2018 Australian Open Roundtable: Predictions, Dark Horses and Top Storylines

The SI Staff
Sports Illustrated

With the 2017 Australian Open set to kick off Monday in Melbourne (Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET), SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Richard Deitsch, Stanley Kay and Jamie Lisanti discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.

What player or qualifier do you see being a dark horse or having a big breakthrough this year?

Jon Wertheim: My guess? There will be mini-breakthroughs and continued progress. Denis Shapovalov, Sascha Zverev (who perhaps gets Djokovic in the round of 16), Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alex De Minaur. On the women’s side, Ash Barty is climbing the charts. The enigmatic Camila Giorgi has been terrific this week. But ultimately, look for the blue chips to dominate the second week. (On the women’s side, that includes Angie Kerber, the 2016 champ.) As much as we all like shiny, new things, the contenders are the contenders for a reason.

Richard Deitsch: It’s still a double take to see Angelique Kerber as the No. 21 seed given she was the champion here just 24 months ago. There are signs of a comeback after a disastrous 2017: This week she beat Venus Williams in three sets at the Sydney International and blew Dominika Cibulkova off the court. She’s a title contender in an odd position in draw. Watch her.

Jamie Lisanti: Maria Sharapova is back down under for the first time since 2016—that year she lost in the quarterfinals to Serena, and the year before she posted a runner-up finish, to Serena. As doubles player Bob Bryan referenced to on our podcast recently: if you follow Sharapova on Instagram, it seems as though she’s working really hard to get back into Slam-winning shape. Things on Instagram are not always what they seem, though, and she faces a rather difficult road with possible matches against No. 14-seed Anastasija Sevastova, who defeated her in the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open, and then 2016 champ Angelique Kerber in the third. (Fun fact: Kerber and Sharapova are the only two women in the draw to have won an Australian Open title.) But if she is able to get through the early-round challengers, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Sharapova: her road to the title does not include a stop in Serena-ville.

Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe are all coming off strong performances at the U.S. Open. Who will come into the first major of the year with the most firepower and build on her success in New York?

On the men’s side, I’m excited to see how Denis Shapovalov responds in his first major since his big, breakout performance at the U.S. Open last summer. Thanasi Kokkinakis, still making his way back after a long injury layoff following shoulder surgery, lost in the first round at the U.S. Open last summer but the 21-year-old Aussie is one of those players who could be lifted by a favorable home crowd. He faces Daniil Medvedev in the first round.

Some others: Johanna Konta is a serious threat. Kevin Anderson comes in as the runner-up at the last major—can he do it again?

Stanley Kay: Here’s a prediction that definitely won’t blow up in my face: Nick Kyrgios is going to surprise us in a good way. He has a tough road to the quarterfinals—likely Tsonga or Shapovalov in the third round, Dimitrov in the fourth round—but I think after winning Brisbane, Kyrgios is going to impress us by playing with confidence and even something resembling poise. Plus that difficult draw could actually end up helping Kyrgios, who plays his best against the best competition. Speaking of Shapovalov—I’m required by law to mention him as a dark horse. I rarely ask anything of you, Tennis Gods, but please give us Nick vs. Shapo in the third round.

There’s also 18-year-old Aussie Alex De Minaur, ranked No. 167 and weighing only 152 pounds but off to an extraordinary start this season. De Minaur upset Milos Raonic in Brisbane on his way to the semifinal, and now he’s beaten Fernando Verdasco, Damir Dzumhur, Feliciano Lopez and Benoit Paire on his way to the Sydney final. De Minaur drew a tough matchup in Tomas Berdych, but don’t discount an upset here. Another man to watch: 21-year-old American Jared Donaldson. Donaldson is a fighter, and he’ll have a chance to prove his mettle in the opening round against Albert Ramos-Vinolas. I’d love to see Donaldson get a shot at Novak Djokovic or Gael Monfils in the third round.

Naomi Osaka is another rising star I think merits dark horse status. Only 20, she has already repeatedly shown that she can take down the best players on the biggest stage—think last year’s U.S. Open upset of defending champion Angelique Kerber on Arthur Ashe. She reached the third round in Melbourne in 2016 and the second round last year, and I think she’ll make some noise the next couple weeks.

Osaka won’t win the tournament, but Angie Kerber and Petra Kvitova, both seeded below No. 20, are strong candidates to hoist the trophy. Kerber may have felt the pressure last year after earning the No. 1 ranking, but she’s officially out of the spotlight now—and I think she’ll thrive. By the way, is anyone else already excited for a possible Kvitova–Halep matchup in the third round?

