2014 Australian Open: Bold Predictions for the 2nd Week

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2014

2014 Australian Open: Bold Predictions for the 2nd Week

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    The 2014 Australian Open has already seen Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova lose matches before the quarterfinals. Victoria Azarenka will need to be on full alert, because opportunity is ripe for a new champion.

    The men's brackets have usually held more to form, but that doesn't mean Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will waltz their way to the final. Or will they?

    The following bold predictions are reasonable projections that could happen in the second week. Not all of them will occur, but the stage is set for some excellent and surprising tennis.

    In one week, it will all be sorted out, but for now the enjoyment of Grand Slam tennis is reaching its peak.

Novak Djokovic Will Not Lose a Set Versus Stanislas Wawrinka

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    It's not reasonable to expect that Djokovic will lose to Stanislas Wawrinka. You're better off putting your savings account upon a random roulette number and giving the wheel an all-or-nothing whirl.

    Yes, there will be tennis fans pointing to his pair of tough Grand Slam five-set victories over Wawrinka in 2013. But don't believe the hype or wishful thinking.

    Djokovic will not be surprised this time around. He is all too aware of his close calls last year and will get up for this match like it's Nadal.

    Does anyone doubt that Djokovic has better skills? He is a better returner and defensive player. He has a better backhand. His offense paints the lines and wins under pressure.

    He has not dropped a match since summertime in the northern hemisphere and is well rested. Not only will he be focused, he will be at his best.

    Djokovic will easily defeat Wawrinka. He will crush him in at least two of the sets. We will also give him the other set in a tiebreaker, but there will not be a post-match shirt-ripping simulation of the Incredible Hulk.

    Straight sets for Djokovic and on to the semifinals.

Ana Ivanovic Will Reach the Aussie Open Final

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    Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    It's been nearly six years since Ana Ivanovic won her 2008 French Open title. Her career has experienced plenty of trials and soul-searching moments, which makes her sudden renaissance so much sweeter.

    She just defeated Williams.

    This changes the mindset of the Aussie Open contenders, emboldening them with more hope. Every player's eyes lit up just a little more, and winning the tournament has suddenly become possible for everyone, even war-weary Ivanovic.

    There are no guarantees that Ivanovic will defeat sensational young Eugenie Bouchard. But her biggest test in getting to the final is Na Li, a steady, tough champion who could use the Serena loss as her own charm for another title bid.

    But we will buck the odds and take Ivanovic. She and Li battled three tough sets at Toronto last summer, which Li eventually won in a tiebreaker.

    This time, Ivanovic will ride her big forehand to victory. She will keep attacking with her instinctive senses of championship past. She will go for broke and savor her return to the edge of glory. But she will fall just short of the title.

Grigor Dimitrov Will Nearly Defeat Rafael Nadal

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    Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    Grigor Dimitrov can play beautiful tennis. He possesses a marvelous one-handed backhand as likely to cut tennis balls with wicked slice as to rip a cross-court winner from improbable angles.

    The most impressive thing about Dimitrov's progress was to watch him persevere in his four-set win versus 11th-seeded Milos Raonic. He exhibited a champion's patience in trying to crack his opponent's big serve, and he held his nerve with the weighty pressure to keep holding serve.

    His mental toughness is breaking through, and his conditioning is better than it has ever been.

    He also had relative success versus Nadal in 2013, pushing the great Spaniard to three sets on Monte Carlo's red clay, and then three more sets at Cincinnati's hard courts.

    This could be one of those special matches in which somebody stands up to Nadal and doesn't bat an eye. Dimitrov has this kind of quality, and now the opportunity to push for more.

    Nadal will win, but this will be a tough, entertaining match that may be a glimpse at bigger and better future clashes.

    Nadal will finally pull away in the fifth set, but Dimitrov will set up his season to roar into the Top 10.

Victoria Azarenka Will Not Defend Her Title

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    Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

    She is the two-time defending champion and the clear No. 2 player in the world. Her nemesis Williams is no longer an obstacle. But Azarenka is no shoo-in to win another title.

