Novak Djokovic is the defending Australian Open men's champion.
© Cameron Spencer
Serena Williams is looking to win her sixth Australian Open title.
© Scott Barbour
By Matt Cronin
Rafael Nadal: The last time the top-ranked Spaniard was in Melbourne, in 2012, he fell to Novak Djokovic in an epic final that lasted nearly six hours. Djokovic hasn't lost a match since the US Open final, but that loss came to an improved Nadal who showed that on court to that of Australia’s Rod Laver Arena, he now has the tools to put down the Serbian. Should the 13-time Grand Slam champion win the crown, he will become the first man in the Open era to win all four majors twice. That will move the swaggering lefthander closer to “Greatest of all Time” status.
Serena Williams: The American once ruled Melbourne, winning five titles in a seven-year period from 2003 to 2010. But in the past two years, she suffered ankle injuries, which contributed to her defeats to Ekaterina Makarova and Sloane Stephens. The world No. 1 is highly motivated to win another Slam and tie American legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 major crowns. Williams, who has been strapping both her ankles as tight as possible, hasn't dropped a contest since early August and is a substantial favorite to dance away from the event with her winning streak intact.
The Defending Champions
Novak Djokovic: The four-time Aussie Open champion is more confident in Melbourne than in any other locale, adjusting to the conditions perfectly and tailoring his game to the medium-speed hard courts. The six-time Grand Slam winner brings out a unique blend of defense and offense and has publicly stated that he wants to recapture the No, 1 ranking from Nadal. Given how driven and solid he is, it will take an extraordinary effort by anyone to knock him off his perch.
Victoria Azarenka: The two-time defending champion broke out at this event in 2012, wiping out Maria Sharapova in the final, and then in 2013 she survived a controversial semifinal over Sloane Stephens and an onslaught by Li Na in the final. Azarenka is the only player over the past season who has shown she can play with Serena on a great day, upending her at 2013 Doha and Cincinnati, but she fell to her in their last two matches, in the 2013 US Open final and the 2014 Brisbane final. The Belarusian can play with Williams off the ground and returns just as well (although not as aggressively), but Williams is mentally tougher and has a substantially better serve, which in the clutch at the majors matters a great deal.
Andy Murray: The other top guys seem to think that the Wimbledon champion can contend for the title, but it’s hard to think of any player who has undergone back surgery and come back four months later and won a Grand Slam. The Scot has reached the Aussie Open final three times and is clearly more emotionally settled than he was before he won the 2012 US Open, but he has to prove that he is healthy enough to be able to survive a series of three-out-of-five set matches.
Tomas Berdych: The Australian Open courts appears to be playing a bit faster, which should be an advantage to the attacking Czech, who is in the weakest quarter of the draw that is headed by the slumping David Ferrer. Berdych should reach the semifinals, but his record against his probable final four foe Djokovic is poor, and in order to turn it around, he will have to have a career day.
Maria Sharapova: The 2008 champion is contesting just her second tournament since August due to shoulder trouble. She says she’s 100 percent again and looked pretty good in Brisbane, where she went toe-to-toe with Serena Williams in a straight-sets loss. Fortunately for Sharapova, she’s not in the same half of the draw as Williams, whom she has lost to 14 times in a row, but on Azarenka’s side, whom she has beaten the last two times they faced off. Sharapova may not be able to upend Williams, but reaching another final is within her range.
Li Na: Last year, Li was playing better than anyone coming into the final but took two hard spills in her loss to Azarenka. China’s top player says her goal this season is to win her second major (2011 French Open). This has been her most consistent Slam over the years, so if she doesn’t panic, she has a real chance to meet her goal in two weeks’ time.
The Question Marks
Roger Federer: The 17-time Grand Slam winner has not won an outdoor hard-court tournament since 2012 Cincinnati. He’s playing with a new and larger racquet and has a new coach in former US Open champion Stefan Edberg, who was a classic serve and volleyer. The 32-year-old player is still very dangerous on great days, but given his recent record it’s hard to see him knocking off the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to win his fifth Aussie crown, which could very well be his path to the title.
