Australian Open Preview and Seed Report

It’s time for the first major of the year.  The offseason wasn’t as long as I thought it would be and now it seems like everything gets going a little too quickly.  What makes the Australian Open so important is the fact that it shows off who had good training and is ready to go right away since many players have had only one real event to get the rust off.

Can Novak Djokovic win his 3rd Australian Open title?

Personally, I like this major because it’s the easiest to watch time-wise as an American.  Action starts at 7 each night and there will be live streaming of 7 of the courts from Melbourne Park for at least the first week.

Originally, the plan was to do a bigger preview to go over the various storylines that you should look for going into the first big tournament of the new year.  However, I realized quickly that a lot of those type of discussion topics are essentially just naming a player and saying things like “Can they win a major?” “Will they bounce back?” or “Will they repeat 2011?”

Instead, what follows are some topics and important things to think about during the next two weeks, followed by capsules about the 32 seeded players from both the men’s and women’s singles draws.  It’s easier just to assess where each player is at this time rather than write a guestimated article about why Azarenka or Murray can finally break their duck.

-2012 is a big year in the grand scheme of things for the game. Everything points to it being the great transitional period between generations.  Many of the top women’s players are young and ready to start to connect the dots even further and the older players are either breaking down, not getting the results they used to and/or contemplating retirement.  This year appears to be the year that it becomes all about Novak and Andy rather than Rafa and Roger.  If the latter two can still be as effective is a very interesting debate topic and it would be crazy to think they’re going too far away.

-The Olympics- Not directly related to this upcoming tournament but the London Games could signify the Great Transition.  This event is the most popular it has ever been for the sport since it returned in the 80’s and it could also form a natural end point for a few careers (hello Kim Clijsters?) It is played on grass, which makes it unique in its own right and could give a player like Roger Federer a rare piece of motivation to win something that he never has before.

-Injuries- Can’t be ignored.  We saw the likes of Federer, Williams x2, Clijsters, Lisicki, Petkovic and Soderling among others all have something bother them coming into the beginning of the year.  A couple of them had to withdraw entirely from the Aussie Open and the others are fighting on at maybe less than 100%. This means that there could be even more uncertainty than normal simply because we don’t know if the big -time players will be able to go the requisite 7 rounds to grab a title.

-Will we see dominance at the top of both tours?-It certainly appears that could be the case.  Novak Djokovic lost only a handful of matches and came oh-so-close to winning a calendar Grand Slam a year ago.  Early word is he’s expecting to do even better this year.  Petra Kvitova has a penchant for losing her game at times.  However, big wins at Wimbledon and the WTA Championships last year suggest she’s ready to take the next step.  These two are the natural early season picks to finish 2012 at the top.

With that, here’s a look at the seeds for the 2012 Australian Open.  My picks will be in tomorrow.

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MEN

1. Novak Djokovic-He’s been surprisingly honest the entire time he’s been #1.  I highly respect Novak and so do the other players.  It’s a tough task to expect him to win 3 majors again this year but he has won 2 Aussies already and I’d be dumb to not call him the favorite.  Just stay healthy and the results will come.

2. Rafael Nadal-Will this be the major that he crashes out earlier than we expect?  Most likely not, since his level usually peaks for the big tournaments like it’s supposed to.  But if his stock was ever dropping this is the time.  A pedestrian fall (Davis Cup not withstanding) and slow beginning of the year (losses to Ferrer in an exho and Monfils in Doha) could see him as the third or fourth favorite to win the event.  If he draws Tsonga or Berdych in the quarters, I have no qualms picking them.

3. Roger Federer-Fed is not immune to early round struggles Down Under.  Last year, Gilles Simon gave him all he could handle in the second round.  Still, I’ve never watched a major where he lost before the quarterfinals and it would be outrageous to think he wouldn’t get that far.  Once he’s there, the real fun begins.  As last year showed, he is now the third and maybe fourth best player.  Still good, just not great anymore.  A bad back doesn’t help matters.

4. Andy Murray-Is it mean or just true to say that his ceiling and floor in Australia is the final?  As with his entire career, it is not smart to pick him to win a major until he actually does it.  But he has the tools and talent to do it, yadda, yadda, yadda.

5. David Ferrer-Grinder who is playing arguably the best tennis of his career.  His best bet is if he’s drawn into Rafa’s quarter.

6. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-I always pick him to go deep no matter where the event is.  The fact that his best major is Australia means he’s a definite threat.  If at his peak, can make the final no matter who is in his way.

Will Jo-Wilfried Tsonga be dancing at the end of the tournament?

7. Tomas Berdych-I used to dislike him but he’s starting to come around.  Has a game big enough for greatness.  2011 seemed like he just sort of treaded water.  A big fall season has made me think his stock is rising.

