The calendar has flipped to 2018, but as with all things, that shift feels merely symbolic in the tennis world, and most of the storylines from the 2017 season are unchanged. On the eve of the year’s first major, health remains a significant concern at the top of the men’s game, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka remain absent for the women, and the player who most closely resembles a sure thing is 36 years old. Here, theScore’s tennis writers, Joe Wolfond and Michael J. Chandler, handicap the fortnight in Melbourne.
Here are our predictions for the Australian Open:
Chandler: Alexander Zverev
Rafael Nadal’s knee is a major reason for worry, Novak Djokovic is facing a fight for fitness thanks to a wonky elbow, and Stan Wawrinka may well throw in the towel with injury before his first-round rendezvous is through. With so many of the men’s biggest stars hampered by knocks and niggles, the 2018 Australian Open is begging for a first-time winner.
In steps Zverev. On paper, the 20-year-old purveyor of robust second serves faces a tough draw that features the likes of Wawrinka, Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, and Gael Monfils. But it’s a less daunting task considering the fitness and form of the aforementioned quartet, and the angular German’s toughest competition may come in the form of upstart American Jared Donaldson, who he could face in the fourth round after eliminating older brother and 2017 quarterfinalist Mischa. A potential semifinal dance with Roger Federer is reason enough to dust off the old VCR.
Wolfond: Roger Federer
Wear and tear caught up to Federer at the end of last season, but a two-month rest should help him return to the imperious form in which he conquered the first half of 2017. With fewer durability-related question marks than just about every other top player, the 36-year-old is in the driver’s seat in Melbourne.
A possible quarterfinal clash with Juan Martin del Potro, who dispatched him at the US Open last fall, looms large. Djokovic is in the same half, and the status of the six-time Aussie champ’s troublesome elbow is the wild card that could change everything. Zverev – still searching for that Grand Slam breakthrough, but still as dangerous as any player on tour – is here too. But Federer is the safest pick of the bunch, and if the courts play as fast as they did last year, expect the Swiss demigod to defend his title and put a 20th Slam trophy on his shelf.
Wolfond: Elina Svitolina
The 23-year-old won a tour-leading five titles last season, and has already claimed her first of 2018 in Brisbane. No one has won more matches against top-10 opponents over the past 12 months. With athletic retrieving, reliable groundstrokes from both wings, and the ability to turn defense to offense, Svitolina is among the WTA’s most well-rounded players.
The one knock against her is that she’s never advanced past the quarterfinals at a major, but if not for a couple of gut-punch defeats last year – losing from a set and 5-1 up against Simona Halep in Paris, dropping a three-set coin flip to Madison Keys in New York – we’d be telling an entirely different story. It’s not that Svitolina doesn’t possess the necessary mental toughness – she’s 10-2 lifetime in tournament finals – she just needs a couple breaks to go her way. She has a good draw, with a quarter that could come down to her and Venus Williams. Svitolina is due for a Slam breakthrough; don’t bet against her.
Chandler: Karolina Pliskova
A bit unlucky not to have nabbed a Grand Slam before, Pliskova made the Aussie quarters a year ago, and with the absence of a bona fide favorite, the lanky Czech will use a thumping serve to ease her way into a finals clash with Caroline Wozniacki.
Despite having reached just one major final – losing in the 2016 US Open to Angelique Kerber – Pliskova has been remarkably consistent of late on the biggest stage. Last season, she made the quarters at the US and the Aussie Open, and the semis at Roland Garros, suggesting the purveyor of aggressive groundstrokes has a penchant for managing nerves when it matters most – a quality some of her biggest foes seem with which to struggle.
Wolfond: Grigor Dimitrov
The ascendant Bulgarian took advantage of a banged-up, worn-down field at the end of last season to claim the two biggest titles of his career – at the Cincinnati Masters and then the ATP Finals in London. His long-erratic play grew steadily more consistent in 2017, and his ranking has surged to No. 3 in the world.
Apart from a potential fourth-round tilt with Nick Kyrgios – who just beat him in the Brisbane semis – Dimitrov’s quarter of the Aussie Open draw looks like a frosted cupcake. In the semis, though, he could get a rematch of last year’s epic against Nadal. The two played three times in 2017, with each match going the distance, and each won by Rafa. But Nadal’s knee appears to be less than 100 percent, opening the door for Dimitrov to exact his revenge and make his maiden Slam final.
