Read below for my 2020 Australian Open preview, with a special guest contributor providing his thoughts too as we look ahead to the first Grand Slam tournament of the new decade….
By the time this is published, the first day’s play will have almost – if not already – finished. That’s the risk you run when you’re operating in different timezones with other sports to cover at short notice!
Nonetheless, Grand Slam tennis is always a sight to behold regardless of the timing across the calendary year and the Australian Open is no different.
Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka will be looking to defend their respective titles, though that will not be an easy task. I spoke to tennis expert Richard Phelps to get his thoughts on what’s in store over the next fortnight – it promises to be an intriguing watch for various reasons. So, here’s predictions from myself and Rich ahead of the event.
Mosope: Starting off with the biggest question of them all Rich, what are your predictions for this year’s Australian Open? Who is going to win – ATP and WTA – and why?
Rich: I think this year’s Australian Open will be intriguin, given how surprising the last Slam was. There were quite a few shocks in New York so I’m looking forward to seeing the surprises this one will throw up too.
Unsurprisingly, I think Novak will win the tournament on the men’s side. The reigning champion dominated Rafael Nadal in last year’s final and did the same to the Spaniard in last week’s ATP Cup Final. So in my opinion, not too much has changed.
Djokovic is still without doubt the best hard-court player around right now and perhaps, ever. So for me, because of the fact I can’t see many players able to trouble him – let alone beat him – he’s my favourite to win here for unbelievably, the eighth time.
On the women’s side, once again, I don’t think there’s a clear favourite. If Bianca Andreescu featured, I would say she was – given she won the final Slam last year in such impressive fashion. As it stands though, I think the real contenders are Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Ashleigh Barty and defending champ Osaka, who I think will win it.
She’s the reigning champion, has shown she can handle the pressure of the big stage and although results over the last year haven’t been as strong as she would like, on her day she’s a special player. Most comfortable on hard-court, I’d back her to beat my other three contenders and any other player on this surface too for that matter.
MO: Yeah, I’d have to say I agree with the Novak pick – Osaka has been iffy but I’m thinking of someone else… time isn’t on her side which is why Serena is my favourite to go all the way in the women’s side of the draw. Other than those you’ve already mentioned, what about dark horses to go deep and potentially cause some upsets?
RP: Naomi’s only 22 though and I can see her getting back to her best this fortnight, on her favoured surface. Serena’s a great pick though, of course, given her pedigree and that she’s desperate to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record for Grand Slams.
Dark horses to enjoy a memorable tournament
In terms of dark horses, I think that Belinda Bencic is the biggest threat. She had a fabulous 2019, culminating in her reaching the semi-finals at the US Open, defeating Osaka along the way. She’s capable of beating the best and is dangerous on hard surfaces, which she proved at Flushing Meadows. So I wouldn’t be surprised if she has another good tournament.
As for the men, of course, the other two members of the Big Three – Nadal and Federer – will expect to go far and always have a good chance to do so. However, I believe there are two men who realistically have a better chance to go all the way: Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Both enjoyed a great 2019, the Russian narrowly lost to Nadal in a five-set thriller during his first Grand Slam final last time out and was excellent, while beating Djokovic on this surface too.
Tsitsipas announced himself at the latter stages of Slams by beating Federer in the quarter-finals here last year and has the game to beat the best when it really counts, having also beaten the other two. The Greek will also be confident after winning the ATP Finals in London at the end of 2019 and must look to kick on in Melbourne.
MO: Yeah, I agree! In usual circumstances I’d have gone with Osaka/Halep or home favourite Barty to win here, but like I said, Serena has lost four (!) successive finals and time is running out before the new gen take over completely – Andreescu’s win at Flushing Meadows was evidence of that… I was glad for Bencic too, who always had the talent but struggled for GS consistency until last year and could’ve got to the final too!
A lot has been said about the ATP NextGen and how 2020 could finally be the year that they break through… although Medvedev and Tsitsipas in particular have shone recently, I’m still unconvinced about their suitability against the big three in the five-set format.
With that in mind though, is there any high seeds in particular that stand out to you that could struggle in the early rounds and be in for an early exit? How will the home stars will do? De Minaur is injured but Kyrgios/Millman are fired up, Barty the world no. 1… How do they deal with the pressure – even if they claim it’s not there? (it is!)
RP: Yeah, it truly is now or never for Serena. Yes, it was refreshing to see Bencic to begin fulfil her potential! I get your point but Tsitsipas beat Federer in a best-of-five set match and Medvedev was a whisker away from doing the same against Rafa.
2nd seed Karolina Pliskova has a tricky opener against Kristina Mladenovic while 10th seed Madison Keys could have a battle on her hands against Daria Kasatkina. As for the men, Medvedev (4) should be tested by American next-gen player Frances Tiafoe, although I think he’ll have enough to get through that one unscathed.