8. Mardy Fish-The momentum he gained last year is kind of stalling…had a horrible Aussie Open last year and could gain big points there if all is right with his game.

9. Janko Tipsarevic-For all of the good he had in the second half of last year, the honeymoon phase has run its course in my mind.

10. Nicolas Almagro-Slowerish hard court in Australia should suit his game, ceiling is to match 4R result from last year

11. Juan Martin del Potro-Okay, we gave you a year to get back on track.  Now, my favorite of the ‘top players’ needs to make the push toward the top 5.  Has to take charge of matches and not play to his opponents’ level.

12. Gilles Simon-Recovered his rightful ranking and has proven that he belongs in the top 15.  Lacks that extra gear to push ahead further.

13. Alexander Dolgopolov-Funky, skunky kind of game.  A lot of people keep saying he’s destined for the top 10.  If he backs up his good showing here from a year ago I may buy into that.  Still think he makes the most damage on clay.

14. Gael Monfils-When you watch him you’re guaranteed a smile.  A win?….That’s completely unclear.

15. Andy Roddick-My biggest question for him is whether or not he will do his new radio show from Australia during all of this.  I will root for him with all of my might.

16. John Isner-Big John is poised to make a big run this year.  Had Murray on the ropes in New York before succumbing in 4 sets.  In my estimation, the American with the biggest potential/statement to make on the game in 2012.

17. Richard Gasquet- I have learned to never expect anything great out of him.  That way, when he does something worthwhile it becomes a nice surprise.

18. Feliciano Lopez-Riding through on a career high ranking.  Quite the accomplishment considering he’s on the wrong side of age 30, which is seemingly the point when everyone says tennis careers go south.  His serve makes him a dangerous player.

19. Viktor Troicki-Form and game heading in the wrong direction, fast.  Is it me or does he always draw Djokovic. Checking…..yes! Has lost 10 straight against his good friend since 2009.  A very mentally weak player who has shown that penchant time and again (see: Roland Garros 2011 R16 vs. Andy Murray)

20. Florian Mayer-Injury concerns.  Never a good thing to start the year with.  I honestly could expect anything out of him in this tournament.

21. Stanislas Wawrinka-Stan just lost to something called Go Soeda in his warmup event.   Has QF points to defend but his game is moving in the opposite direction than it did at this time a year ago.

22. Fernando Verdasco-Will always be remembered for his inspired run to the Australian semis in 2009 and then giving Nadal all he could in that match.  For now, a shred of consistency is all we’re looking for out of the irritable Spaniard.  I hope he clears the slate completely and makes an effort to get back toward the top 10 this year.

Already possessing a great serve, Canadian Milos Raonic is ready to take the next step

23. Milos Raonic-The Raonic Train is back at full steam with a title in Chennai to start the season.  He did a lot of damage at the beginning of the year last year to break onto the scene.  Included in that was winning a total of 6 matches in Melbourne.

24. Kei Nishikori-The pride of Japan had an amazing fall to boost him up this high.  Now that he can’t be Project 45 anymore, do they call him Project 10? 5? 1?

25. Juan Monaco-He’s really ranked this high?

26. Marcel Granollers-Another player ripe for the taking.

27. Juan Ignacio Chela- The seed everyone wants to draw.

28. Ivan Ljubicic-If the old man makes the trip, never doubt his abilities.  He will still be schooling players when he’s in his 50’s.

29. Radek Stepanek-Funky, serve-and-volley game gets him two wins at the Open.  Why did Nicole Vaidisova marry him!?

30. Kevin Anderson-Injury forced him to withdraw from an event this year already.  His serve can make him competitive but I don’t see him going very far.

31. Jurgen Melzer-As his singles ranking has plummeted, his doubles game has improved.  Defends 4R points so this may be the last time he’s seeded at a slam for a while.

32. Alex Bogomolov Jr.-So cool that Bogo is seeded even though he now represents Russia.  I still will root for him and it’s hard not to given his big rise in the rankings last year.  He has a really cool story and finally his talent is showing.

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WOMEN

1. Caroline Wozniacki-Let’s not forget that she reached SF of two hard court slams in 2011.  Played at Na’s level for a majority of their semifinal here.  Can get hit off the court but is classy enough of a player to not get beaten mentally.

All eyes will be on Petra Kvitova in Melbourne

2. Petra Kvitova-Until I see something different, she’s the favorite to win the tournament.  Her outdoor record does have a few holes but made a good run to QF last year.

3. Victoria Azarenka-Like how she’s been playing.  I fully expect her to make the quarters.  As I’ve been burned before picking her, I won’t expect but would be pleasantly surprised by a result better than that.

