And so a new season is upon us, and the first major of the year will start soon in Melbourne. It shapes up as one of the most intriguing and unpredictable Grand Slam events in quite a long while. Let’s start with the men’s draw, which is fascinating in many ways. On the top half of the draw, top seeded Roger Federer has his work cut out for him.
Federer will struggle to keep his astonishing streak of consistency alive at the premier events. Federer has reached 22 semifinals in a row on the Grand Slam stages, but this might be his most challenging test at a “Big Four” event in ages. He opens against the tenacious Russian Igor Andreev, the Russian baseliner who pushed him to five arduous sets in the third round of the U.S. Open in 2008. He should win more easily against Andreev this time around. Andreev drifted from No. 19 in the world at the end of 2008 to No. 35 at the conclusion of 2009 and is not playing with the same confidence he had when he met Federer in New York in that memorable five set appointment. Federer will win in four sets, but a sterner examination could come for him in the round of 16 against either the No. 15 seed Gilles Simon or 2005 Australian Open finalist and two time Grand Slam tournament winner Lleyton Hewitt.
The Simon-Hewitt match could go either way, but I give Hewitt a slight edge, and look for him to take on Federer in the round of 16. At the U.S. Open in 2009, Hewitt took the first set from Federer and had chances thereafter, but he bowed out in four sets. Should they clash in Melbourne— and I expect that they will— the atmosphere will be highly charged, and Hewitt will throw his heart and soul into that contest. He will be near the top of his game, and will make Federer work inordinately hard from the back of the court. Hewitt won’t be afraid to go frequently to the Federer forehand, using his backhand down the line to make the Swiss stretch, keeping his shots deep and luring the world No. 1 into mistakes.
The guess here is that Hewitt will build a two sets to one lead, but Federer will fight back with quiet ferocity and will eventually prevail in five sets for a place in the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there will be either Nikolay Davydenko— the No. 6 seed— or 2009 Australian Open semifinalist Fernando Verdasco. On current form, I like Davydenko’s chances. His recent record has been nothing less than stellar. He won Shanghai and the Barclays ATP World Finals in London late in 2009, then opened 2010 with a triumph on the hard courts of Brisbane, toppling Federer and Rafael Nadal in the last two rounds of that event.
Clearly, Davydenko is the hottest player in the world, but can he make something substantial happen in a best of five set format over the course of two weeks at a Grand Slam event? He has now ousted Federer two times in a row after losing his first 12 career confrontations against his old rival. Surely, Federer will be out to reverse that pattern and will be more motivated for this quarterfinal contest.
But Davydenko has a new mindset now, and he will no longer be daunted by the 15 time Grand Slam tournament champion. They will split the first two sets as Davydenko exploits his outstanding footwork and his improved ball striking off the forehand side. He will beat Federer to the punch in the backhand to backhand rallies. His serve will hold up well enough. In a scintillating display, Davydenko will win a pair of tie-breaks to knock Federer out of the tournament in four sets. It will be his biggest win ever at a major tournament. That will take Davydenko into the semifinals.
His opponent will be Novak Djokovic, the No. 3 seed and 2008 champion. Djokovic will move confidently into the quarterfinals with a win over No. 16 seed Tommy Robredo, and then he will fight his way past No. 8 seed Robin Soderling in four well played sets. The greater ground stroke consistency of Djokovic and the Serbian’s superior return of serve will carry him into the semifinals with a four set triumph, and he will then meet Davydenko.
As was the case the last two times they played— when they split indoor matches against each other— this will be a bruising battle. Neither player will find a glaring weakness in the other player’s game. From time to time, Djokovic will get shaky off the forehand; periodically, Davydenko’s forehand will be off the mark. But they will keep probing and the points will be long and demanding. Davydenko will win the first set, Djokovic will take the next two, and the Russian will rally to win the fourth set. In the fifth, Djokovic will get one crucial break at 4-4 in the fifth set, and will serve out the match for a well deserved victory. That will put him into his second Australian Open final.