    The women's field has several Top 10-caliber players who can defeat each other on the right day. There's a pecking order at the top, but with shifting lines and fickle balance. This is why Marion Bartoli could break through and win 2013 Wimbledon.

    She could lose to Agnieszka Radwanska or Simona Halep and it would not be shocking. Li Na or Ivanovic could hold up the trophy from the top half of the bracket.

    Our bold prediction says that Halep will find her way past Azarenka in the semifinals. She will bid for her own reservation in the merry-go-round of non-Serena success.

Tomas Berdych Will Scare Djokovic in the Semifinals

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    Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

    Let's get the important observation out of the way. Tomas Berdych must be looking for some serious mojo from his outfit because it is quite possibly the worst tennis attire since early Andre Agassi. Berdych looks like he wants to root for Argentine soccer while painting a house.

    So imagine if he defeats Djokovic in the semifinals. We might see a whole line of referee tennis clothing.

    But that won't happen. First he needs to defeat the indefatigable David Ferrer, a man with the kind of heart that should fit in Berdych's body. Typically Berdych would lose a big match, but this time he will put together his big strokes and a newfound run of success during pressure points. He will defeat Ferrer.

    He will push Djokovic to the brink of defeat, but will fall because his feet will not be able to defend the three-time champion for five grueling sets. There will be thunderous shots, but always one more ball to play courtesy of Djokovic's remarkable retrieving. Djokovic will survive.

    But fans will feel that Berdych is ready to contend for a Grand Slam title once again. They will talk him up and place him ahead of Juan Martin del Potro and Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, at least temporarily.

    Or just maybe Djokovic will want to get off the court quickly after observing Berdych's outfit. Scary indeed.

There Will Be No Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer Semifinal Match

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    Even if Roger Federer keeps up his momentum by defeating Tsonga in the fourth round, he will need to outlast Andy Murray.

    It's been difficult for the Swiss Maestro to combine plenty of rest and optimum health when battling his younger rivals. Defeating Murray could take at least four hours, fresh legs and his best possible backhand.

    History is also against the possibility of Rafa vs. Roger facing off before a Grand Slam final. One time (2012 Australian Open semifinals) has this occurred since their first Grand Slam meeting at the 2005 French Open semifinals. It's as if the tennis gods refuse to waste their special rivalry at anything other than the ultimate Grand Slam prize.

    It could happen, but this prediction is predicated more on the increasingly divergent paths the two have been forging in recent years.

Simona Halep Will Win the Aussie Open

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    Casual tennis fans might want to pay attention to Halep. The young Romanian is taking her 2013 summer success and minting her star on Grand Slam currency. She has needed to prove she could win on the Grand Slam stage, but now looks as if she can win it all.

    Twice she has dropped one set, but then responded with a champion's dominance. Her latest victim was eighth-seeded Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic won the second set to tie up their match but was humiliated in the third set, 6-0. Nobody likes to eat a bagel as they shake hands and wave to the crowd.

    This is the kind of resilience champions show. They respond to adversity with confidence and excellence.

    This week's boldest prediction says that Halep will win her last three matches. The biggest hurdle will be her semifinal victory over Azarenka. She will control the baseline with an intelligent and mature sense of efficiency and a better winners-unforced error ratio.

    Then the tennis world will wonder if she can one day be its No. 1 player.

Men's Aussie Open Winner Will Be the Year-End No. 1

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    The slight edge may go to Djokovic in defeating Nadal for the Australian Open, but either winner would hardly be a bold prediction.

    But both players will compete again in another Grand Slam final. Besides the usual enormous stakes in the title, it will also give one player a huge jolt for 2014.

    If Djokovic defends his title, he will look to cut into Nadal's clay-court points in the spring. He will take one or two more Grand Slam titles and win the No. 1 year-end ranking.

    If Nadal collects his second career Australian Open title, he will add 2,000 more points to his rankings lead over Djokovic. Even if he somehow loses to Djokovic in the French Open, he can rebound with more points at Wimbledon to offset last year's first-round loss there.

    It's only January, but the winner Down Under could be the best of 2014.