A player I don’t have the same confidence in, is Alexander Zverev. He will play Marco Cecchinato in R1, a player who defeated Novak at Roland Garros two years ago. The Italian has struggled for form since that monumental win but with Zverev, an extremely talented player with a volatile temper, you just never know. Stranger things have happened but it couldn’t, could it?
The Aussies and their home advantage – Barty, Kyrgios, Millman
As I mentioned before, I would put Barty in my top four favourites to lift the women’s title. She has an unorthodox game which most players struggle to deal with and will of course, have huge support from the home crowd.
Another reason why I fancy her chances, as opposed to twelve months ago is that she is now a Grand Slam singles champion, after winning at the French last year. That helped set her on route to becoming world number one, so she’ll fancy her chances at home and I think thrive under the pressure too.
Alex de Minaur is a player I’m a huge fan of, so it’s a shame he won’t be in Melbourne this year. I like John Millman, he’s a good player – beat Federer at the US Open two years ago, which underlines this. Millman could possibly face a rematch against the Swiss great in R3, which would be interesting to watch. He’d be the massive underdog but has beaten him before, so could do it again should the situation arise. There are some very good players in that half of thed draw though, so I think the Aussie would struggle to advance past the last-16, provided he beat Roger.
Kyrgios is one of my favourite players too and should enjoy playing in front of his fellow Aussies. There will be a good atmosphere for all of his matches so I expect him to do well, but it’s just whether he can deal with expectations that come with his talent and current form.
A potential R4 encounter against rival Nadal could prove a hurdle too many, as it was for him at Wimbledon last summer. He has beaten Rafa before though, as well as other top players in his half of the draw – Medvedev and Stan Wawrinka. So if he does get past Nadal, he could do the unthinkable and reach a Grand Slam Final. Nick has never lost to Djokovic, his likely opponent should he reach the final, either, so imagine if we were lucky enough to be treated to a final involing those two!
MO: Out of the Big Three, Federer is significantly older and most susceptible to losing in best-of-five format, while I think Rafa almost choked that final! It was crazy but yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that storyline develops over time. Zverev is very much hit-and-miss, so if he starts slowly or misses some easy shots, who knows what can happen with him!
I’m a big fan of Kyrgios too, but the recurring questions have revolved around his niggling injuries when it comes to GS tennis so time will tell, but a potential clash against Nadal – given their history – is mouthwatering!
A lot has been said about the recent bushfires in the country and how the air quality ruined qualifying last week, so what are your thoughts on that? Was it poor on their part to let them play as normal and do you foresee any other problems over the next fortnight if conditions don’t improve?
A year ago, everyone thought Andy Murray was retiring… he won’t feature here, but signs from his comeback are promising – Bob Bryan said he has ‘a lot of years left’ at the top, so does he still have what it takes for a successful return in 2020 and beyond, where he can still challenge for Grand Slams, or is it too late for him? He turns 33 in May.
RP: Yes, that’s true. As we saw with Federer losing in an out-of-form Grigor Dimitrov at the US Open. Perhaps, but Medvedev raised his level massively in the last three sets.
Exactly, I’d be worried if I was in Zverev’s camp for this tournament. Yes, that’s the annoying thing. Nick’s body so often lets him down. Hopefully he can stay healthy and go into that Nadal match fully fit.
Yeah, the bush fires in Australia have been truly terrible to see and I’ve been wondering for weeks how they would affect the Australian Open. I feel sorry for the players in qualifying last week – far from ideal conditions to play in. Ideally, the organisers should have tried to move the qualifiers to a part of the country less affected.
Like Sydney, for example, where the latter stages of the ATP Cup were played. I think players would have appreciated the Open being pushed back a week or two if possible, allowing conditions in Melbourne to improve. But the organisers may have struggled, given how busy the tennis calendar is. Gradually, air quality should improve over the next two weeks with showers likely on some days and hopefully the fires will calm down at the same time too, as rain is expected to fall across the country this fortnight.
Verdict on Andy, his comeback and future Slam plans
RP: I think Andy would be wise to skip the clay-court season this year because it’s a surface he’s struggled on most of his career. That would perhaps open the door for him to return at two of his favourite places to play tennis, the grass-courts of Queens and Wimbledon. The amount of support he’d receive from the British crowd would be a joy to see and that would be my plan, if I was him.
It would likely preserve his body for longer and at this stage of his career, considering the injury trouble he’s had, it would be wise to really start limiting his playing schedule and prioritising certain periods of the year and events, in the way Federer has done in recent years. Given his comeback is proving tricky and he’ll be 33 in a matter of months, I think he can make a positive Tour return, perhaps winning smaller tournaments like Antwerp last year.
In terms of Grand Slams, considering that he’s a week older than the most consistent player around – Djokovic – the Big Three are still playing at a high level and the nextgen players are starting to look very promising, I can’t see him winning another GS.