On the opposite half of the draw, the defending champion Nadal will be striving to play his best tennis since the spring of 2009. Nadal won the first set of the Brisbane final from Davydenko 6-0, and had two match points in a second set tie-break before losing in three pendulum swinging sets. In Melbourne, he will meet the big serving American John Isner in the third round. It will take Nadal a set to find his range on his returns, but he will gradually pick Isner apart with dipping shots at the big man’s feet and some trademark passing shots off both sides.
Nadal will stop Isner in four sets, and will then meet No. 13 seed Radek Stepanek for a place in the quarterfinals. Stepanek will have beaten Ivo Karlovic in a blockbuster first round, four set encounter, but he will not be able to stay with Nadal despite trying to apply pressure continuously. Nadal will defeat Stepanek in straight sets, and will then take on Andy Murray in the most eagerly awaited of all the quarterfinals.
Murray will be match tough after beating Jurgen Melzer and Gael Monfils in four set showdowns. The Nadal-Murray match will be a beauty. Murray will be more aggressive than normal, realizing that good defense is not going to cut it against Nadal. Murray will take chances off his forehand, and will take his two-hander up the line as often as possible. He will serve big and look to win some quick points against the six time major champion. For his part, Nadal will be unerring, and he will keep Murray honest by sending his first serve out wide to the forehand just often enough to keep the British player off balance. This will be a top of the line contest, and not that much will separate the two great players. In the end, however, Nadal will wear Murray down and his growing self conviction, better ball control and poise under pressure will be all that he needs to record a 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory. Nadal will be in the semifinals with that win.
His opponent will presumably be U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro will survive a strenuous round of 16 meeting with Marin Cilic, but he will win that in five sets. In the quarters, it will be Del Potro against none other than Andy Roddick, who will beat 2007 finalist Fernando Gonzalez in the round of 16. Roddick will play a whale of a match against Del Potro, but will come up narrowly short of victory. Del Potro scraped by Roddick twice last summer on hard courts, and he will win another very tight battle this time around in five sets.
And so Del Potro— who crushed Nadal twice last summer in Canada and New York— will look to stop the Spaniard again with his big hitting from the baseline and his markedly improved first serve. His explosive style will be too good at the outset as the Argentine will blow Nadal off the court in a 6-3 first set. Both players will sense the importance of the second set, which will be beautifully played across the board. Nadal will impose himself more and more off the forehand, forcing Del Potro deep and wide to his opponent’s backhand, keeping him trapped too far behind the baseline.
Nadal will capture the second set in a tie-break, and thereafter his physicality will be too much for Del Potro. Nadal will get into a vicious ground stroke rhythm, and his relentless consistency will grind down Del Potro 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5. He will be back in the final, and he will take on Djokovic. That one will come down largely to stamina, willpower, big point prowess, and heart. Djokovic will be on top of the world and in command of his game as he wins the first set 6-4, and he will build a 4-2 second set lead by keeping the points relatively short and not allowing Nadal much room to breathe. Djokovic will be lethal on his second serve returns, and will keep Nadal on the run by taking the ball early off the forehand.
But, in the crunch, Nadal will come through. He will persist with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt until Djokovic’s normally trustworthy two-handed backhand finally starts to crack. Nadal will get the second set 7-5, and will win the third by 6-3. He will be within one set of a second Australian Open crown in a row, but Djokovic will not surrender. He will rediscover his rhythm, getting better depth off the forehand, finding some acute angles off the backhand. Djokovic will pick up his first serve percentage and win the fourth set 6-4.
So it will all come down to a fifth set after more than four hours of play. Djokovic will demonstrate that he is admirably fit, maybe fitter than he has ever been before. But Nadal will be on a crusade to win no matter what it takes. He will be down a break at 1-3 in the fifth, but will collect five of the last six games to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in five hours. Rafael Nadal will be back where he wants to be, winning his first tournament since May, gaining a seventh major title, playing his most inspired brand of tennis.
