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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 April 2019

Australian Open predictions: Will Roger Federer hold off Novak Djokovic to retain title?

The first major of the season begins on Monday as the ATP and WTA Tours arrive at Melbourne Park

The last two of the six Australian Open men's singles titles Roger Federer has won came in 2017 and 2018. Daniel Pockett / EPA
The last two of the six Australian Open men's singles titles Roger Federer has won came in 2017 and 2018. Daniel Pockett / EPA

The first grand slam tournament of the 2019 tennis season gets under way at Melbourne Park on Monday as the world's best players compete at the Australian Open.

Ahead of the opening matches, The National's sports desk provide their predictions, attempting to forecast the winners, surprises and disappointments of the year's first major.

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MEN'S CHAMPION

Jon Turner, Assistant Sports Editor

Roger Federer. There is no denying that the game's greatest player is nearing the end of his incomparable career, his increasingly selective schedule a reflection of his twilight years. But it's at the start of a new season when Federer, 37, is at his most effective, and he arrives in Melbourne ready to defend his title.

The Swiss was in fine fettle at the Hopman Cup in Perth, swatting aside world No 4 Alexander Zverev in the final to round off his preparations perfectly.

Realistically, it could only be Novak Djokovic who stands in his way, but it will be Federer standing tall with his 21st - and possibly last - major title come the final Sunday.

Novak Djokovic has already won the Australian Open singles title six times, plus he is in great form. Mast Irham / EPA
Novak Djokovic has already won the Australian Open singles title six times, plus he is in great form. Mast Irham / EPA

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil, Assistant Sports Editor

Novak Djokovic. He is world No 1 and the form player at the moment. Since his comeback from injury last year, he is playing somewhat at his best and won the last two grand slam tournaments of 2018 - Wimbledon and the US Open.

What's scary about Djokovic's chance to win this year is that, even when the Fab Four of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and himself were in their prime, it was the Serb who still dominated proceedings in Melbourne to lift the trophy six times. The last two of Federer's six Australian Open titles came when Djokovic was struggling with fitness. The Swiss master seems the only player who can challenge Djokovic at the moment, seeing that Murray and Nadal are struggling, and the emerging players are not quite there yet. This title is Djokovic's to lose.

Kevin Anderson has reached the finals of the Wimbledon and US Open. Michael Dodge / Getty Images
Kevin Anderson has reached the finals of the Wimbledon and US Open. Michael Dodge / Getty Images

Graham Caygill, Sports Editor

Kevin Anderson. The South African proved in 2018 he is the real deal and that his run to the US Open final in 2017 was no fluke. He has a powerful serve but also plays a great game from the back of the court and has a level temperament.

His mental strength was on show at Wimbledon last year when he came from two sets down to beat Federer, before surviving an epic semi-final with John Isner.

He has a good half of the draw and, if can get some momentum, has a decent chance of making to the last four. He has all the tools to make it third time lucky and be successful in a grand slam final.

MEN'S SURPRISE

Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut is playing some great tennis lately. Karim Jaafar / AFP
Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut is playing some great tennis lately. Karim Jaafar / AFP

JT: Roberto Bautista Agut. No player has enjoyed a better start to 2019 than the unassuming Spaniard. Trailing a set and a break to Djokovic in the Qatar Open semi-final, Bautista Agut produced a stunning fightback to eliminate the world No 1, before defeating Tomas Berdych in the final. A player with no specific weapons but no discernible weaknesses either, Bautista Agut's game is founded on solid groundstrokes and endurance - ideal for a best-of-five-set hardcourt tournament, then. Given his start to the year, a run to the quarter-finals will be the least the world No 23 should expect.

Russia's Karen Khachanov is fast emerging a player to watch out for. Suhaib Salem / Reuters
Russia's Karen Khachanov is fast emerging a player to watch out for. Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Cb: Karen Khachanov. The Russian world No 11 has been in impressive form lately, winning the Paris Masters two months ago by beating Djokovic in straight sets in the final. He then showcased his talents in Abu Dhabi where he reached the semi-finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. Granted it is not an official tournament and the matches are best-of-threes, but his back-to-back victories over Dominic Thiem have to count for something. This is not to say he will win the tournament; he will most likely meet Marin Cilic and then Federer, last year's finalists, in succession, so he has a tricky draw. But do not discount this young Russian's hunger to pull off a huge upset.

