The star turns of 2019 Australian Open

Photo: AFP

Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of 2019, is around the corner. Many upsets are expected in the mega-event in the Land Down Under but these top 10 contenders are among the favourites to win the tournament this time around.  

Novak Djokovic

Losing the ATP Final to Alexander Zverev could not take the gloss off a 2018 season that ended with what Djokovic, now 31, dubbed “five perfect months”. The Serb made an astonishing climb back from outside the world’s top 20 in June, winning Wimbledon and the US Open on the way to reclaiming the number one ranking in November. It was all so different a year ago in Melbourne where a sorry last-16 exit at the hands of South Korea’s Chung Hyeon was followed by elbow surgery and a string of early tournament exits. Now he returns at his supreme athletic best looking for yet another triumph at his favourite Rod Laver Arena where he has won six of his 14 Grand Slams.

Rafael Nadal 

The world number two also endured a disappointing Australian Open exit last year, forced to retire in pain from his quarter-final with Marin Cilic. He missed most of the next three months and has to carefully manage the workload on his creaking 32-year-old body, battered by years of his all-action style. The 17-time Grand Slam winner sensibly cut short his 2018 season after bookending it with another injury retirement in the US Open semi-final. Despite his truncated campaign he still managed to win five tournaments including a record-extending 11th French Open. Worryingly, he pulled out of the Brisbane International last week with a thigh strain but then played an exhibition in Sydney and insists he will be ready for Melbourne.

Roger Federer

Two years ago the Swiss master came to Melbourne being written off as yesterday’s hero only to confound the doubters and his advancing years by lifting a first Grand Slam crown since 2012. Federer hasn’t lost a match at the Aussie Open since his 2016 semi-final defeat to Djokovic and is going for a third successive title and record seventh in all. He also bagged the 2017 Wimbledon crown in between for good measure, and the 37-year-old world number three will take his all-time record Grand Slam tally to 21 if he can summon up the spirit that propelled him to an epic, emotional five-set final win over Marin Cilic last year.

Alexander Zverev

The world number four has widely been touted as the next king of tennis after a breakthrough 2018 season culminated in the 21-year-old German beating Federer and Djokovic in successive days to win the ATP Finals in London in November. But for a player ranked in the top five since September 2017, he punches desperately below his weight in Grand Slams. He has only one quarter-final appearance, losing to Dominic Thiem at the 2018 French Open, to show from his 14 majors to date. He has never made it beyond the last 32 in Melbourne and knows that must change this year if he is confirm his status as the flag-bearer for a new generation.

Nick Kyrgios

Australians would love to see a home winner and Kyrgios may be their best hope but, like most tennis fans, they never know quite what to make of his maverick talent. At his sublime best the world number 51 has an unreturnable serve and the talent to topple anyone, but the temperamental 23-year-old has been talking to psychologists and “trying to get on top” of his mental health after another roller-coaster 2018 season where he was criticised for his on-court antics. “I probably left it a little too long,” he admitted after becoming notorious for his on-court meltdowns — he even needed a controversial umpire pep-talk to get him going during a US Open match. Love him or hate him — but don’t take your eyes off him.

Caroline Wozniacki

The Dane finally broke her Grand Slam hoodoo in Melbourne 12 months ago after 12 years of trying, and is determined to prove she remains a force at the top level after dropping the bombshell that she is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Wozniacki, 28, says the debilitating auto-immune condition is so bad that on some days “I wake up and can’t lift my hands over my head”. The shock diagnosis came after Wozniacki had returned to number one and taken her WTA tour title tally to 30 with victories not only in Melbourne, but also Eastbourne and Beijing. She arrives ranked three believing she can control her condition. “I’ve been feeling well. I’ve learned to cope after matches.”

Simona Halep 

The Romanian bounced back from losing to Wozniacki in an epic Melbourne final 12 months ago to claim her own maiden Slam at Roland Garros and climb back to number one despite a nagging back injury that forced the 27-year-old to miss the WTA Finals in Singapore. Top-seeded Halep is without a coach after long-time Australianmentor Darren Cahill stepped down for family reasons, and described 2018 as “very emotional” but insisted it had made her mentally stronger. “When you have a target on your back it’s not easy because everyone wants to play their best against you and beat you,” she said. “But being number one is something you should embrace and be proud of.”

Angelique Kerber

The Wimbledon champion and world number two will turn 31 on January 18 and is tipped to unveil a more aggressive approach under new coach Rainer Schuttler, who reached the Australian Open final in 2003 where he lost to Andre Agassi. Schuttler will add more “daring” to the 2016 Australian Open champion’s game, said the German Tennis Association’s Barbara Rittner, who helped develop Kerber as a teenager. “In general, it’s about her offensive game,” Rittner told Deutsche Welle of the three-time Grand Slam champion who lost an agonising, breathless semi-final 9-7 in the final set to Halep in Melbourne last year. “She is unbelievably good with the volley -– in this more aggressive, more daring game. I’m sure they’ll work on it.”

Naomi Osaka

The popular 21-year-old’s US Open triumph was overshadowed by Serena Williams’ tantrum in the final at Flushing Meadows but Osaka has the opportunity in Melbourne to demonstrate she can withstand the spotlight of being the new standard bearer for tennis in Japan, Asia and the next generation of women. She arrives as second favourite with the bookies behind Williams, and seems unfazed both by her stratospheric rise and by the prospect of the huge support she could receive at the Australian Open, often dubbed the Asia-Pacific Grand Slam. “I never feel pressure to perform. I enjoy Grand Slams the most,” she said. “There is a certain degree of pressure, but it’s from myself.”

Serena Williams

Despite being ranked outside the top 10, few would be brave enough to count Williams out of the equation as she aims to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. The 37-year-old has won at Melbourne Park seven times, most recently on her last visit in 2017 when she was eight weeks pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia. She has already been installed as a short-priced favourite, with the odds-makers confident she won’t repeat her infamous US Open final meltdown where she called umpire Carlos Ramos “a thief” and was given three code violations to lose a game and derail her challenge. Williams missed the chance to equal the record in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals last season and says she is now avoiding focusing on the numbers. “It truly makes me excited for what’s ahead in 2019,” she said. “I always have crazy big goals but I like to keep them to myself. I think keeping them a bit of a secret helps me do the best I can.”