Among the women, Serena Williams will confront Sam Stosur in the round of 16, and the Australian fans will like the outset of that match. Stosur will be attacking skillfully, serving-and-volleying persistently, and keeping Serena at bay. Stosur will win that set 7-5, but Williams will not be thrown off stride and will gradually get her bearings and assert herself with controlled aggression from the baseline. She will win 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals. In the last eight, her opponent will be the rapidly rising Victoria Azarenka, the No. 7 seed who seemed on her way to a win over Serena before getting sick and losing in three sets to the American a year ago. Azarenka— grunting loud, hitting the ball hard and flat, competing with unbridled intensity— will make a real go of it in the opening set, but Williams will prevail in a tie-break and move on to a straight set victory by scores of 7-6 (6), 6-4. In the semifinals, I expect to see No. 4 seed Caroline Wozniacki play Williams.
Wozniacki will have potential meetings with Shahar Peer and Li Na to make it to the quarterfinals. In the last eight, she figures to play Venus Williams. Venus will come very close to winning, serving prodigiously for a set-and a-half to get within striking distance of a clear-cut victory, but Wozniacki will overtake Venus with her smoothly delivered ground strokes and her supreme accuracy. Wozniacki will stop Venus Williams in three sets, coming from behind for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory. But against Serena Williams, the story will be different. Serena will cut her down systematically. She will be in one of her unmistakably big match moods, bearing down hard, keeping her error count down, serving well under pressure. Serena Williams will win the match 7-5, 6-4, and thus arrive safely for the final. In the championship match, she will face No. 15 seed Kim Clijsters or 2004 champion Justine Henin.
Henin has not played a major since the 2008 Australian Open, but the seven time major tournament victor will knock out No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva in a terrific second round match. Dementieva will be too solid for Henin for a set, but then the Belgian will start opening up the court with her sharply angled two-handed backhand, and she will attack her second serve returns with regularity. Henin will sweep past Dementieva in the last two sets, prevailing 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. She will later dismiss No. 18 seed Virginie Razzano in the fourth round, and will meet countrywoman Clijsters in a stirring quarterfinal.
In the final of Brisbane at the start of this season, Clijsters overcame Henin in a thrilling battle that came down to a final set tie-break. Henin had two match points in the tenth game of the final set after recovering from a set and 4-1 down. It was an amazing match, played at a remarkably high level all the way through, and it could have gone either way. In Melbourne, they will have another strikingly close contest, and this time Henin will be the winner. Clijsters will be sharper in the beginning and will win the first set 7-5, but Henin will steady herself, stop double faulting as often as she did on big points in Brisbane, and her superior backcourt variety will make a big difference as she finds a way to thwart Clijsters. Henin will come through 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, and she will be in the semifinals. Waiting for her there will be Maria Sharapova.
Sharapova— the 2008 Australian Open champion— is seeded 14th this year but she will be ready to go from the beginning. She will beat Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals (No. 2 seed Dinara Safina will bow out early) and will then take on Henin in the penultimate round. This will be one of their finest contests. Sharapova will serve with great accuracy and her location will be excellent. Henin will counter with her customary low and biting returns, and she will take control of the rallies. The power of Sharapova will be answered by the purposeful play of Henin, who will cover the court considerably better than her opponent. In the end, Henin will narrowly move past Sharapova, winning 4-6, 7-6 (3),6-4.
That will give us a dream final between Henin— the former world No. 1 who has always been the ultimate professional— and Serena Williams, the best big match player in the women’s game. Henin will be fortunate in the early stages as an overanxious Serena self destructs under an avalanche of unforced errors, making wild mistakes off both sides. But the steely resolve of Williams will kick in, and she will pick up the quality of her serving and reduce her mistakes significantly to take the second set 6-4. The third and final set will feature both women at their best. Serena will release a barrage of scorching forehand winners while Henin will color the court with her spectacular one-handed topspin backhand. The quality of the tennis will be awe inspiring for the fans.
Henin will take a 4-1 final set lead with two service breaks in hand, but Williams will storm back to reach 4-4. They will stay on serve until 8-8, when Henin will break Williams with a blazing backhand down the line winner on the run at full stretch. Henin will serve out the match and win 1-6, 6-4, 10-8 for her most dramatic victory ever in a final at a major. It will be the best major final among the women since 2005 at Wimbledon, when Venus Williams saved a match point and defeated Lindsay Davenport 4-6 7-6 (4) 9-7.