Daniil Medvedev's game is in good nick with his run to the final in Brisbane, and he has the game to trouble the top players. Tertius Pickard / AP Photo
Daniil Medvedev's game is in good nick with his run to the final in Brisbane, and he has the game to trouble the top players. Tertius Pickard / AP Photo

GC: Daniil Medvedev. The world No 16 has never been beyond the third round of a major but he can change that here. His game is in good nick with his run to the final in Brisbane and he has the game to trouble the top players. World No 1 Djokovic is a potential fourth-round opponent, but if he plays like he did in patches in Brisbane then the 22-year-old Russian can cause the Serb real problems.

MEN'S DISAPPOINTMENT

Australia's Nick Kyrgios has slipped far down the rankings. Jason DeCrow / AP Photo
Australia's Nick Kyrgios has slipped far down the rankings. Jason DeCrow / AP Photo

JT: Nick Kyrgios. Granted, the hype and expectation are not what they have been in previous years, but the home crowd are set to be disappointed once again by the precociously talented yet frustratingly disinterested Kyrgios. A player of grand slam-winning potential, 23-year-old Kyrgios has fallen outside of the top 50 and is no longer Australia's highest ranked player. He appears to genuinely despise being on court, but luckily for him he won't have to spend too much time on one - first-round opponent Milos Raonic will make sure of that.

Hyeon Chung of South Korea has done well at Melbourne Park in the past, but perhaps not this year. Daniel Pockett / Getty Images
Hyeon Chung of South Korea has done well at Melbourne Park in the past, but perhaps not this year. Daniel Pockett / Getty Images

Cb: Hyeon Chung. The bespectacled South Korean made a name for himself by beating Djokovic in the fourth round before eventually reaching the semi-finals of last year's Australian Open. He became the face of Asian tennis as the older, more experienced Kei Nishikori was struggling with injury. Remember, too, that Naomi Osaka had not won the US Open title at that point.

But Chung's form has dropped since, and Nishikori has reclaimed his place at the top of tennis in the continent. Judging by the way he played in Abu Dhabi, where he lost his only match, to Kevin Anderson at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship after testing the South African, there is hope yet that the 22 year old will slowly find his footing again. But that's not likely to happen in Melbourne.

Liked Hyeon Chung, Kyle Edmund also reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters
Liked Hyeon Chung, Kyle Edmund also reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters

GC: Kyle Edmund. No one apart from maybe the most ardent Edmund supporter would expect the British No 1 to win the tournament, so it is not a disappointment in that regard. But the world No 14 will do well to make the second week in Melbourne, let alone match his semi-final run of 12 months ago. He is not in great form and Tomas Berdych is a tough first opponent. He may survive Berdych but he will do well to go deep in the tournament and an early exit, and a hefty drop of ranking points, seems the most likely outcome.

WOMEN'S CHAMPION

Aryna Sabalenka is the player to bat in women's tennis right now. Mark Schiefelbein / AP Photo
Aryna Sabalenka is the player to bat in women's tennis right now. Mark Schiefelbein / AP Photo

JT: Aryna Sabalenka. Following on from Naomi Osaka's US Open victory, another of the WTA Tour's future stars can cement her status among the elite. Sabalenka, 20, kick-started her season by winning the Shenzhen Open title for her third career win. The Belarusian's powerful game has seen her blast past many of the world's top players, and expect her to do the same at the Australian Open. It might be a few tournaments early, but the world No 11 has a good a chance as any of lifting the Daphne Akhurst trophy.

Angelique Kerber is ever cautious, but she has a great chance to win a second Australian Open title. Scott Barbour / Getty Images
Angelique Kerber is ever cautious, but she has a great chance to win a second Australian Open title. Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Cb: Angelique Kerber. The world No 2 may not have had the ideal preparations, being blown away in straight sets by Petra Kvitova in the Sydney International quarter-finals, but the German is a better player at grand slam tournaments. She won the title in Melbourne in 2016 and was narrowly beaten by an in-form Simona Halep in last year's semi-finals.

Fresh from a fine 2018 season, Kerber also has a friendly draw, and with women's tennis continuing to be open with no single dominant player - aside from Serena Williams - in the competition, this could well be her year.

The American Serena Williams is on a bid to make history in the women's game. Michael Dodge / Getty Images
The American Serena Williams is on a bid to make history in the women's game. Michael Dodge / Getty Images

GC: Serena Williams. The American has played little tennis since her controversial US Open final loss to Naomi Osaka and she looked rusty at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi last month.

