Given its position so early in the 2014 season, the Australian Open is often the most difficult of the four Grand Slams to handicap and predict.
The dearth of recent performances to judge and the tricky nature of translating 2013 success or failure to any one player’s pending fortunes Down Under makes it in many cases a shot in the dark.
That said, it’s still one of the four biggest tournaments of the season, so we’re going to fire away on what we expect from the top women and men tennis players in the world at the 2014 Australian Open, which begins Monday (Sunday night in the United States).
The men’s side, of course, is dominated by the Big Three—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—yet there are a handful of elite stars looking to end their recent stranglehold on the sport’s biggest tournaments. Among them is Roger Federer, who is focused on regaining his standing alongside those champions.
Likewise, a talented group of focused and determined women lurk directly behind overwhelming favorite Serena Williams, led by rival and two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, and are ready to pounce on any opportunity to steal a career-defining Slam title from the world’s top player. It’s no easy task, but it did happen here last year.
So here’s a look at the top seven players on both the men’s and women’s side with the best chance to begin the 2014 campaign with a Grand Slam title.
Outlook: Sloane Stephens returns to the site of her biggest career victory looking to take the next step from rising star to Grand Slam champion.
By most accounts the future face of American women’s tennis, Stephens shocked top-seeded Williams in the quarterfinals of last year’s tournament before falling to Azarenka in the semifinals. It was the deepest Slam run of the year for the 20-year-old, who is still seeking the first victory of her rising career.
Like several other hopefuls in the draw, Stephens enters the fortnight with some mild injury concerns. The American tweaked her left wrist at the Hopman Cup a week ago and subsequently withdrew from this week’s Sydney International. While the wrist is not likely to keep Stephens from competing next week, it robbed her of a final tune-up for the year’s first Slam.
Prediction: Like other rising stars, Stephens has struggled to get past the game’s top talents in her effort to reach a first career Grand Slam final. The world’s No. 13-ranked player lost to Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Williams during second-week Slam runs last year.
While there’s no shame in those losses, they suggest that despite her conquest of Serena last year, improvement is needed for Stephens to take that next step. Provided her wrist is okay, she will see the second week, but anything more than the quarterfinals would be a surprise.
Outlook: Despite a wealth of talent, Petra Kvitova has fallen victim to periods of inconsistency and mid-match mental lapses that have prevented her from adding to her lone career Grand Slam.
Those struggles, which have been magnified by injury issues, were on full display last year as the 2011 Wimbledon champion failed to get past the quarterfinals in any of the four Slam events, which included a disappointing second-round exit in last year’s Aussie Open.
Despite her disappointing Slam season and overall roller-coaster campaign, Kvitova appeared to rediscover her game late in 2013, reaching at least the semifinals in four of her final five events.
That form was holding steady earlier this week as the Czech star worked her way into the semifinals of the Sydney International. Kvitova, however, fell to qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova in straight sets, providing some doubt as to the likelihood of a successful Australian Open campaign.
Prediction: Her strong form late in 2013 aside, it’s difficult to ignore Kvitova’s recent Slam struggles when considering her potential for a deep run Down Under.
While the potential for a breakout Australian Open is there, it seems far more likely that the world’s No. 6-ranked player will bow out some time around the fourth or quarterfinal round.
Outlook: There’s no arguing Roger Federer’s place among the top of the sport as perhaps the greatest champion of all time. His ability to win another Slam in what is looking more and more like the latter stages of his brilliant career, however, is extremely debatable.
Federer has claimed a remarkable 17 Grand Slam titles in his prolific career, more than any other man in the modern era, but he hasn't captured one since the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, a span of five events. During that stretch he’s failed to reach a single final and made only one semifinal, which happened to be at the 2013 Australian Open.
All that said, Federer isn't about to throw in the towel on his career. Late last year, he added Stefan Edberg to his coaching team and changed to a newer, larger tennis racket. Those changes seem to have helped as the four-time Australian Open champion played relatively well leading up to this pending fortnight Down Under.
The world’s No. 6-ranked player reached the finals of the Brisbane International last week, and although he suffered a rather sloppy defeat at the hands of Lleyton Hewitt, the No. 6 seed enters the Australian Open looking to better his 2013 showing by two wins and in the process prove his Slam-winning days are by no means behind him.
Outlook: Time away from competition and a new coaching voice in his ear should have a positive effect on Federer’s mental and physical approach to the 2014 season, and that should be on full display next week and beyond.
