Sunday, 16 January 2011

Australian Open Preview

As with seemingly all Grand Slams in this blessed generation of tennis, history can be made in Melbourne this fortnight at the Australian Open. Winning the tournament would see Nadal achieve what will become known as the 'Rafa Slam', holding all four Grand Slam trophies at one time (collected over two calendar years). Rod Laver (in 1969) is the only other player in the Open Era to achieve this feat, while only Don Budge did so before Laver. With the man labelled by many the 'Greatest of All Time' as one of Rafa's contemporaries, should Nadal win the title, it will be a truly remarkable achievement, probably the greatest the game has ever seen. Meanwhile, if Nadal, or any player other than Federer, lifts the trophy on January 30, it will be the first time since 2003, before he had even won his first, that the Swiss will not have held a major trophy.

With so much history at stake, will Rafa win the title? It is now clear that Nadal, not Federer, must be considered automatic favourite for Grand Slams, regardless of surface, and will be the favourite for this one too. His hindrances will be the strength of the field, with Nadal likely to have to play his very best tennis in at least two matches to win (not one person who watched Wimbledon and the US Open last year can doubt Nadal's ability to do this). But anyone inevitably has a bad day at the office on occasion, which only makes Nadal's consistent brilliance over the majority of 2010 on all surfaces all the more startling; while Nadal has also admitted that he is still suffering from illness – needless to say an under-strength Nadal is far more vulnerable than a fully fit one, especially against a player of Federer's ability.
Meanwhile, the Swiss has made improvements to his consistency since hiring Paul Annacone as coach after quarter-final defeats at the French Open and Wimbledon, which is looking a very positive partnership indeed. While so little can be based upon performances in the lesser tournaments, a characteristic of the modern game and testament to the big-occasion mentalities of Roger and Rafa that they invariably find themselves at the business-end of tournaments despite the great hurdles, Federer's recent performances, including regaining the ATP Tour Championship in November, have been encouraging. Despite his recent inconsistencies, making too many errors in important matches, Federer must still be considered one of the likeliest winners of the tournament.

Not only is this generation blessed with several potential winners of the trophy, even with Nadal and Federer in the field, but the Australian Open is also often the most unpredictable of majors. The off-season work of the chasing pack, in particular Djokovic, Murray and Soderling, will be revealed as they hope to have improved enough to seize a title from the game's two dominant forces. Like with every Grand Slam build-up, the analysis of Murray is the same: of course he can win. 

With every defeat Murray seems paradoxically closer, yet further away from winning an historic first major. Murray, with an added mental toughness he claims to have gained, could undoubtedly lift the trophy. But, nowhere near as consistent as Nadal on the big occasion, Murray so often loses to the same type of player: big hitters with little variation. So a forecast quarter final versus Soderling will provide a great test to this weakness; should Murray triumph, he might just go all the way.

Several players can win. Several can cause upsets too, so who will come out on top? As with the US Open I am very cautious in predicting because of the openness of the field, while I say with mild big-headedness that I correctly forecast the winners of all four majors last year (though in the immediate build-up to the tournament like here). 

I think Federer will beat Soderling in the final. I feel very uneasy not picking Nadal having backed him in each of his last three victories, but I see Soderling or Murray beating him in the semi-finals this time. I think the winner of Soderling/Murray, itself very tough to predict (should they both reach that stage), will reach the final but fall short against Federer (who I'm backing to emerge from the half of the draw which also contains Novak Djokovic), with the winner likely to be tired following gruelling quarter- and semi-finals.

As for a surprise-package, I am far worse at predicting these, and my outside pick is always beaten early on. Many eyes will be on 18-year-old potential great Bernard Tomic, who, in front of his home crowd, could face Nadal in Round Three. Philipp Kohlschreiber is my other pick, who is drawn with Tomas Berdych, completely out of sorts since his Wimbledon final, in Round Two. He could reach the quarter-finals. Predictions are, however, a tricky business as this promises to be the most open and exciting and historic Grand Slam since, well, the last one.