But the 23-time major winner proved with her runs to the 2018 Wimbledon and US Open finals that she did not need to be at her best to go deep in grand slams.

Another unpredictable tournament looks likely with plenty of the top players out of sorts, which could open up things for Williams. She still has terrific power from the baseline, and with more match time her movement will improve. This could be where the historic 24th slam, and first since becoming a mother, is achieved.

WOMEN'S SURPRISE

Switzerland's Belinda Bencic is on a comeback and has done well on court in the run-up to the Australian Open. Rob Blakers / EPA
Switzerland's Belinda Bencic is on a comeback and has done well on court in the run-up to the Australian Open. Rob Blakers / EPA

JT: Belinda Bencic. After two years of injury disruption, the 21-year-old Swiss looks to be heading in the right direction. The former world No 7, alongside Federer, helped Switzerland defend the Hopman Cup and took Serena Williams to three sets in the group stages. In her first WTA Tour event of the year, Bencic reached the semi-finals at the Hobart International, and appears to be closing in on the form that made her a top-10 player. A run to the second week in Melbourne could be on the cards.

Madison Keys has been consistent at grand slam competitions. over the past nearly five years. Scott Barbour / Getty Images
Madison Keys has been consistent at grand slam competitions. over the past nearly five years. Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Cb: Madison Keys. Have a cursory glance at the American's record at grand slam tournaments and you will probably wonder why she is not ranked higher. The world No 17 has reached the semi-finals of two of the four majors at least once: the Australian Open (2015) and the French Open (2018). She has made it to the last four at the US Open twice (2017 and 2018); in 2017, she reached the final before losing to Sloane Stephens.

At 23, she is also very young. Keys has a brilliant first serve and with more consistency on the key points, she could go all the way to win the title. At the very least she should go deep in the draw.

In-form Ashleigh Barty will have home support as she bids for her first grand slam singles title. Craig Golding / EPA
In-form Ashleigh Barty will have home support as she bids for her first grand slam singles title. Craig Golding / EPA

GC: Ashleigh Barty. The Australian proved she has no-one to fear in the draw by beating world No 1 Simona Halep in Sydney last week en route to reaching the final where she narrowly lost to Petra Kvitova. The world No 15 has a good draw, and with Jelena Ostapenko a possible third-round opponent, she will be disappointed not to be in the mix come the second week.

WOMEN'S DISAPPOINTMENT

Simona Halep is the world's best player and reached the Australian Open final last year, but her build-up has been far form ideal. Edgar Su / Reuters
Simona Halep is the world's best player and reached the Australian Open final last year, but her build-up has been far form ideal. Edgar Su / Reuters

JT: Simona Halep. The world No 1 and last year's finalist, Halep enters the Australian Open lacking match fitness. Out of action since October after suffering a herniated disc, the 27-year-old Romanian made a losing return to the WTA Tour at the Sydney International.

Halep is likely to face Venus Williams in the third round, and should she get beyond that challenge, could take on the American's sister, Serena, in the fourth round. It would be a surprise if Halep makes it to the second week.

The spotlight is on Naomi Osaka, and she may struggle with that at Melbourne Park this year. Mast Irham / EPA
The spotlight is on Naomi Osaka, and she may struggle with that at Melbourne Park this year. Mast Irham / EPA

Cb: Naomi Osaka. Her US Open win last year changed the life of Japan's first ever grand slam champion. She concedes she receives plenty more attention these days, but the 21 year old will do well to expect even more of it at the Australian Open, which is billed as the "Asia-Pacific" major.

Besides, Osaka is likely to feel the pressure while playing in the first grand slam tournament since winning in New York, eager to prove that was no fluke. But having, most likely, to face two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in the third round will do her few favours.

Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 11, 2019 - Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki trains. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 11, 2019 - Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki trains. REUTERS/Edgar Su

GC: Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane’s long wait for her first major finally came to an end last year when she beat Halep in a superb final. Since then, however, it has been largely mediocre stuff from the world No 3 with second-round exits at Wimbledon and the US Open.

She heads to Melbourne with no form to speak of and getting to the second week would be an achievement in itself, left alone defending her title. Wozniacki will be on her way back to Europe long before the business end of the tournament kicks off.

Updated: January 13, 2019 11:06 AM

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