The game’s all-time Slam winner will avoid the early upsets that beset him in a couple Slams last year and will work his way into the second week. Once there, however, it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything better than a quarterfinal appearance given the talent and power at the top of the men’s draw.
Outlook: Agnieszka Radwanska was eliminated in the second round of the Sydney Open earlier this week, casting doubt as to her form heading into the season’s first Slam.
Further clouding her potential for a deep Australian Open run is a right serving shoulder injury she aggravated in the Hopman Cup more than a week ago, an injury that clearly affected her in that Sydney loss to American qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands on Monday.
Those issues aside, Radwanska is coming off a 2013 season in which she won three events and reached at least the quarterfinals in three of the four Slams. She advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon before suffering a bitter three-set loss to Sabine Lisicki.
Though still in search of her first Slam title, the No. 5-seeded Polish star has a strong defensive game and underrated quickness and thinks her way through matches with the best of them. She will need all of those traits if she's going to make a deep run into the second week of the Open and perhaps claim that elusive and career-defining title.
Prediction: There’s no question the 25-year-old has the game to win a Grand Slam title. What is up for debate, however, is whether she can topple the game’s elite women in order to do it.
Radwanska was only 5-11 against the sport’s top 10 last year, a fact that significantly limits belief she can make a run past the quarterfinals in this year’s tournament. She could better that expected showing with the type of upsets that benefited her at last year’s Wimbledon, but that’s a big "if" we aren't buying right now.
Outlook: Ironically, it might have taken a terribly painful defeat in the fourth round of the 2013 Australian Open to prove Stanislas Wawrinka has what it takes to break through and win a Grand Slam title.
In an epic five-hour battle, Wawrinka fell 10-12 in the fifth set to the eventual champion, but in the process established himself as a true Slam contender moving forward. He went on to post a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open and a strong semifinal run at the U.S. Open, where he was again bested by Djokovic in a five-set battle.
The tournament's No. 8-seeded player now returns to Australia with a 2014 victory already in hand and determined to prove that he can finish off one of the game’s top players with a huge victory on the line. He has the power, speed and determination to get it done—the only thing lacking up to this point is the execution at the end of key matches.
Outlook: Wawrinka’s best two Slams last year were on the hard courts, and given his solid form heading into this Australian Open much is expected of the Swiss player.
His five-set defeat to Djokovic at last year's Australian Open was no doubt painful, but it could also be fuel toward an even better showing this time around. Bottom line, Wawrinka is a solid bet for at least the quarterfinals, where he will undoubtedly get another shot at one of the top three players in the world.
Outlook: Despite a distinguished career full of strong Grand Slam showings, it seems easy for Li Na to get lost in the wash when discussing the top players in the women’s game.
The fact is there are few consistent and sound players on the women’s circuit, a fact represented nicely by Li’s runner-up finish in the 2013 Australian Open.
The Chinese star, who also lost in the 2011 finale, was battling Azarenka in last year’s final before rolling her ankle early in the match and then falling and hitting her head in the decisive third set, causing her to briefly black out.
That disappointment aside, her showing Down Under coupled with her stellar form at the end of the season makes the No. 4 seed a solid dark horse to add an Australian title to her 2011 French Open crown this time around.
Li finished second to Williams at the WTA Championships late last year, which catapulted her to a career-high No. 3 in the world at the time; she enters the Australian Open at No. 4. The eight-time career winner captured the Shenzhen Open to begin her 2014 campaign and enters this fortnight focused on reaching her third Aussie final in the past four years.
Prediction: The likelihood of Li winning her second career title depends largely on how the path ahead of her plays out. That said, she’s proven she can test the game’s elite, taking Azarenka to three sets in last year’s final and doing the same to Williams at the finish of the WTA Championships.
Na will be a central figure in the second week of the event, but a victory against such a strong field is asking too much.
Outlook: In what must be a maddening case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Juan Martin del Potro enters yet another Slam next week in top form while once again facing the tall task of bettering Nadal, Djokovic and Murray if he hopes to add an Aussie title to his 2009 U.S. Open triumph.
The world’s No. 5-ranked player played well in this week’s Sydney International, avoiding the upset bug that claimed numerous other seeded players in the Australian Open tune-up.
While coming off a four-win season on the ATP Tour, del Potro is looking to improve upon a relatively sluggish Slam campaign in 2013. The 25-year-old lost early at both the Australian and U.S. Opens and didn't play at Roland Garros due to a virus.
That said, he managed to make the semifinals at Wimbledon, where he dropped an epic five-set duel with Djokovic, reminding everyone he has the chops to compete with the best.
