Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers to Open Australia

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2015

Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers to Open Australia

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    It looks like the No. 2 players in the world, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, are hungry to begin the 2015 Australian Open. They have started off the year winning titles at Brisbane and defeating impressive younger challengers.

    Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic find themselves looking forward but with radically different conditions to overcome. Who is in trouble, and who is ready?

    There are plenty of other stars to check in with, including mid-majors stalwarts David Ferrer and Simona Halep. Can either of them win a Grand Slam title anytime soon?

    This is the inaugural Winners and Losers look at 2015, where we measure the best players in tennis and appraise their chances to capture the biggest titles in the world.

Winner: Maria Sharapova Outduels Ana Ivanovic

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    Right now, this is the fiercest rivalry in women's tennis. Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic play with adrenaline, power and a whole lotta fight.

    They split their four matches in 2014, Ivanovic most notably throwing down the gauntlet with her victory at Rome to interrupt the dominance of Clay Queen Maria. In their latest matchup, it was Sharapova pulling out a tough, entertaining 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3 title win at Brisbane.

    Neither player likes to give the other control of the power game, and several points often come down to which player can get the ball she likes to tee off and flex her muscle.

    Sharapova usually has the edge because she can keep slugging better into third and decisive sets. As long as she doesn't play Serena Williams, she is the mentally toughest on tour, resilient and able to fight back. Saturday's final was another carbon copy of this career blueprint.

    Ivanovic continues to bring her consistency and belief up to being a championship contender. Can she bring this into Australia?

    This is a pairing worthy of the Australian Open final. The talent is obvious, but their blend of power, occasional drop shots, passes and angles makes for a thrilling battle of wills.

Loser: Marin Cilic

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    Manish Swarup/Associated Press

    Marin Cilic withdrew from the 2015 Australian Open because of a right shoulder injury. It's a major disappointment for tennis not to feature its latest Grand Slam winner. It also conjures up more questions for the U.S. Open champion. Will that be his peak, or will he yet become a consistent major contender?

    Cilic battled nagging injuries in the fall after enduring a long and successful 2014 season. His stature and power game may have simply ground down after 75 matches and more meaningful stakes.

    Australia is out. Cilic remarked on his website (via the official ATP World Tour website), "It (right shoulder) is improving day by day, but I still don't feel fit enough to be able to compete at the highest level."

    The interesting thing about Cilic's comment is that its diction had become the standard response for injured players. Whenever their status is questionable, when there is debate about whether it's possible to play through something, players insist that they must be able to "compete at their highest level."

Winner: Simona Halep

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    Mark Baker/Associated Press

    Halep capped off another mid-major in what is becoming her calling card. There's nothing wrong with being "Queen of the mid-majors," but she would probably like more. Still, it's not easy to shrug off sickness and polish off the Shenzhen title 6-2, 6-2.

    "I wasn't feeling very well before the match - I was a little bit sick," Halep told WTA Tennis, "so I told myself I have nothing to lose, just go on court, be relaxed, stay focused and fight for every point."

    Next up for Halep is a major title and nothing less. She is fit, cerebral and has learned to win big matches. She even smashed Serena Williams at Singapore two months ago, but in the rematch, with the money on the line, Serena proved that there is still a chasm that Halep must cross to grab even one of those major titles.

    Let's see what she's got for Australia. There are more than half a dozen legitimate WTA contenders for the year's first major, and Halep will need every bit of her best play against the best players at the best moments.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Nobody likes to lose in the first round, but when you are Rafael Nadal losing to qualifier Michael Berrer at Doha, the reading on the barometer is not so encouraging.

    Since July, Nadal has missed months with injury, split eight matches and is coming back after recent surgery for appendicitis. With all respect, he really shouldn't be considered a contender for the 2015 Austalian Open, and if it were anyone else, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

    It's increasingly unlikely that Nadal can get the matches and conditioning needed to contend for the title that has been his nemesis. All history aside, Nadal needs to be Nadal to have a chance.

Winner: Kei Nishikori vs. Milos Raonic

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    Already the best rivalry of young 20-something players, Kei Nishikori vs. Milos Raonic delivered another nail-biting performance in Brisbane's semifinals. This time, Raonic was the winner, eking out two of three tiebreakers 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(4).

    Tiebreakers are going to happen with big Raonic a virtual serving machine, and he won with a lopsided 34-6 aces advantage over his more defensive-minded opponent. As his serve goes, so goes Raonic.

    Nishikori still holds a career head-to-head advantage, 4-2, with five of the meetings occurring in the past year. They have met at big tournaments including Madrid, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Tokyo (also a 2012 meeting) and Brisbane. Nishikori has enough return ability and control of the baseline to offset Raonic's serve unless Raonic is firing bullets the way he did Saturday.

    They are top-10 players and hungry for bigger titles but will now likely continue to have to go through and deny each other the dreams of majors titles. It would hardly be surprising to see them clash again at Melbourne.

Loser: Novak Djokovic

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    Osama Faisal/Associated Press

    There's no question that Djokovic was a bit off balance in falling to Ivo Karlovic in Doha's quarterfinals 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4. Getting aced 21 times in three sets is unusual for the world's No. 1, especially when he couldn't conjure up a single break point against a huge server.