4. Maria Sharapova-Head says 4th round, heart says final. It seems like I’ve picked her to win the last 21 majors.

5. Li Na-Your guess is as good as mine.  An early exit will be a big hit to her ranking.

6. Samantha Stosur-When she loses they will say it was because of the pressure.  I think it will be simply because she was not the better player on court that day.  After the US Open she’s proved she can handle pressure.  She better hope she doesn’t draw Maria Kirilenko

7. Vera Zvonareva-Use the draw for clues. Anything beyond the 3rd round for her can be predicted through head-to-head history.  Still my favorite no matter what happens.

8. Agnieszka Radwanska-Can she match or exceed expectations?  This tournament is a big chance to do so.

9. Marion Bartoli-Looked super fit and very fresh at the Hopman Cup.  Still a threat to be upset but if she’s plugged up the holes in her game can match up with nearly everyone.

10. ***Andrea Petkovic***-I hadn’t had the chance to write about her before she was forced to withdraw.  Would have been a threat to go deep as evidenced by her 3 Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances in 2011.

10. Francesca Schiavone-Played the match of the year Down Under last year.  The women’s player I respect the most for her fight.  I expect the 4th round out of her.

This might be the last time for 'Aussie Kim' to win Down Under

11. Kim Clijsters-Will injuries deprive her of the rest of her career?  After taking a long rest it seemed as though she was completely fit to begin the year.  If healthy, has a great chance to defend her title.

12. Serena Williams-Wayyyyy too many question marks for the elder Williams.  That was before she hurt her ankle in Brisbane.  Always a threat to do well and it will take an effort like that from Sam Stosur at the US Open to bounce her from the tournament.

13. Jelena Jankovic-I always kind of forget about her and am quite frankly surprised she remains this well-ranked.

14. Sabine Lisicki-Pulled out of Auckland warmup with injury. Hadn’t been playing/serving well before that.  Ripe for an early exit.  Still too cute to root against.

15. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova-Hmmmmm, Nastia seemingly began to break through with two slam quarterfinals last year.  However, early season struggles leave more question marks than ever.  The serve remains an issue and if she can’t get cheap points/points started with it that makes it even more of a struggle.

16. Shuai Peng-I get the feeling she’s reached her ceiling.  Most would kill to be in her position.

17.Dominika Cibulkova-If she plays Wozniacki yet again I won’t be surprised…and I would pick her to win.  Finally broke through and won a title late last year and sports more power than ever.

18. Svetlana Kuznetsova-Has already won 4 matches in the early season and fell victim to heat illness in Sydney.  Was on the bad end of the epic vs. Schaivone last year and can accomplish anything here.

19. Flavia Pennetta-QF appearance is New York has seemed to pump some life back into the spicy Italian.  No shame in withdrawing in the Auckland final and all reports have her playing some good ball at the moment.

20. Daniela Hantuchova-Don’t let her appearance in the Brisbane final fool you.  It took a lot of luck and magic to happen.

21. Ana Ivanovic-Oddly enough it’s kind of against the odds for her to reach the second week.

22. Julia Goerges-Just sort of hanging around.  Better get her act together before clay court season.

23. Roberta Vinci-Not enough power or pace to do much damage.

24. Lucie Safarova-Benefits from the Petkovic withdrawal with a bump up in seeding to avoid top 8 in 3rd round.  If her head is on right, I can see her winning more than 2 rounds.  Being a lefty always helps and she can trouble top players

25. Kaia Kanepi-On fire at the moment.  Her stock has severely been trending upward.  Her title run in Brisbane was not only impressive because of who she beat but the scores that she won by.  Kanepi has a serve that is one of the most effective in the game and if she can reign in her groundstrokes she will be a very tough out.  A player none of the top-8 want to draw into their section of the draw.

26. Anabel Medina Garrigues-Grinder that prefers clay courts but is classy enough to get through the first couple of rounds.

Like I'd post a picture of Maria Kirilenko actually playing tennis

27. Maria Kirilenko-She better hope she draws Sam Stosur.  If this were a hotness bracket, she’d be my pick to win.

28. Yanina Wickmayer-Please be healthy this year.

29. Nadia Petrova-I want her to do well but sadly her singles career is on the way south. When her game is on, she is one of the most dangerous players on tour.  Match vs. Stosur at the US Open last fall was inspiring but ultimately another letdown.

30. Angelique Kerber-Another intriguing young German.  Was the honorary ‘Who the #$%@ are Ya’ll’ award winner at the US Open.  Methinks those two weeks have inflated her ranking.

31. Monica Niculescu-Her seeding is a nice reward for how the last three months of 2011 went for her.

32. Petra Cetkovska-At this time last year, The Hot Petra lost in qualifying for this tournament.  Shows you just how far she’s come.