Ahead of this year's Australian Open, seven-time Grand Slam winner Mats Wilander previews the opening tennis Grand Slam of 2022, highlighting which players to keep an eye out for at Melbourne Park. Read on to inform your Australian Open 2022 predictions.
Watch our exclusive Australian Open 2022 preview with Mats Wilander
The first Grand Slam tennis event of the season has already been the subject of huge controversy without a single ball being hit, with the news that Novak Djokovic may not be able to defend his Australian Open crown due to the ongoing row about the star’s Covid-19 vaccine status and his visa application potentially being revoked.
The men's professional tennis association, the ATP, has described the unfortunate situation as "damaging on all fronts", with the Serbian star still unsure if he’ll be able to compete in the competition, which starts on January 17.
Here, the three-time Australian Open winner and Pinnacle ambassador Mats Wilander previews the men’s and women’s draw.
Will Djokovic make Melbourne Park?
Firstly, how can I not address the biggest story that is currently happening in world tennis? There was a disconnect somewhere along the way, and Djokovic was somehow led to believe that he had all the paperwork he needed to make the Australian Open, and then, he arrived in Australia to find out he didn't.
That's where we are at currently, with the Australian government apparently still looking to deport him, which isn’t the most ideal situation for Djokovic to be in. He’s barely practised and the waiting game will surely be testing him mentally, but he's willing to bear this out because he believes he has a chance, and the right, to get in.
He’s showing a lot of grit and a lot of fight right now. It’s been an ugly advertisement for the game though, as well as for the international superstar and the great country of Australia. I hope to see Djokovic defend his title on the court but this is now about politics, lack of communication, and the new Covid world we now live in.
He has won nine times in Australia, and to win the Australian Open nine times means that your pre-season preparation is really solid, every single year. You know what you're doing in November and December to get ready for the tournament. It also means that you, as a tennis player, do not need a lot of matches under your belt to gain mass confidence and be hard to beat. So physically, I don't think the situation is going to make a difference to Novak; emotionally though - does he come out with a sense of ‘I want revenge on the Australian government’ or ‘I want revenge on everybody’ mentality? I ask that because if that is the case, I think it could be a slippery slope for Djokovic.
Who could win the men’s tournament?
I think one of the frontrunners is Daniil Medvedev (2.520*) because he won the US Open last year, beating Djokovic in three straight sets in the final. Medvedev also made the final last year, losing to Djokovic in three straight sets, so has the experience of going almost all the way. The surface favours him, so he’s probably the favourite to win the tournament even if Djokovic (2.800*) does make it. They're both most probably at the same level but I think Medvedev would edge it due to the extra preparation he’s been able to have this week.
Then you have the group behind them, which includes big names such as Alexander Zverev (3.690*) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (18.010*). The German, Zverev, comes into this tournament off the back of beating Djokovic and Medvedev to claim the ATP World Tour Finals in November, so he’ll be feeling confident especially given his 82% win percentage on hard courts in 2021.
"Zverev comes into this tournament off the back of beating Djokovic and Medvedev,."
Rafael Nadal (8.860*) is in that group as well. He's as close to 100% physically ready as you can be. That doesn't mean that he doesn't have a little injury here and there, but that's the same for all tennis players. We’re all just human beings at the end of the day, we're never really perfect. I have to say that I am delighted that Nadal has shown up at the Australian Open. I was afraid that he might be done along with Roger Federer, but he has clearly proven by being in Australia, looking the way he does, that he's not done with his tennis career at all.
Winning the Melbourne Summer Set title earlier in the month was fantastic preparation for Nadal ahead of the Grand Slam. He’s obviously blown off the cobwebs and is back to doing what he does best. He's chasing another Grand Slam but also he's just chasing that feeling of playing tennis matches in front of people. Let’s not forget that the crowd capacity was at 30%-50% last year and this year there is no restrictions on the capacity (though all spectators need to be fully vaccinated).
First-time winner in the men’s tournament?
The Emma Raducanu US Open victory was an absolutely incredible story and it’s just fantastic for tennis globally (and British tennis in particular) but the main factor stopping a potential ‘outsider’ from winning the men’s Australian Open as she did at the US - even with an ageing Nadal and potentially without Djokovic - is the length of the matches.
To win, a player must consistently play top-level tennis for seven matches in a row. And some of those matches could go all the way to five sets. This is very hard to do because the longer you play, the less chance there is of you playing perfect tennis. And I mean, Raducanu played pretty much perfect tennis right from the first match in the qualifiers all the way to the final in the US.
A run like that doesn’t really work in the men's game as these guys are just serving so huge today and the quality of an experienced pro does tend to shine through in what can be 4- or 5-hour matches!
I can confidently predict it will be a top-25 player winning in Melbourne, it’s not going to be a guy who’s 18 years old and completely unknown. However, I really like Carlos Alcaraz (32.840*) who is a teenager, but he's a seasoned veteran in many ways. He beat Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open in the first round, which was a massive story and he's won tournaments since then. I think he can go deep into the tournament.
Women's side of the draw wide open
I do believe that the women’s side of the draw is wide open. The turn of the year can be a bit of a reset for a lot of female players, in contrast to the men’s side of the game. In fact, in contrast to the men, four of the last 10 Australian Open winners were also celebrating their first Grand Slam title of their careers. The only players who will come into it with sky-high confidence will be those who have won a bunch of Majors in the past.
Someone like Ashleigh Barty (3.880*) will come in with confidence because she's ranked number one in the world and has won two Grand Slams. She's at her home tournament, and she's dealt with the pressure that brings for the last six/seven years, but she hasn't really succeeded in having a great Aussie Open – only ever getting as far as the semi-finals. She’s my favourite though, and quite comfortably so, and with the packed crowds cheering her on at home, that cements it for me.
"Osaka and Barty are the frontrunners and the odds rightly support this"
Naomi Osaka (6.920*) has won two of the last three Australian Open tournaments so has that experience. We haven't had a player like her since Serena Williams, so for me, Osaka and Barty are the frontrunners and the odds rightly support this. She does have an abdominal injury, that kept her out of her warm-up tournament in Melbourne, and we don’t know how she is mentally but her talent is undoubted.
With any Major, a player’s physical state is key but even more important is their emotional state. Players need to be able to drop any emotional baggage that they are carrying, or else it becomes something that could be carried all year. The Australian Open can be that clean slate that a lot of players need as it’s the first Major tournament of the season and everything that has happened in the previous year can be put to the side.
Take Aryna Sabalenka (14.010*) – losing at last year's US Open was an absolutely huge disappointment for her. She got to the semi-finals as the highest-ranked player left and she was supposed to win it. That was her chance to secure the title, but she didn't. Yes, she ran into Leylah Fernandez who played an unbelievable match and had the crowd pulling for her. But still, it was a crushing blow for Sabalenka. I think the Australian Open will be that clean slate for her. I think the surface is perfect for her (in fact, I think any surface is perfect for her), so if she can handle the emotional side and the pressure of the big occasion, I think she’ll go far.
She is always trying so hard to play her best tennis and when it doesn't work, she tries to play even better tennis. She needs to learn how to win a Major and needs to learn that it doesn’t always have to be an eloquent win; it can be those hard-fought, ground-out points that get you over the line. Winning in an ugly style is still winning! Make fewer unforced errors and invite the fight. That's all you have to do as a tennis player. “It's you and me, and that's it. I’m better than you. And I’m going to win.” That’s the kind of mentality a champion needs.
For a full list of Australian Open odds please check here.