I hope I’m wrong but I think the best he’ll be able to achieve when returning full-time is a quarter-final berth. He may struggle to get through the opening rounds in some slams but just the fact he’ll return soon, competing again on the biggest stage is so inspiring.
MO: Yeah, I agree with you there! It was poor on their part to not move qualifying back or to a more suitable area – at the very least – but as you say, there’s not much opportunity for flexibility given how busy the calendar really is.
I agree with the Murray sentiment too, it would have been a feel-good moment to see him return twelve months after seemingly retiring here but he’s too critical of himself and knows it wouldn’t have been beneficial to comeback if not feeling 100%.
It’ll be interesting to see how he fares later on, though the fact he beat Wawrinka in that Antwerp run made a lot of critics suggest he can do the same to many other top-ranked players – if not always Novak/Nadal going forward…
Lasting Wozniacki memories and what’s in store for Clijsters’ return?
MO: After her recent announcement, this will be Caroline Wozniacki’s final tournament on tour… it was a surprise but given the increasing trend with players in that age-range retiring earlier, what are your lasting memories from her playing days? How do you feel about them departing, arguably with unfinished business still left in the sport?
Ivanovic/Radwanska/Cibulkova are just a few examples and now Caroline, who had this to say about Kim Clijsters ahead of her proposed return in 2020:
“I think it’s tough,” Wozniacki said. “I personally don’t think she can [be a contender again]. She can prove me wrong. I think tennis has changed in seven years. I don’t think it’s as easy. I don’t know if she thinks it’s easy – I know it’s not as easy as it looks from the outside.”
RP: Exactly. I think if Andy wants to play now it’s on his terms. He’s not going to play in a Slam if not fully fit. Beating Wawrinka was very impressive but having watched the match, Stan certainly took his foot off-the-gas after winning the first set, letting Murray back in. Would he be likely to do that in a Grand Slam? No. Novak and Rafa wouldn’t.
I’ve really enjoyed watching Wozniacki over the years and it will be sad to see her go. But, with her discovering that she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, making it much harder for her to compete, it’s easy to see why she’s having to retire. I remember her bursting onto the scene and becoming world number one aged only 20.
Despite her not having the career that many thought she would go on to have at that point, Caroline has consistently been one of the WTA’s best players and it was so nice to see her finally win a Grand Slam, something which had constantly alluded her, in 2018 at the Asutralian Open, in turn becoming the world number one again like she had done seven-and-a-half years previously.
As for some of the others who retired at similar ages, I think it just comes down to the fact that they’d all had good careers and earned enough monye to enjoy a good quality of life after tennis. None of the players you mentioned fully reached their potential and so, it wasn’t always nice to see them retire without doing so.
But, considering they were all playing in the Serena Williams era where the American has dominated the game and when she hasn’t, a number of good players have and that they’re all now rather wealthy, I somewhat understand their decisions. Caroline of course, is different because she’s having to retire because of health issues.
Clijsters retired to start a family but at the time, it was a big shock because she was still so young. I’m looking forward to seeing how well she can do when returning but as Wozniacki says, it’s been so long since she competed at the highest level that I’m unsure how she’ll get on. We don’t know whether Kim thinks it’s easy or not but she’ll soon find out just how much the game has changed in the seven years since her first departure.
It really will be fascinating to watch whether she can reach the heights she did at the beginning of the last decade.
MO: Yeah, you make a good point about Wozniacki – she was keen to stress that she wasn’t actually retiring due to injury, so presumably some damage limitation or PR spin from her team in that regard. I think compared to Serena, a lot of the WTA’s best will feel like they could have done more, such is her dominance – but ultimately Caroline earned a Grand Slam at the very least, which alludes most throughout their lengthy careers.
I also think the timing of Caroline’s comments regarding Clijsters hasn’t been received well, but the essence of what she’s saying is true – it will be fascinating to see how she returns, whether she’s adapted her game to suit tennis in 2020 and beyond, how long this comeback lasts… but it’s definitely unpredictable across the board, you just never know!
I agree they all will have regrets, though most couldn’t have done much more given how good Serena and a few others have been over the last twenty years. Sharapova is probably the only one without many regrets because although past her prime now, has still been very successful despite struggling in her H2H encounters with Serena. But yes, Wozniacki will be happy that she was able to win one as well, before she retired.
RP: Yeah, I’m not surprised. I’m shocked that Caroline has spoken about Clijsters as bluntly as she has done. It really will be interesting to see what her game is like now, in regards to her age and how long it’s been since she last competed. I hope Kim does have a good crack at this comeback though because she was a great player before she retired.
A big thanks again to Rich for his time with this piece! If you’ve got this far down, I’ll be looking to do more Q&A-type articles like this one with other experts too – like Jack from last month! If you liked this and want to contribute in future, don’t hesitate to contact me.
It’s the first time Rich has featured in my work but won’t be the last, as we’ll discuss topics again either after this Slam or before the next. Be sure to stay tuned for more!