    But this is also nothing to worry about for the Serbian's Australian Open preparation. Often, Djokovic has come back from lackluster performances to play his best tennis when it matters most. If anything, it will serve as motivation as he focuses harder on the year's first major.

    Djokovic is seeking his record-breaking fifth Australian Open title in the Open era, including four in five years. This is his most successful major venue and where he hopes will be the start of several Grand Slam wins this year.

    He will be ready.

Winners: Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer

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    Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

    Stanislas Wawrinka cruised to an expected title at Chennai, India, his best opponent being fourth-seeded David Goffin and his final opponent being qualifier Aljaz Bedene.

    Ferrer had a tougher task at Doha but was no doubt relieved to avoid Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. He defeated Tomas Berdych in the final. Ferrer continues to be a mid-majors opportunist, taking advantage of bracket chaos and finishing off those who he should defeat.

    What are their odds of winning the Australian Open? While Ferrer would need the perfect storm and the tournament of his life, there are not too many who would seriously consider him a contender.

    Wawrinka, on the other hand, is the defending champion. A year ago, he proved he could overpower the top two players in the world and win a major, something that has not happened for Ferrer. While Wawrinka has enough power and strength to blast his way to the top, Ferrer must outlast, outwit and outrun his opponents. Against the very best, this has not proved to be enough at the majors.

Loser: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    Either Grigor Dimitrov was awful in his 6-2, 6-2 semifinal loss at Brisbane, or his opponent, Federer, is pretty good and just has a habit of dismantling very good young players.

    At any rate, Dimitrov, once nicknamed "Baby Fed" because of his all-around skills and talent, is clearly not Federer's equal, not now or ever. Sure, he is a wonderful highlight machine and may go on and win a few majors if he backs up his impressive abilities by learning to win big matches, but there is simply no chance of comparing him to one of the greatest players of all time and an active legend.

    What is stopping Dimitrov?

    For starters, Dimitrov's game is not as aggressive as Federer's. He has a big serve and forehand but is reluctant to step into the baseline to control things. He is more apt to drift back and play the point, often with too much love for slice backhands and defensive comfort.

    Watching Dimitrov now was like watching former legend Pete Sampras become passive on red clay. He just couldn't figure out how to adapt his game enough or how to employ his best skills to his total advantage when it was time to go to Roland Garros.

    Federer's meeting with Dimitrov was a lesson in how to attack. He controlled the hapless Bulgarian from the moment the gun went off, mixing in forecourt play and excellent anticipation with his return game. (Federer won 47 percent of return points.)

    Maybe Dimitrov is starting to feel burnout from Coach Roger Rasheed's renowned conditioning objectives. Since late summer, he has looked tired and lifeless at times and certainly lacking the confidence he showed in the first half of 2014. He has also fallen behind fellow youngsters Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

    This needs to be Dimitrov's wake-up call for Melbourne, and even so, he might not be strong and consistent enough to win a 128-man bracket with the world's very best players.

Winner: Roger Federer

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    The number says it all: Nobody backs into 1000 victories, and only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl can even claim this many victories in the Open era. Fittingly, Federer picked up No. 1000 by winning the Brisbane trophy, something he dropped a year ago, defeating Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-4.

    Let the Australian Open begin for the Swiss Maestro. He has had a year of work under coach Stefan Edberg's plan to help him play more serve-and-volley tennis. He has adjusted to a larger racket, and he has overcome the nightmare back problems of 2013.

    It's time to shoot for major title No. 18, and there is every possibility he can get it done.

    His return game is sharp. He understands how to work points, when to close it out and how to pressure his opponents in big moments. He continues to amaze by adapting his aging skills with cerebral tennis and impressive endurance.

    Why not Melbourne?

Winner: Venus Williams

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    Nick Reed/Associated Press

    We began our slides with Maria Sharapova and we end it with a Williams sister, but it's not Serena this time around. Instead, older sister Venus put on an impressive performance by overpowering resurgent Caroline Wozniacki 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final at Auckland, New Zealand.

    Wozniacki is finding out just how hard it is to get through the Williams sisters. Somewhere out there, Martina Hingis is nodding her head and relating to Wozniacki. Wozniacki is now 0-6 against Venus, which makes her 1-10 record against Serena look like a successful mission.

    Venus' 46th title is a nice mirror image of Serena's 64 titles. This one took persistence and patience. "The first set went fast," Williams told WTA Tennis. "After that I was like, 'All right, time to take it to three.' But of course with her playing that well, I had to find a way just to get it to three."

    Can Venus contend for the Australian Open title? She's certainly long past her best years, but on a given day, she can beat anyone in the world when she is clicking. Her power and experience is enough to give her a chance.

    But there are plenty of top-10 contenders that the lower-seeded Venus would have to endure to make it deep into the second weekend. The reality is that she has not shown this consistency the last few years, and it's a bit unrealistic to expect that she can win Melbourne. She reached the finals there in 2003 but has never won it.

    Besides, the role of favorite should belong to sister Serena. At least it's still in the family.

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