Monday 23 October 2017 / 09:35 AM

AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2017 PREVIEW

The Australian Open is the first major global sporting event to kick off 2017 – and just like any grand slam, there are storylines galore.

Although the women’s draw is missing some of its biggest stars – Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova are absent for very different reasons – there is the return of Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from layoffs.

Federer missed the French Open and US Open last year as well as the Rio Olympics. It was the first time since 1999 that the durable Swiss legend missed a major and his ranking subsequently plummeted to 17, his lowest since 2001.

Federer will play qualifiers in the first two rounds but is drawn in the same quarter as Andy Murray. However, the 35-year-old crowd favourite said he felt rejuvenated after the six-month sabbatical and believed it could actually help prolong his career.

Novak Djokovic lost his world No.1 ranking and quit his partnership with Boris Becker in the off-season. It will be interesting if he responds with new motivation after the peak of holding all four majors at once following his win at Roland Garros last year.

The six-time Australian Open champ has drawn a tricky first-round opponent in Fernando Verdasco, who Djokovic had to save match points just last week in the semi-finals of Doha. Verdasco also has fond memories in Melbourne, upsetting compatriot Nadal in the first round last year.

Djokovic did get the early psychological edge on Murray by winning a tough three-setter in that Doha final, a result which snapped Murray’s 28-match winning streak and has set up the Australian Open perfectly. Murray, who opens against Ilya Marchenko of Ukraine, has incredibly been the bridesmaid five times in Melbourne – four of those to Djokovic. It is a huge monkey to get off the back for the Scot.

Indeed, this will be the first grand slam since last year’s Australian Open where all four of the ‘Big Four’ – Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Nadal – are present. The prize pool this year has increased by 14% on last year to $50 million, which includes $3.7M for each of the singles winners.

In the women’s draw, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber seem the obvious favourites. However, with some big names out, it could pave the way for a first-time major winner like Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska or Brisbane champion Karolina Pliskova.

Serena, currently tied on 22 Open Era majors with Steffi Graf, has drawn Belinda Bencic in round one and Lucie Safarova in round two. The Safarova encounter would be a re-match of the 2015 French Open final, while former top-10 player Bencic, dangerous off both wings, won her last encounter against Williams in 2015.

Serena looked rusty in her lead-up event, losing to fellow American Madison Brengle in Auckland. The performance, albeit in gusty conditions, saw her commit 88 unforced errors.

Kerber, the defending champion, played in the three of the four major finals last year, winning two of them. The world No.1 finds herself in the unique position of protecting her idol Graf’s record from being broken by Serena.  The German opens against Lesia Tsurenko but could bump into fast-rising Russian Daria Kasatkina in the fourth round, a player she lost to just last week in Sydney.

If you are a betting man, Johanna Konta and Pliskova are two of the hot tips to go with. Pliskova, runner-up at Flushing Meadows four months ago after knocking Williams out in the semis, won in Brisbane and because of her height, she is able to produce easy power and get more free points on serve than anyone.  Konta, meanwhile, made the semifinals of the Australian Open last year and has form, having thrashed Radwanska in the final in Sydney.

MEN’S

Final tip: Djokovic to beat Murray for a fifth time in Melbourne 

PICK OF THE MATCHES (subject to players reaching this stage of the tournament)

Semi-finals: Wawrinka v Murray

Quarter-finals: Raonic v Nadal, Murray v Federer

Fourth round: Federer v Nishikori, Kyrgios v Wawrinka, Dimitrov v Djokovic

Third round: Nadal v Zverev, Federer v Berdych, Cilic v Tomic, Gasquet v Dimitrov, Sock v Tsonga

First round: Djokovic v Verdasco

 

WOMEN’S

Final tip: Pliskova to go one better and reverse her US Open final loss to Kerber 

PICK OF THE MATCHES (subject to players reaching this stage of the tournament)

Semi-finals: Pliskova v Williams

Quarter-finals: Kerber v Muguruza, Pliskova v Ranwanka.

Fourth round: Cibulkova v Konta/Wozniacki, Svitolina v Kuznetsova, Kerber v Bouchard, Halep v Venus

Third round: Konta v Wozniacki, Cibulkova v Makarova, Halep v Puig

Second round: Williams v Safarova, Konta v Osaka, Bouchard v Kasatkina.

First round: Williams v Bencic

 

Notable absentees include:

Maria Sharapova (serving drug ban)

Victoria Azarenka (maternity leave)

Petra Kvitova (off-court hand injury)

Madison Keys (wrist injury)

Sloane Stephens (foot injury)

Sabine Lisicki shoulder injury)

Ana Ivanovic (retirement)

Juan Martin Del Potro (fitness concerns)

Kevin Anderson (hip injury)

 

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About the author

Farhan Shah

A recent addition to the roster, Melburnian Farhan is a sports nut who has come on board to provide golf, tennis, AFL and rugby league coverage for CBS.

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