The first Grand Slam of the tennis season generally brings with it a large slice of unpredictability, with some players able to take large strides forward after a winter training block and others still rusty so soon into the new season. But this time around, there will be a firm favorite to lift the Australian Open trophy in both the men’s and women’s draw.
Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams dominated tennis in 2015, each winning three of the four Grand Slams and plenty more besides. The chances of Djokovic starting right where he left off look particularly strong, having won four of the last five Australian Opens and claiming five titles overall. And on the hardcourt surface that the players will face in Melbourne, Djokovic has been by some distance the superior player for at least the past two years.
Andy Murray has frequently been the Serbian’s closest challenger Down Under, losing three finals to his long-time rival. The Scot will enter the tournament this year as the world No. 2 and boosted by winning the Davis Cup with Great Britain in December. Yet even if he doesn’t taste defeat, he may not last to the final in Melbourne, having made it clear that he will fly home to London if his wife goes into early labor with their first child.
If it’s not Murray, then Roger Federer, who Djokovic beat in the finals of the last two Grand Slams -- Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- could be the biggest threat. The powerful motivation for the Swiss great of attempting to lift an unprecedented 18th Grand Slam title remains, and he will now have a new coach to help him with the task, after Ivan Ljubicic took over from Stefan Edberg.
It may be dangerous, too, to write off Federer’s long-time foe Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard began to rediscover some of his sparkle at the end of 2015 and has made an impressive start to this year.
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Djokovic will be particularly wary of the potential threat posed by the man who beat Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic and Wawrinka have squared off in the last three Australian Opens, with all going to five sets. And while Djokovic won two of them, he painfully came out on the losing end when they met in the French Open final last June.
Although Djokovic remains very much to man to beat, on the women’s side things are less clear cut. Williams’ form last season would normally make her a prohibitive favorite at the Australian Open, but doubts have only increased about the condition in which she will arrive in Melbourne. After her stunning defeat in the U.S. Open semifinals to Roberta Vinci, the American missed the rest of last season, citing the grueling toll the pursuit of a Calendar Grand Slam had taken on her body. Yet those issues have continued into 2016, with Williams pulling out of this week’s Hopman Cup with a knee injury.
Certainly Williams is no stranger to rocking up at a Grand Slam with little preparation and sweeping aside all before her. But her latest setback must be a concern as he seeks to equal Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam titles.
She is, though, far from the only female player heading toward the Australian Open with fitness concerns. The players ranked second, third and fourth in the world -- Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza and Maria Sharapova -- all withdrew from this week’s event in Brisbane citing various ailments. Meanwhile, world No. 6 Petra Kvitova had to pull out of a tournament in Shenzhen through illness.
That could potentially open the door for Victoria Azarenka. The Belarussian has struggled to stay fit over the past two years, and currently finds herself outside the world’s top 20. However she triumphed in Melbourne in both 2012 and 2013, making her one of only three women -- along with Williams and Sharapova -- to have lifted the title.
Men’s champion: Novak Djokovic
Women’s champion: Serena Williams
Betting Odds (provided by Oddschecker)
Novak Djokovic: 4/5
Andy Murray: 11/2
Roger Federer: 8/1
Rafael Nadal: 10/1
Stan Wawrinka: 12/1
Kei Nishikori: 20/1
Tomas Berdych: 33/1
Nick Kyrgios: 50/1
Serena Williams: 9/4
Victoria Azarenka: 5/1
Simona Halep: 8/1
Maria Sharapova: 8/1
Garbiñe Muguruza: 10/1
Petra Kvitova: 12/1
Belinda Bencic: 14/1
Agnieszka Radwanska: 20/1