Prediction: Forgetting his second-round loss to Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open, del Potro is one of the few men outside the top three that can realistically win this championship.
To do that, however, the No. 5 seed would likely have to go through two of them, which is indeed a tall order. A second semifinal appearance in his past three Slams is a strong possibility, but anything better than that would be an absolute surprise.
The Outlook: While few would argue Andy Murray’s place alongside Nadal and Djokovic as the best in the world, it’s David Ferrer that enters the 2014 Australian Open with the No. 3 ranking and the No. 3 seed in the men’s draw.
Forgetting the debate over whether that seeding is deserved, Ferrer is now tasked with taking advantage of the lofty ranking and finally breaking through with a first career Slam title.
While that effort is by no means easy, the talented Spaniard’s run to the semifinals of last year’s Australian Open, coupled with his finals appearance at the French Open last May, makes him a considerable threat for a career-defining win two weeks from now.
The fact he owns 20 career ATP titles and is among the most consistent and hardest-working men on tour only adds to the argument that a Grand Slam breakthrough could be forthcoming during this fortnight.
Prediction: Getting deep into the second week of this championship shouldn't be an issue for Ferrer; the larger question, however, is whether he can finally get past the sport’s true elite and claim the Slam he so covets.
Ferrer was beaten in straight sets by Djokovic in last year’s Australian semifinals and then by Nadal in the same fashion in the French Open final. Those performances provide little reason to believe Ferrer can do much better than another semifinal appearance this time around.
Outlook: Maria Sharapova heads into the 2014 Australian Open looking to leave an inconsistent, injury-riddled 2013 behind her. A deep run in Melbourne will do just that for the talented Russian star.
The tournament’s No. 3 seed missed last year’s U.S. Open due to a right shoulder injury on the heels of a stunning second-round exit at Wimbledon. She did manage to reach the French Open finals, but saw her career misery against Serena continue with a disappointing straight-set loss at Roland Garros.
But it’s a healthy and re-energized Sharapova who enters this Slam on the heels of a jump to No. 3 in the world, and she's determined to regain her position as the second-best player in the sport behind Williams. Despite the bad second half to 2013, the 2008 Aussie champion still finished the year 37-7 and looked solid in her lone Open tune-up. The 26-year-old reached the semifinals of the Brisbane International, where she fell to Williams for the 14th straight time.
Outlook: As the Australian Open’s No. 3 seed, Sharapova can avoid facing her nemesis Serena until very late in the championship, which should help her focus on the task at hand rather than her struggles against the World No. 1.
The four-time Slam winner reached the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open, and a similar run through the draw should be forthcoming this year. A second-week matchup with Azarenka would be an interesting battle for the No. 2 spot in the sport.
Outlook: With his history-making Wimbledon victory now far enough in the rear-view mirror to regain focus and direction, Murray should be poised for another deep run in the Australian Open.
Problem is, the star of Great Britain is still recovering from September back surgery as he prepares for a grueling two weeks of tennis Down Under.
Last week, Murray was ousted in the second round of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open by Florian Mayer in just his second start since recovering from back surgery. The loss leaves significant doubt as to whether the No. 4 seed is truly prepared to match his 2013 performance in Melbourne, where he advanced all the way to the finals.
With Nadal and Djokovic playing the best tennis of their stellar careers, Murray has to quickly regain his form and rediscover that Wimbledon magic if he’s going to add an Australian Open to his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs.
His Qatar disappointment notwithstanding, the world No. 4 has continued to improve his hard-court game over the past couple years, which is important given that he might just have to take down both top-seeded players to break through in this championship.
Prediction: His seeding and ranking aside, Murray is still a central figure in the men’s “Big Three”—he just hasn't played much of late to prove it.
A post-Wimbledon slump is understandable, as are struggles from his back procedure, but even Murray admits it’s time to get back to winning. He’ll do that for much of this championship, but given the talent around him, the Brit is the best bet of the game’s top three stars to fall short of the Australian Open semifinals.
Outlook: There’s no denying the difference in talent between Azarenka and Serena. That said, it’s equally obvious that the feisty No. 2 seed isn't just up for the task of challenging Williams—she absolutely relishes it.
Coming off a season in which she won the Australian Open and advanced to the finals of the U.S. Open and semifinals at Roland Garros, the powerful Belarusian star is without question the sport’s second-best talent and the player most likely to claim the Aussie title if Serena were to unexpectedly falter.
Given her powerful groundstrokes, strong court coverage and superb fitness, Azarenka has flourished in the Melbourne heat over the past couple years, actually claiming the sport’s top ranking for a brief period with her 2012 Australian Open victory.
