There is no tennis major more difficult to predict than the Australian Open. Players are coming off an extended winter break, and the temperatures in Melbourne can top 100 degrees, often making it a battle of stamina more than a display of skill and finesse.
Pundits and tennis junkies speculate about who has the edge, but it is impossible to truly know who is match fit and ready to battle grueling conditions so early in the year.
The only thing certain about the 2013 Aussie Open, which begins Sunday and runs through Jan. 27, is that Rafael Nadal won’t be there. The Spanish former No. 1 and 11-time Grand Slam winner has not played since losing in the second round of Wimbledon last July. Chronic knee injuries knocked him off the tour, and last month he announced he would skip the Australian Open because a stomach virus prevented him from preparing properly.
His ranking has slipped to No. 4 during his absence, behind top-ranked Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray, who is coming off an unforgettable summer in which he reached the Wimbledon final, won the Olympic gold medal over Federer in front of an adoring crowd on the Wimbledon grounds and beat Djokovic to win his first major at the U.S. Open.
Djokovic is going for his third consecutive Australian Open title. Last year, he rallied from a break down in the fifth set to defeat Nadal in the longest Grand Slam final in history, stretching 5 hours 53minutes. He has reached the final in six of his past eight Grand Slams, and ended the year by taking the No. 1 ranking from Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
So Many unknowns
Neither Djokovic nor Federer played warm-up events leading into the Australian Open, so this will be their first action of the season.
“We’re in unknown territory for the next 12 months for many, many reasons,” said Darren Cahill, who will be in the broadcast booth for ESPN. “Novak is really the only sure thing we know at the moment, that he’s going to put himself in position to win majors time and time again. The rest, we don’t know.
“We don’t know how good Federer’s going to be. We don’t know if Nadal is going to come back. We don’t know how much that U.S. Open win is going to help Murray. This is the first time Andy has ever walked into a major championship as a major winner. Who knows how much confidence that will give him? That’s why it makes this year a real fascinating year for the men’s game.”
Skeptics question whether Nadal will ever return to peak form following such a long layoff. Cahill suspects Nadal won’t return until he is back in championship shape, and when he does, watch out.
“We never quite know the stuff that flows through the veins of champions,” Cahill said. “It’s a little bit different from us normal people. I feel while there’s a big question mark about his game, this is a guy that you can just see it in his eyes when he steps onto a tennis court, the guy hates to lose. He won’t put himself back on a court unless he’s ready to win. The guy will do everything he can to get back to where he was. If he does come back, he’s not coming back to be top 10 in the world, he’s not coming back for the money, he’s not coming back for anything but to win majors.”
Chris Evert agreed.
“History has shown, if you look at Serena, players that have had injuries and taken time off, they come back with more of a vengeance, more passion,” she said. “They appreciate their health and life so much more.”
Once upon a time, people questioned Williams’ fitness, commitment to the sport, and staying power. Not anymore.
Williams, winner of 15 Grand Slam titles including five Australian Opens, is the overwhelming favorite to win the women’s title in Melbourne. The rankings say she is No. 3 in the world, but her results say she has been practically perfect since last spring. Williams has lost just one match since losing in the first round of the 2012 French Open. She won Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal, the U.S. Open and the WTA season-ending tournament. She has won 35 of her past 36 matches, 45 of 47 since Key Biscayne last March and last week easily won the tuneup event in Brisbane, Australia, without dropping a set.
If Williams wins the Australian Open, she will become the oldest world No. 1 since Evert (30 years, 11months) in 1985.
“When Serena’s on, she’s unbeatable,” Evert said. “I don’t know if anybody can really stop her. The big question is whether she can keep the focus and fitness for 14 days in a row. As we saw, she lost here last year, and lost at the French Open.”
Cahill added: “I think at the moment, Serena is playing a level or two above the opposition. She’s a stronger, faster athlete than she was maybe three or four years ago. She’s a more intelligent player now. She’s always learning, which is a great example for everybody, that even once you reach your 30s there’s still ways to improve.”
Williams’ toughest opponent is expected to be defending Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who won her first major event a year ago in Melbourne and finished 2012 atop the rankings. She won 26 consecutive matches the first quarter of last season. Azarenka won six titles last season, but Williams got in her way several times. Of her 10 losses, five were to Williams.
Last week, Azarenka was forced to withdraw from a much-anticipated semifinal against Williams in Brisbane because she had an infected right big toe from a pedicure-gone-bad. It would have been a rematch of the 2012 U.S. Open final, which Williams won 7-5 in the third set.
If it isn’t Williams or Azarenka raising the trophy in Australia, it could be Maria Sharapova. She reached a career Grand Slam with her French Open title last year — one of only 10 women to win all four majors. Sharapova was the Australian Open runner-up last January. She has been hampered by a collarbone injury the past few weeks, but is expected to be ready.