David Ferrer: The scrappy Spaniard has been very dependable and often very good over the past five years, but he said that he played like a junior in his loss to Yen-Hsun Lu in Auckland and has mentioned that it will be a struggle for him to even stay in the Top 10 this season. For a world No. 3, that indicates a ton of doubts.
Samantha Stosur: The former US Open champion has never reached the quarterfinals at her home Slam, and in fact has only advanced to the fourth round twice in 13 appearances. Armed with a vicious kick serve and forehand, Stosur is more than capable on hard courts, but she has to prove that she can play her best with her nation’s expectations on her shoulders.
Petra Kvitova: The 2011 Wimbledon champion can best anyone on a great day, but those days are too infrequent at big tournaments. The Czech looks fitter and quicker than last year, but her ball striking is inconsistent, as is her focus. In short, she could win this event, or be gone is flash during the first week.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The Frenchman says that the only reason he is playing is to win a major and that he is driven to do so. He reached the final in Melbourne back in 2008, blowing out Nadal before losing to Djokovic. His draw in complicated with the likes of former semifinalist Marin Cilic, Federer and Murray in his quarter, but Smokin’ Joe can get hot, and if he does, a rematch with Nadal in the semifinals is a possibility.
John Isner: The United States’ top-ranked male won six tiebreaks en route to his title run in Auckland last week, which means that he stood tall in the clutch. He is going to need to do so in Melbourne, because he faces a potential third-round match with Philip Kohlschreiber, who took him down at the US Open in 2011 and 2012, but whom Isner edged in three tiebreaks in Auckland. If he gets past the German, Isner might face Wimbledon champion Murray, who returns his massive serve as well as anyone, or possible Feliciano Lopez, who served and volleyed his way past him at the 2013 Australian Open. The 13th-ranked Isner has a very tough road to the quarters, but he is overdue for a final eight appearance in Melbourne
Angelique Kerber: The left-handed German is very hard to figure out: she’s a strong athlete, excellent defensive player and is trying to push herself to be more offensive this season. Last week in Sydney, she showed a willingness to take more risks in some matches but backed off in others. If the world No. 9 takes more risks in Melbourne, she has semifinal possibilities, but if she does not it's unlikely she’ll make the final eight
Tsvetana Pironkova: The Bulgarian played amazingly well to win Sydney last week, qualifying, winning eight matches and besting three Top 10 players in Sara Errani, Kvitova and Kerber. The former Wimbledon semifinalist has a world-class backhand, a much-improved serve and is brimming with confidence. No one wants to face her now, even though she will enter the event with tired legs.
The Up and Comers
Male players are maturing later than they once did, which is why so few of them have had majors impacts on tour in the past few years. But these four guys age 23 and under all have top 10 potential: Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Jerzy Janowicz. The big-serving Raonic and the colorful Dimitrov could meet in the third round, while Aussie sensation Tomic couldn't have had a worse draw as he opens against Nadal. Even though he is rusty as he has just returned from injury, former Wimbledon semifinalist Janowicz may have the best chance to go deep as he’s in the David Ferrer’s quarter, which is the weakest one.
As per usual, WTA players tend to break out earlier, and there are slew of promising competitors in their early 20s or in their teens including Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, Romania’s Simona Halep, Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard, Britain’s Laura Robson and Spain’s Garbine Muguruza. Keys, Robson and Bouchard, all of whom have practiced together, are in the same quarter. World No. 11 Halep has serious quarterfinals possibilities as she’s in the good but beatable Jelena Jankovic’s segment. Muguruza, who just won Hobart, has a tricky first round against world No. 24 Kaia Kanepi. Stephens, who reached the semis last year, is having wrist trouble but could get a rematch with the woman who bested her last year in Australia, Victoria Azarenka, in the fourth round in what would be a delicious rematch.