Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Usual Suspects for Down Under?

By Jean Kirshenbaum, Tennis League Network Writer

When it comes to celebrating a new year, Australia, a full 16 hours ahead of the US, leads the way. When it comes to the tennis grand slam tournaments- Australia also leads the way. As the first of this year’s four majors, the Australian Open (AO) begins Monday, January 14. The pundits love to wallow in player analysis but will likely not announce their top picks until they see the draws, which won’t be announced until Friday, January 11. The one player they can’t pick is Rafael Nadal, now #4, who was a finalist last year against Novak Djokovic. As you probably have heard, he won’t even be in the tournament because of a stomach virus, which he has said prohibits him from practicing and being tournament ready. Few are buying it, and instead attribute the withdrawal to the chronic knee problems that have kept him off the court since last June. For that reason, they probably wouldn’t have picked him anyway.

So where does that leave AO predictions? First-ranked Novak Djokovic, winner for the past two years, is the heavy favorite.  But, given Andy Murray’s break-through victories at the Olympics and the US Open, he’s a solid contender. And can anyone ever write off Roger Federer, who won 2012 Wimbledon, yet again? Others being talked about are among the top ten: #5-7 David Ferrer of Spain, Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Any dark horses are still in the dark at this point.

The women’s side is even more fluid. With Serena Williams back in the game big time (remember, she won Olympic gold, Wimbledon, AND the US Open), can the top ranked players, #1 Victoria Azarenka, and #2 Maria Sharapova, even hope to claim a victory? Their head-to-head records against her are just awful- Azarenka is down 11-1, and Sharapova, 10-2. Other strong possibilities are players who have been gaining steam, such as almost anyone ranked 4-10: Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, Angelique Kerber of Germany, Sara Errani of Italy, Na Li of China, Petra Kvitova of Czech Republic, Samantha Stosur of Australia, and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. Because they were weak in 2012, Stosur, Li and Wozniacki are the least likely contenders of this group. Wozniacki has never won a slam, Stosur hardly got past the first round of any tournament in 2012, and Li’s record since she won the French Open in 2011 has been so poor that she dumped her husband as her coach and took on the former coach for Justine Henin, Carlos Rodriguez. Errani and Radwanska each had a tremendous surge in 2012, so they could be ready to break through to a slam.

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