Predictions’ Madness


Let’s admit it. All 264 players in the starting gate of the Australian Open have bang-em-up forehands, backhands, serves and over-head smashes. You don’t get a berth in a pre-eminent tennis tournament unless you have mastered those basics in spades. 

Pile on top of them all sorts of bonus characteristics that ready these elite athletes and you have the making of a champion, two of which we’ll see rise in their respective draws over the two weeks that begin Monday. 

Most clairvoyants have those top seeds — Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic — in their crosshairs. It doesn’t take much to advance that prediction. They are the favorites and have every right and record to be the leaders on every pundits scorecard. 

Novak Djokovic keeps a steady eye on the ball, during the 2015 Rogers Cup in Toronto. Photo credit Leslie Billman

But no matter Novak’s and Serena’s records, something else has to be bubbling inside these two champions. Something that grounds them to their challenge, their career, their promise to fans. 

At 34, Serena Williams is the oldest number one player on the women’s side by a long shot. She will challenge the field for a seventh title in Melbourne, and a 22nd Grand Slam that would tie her with Steffi Graf’s 22 … two back from Margaret Court with 24.

Serena, as reported by The New York Times, has a bum left knee that needs an undisclosed type of treatment every six months. Apparently the last one went a touch awry, which resulted in swelling and an early withdrawal from Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, and the Brisbane International. This is the same path Serena took in 2015. Predicting her progress, then, over the fortnight ahead is as much a roll of the dice as it had been throughout 2015. If she’s healthy, she’ll win. But even with assurances from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou that she’ll “be ready,” many questions remain. 

The most prominent is her degree of motivation. She can appear vacant, play unevenly, swear up a storm on court, then pull off the most unlikely of wins in the stretch. That’s Serena. Yet she’s never come off a stretch like the one that began in New York in 2014 and came to a quick close in New York a year later. She was two wins away from an honest-to-goodness calendar Grand Slam. Her good-bye at The U.S. Open, after Roberta Vinci flummoxed Serena to the point of no return, was swift. She left the USTA National Tennis Center within 30 minutes, which included a speedy swing through mandatory press. Afterward, she was seen on court in November at an IPTL tournament, where she withdrew from her only single’s match. Her next appearance was in Perth for Hopman Cup. 

Granted her leave of absence was necessary to pick up the mental and physical forces lost to disappointment, which she denies, and a banner year of achievements one-tenth of which would have sent any top-100 woman to the moon and back. Yet Williams disappeared, which was, of course, her call to make.

Serena, thus, has to be motivated by: 1) matching Graf’s 22 Grand Slams; 2) The opportunity of taking advantage of a clean slate … really, there’s no pressure that comes close to that in New York last fall; and 3) Serena hates to lose. 

Her draw is not an easy one. No draw ever is, even when those seven matches are somewhat spelled out in advance. But, Serena has not played a match in four months: a lengthy period without competition. She’ll meet Camila Giorgi in the opening round. The Italian is fierce yet inconsistent competitor that can whack a tennis ball with more speed than almost any other woman on tour. They play Monday, a match to add to your calendar of events. 

Maria Sharapova during a chilly day in Paris, May, 2015.
Photo credit Leslie Billman

Maria Sharapova, seeded No. 5, sits in Serena’s quarter. They could meet in the quarterfinals. By that time both women will have worked off some rust. Sharapova didn’t play from Wimbledon to Wuhan, China, in late September, due to injuries. Yet, she showed remarkable spirit at The WTA Finals and Fed Cup in November, when Russia lost in the semifinals to the future title holders: the Czech Republic. Still, Serena’s and Maria’s head-to-head tells its own story: 18-2. 

Records, injury time outs, and even the weather are crucial additives to any drive to the championship. However, the Williams’ mind ultimately will define her path. The same is true of Novak Djokovic.

The wind of history blows strongly against the back of the number-one seed. Word from many is not whether he can win his 7th Australian Open title, but if he can win a calendar-year Grand Slam. It hasn’t been done in 47 years, which points directly to the difficulty of reaching such a pinnacle. Tennis hopes that record will be broken in 2016.

Djokovic is in his golden years, unlike the aging Serena. He is 28, has few if any injury issues, is married with a child, and has a team he seems content with headed up by Boris Becker and Marian Vajda. His on-court attitudes and behaviors have chilled, yet he still cannot win the love of fans he so desperately seems to desire. Roger Federer commands that court. 

The so-called Big Four — Djokovic, Andy Murray, Federer, Rafael Nadal — justly could be demolished and replaced with the Big One … Djokovic. He won 11 titles in 2015, which includes all three majors minus Roland Garros. He’s 5-0 for 2016, having demolished Nadal in the final in Doha, 6-2 6-1. 

Djokovic, therefore, is also juiced by motivation this year to: 1) win Roland Garros, the only prize yet in his corner; 2) take home a Gold Medal in singles at the Olympics; and 3) to remain number one in the world, a ranking he’s held for four consecutive years.  

His draw is chuck full of stumbling blocks, the first being Hyeon Chung, one of the chosen up-and-coming teens. The Korean is a mini-Novak who demonstrates speed, a solid mind-set, and the drive of the driven to be great for personal and national interests. Kei Nishikori, seeded No. 7, could clash with Novak in the quarterfinals, as well. Federer is there, on his half, along with Tomas Berdych, the number-six seed, and an always unpredictable Aussie dude, Nick Kyrgios, seeded No. 29. 

Will Djokovic brush off his competition? Thankfully, only the future can tell.


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