The 2019 Australian Open is officially underway in at Melbourne Park. All the players will be hoping to start the season in the best possible way, but which men and women have the best chance of winning the first Grand Slam of the year? Read on for Mats Wilander’s thoughts on this year’s Australian Open.
It’s only been a couple of months since we were in London for the ATP Tour Finals but it still feels like a bit of a wait for the first Grand Slam of 2019. We’re in the early rounds of the Australian Open and the world’s best have begun their journey to try and claim that first major title of the year.
Remember why the conditions matter
The heat is always the first thing that people think about with the Australian Open. Considering it’s the hottest Grand Slam tournament this isn’t really a surprise but it’s more the fluctuation in whether that matters.
The temperature affects how fast the tennis balls move through the air - but the fact that it can go from 40°C to 15 40°C in 24 hours can have a massive impact on how certain players perform. Once the temperature drops, the speed of play also drops dramatically due to the difference in weight of the ball.
The court itself is also probably the fastest court of the entire tour. Hard courts are built up of layers of rubber and cement with a final layer of sand and paint. The more sand in the paint, the rougher the surface and the slower it plays - Melbourne Park uses very little sand, hence the fast surface.
Players that play flat strokes will benefit from the ball skidding through and then bouncing off the surface, and those that like to use a lot of spin will struggle a bit as the ball won’t kick up. The surface also plays to the strengths of the one-dimensional big server or big hitter more so than any other. If these types of players get a break in a set then they really will be in the driving seat.
Carrying through form or a fresh start?
Being the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open is the only major tournament where all the players can start on a level playing field psychologically. Obviously some will be coming off the back of a successful season and have plenty of confidence, but even those who struggled the previous year can just start with a clean slate and be positive.
While most of the players competing in Australia will be coming off of a two month break, they’ve all probably only had a maximum of two to three weeks away from the practice courts.
The benefits of getting into a good run of form are clear for all to see and just because one season ends and another begins, doesn’t mean that form won’t carry through. However, we know fatigue isn’t an excuse in Australia so everyone will be fresh and raring to go - so as always I’m expecting a great tournament.
Will Djokovic continue to dominate?
The latter half of last year was all about Novak Djokovic’s return to his brilliant best. He breezed through to victories at Wimbledon and the US Open and looked to be unstoppable - something a few people had doubted after initially struggling on his return from injury.
There’s no doubt that Djokovic should be the favourite for the 2019 Australian Open but it’s definitely not as cut and dry as a lot of people think. For starters, he hasn’t played too well in Australia for a couple of years and while it has been his most successful Grand Slam in his career (he’s won it six times), it will still be a concern for him.
Zverev might need a bit of luck with the big guns misfiring or dropping out, and he definitely needs to get his tactics spot on and not play too passively (which is often his weakness).
It’s also worth noting that as impressive as Djokovic’s run towards the end of last season was, he’s still lost three matches he would have been expecting to win. His defeat to Alexander Zverev would have been disappointing but losing to Karen Khachanov at the Paris Masters final and Roberto Bautista Agut in the semi-final of the Qatar Open will have really gotten to him.
Djokovic is the best player at the tournament and the likely winner but it would be foolish to not look beyond him as there are plenty of genuine contenders elsewhere in the draw.
The usual suspects of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will rightly be part of the discussion of possible winners, especially when the former’s style is so well suited to the surface and conditions in Australia - his serve isn’t huge but the quality of his placement means he will rarely be broken.
Both Federer and Nadal do have question marks hovering over them. The Swiss World No. 3 dropped away throughout last year’s season, after starting off with a win at this event last year. Nadal, on the other hand, has injury concerns to take into account. He wouldn’t be taking part if he wasn’t ready but he’ll still need to find his swing and nail his ball striking early on if he’s going to challenge top players later in the tournament.
Potential challengers to the men’s elite
Alexander Zverev is the obvious contender just outside the big three. The young German has been knocking on the door for the last couple of years and while he’s beaten the best in regular tour events, he just can’t put it all together at a Grand Slam.
Zverev’s performance at the ATP Tour Finals will obviously stand out - anyone who puts away Federer and Djokovic in straight sets one after the other (especially in the manner he did) deserves all the credit they get. However, that doesn’t change anything about Zverev’s struggled over five sets at a Grand Slam.
I’m expecting the 21-year-old to finally get off the mark in terms of Grand Slam titles at some point this year and the Australian Open is a great opportunity to do it. He might need a bit of luck with the big guns misfiring or dropping out, and he definitely needs to get his tactics spot on and not play too passively (which is often his weakness).
Despite the dominance at the top of the men’s game, there are several players coming through that will make this an excitement tournament and you never know, one of them just might be the cause of some surprise. Juan Martin del Portro and Marin Cilic have had their chance and never fulfilled potential but Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Kyle Edmund and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all 25 or under and moving in the right direction.
Serena seeking revenge
She might not have won the US Open but Serena Williams certainly dominated the headlines for the fourth and final Grand Slam on the women’s tour last year. The 37-year-old American will now have plenty of motivation heading into the 2019 season and will want to start well with the Australian Open.
I do want to see Serena Williams cap off her illustrious career and become the undisputed greatest of all time by surpassing Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
Along with Wimbledon, the Australian Open is Serena’s most dominant Grand Slam (she’s won seven titles at Melbourne Park) and her big serve is a nightmare to play against on that surface, especially when it heats up. However, I’m still surprised to see her so heavily fancied and there is an element of her name that’s influencing how people are measuring her chance of success.
Angelique Kerber is the other obvious contender when trying to predict the winner, especially after winning Wimbledon last year (beating Serena in the final). However, the World No. 2 disappointed at US Open and remaining events at the end of 2018 so will need to discover her best form is she is going to challenge for the title. One major positive for the German is that she’s on the opposite side of the draw to Williams so if they did meet, it wouldn’t be until the final.
Aryna Sabalenka and Naomi Osaka are two very talented young individuals (20 and 21 respectively) and I really wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them go all the way and even win the tournament.
Expect more unpredictability with the women
The main theme from the 2018 WTA Tour remains as we get going in 2019 - it’s incredibly unpredictable. While it’s great that one player isn’t just steamrolling everyone (like Serena Williams used to) it also feels like some kind of dominant force does need to emerge and take the baton from the 23-time Grand Slam winner.
While I do want something new and fresh in the women’s game and a young talent to emerge as the next superstar, I do also want to see Serena Williams cap off her illustrious career and become the undisputed greatest of all time by surpassing Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.