Chandler: Grigor Dimitrov
Wolfond: Garbine Muguruza
Yes, Muguruza’s health is a concern – she pulled out of each of her first two tournaments of the year, in Brisbane and Sydney, with a thigh injury – but the day off between matches will help. While there are plenty of dangerous floaters (Maria Sharapova’s name jumps out) who could derail the world No. 3 in the early rounds, and while next-high-seed Caroline Garcia finished 2017 on an absolute tear, Muguruza should be a solid favorite to make it out of her quarter. Ultimately, there are too many unknowns in this half of the draw not to ride with the reigning WTA Player of the Year.
Chandler: Caroline Wozniacki
A championship tilt with Pliskova will provide an opportunity for either the hard-hitting Czech or Wozniacki to replicate last season’s maiden Slam victories for Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens. There’s no reason to think Wozniacki can’t break her duck despite bowing out in the fourth round or earlier in each of her last five Melbourne forays, with recent form an indicator of the 27-year-old’s current standing: Wozniacki arrives in Australia having won in Singapore thanks to victories over Pliskova and Venus Williams before losing in the ASB Classic final to Julia Goerges.
Men’s dark horse
Chandler: Diego Schwartzman
Having reached the second round a year ago, the Argentine is set to eclipse that showing thanks to a favorable draw. Seeded 26th, Schwartzman could turn heads if he can overcome a tricky first-round match against Dusan Lajovic before a potential David vs. Goliath third-round fixture with the towering John Isner. If Nadal’s knee gets the better of him, the diminutive Schwartzman could make the semis with a couple bounces going his way.
Wolfond: Nick Kyrgios
Eventually, betting on Kyrgios won’t be a recipe for egg on the face. He crashed out of all four majors in either the first or second round last year, and he may never be engaged enough to have consistent success on tour, but if he can just hold up physically, his effortlessly explosive game can do the rest. That’s what happened in Brisbane last week, where Kyrgios won the fourth ATP title of his career. Playing in front of a home crowd can be as much a curse as it is a blessing, but with some momentum from the Brisbane run and a very workable draw (that fourth-rounder against Dimitrov could be huge), Kyrgios has a chance to put on a show for the Melbourne faithful.
Women’s dark horse
Wolfond: Angelique Kerber
Can you be considered a dark horse if you won this tournament two years ago and were ranked No. 1 in the world as recently as July? Given how miserable last season was for Kerber, and the fact that her ranking has fallen outside the top 20, that’s where the German counterpuncher finds herself. With new coach Wim Fissette in her corner, she’s already looking better than she did at any point in 2017, and a rip-roaring title run in Sydney – in which she beat no-joke opponents like Venus Williams, Dominika Cibulkova, Lucie Safarova, and Ash Barty – should give her a necessary confidence boost heading into the first major of 2018.
Chandler: Camila Giorgi
In-form Kerber is an outstanding dark horse pick, but for a less plausible selection, unseeded Italian righty Giorgi is peaking just in time for an unlikely second-week run in Melbourne. With an eye to painting the lines, Giorgi, 26, scored victories last year over Pliskova and Svitolina, and made a semifinal run in Sydney last week before bowing out to Kerber. Tasked with a bracket highlighted by noted Grand Slam derelict Simona Halep, Giorgi will send the Romanian packing ahead of a quarterfinal date with Pliskova.
Chandler: Belinda Bencic bounces Venus to go on run
Despite an injury-plagued 2017, 20-year-old Bencic won her last three tournaments of the calendar year, and, with minimal pressure – especially in light of a first-round match with last year’s runner-up – there’s no reason to think Martina Hingis 2.0 can’t go on a run down under. All it takes is one early triumph to inspire a fling with the second week, and a trip to the semifinals could be in the cards considering the form of some of the ranked opponents in Bencic’s part of the draw.
Wolfond: Gael Monfils topples Djokovic in Round 2
Even given his sketchy health, it would be a surprise to see the most decorated player in Aussie Open history go down in the first week for a second straight year, especially given his 14-0 lifetime record against his likely second-round opponent. Djokovic showed what he’s still capable of with an exhibition beatdown of Thiem this week, and he’s still the third betting favorite to win the title down under. But the draw did him no favors in his Grand Slam comeback, and if he can get through a tough first-rounder against Donald Young, he’ll have to deal with Monfils’ sporadic brilliance. The flying Frenchman was more Jekyll than Hyde in winning his first Qatar Open title last week, and looks healthy after a rough 2017. Nobody beats Monfils 15 times in a row.