Which top players will crash out early?

Wertheim: Sadly, the mantra for the tournament, if not this year, goes like this: “Health is the variable here.” If Sloane Stephens—winner of the previous major—doesn't get better soon she could be in trouble. Nadal’s knee makes him vulnerable. Same for past champ Stan Wawrinka. And the Djokovic elbow. And Muguruza’s thigh….and….

Lisanti: With a little rust to still shake off after taking the second half of 2017 off due to a knee injury, No. 9-seed Stan Wawrinka could be the first in the top 10 on the men’s side to drop out.

Garbine Muguruza will likely be a popular pick in this department, considering her health and injuries in the lead-up tournaments. But I’ve learned my lesson with Muguruza—bet against her at your peril. Last time the Spaniard was thought to be injured and battling a leg injury heading into a major (Wimbledon 2017) she quietly cruised into the second week and won her second major title.

Deitsch: I could see Jelena Ostapenko losing in the first round to Francesca Schiavone in their first career meeting. Can’t see a long run for Pablo Carreno Busta.

Kay: I have pretty high expectations for Novak Djokovic this year, but I think his first major tournament after his extended absence from the tour could be a challenge—and the draw didn’t do him any favors. He’ll likely face Gael Monfils in the second round, and he could face Alexander Zverev in the fourth round. I’m still worried about Djokovic’s elbow, and I’m guessing his new service motion still feels a bit unnatural.

Simona Halep crashed out of last year’s Australian Open in the first round, and while I doubt she’s in for a similar fate this year, she will likely have to face Petra Kvitova in the third round. Even though Halep has a 3–1 edge in their head-to-head, that’s a tough matchup. Also on upset watch: Sloane Stephens, who faces Zhang Shuai in the opening round. Stephens has yet to win a match since winning the U.S. Open. It’s a new season, but her lone competitive match against Camila Giorgi, a 3–6, 0–6 defeat, didn’t assuage any concerns.

Which first round matches are you most looking forward to?

Wertheim: The matches take on extra weight given the distance traveled to lose early. Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic is rough draw for both. Ostapenko versus Schiavone is an alpha-omega of surprise French Open champs. Monica Puig needs a win and so does Sam Stosur on home soil; one will get it and the other won’t. Young Frances Tiafoe has the misfortune or drawing Juan Martin del Potro. Young Alex DiMinaur against Tomas Berdych. And of course Novak Djokovic—playing his first match in many months—against Donald Young.

Deitsch: I’m definitely watching Novak Djokovic against Donald Young given all eyes will be on Novak given it’s his first match since Wimbledon. Same situation for Stan Wawrinka, who returns to play Ricardis Berankis. Venus Williams against former world No. 7 Belinda Bencic is a good one. So is Juan Martin del Potro against the young, talented American, Frances Tiafoe.

Lisanti: Upset watch is the theme for Sloane Stephens vs. Zhang Shuai. 19-year-old Sofia Kenin is a fighter and could give No. 12-seed Julia Goerges a battle. (Kenin took a set off Wozniacki in Auckland earlier this month before falling in three sets.) Ash Barty­ vs. Belarus’ 6-foot, 19-year-old rising star Aryna Sabalenka is circled on my drawsheet. I love the contrast of a rising Andrey Rublev vs. a waning David Ferrer. Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Denis Shapolov is a battle for the Flavor of the Month medal.

Kay: It’s hard to narrow down. I don’t expect Donald Young to upset Novak Djokovic, but I’m looking forward to watching Djokovic compete once again at a Slam. Frances Tiafoe–Juan Martin del Potro should be a lot of fun. I think Andrey Rublev–David Ferrer could be an entertaining match between two players on opposite sides of their career. And Denis Shapovalov taking on Stefanos Tsitsipas in a major is an ATP NextGen fantasy.

On the women’s side, the match I’m looking forward to most is Venus Williams–Belinda Bencic. I’m curious to see whether Venus can carry over her 2017 major success into this year. Bencic has plateaued since her stellar 2015 season, but she’s still only 20 with plenty of promise. I’m also befuddled by Sloane Stephens’s abysmal play since winning the U.S. Open—she hasn’t won a match since beating Madison Keys in the final in Flushing Meadows—so I think her match with Zhang Shuai is one to watch. Andrea Petkovic–Petra Kvitova is worth watching as well.

Name one offbeat and/or off-court story you will be following during this year’s Australian Open.

