anyone stop a #4 Elina Svitolina vs. #13 Sloane Stephens R4 match up?  Svitolina is in the running for the #1 ranking, should she reach the SF.  Svitolina has also had a strong start to her 2018 season winning the season opening event in Brisbane.  The only knock on her really has been the lack of strong wins at the slams.  She without question on win on tour for a 4 or 5 win week but winning the full 7 over two weeks seems to be an issue so far.  As for Stephens, she is the most recent addition to the grand slam winners club, winning the US Open last season.  Stephens has not won since mind you and has recent injury issues forcing her to be a huge question mark heading into this slam.

A few Chinese players could wreck havoc on this section of the draw too.  #25 Peng Shuai could make a deep run and pose a possible R3 threat to Svitolina.  Zhang Shuai opens with a vulnerable Stephens and could offer the first upset of the tournament as they will be the first two to hit the court on opening day.  Qualifier Denisa Allertova is also a player to watch out for in this section.

4th Round Prediction:  (4) Svitolina def. Zhang

Section 7

The Battle of #TeamUpset French Open champions headlines R1 when 2017 champ Jelena Ostapenko takes on 2010 champ Francesca Schiavone.  Ostapenko should survive the R1 battle but never underestimate Schiavone, who has been known to surprise higher ranked players and play lights out tennis in one match and then come up empty the next.  You never know what you are going to get....which could be dangerous for Ostapenko.  Unseeded players Mona Barthel and Aleksandra Krunic could be dangerous floaters in this section as well.

The bottom part of the section is chalk full of big name players who can both make deep slam runs or fizzle out in R1.  #10 CoCo Vandeweghe reached the SF here last here and at the US Open.  She seems to love the fast hard courts and should be considered an early QF fav here.  But watch out for former Aussie Open finalist #24 Dominika Cibulkova (if she even survives always tough R1 opponent Kaia Kanepi), 2016 Olympic champ Monica Puig and always dangerous Carla Suarez Navarro.  And what about past slam champ and home fav Sam #BamBam Stosur?  Stosur has never played well at her home slam, losing in R1 the past two years and having a best result of being R4 back in 2010 and 2006.  Her and Puig both are in desperate need for a strong slam win so that match should be interesting to watch.

4th Round Prediction:  (7) Ostapenko def. Suarez Navarro

Section 8

Perhaps the real favourite entering the season-opening slam is #2 Carolina Wozniacki.  Who thought Wozniacki would be back in the slam contender conversation and with a shot at regaining the #1 ranking in the world if she reaches the SF.  Wozniacki opened her season with a final appearance in Auckland.  The experience factor, in comparison to many of the other players in the draw and listed as contenders, could be the deciding factor here.  She hasn't advanced beyond R4 here though since her QF appearance in 2012 and SF appearance in 2011.

Can anyone derail her career comeback?  Well watch out for #19 Magdalena Rybarikova, a Wimbledon surprise SF last season.  I would also keep your eyes on qualifier Viktoija Golubic.  Golubic was ranked 51 in the world last April before taking a nosedive on the season and falling outside the Top 100.

4th Round Prediction:  (2) Wozniacki def. (19) Rybarikova


Quarterfinals:

(1) Halep def. (9) Konta
(21) Kerber def. (17) Keys
(4) Svitolina def. (23) Gavrilova
(2) Wozniacki def. (7) Ostapenko

Semifinals:

(21) Kerber def. (1) Halep
(4) Svitolina def. (2) Wozniacki

Australian Open Women's Championship: (4) Elina Svitolina def. (21) Angelique Kerber - 3 sets

Australian Open Women's Doubles Championship: (6) Gabby Dabrowski / Xu Yifan

Enjoy the action racquetheads and ball boys and girls.  Make sure you check out the continued coverage on TSN over the two weeks.  And hopefully some of you were able to participate in the Talk About Tennis Forums Australian Open #SuicidePool!