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Six Questions for the Australian Open

Who can stop Serena Williams from winning her 18th Grand Slam singles? Can Novak Djokovic win a record breaking fifth title in Melbourne? We preview all the action at the Australian Open 2014.

It’s the time of the year when tennis fans start rubbing their hands in glee. The tennis season goes into a mini hibernation after the World Tour Finals in early Nov, and in the absence of real action (excepting the Davis Cup), we occupy ourselves with statistics on how many times did Jerzy Janowicz scream “How Many Times” at the Australian Open exactly a year ago.

Every new year brings Interesting Times to the world of tennis (you have to read the Terry Pratchett book to know what that means). What is the mood status of Rafa’s knees? Will Murray finally win a Grand Slam? (he finally answered that more than a year ago). Can Federer win another Grand Slam? (a question we’ve been asking ever since that loss to Rafa in Wimby’08). Will the Real Djokovic please stand up? And the most important one – will we have a Grand Slam Champion not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and now Murray for only the fourth time in a decade?

And the blue Plexicushion at Melbourne are where these questions are first put to test. So here are six questions on our mind as we excitedly prepare for the 2014 Australian Open:

Men

1. A fifth for Novak Djokovic? : Djokovic won the first Grand Slam of his life at the Australian Open in 2008, the same year that the tournament switched from its Green Rebound Ace to the current Blue turf. In doing so, he not only broke Fed-Rafa’s 11 tournament grip on the Grand Slams, but also proved to himself that he could get past his ailments and frustrations to beat the Big Boys. Djokovic was unable to defend the title in 2009, but more than compensated for that by winning the next 3 titles (2010-2013), including the memorable dirt-brawl with Rafa in 2012. Irrespective of how many more tournaments he wins in the future, Djokovic will always have Melbourne – after all, four of the Serb’s six Grand Slam titles have been won here.

Djokovic is currently tied with Andre Agassi and Roger Federer at four titles in Melbourne, but with a relatively easy draw this year, can he become the first man in the Open Era to win five titles at Melbourne?

2. How fit and hungry is Andy Murray?: Andy Murray had the best season of his life in 2012, winning the Gold in Olympic Singles & his first Grand Slam in six tries at the US Open. He followed this remarkable run by winning the grand daddy of Grand Slams, the 2013 Wimbledon (The first Brit in yada yada years). He got so exhausted signing autographs for the entire British Isles, their cats and their cuckoos that he didn’t win any title thereafter (we’re kidding – he made it to the US Open quarterfinals where he was thrashed by Stan-The-Man, and underwent back surgery thereafter).

Murray returned to tennis duty at the Qatar Open, where he lost to Florian Mayer in the second round. The Australian Open is the first test of Murray’s readiness for the big stage, and the draw has been a mixed bag for the Brit – he has a relatively easy run in the first few rounds, but could potentially meet Federer in the  quarterfinals & Nadal in the semi’s.

3. What about Becker & Edberg? The biggest news in tennis in 2014 is not Rafa’s knees or Federer’s racquet, but two blokes who together ruled Wimbledon in the late 80’s. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg are not the first names that would spring to mind when discussing great-players-great-coaches (Andre Agassi, anyone?), but both have recently been summoned into coaching roles. Boom Boom Becker joined Djokovic’s coaching team towards the end of 2013, and Federer followed that up by announcing Edberg would work with him for 10 weeks.

Djokovic says he hired Becker to add a mental edge to his game (and perhaps to bring more aggression to his play), but why exactly did Federer hire childhood hero Edberg? What Federer needs more than anything else is the patience to resist being aggressive all the time (especially against the Big 3, led by one Nadal, Rafael), but it’s difficult to imagine the mild mannered Edberg being able to tame Federer’s attacking instincts (we’re crying for you, Andre!). It doesn’t take Sherlock to deduce that Federer’s primary reason for hiring Edberg is to launch an all-out assault at Wimbledon – after all, Center Court is often called The Great Fed’s backyard. Federer is currently tied with Pete Sampras & William Renshaw for the most Gentlemen’s Singles titles at Wimbledon (seven) – but no can fault him for trying to stake sole ownership to this record.