Wertheim: Will any players decline to play on/in Margaret Court Arena, a venue named for tennis champion who happens to be a bigot as well? The coaching carousel spun wildly this off-season; which new pairings will sing in harmony? And which won’t? The never-ending psychodrama that is Nick Kyrgios’s career will provide another installment, this one with a local flavor. How will Angie Kerber—the 2016 winner—rebound from a dismal 2017?

Lisanti: Injuries, injuries, injuries—will any player speak out about the notable absences from the tournament and demand change?

Victoria Azarenka’s absence at the second-straight major is starting to sting. We feel for Vika’s situation with her ongoing custody battle and it’s definitely a story I will be monitoring until a resolution is reached.

Deitsch: I’m looking forward to watching Mary Carillo’s Real Sports interview with Margaret Court in Australia, which will debut on the season premiere of the show on Jan. 30. Carillo detailed her four-day visit and interview with Court here. I’m also interested if we will hear from Serena during the fortnight. I highly recommend reading this Vogue cover story.

Kay: Sure, I'm intrigued by the Margaret Court question, as well as how Serena Williams and Andy Murray will overcome the incredible adversity they're currently facing. But by far the biggest storyline of the tournament is Fabio Fognini's fashion sense. Fognini apparently called his outfit an "Italian look," which—well, just see for yourself.

I have many questions.

Who will win the men's title?

Wertheim: Federer. A year ago, the pick would have been dismissed as sentimentalist wishful thinking. But how do you pick against Federer to repeat? He’s the defending champ. He’s healthier than most of the other contenders. He’s Federer. Yes, 36 is a big number. So is 19. There was a time when “Novak Djokovic in Australia” was verging on “Nadal in Paris.” But Djokovic’s bum elbow is cause for concern. Nadal’s knee/wrist combo is similarly problematic as well. And Sascha Zverev and Nick Kyrgios—talented as both are—still need to prove themselves in best-of-five matches before they can be considered favorites.

Deitsch: Grigor Dimitrov will be a trendy pick here but I also think it’s the correct one. He’s in his athletic prime at 26, finished the year No. 3 and has the motivation of never having won a major. Last year he made the semifinals in Australia before losing to Nadal in five sets (and 6-4 in the fifth). This year he gets to the finish line. (I must admit that a potential fourth round match against Nick Krygios scares the hell out of me regarding picking Dimitrov.)

Lisanti: I want to be creative and different and experimental here, but someone is holding me back: he’s 6’1” and 36 years old and his name is Roger Federer. The big 2-0 milestone will be achieved in Melbourne.

Kay: As if Roger Federer needed any other advantages, he received a pretty favorable draw. I think the 19-time major champion will make it 20 in Melbourne.

Who will win the women's title?

Wertheim: Open up and say “ah.” No, open wider. Such is the cavernous nature of the women’s field. Especially with Serena Williams out on maternity leave. Caroline Wozniacki, winner in Singapore, must be high on the contender list. Same for Garbine Muguruza who seeks a hardcourt title to cement (no pun intended) her excellence after winning on grass and clay. But for the all the ambient unpredictability, we’ll go conventional and take the top seed. That would be Simona Halep who is due to win a major.

Deitsch: I think I have picked Simona Halep to win titles in this space at least five times. You say I am insane? I say thank you very much. I would have picked Halep before I saw the draw, but now I’m going with Elina Svitolina, who won the Brisbane International last week. The 23-year-old Ukrainian looks ready to breakthrough.

Lisanti: No. 1 Simona Halep is going to be the trendy pick here, and rightfully so. The Romanian came oh-so-close to winning her first major in 2017, and after a positive offseason and hot start to 2018 with a title in Shenzhen, it seems like it’s finally time for the 26-year-old to raise the trophy. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to come in Melbourne for Halep. No. 2-seed Caroline Wozniacki is the next-best choice, but I’m not picking her either.

Though she has a tough first-rounder to get through, Venus Williams will win the 2018 Australian Open. A finalist last year, the 37-year-old will finally be victorious in Melbourne, *two decades* after her first appearance. What’s not to love about that?

Kay: I like Angie Kerber’s chances. After an excellent 2016 that saw her earn two major titles and the No. 1 ranking, Kerber struggled last year, failing to reach a Slam quarterfinal and falling outside the top 20. But the German has looked sharp in Sydney, earning hard-fought victories against Lucie Safarova and Venus Williams before cruising by Dominika Cibulkova and Camila Giorgi. She’s in great form to start the season, and I think it carries over in Melbourne.

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