By Matt Roberts
Your guide to the 2015 Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of the year:
Novak Djokovic: Despite a shock defeat in Doha last week, the world number one will be the man to beat in Melbourne. He’s a four time champion at the Australian Open and with his crisp attacking game and ever-impressive defensive capabilities, he’s unquestionably the best hard court player in the world.
Roger Federer: Fresh from winning his 1000th career match against Milos Raonic in Brisbane, Fed has picked off in 2015 where he left off in 2014. Under the mentorship of Stefan Edberg he has continuously attacked the net with confidence and plenty of guile. He’ll be a real threat in Melbourne and will put himself in contention to win a staggering 18th grand slam.
Stan Wawrinka: The defending champion has already shown in 2015 that he is in good form having won in Chennai last week. At times, when he finds the consistency to match his power, he is almost unplayable. It would not be a surprise to see him lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup again.
Kei Nishikori: One of the most improved players on tour over the past twelve months, rising to a career high ranking of 5. The Japanese star has added more aggression to his game and despite being diminutive and slight in stature, he possesses the weapons to be a threat to anyone.
Rafael Nadal: Has crashed out to lower ranked opponents in his last six tournaments so expect him to be vulnerable in the early rounds as he continues his return from injury. If he can negotiate his way through to the latter stages and play himself into form, then he will be confident that he can win the title given his phenomenal record against his main rivals.
Andy Murray: Heads to Australia with renewed confidence. After a mediocre 2014 by his lofty standards, he has begun his 2015 campaign in impressive fashion, albeit in exhibition events. The Scot appears to be happier with his coaching set up and not having any negative off-court distractions can only help improve his on court prospects.
Serena Williams: Such has been her domination of the WTA tour over the past few years, Serena enters every event she plays as the favourite. Quite simply, if she plays well, she wins. Her biggest enemy is herself and she has been known to produce the occasional inexplicably poor performance. In the Hopman Cup last week, Williams appeared to be well below-par but she will have more focus and desire at the Australian Open.
Maria Sharapova: Last week, the world number two demonstrated her unique fighting spirit to take the title in Brisbane from a set down against an inspired Ana Ivanovic. If she continues to play as well in Melbourne she will definitely have a chance to regain the title she last won in 2008. She will be praying, though, that someone can knock out her nemesis Serena whom she has not beaten since the 2004 Wimbledon Final.
Petra Kvitova: The current Wimbledon champion possesses one of the biggest games on n the women’s tour with a strong serve and thunderous groundstrokes. As Eugenie Bouchard discovered in the final at SW19 last year, on any given day the Czech is capable of crushing her opponent with consummate ease.
Agnieska Radwanska: The crafty Pole, with her touch and feel, is one of the most interesting players to watch. This year, she is being coached by Martina Navratilova and it will be fascinating to see what new ideas the 18 time Slam winner can bring that might turn Radwanska into a major champion.
Simona Halep: One of the most consistent players on tour who has begun the year in style with a title in Shenzhen last week. She moves exceptionally round the court and is steady but aggressive from the baseline. She will almost certainly reach the latter stages of the tournament and if she can produce her best tennis she may well become the first Romanian to hold aloft the Daphne Akhurt Memorial Cup.
For once, Andy Murray is not the sole British contender in the men’s singles. He will be joined by James Ward who has been rewarded for his efforts with a place in the main draw through his ranking rather than having to qualify. Moreover, Kyle Edmund will be high on confidence after negotiating a tricky qualifying event with ease.
Flying the flag for Britain in the women’s singles will be Heather Watson who has made steady progress in recent months and recorded notable wins over promising American Sloane Stephens and Roberta Vinci in Hobart.
Jamie Murray will be in the doubles with his Australian partner John Peers. The pair won in Brisbane and could be dark horses in Melbourne.
The Aussie fanatics (who always turn out in force) will be hopeful that their talented crop of youngsters can shine. The most promising prospect is undoubtedly Nick Kyrgios who lit up the tennis world with his dazzlingly good demolition of Nadal at Wimbledon last year. He has a big game and exudes confidence. He certainly won’t be phased by the situation. In addition, look out for Bernard Tomic and Thansai Kokkinakis who have both performed well in Australia before.
We seem to say it every year but this could actually be the last Australian Open for Lleyton Hewitt whose boundless energy is finally beginning to fade as he seems a couple of steps slower to every ball. It would be great for him to have a good run here.
On the women’s side, Sam Stosur will be looking to improve on her poor record in Australia. In 12 attempts she has only twice been beyond the third round and has never reached the quarter finals. For a player of her considerable ability, it’s a surprising statistic but it appears that she struggles to deal mentally with the pressure of playing in front of her home crowd.
Extreme Heat Policy:
The tournament was heavily criticised last year as players complained about the ‘inhumane’ conditions they were forced to play in as tournament officials delayed implementing the extreme heat policy despite peak temperatures of 43.3C. Ball kids, spectators and players all suffered various heat-related illnesses due to the brutal nature of the conditions. This year, however, the policy has been altered slightly and the changes should mean that the referees can employ the rule more freely.
Li Na, who has unfortunately retired from the game since winning the Australian Open last year, set the standard very high twelve months ago with a hilarious victory speech. She thanked her agent for “making me rich” and praised her husband for being “a nice guy” but said he was “lucky” to have found her. It will be fun to see if anyone can match that or raise the bar even higher.
Photographs: wikipedia, commons.wikimedia, wikipedia, commons.wikimedia, wikipedia