It may be too early to hand out grades to Becker & Edberg based upon their charges’ performance at the Australian Open. But for now, we will stick to our belief that Ivan “Canny Fox” Lendl will trump these gentlemen in the coaching department.

Women

Let’s skip the “Who Will Stop Serena” question, shall we?

1. The return of Maria Sharapova:  The Australian Open should be as special for Maria Sharapova as it is for  Novak Djokovic. The Russian possibly had her best Grand Slam ever at Melbourne in 2008, the same year that Djokovic won his first Grand Slam. Like a tsunami leaving behind a trail of destruction, she decimated her opponents in the women’s draw, thrashing Ana Ivanovic to claim her third career Grand Slam. The performance also propelled her to the number one ranking in women’s tennis, but a shoulder injury in the latter half of the year lead to a prolonged hiatus from the game.

Since then, Sharapova has joined the elite group of Career Slammers by claiming the 2012 French Open, and even made a brief return to the top of the rankings. But the return of her shoulder injury led to her withdrawing from the US Open & the Year End Championships. Sharapova has a tricky but relatively easy draw at the Australian Open, with the real test coming only in the quarterfinals where she could meet Jelena Jankovic. The mind has never been a problem for Sharapova, but will her body hold up?

2. Will the real Sam Stosur please stand up?  Samantha “Sam” Jane Stosur could be an ideal candidate for “The best player never to have won a Grand Slam” (remember Elena Dementieva?), except that she has won the US Open in 2011, beating no less than Serena Williams.  With her lethal kick serve, well disguised forehands and overall athleticism, Stosur should have caused much more damage to the Big Three in women’s tennis than she has managed.  Given to bouts of nerves at the wrong time (usually at Match Point against a player ranked at least 100 places below her), Sammy Baby is the kind of player who can calmly thrash a Top 5 player and follow that up by getting brutally mauled by a player outside the Top 50.

Stosur has never got past the fourth round of her home tournament in ten tries, and the Gods haven’t been kind to her in her eleventh attempt. If she can survive her first round match against Klara Zakopalova, who beat her in straights at Hobart a week ago, she will have to content with two players who have recently won tournaments –  Tsvetana Pironkova (Sydney) and Ana Ivanovic (Auckland). If Harry Houdini’s soul helps her survive the first three rounds, she will likely be greeted by the jolly sight of Serena Williams swinging her “Give me blood” looks at her.

3. Will Victoria Azarenka make it three-in-a-row? Like Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka has built her reputation at the Australian Open – she’s a two time defending champion, and this is the only Grand Slam to adorn her growing CV. A former world number one, Azarenka has the dubious distinction of leading The Rest vs. The Best (Serena Williams).

Azarenka has a relatively trouble free route to the semifinals, though a stumble is possible in the fourth round where she could meet Sloane Stephens – Vika scored a controversial victory over the talented American in the semifinals here a year go. If she can survive this and the minor obstacle of Aga in the semi’s (Vika has a 12-3 record against the immensely talented Pole), she will be faced with the only question that women’s tennis has uttered over the last one year – Can she stop Serena, possibly the best woman ever to play tennis?

Serena is hungry for her 18th Grand Slam singles crown, which will bring her at par with Chris Evert & Martina Navratilova. In contrast, Vika’s quest for a third Grand Slam appears almost trivial. But if the gritty Belarusian can find a way to defeat Serena in the finals, it could well mark the beginning of a new era in women’s tennis.

Or not. For nowhere is this more true than in tennis – “The more things change, the more they remain the same”

Post script: Somdev Devvarman has a tough opener in his Australian Open campaign against World No. 27 Feliciano Lopez.

 

Image courtesy http://www.livetennisguide.com

 

 

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