Azarenka fell to Serena in the finals of last week’s Brisbane International in straight sets and also came up short in a thrilling three-set battle in the final of the 2013 U.S. Open.
Outlook: Given her absolute dominance in this championship over the past two years, it’s difficult to imagine Azarenka not fighting her way to yet another showdown with Serena in the final.
Based on recent results, the 24-year-old will be hard pressed to best Williams, yet if anyone could pull the upset it would be her.
Outlook: Given the significant injuries he had to overcome and the talent he had to surpass, 2013 was truly a career year for the gifted Nadal. Now healthy and focused on continuing that progress, the world No. 1 enters the Australian Open as one of the two men to beat.
Nadal, who missed last year’s championship with a knee injury that sidelined him for seven months, returned to win both the 2013 French and U.S. Opens, defeating Djokovic in both events. Despite owning an impressive 13 career Slam titles, the Spaniard has captured the Australian Open just once, back in 2009, providing even more motivation to play deep into this year’s championship.
He comes to Melbourne healthy, in good form and extremely confident after his victory last week at the Qatar Open. Although he dropped a couple sets in the tune-up, he won against solid competition, including Ernests Gulbis and Gael Monfils, who he defeated in the three-set final.
Given the heat and typically long matches, winning in Melbourne is one of the toughest tasks in tennis, but given what we know about Nadal, the top seed is more than up to the task. Should he do it, Rafa would become just the third man in history to win all four majors at least twice.
Prediction: Evidenced by their epic five-set battle at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open final they staged less than five months ago, there is no better rivalry in tennis right now than Nadal vs. Djokovic. In fact, predicting the outcome of their matches with any certainty is a hopeless endeavor.
What we will predict is that Nadal will do his part to make a second Australian Open final in three years, and will put forth his best effort to claim a second championship once there.
Outlook: While Djokovic won only a single Slam last year, there was no one more consistent in tennis’ biggest events.
The talented Serbian appeared in three Slam finals in 2013, and captured the Australian Open title in dominant fashion over Murray. It was Djokovic’s third consecutive Aussie victory and his fourth career triumph Down Under.
He returns to Melbourne this year seeking to become the first man to win five Australian titles in the professional era, an accomplishment that appears a strong certainty given his dominant form over the past several months. Following his U.S. Open loss to Nadal, Djokovic ran off a 24-match win streak to close the year, which included a victory over Rafa in the World Tour Finals.
The pair has staged one of the most intriguing rivalries the sport has ever seen and is the only duo in history to face each other at least once in the finals of all four Grand Slams. Given their history, it's hard to argue that another memorable battle isn't just around the corner
Prediction: There’s no denying that Nadal got the better of their two Slam battles last year. That said, both matches, especially the epic French Open five-setter, could have gone either way.
Bottom line, Djokovic hasn't tasted defeat since last September, and is playing some of the best tennis of his career. He owns the Australian Open, and while Nadal has every chance to claim his second Aussie title, it’s more likely that Novak claims his fourth straight in another memorable battle.
Outlook: Serena isn't just the best women’s tennis player on the planet; she is the most dominant female athlete in sports today. Her skill, power, fitness and determination are something the likes of the sport has never seen before, and all of those attributes will be on display in the Australian Open the next two weeks.
The 17-time major winner is coming off a terrific season in which she captured the French Open for the just the second time in her storied career and the U.S. Open for an impressive fifth time. Now, with a victory at the Australian Open, Serena would tie Chris Evert for second in all-time Slam wins by an American-born woman and move to within one of Helen Wills Moody’s record.
Given her dominance at the Brisbane International a week ago, there’s little reason to think that milestone win won't be forthcoming two weeks from now. In winning the Aussie tune-up, Williams dominated Sharapova in the semifinals and then world No. 2 Azarenka in the finals without dropping a single set.
Considering those two women are largely considered the biggest barriers to Williams winning her sixth Australian Open title, it’s difficult to imagine her not claiming an 18th career major title in Melbourne. Then again, Serena did fall to Stephens in the quarterfinals last year and again in the fourth round at Wimbledon later in the year to Lisicki, proving that she is beatable.
Outlook: Those 2013 hiccups notwithstanding, the only woman who can really beat Serena is Serena herself. If the top seed loses focus or tweaks something during the long run to the finals, she could trip up.
That said, considering the motivation from her early exit last year and dominant form coming into this championship, there’s little reason to expect anything less than a championship for her at this Australian Open.