Australian Open preview: 24 predictions

These predictions include facts, logic and fantasy, and should not be used by serious bettors. For everyone else, enjoy!

Novak Djokovic is ready for any opponent and should retain the men's crown.   -  AP

Maria Sharapova may have a few close matches, but should clinch the trophy.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Bob and Mike Bryan, the greatest men's doubles combo in history.   -  AFP

Sania Mirza's tremendous forehand power is a great fit for Martina Hingis's genius.   -  Getty Images

Nick Kyrgios, the flamboyant rebel without a cause, or pause, behaved so badly during last year’s Australian Open that 72 percent of respondents to a Melbourne newspaper poll said his on-court antics were boorish and not very Australian. This year he behaves (relatively) nicely, perhaps because he wants to survive his “probationary” period without being suspended. Lo and behold, being more focused pays off. Nice guy Nick — who already boasts wins over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka — awes spectators with sensational shots and reaches the quarters. Just as heartening, the maturing 20-year-old Aussie starts winning back Down Under fans.

Rafael Nadal, named on People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list for 2015, wows his many female fans when he changes shirts during matches, and wows everyone when he smacks the jaw-dropping winners that produced 14 Grand Slam titles. But in 2016, Rafa runs into the irresistible force named Novak and loses a high-calibre, four-set encounter reminiscent of some of their past epics. Afterwards, Rafa tells the crowd he’s happy with his improved play and believes he can win more majors.

Dominic Thiem, the most overrated of the young prospects, likes to call himself “The Dominator.” But the 22-year-old Austrian has gone a very submissive 1-8 against top-10 foes in the past two years. And, despite being ranked No. 20 and seeded, he won’t make the third round as his one-handed backhand lets him down on break-point opportunities again.

Lleyton Hewitt, playing his 20th Australian Open, provides early-round theatrics. The feisty Hewitt stages a sensational comeback from two sets down in his final Grand Slam tournament. The crowd goes wild. But the 34-year-old future Hall of Famer eventually succumbs 11-9 in the fifth set. He receives a loud, five-minute standing ovation by appreciative Aussies.

Andy Murray boasts three Australian Open finals on his resume, but he’s won just one set in them. That was in last year’s final and Djokovic routed him 6-0 in the fourth set. Just as he was overpowered by veteran Kevin Anderson at the 2015 US Open and upstart Kyrgios at the 2016 Hopman Cup, No. 2-ranked Murray doesn’t generate enough offence and is knocked out by another heavy-hitter in the fourth round.

Brian Baker produces the feel-good story of the tournament. The 30-year-old American, injury-plagued and often sidelined after surgeries since reaching the 2003 French Open junior final, uses his protected ranking to gain main-draw entry. After a nearly three-year injury layoff, Baker ambushes a low seed to reach the third round.

Kei Nishikori, a year ago, said, “Win a Grand Slam, that’s my dream. Winning might take some time.” The 2014 US Open runner-up regressed last season, not reaching the semis at any major. No. 8-ranked Nishikori rebounds this year, but his first Slam title doesn’t come Down Under. Displaying his blistering backhand and super speed, the 26-year-old Japanese only makes the quarterfinals.

Jack Sock finished 2015 with a year-end best No. 26 ranking, but his backhand and stamina remain weak links. Opponents exploit the former and the Australian heat tests the latter. Beset by cramps at the 2015 US Open, Sock retired in the fourth set against Ruben Bemelmans. Unless the big-hitting, 23-year-old American drops 10 pounds and trains like Federer and Nadal, he won’t beat top-10 players or become one himself. Sock goes down in five sets in the third round.

Bob and Mike Bryan, the greatest men’s doubles combo in history, had amassed 15 major titles and 10 year-end No. 1 rankings going into 2015.

The American twins failed to add to either all-time team record last year, though they did reach the final at Roland Garros. They turn 38 in April, but no great doubles team has filled the void they left; the majors were claimed by four different duos. Mike told Tennis magazine that the Aussie Open is his favourite Grand Slam tournament because “the hard courts play kind of like California (courts), and also we’ve won it six times and been in the finals nine times.” Far from over the hill, the Bryan brothers win their Open Era record seventh Aussie men’s doubles title, edging the No. 1 team of Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau in the final.

Stan Wawrinka will capture his third Grand Slam title in 2016, but not at the Australian Open. The Rod Laver Arena is five-time champion Djokovic’s house. Stan the Man reached the quarters at every major last year and dropped only two sets while winning the French Open. After watching Wawrinka whip Djokovic in the final, 1990s superstar Pete Sampras remarked, “God, his backhand, I wish I had that thing.” The new member of the Big 4 is brimming with confidence. Always-aggressive Wawrinka makes the semis if he’s in Djoker’s half of the draw and the final if he isn’t.

Roger Federer continues to play so impressively that he may never retire. Just joking! Last year he was the only man, other than Djokovic, to reach two major singles finals. “It’s amazing that at 33 Federer’s movement is still phenomenal,” raved John McEnroe, 1980s superstar and now ESPN analyst, during the Wimbledon final in which Djokovic defeated Federer 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3. The Mighty Fed fares better Down Under than he did last year when he was upset by Andreas Seppi in the third round. But the synthetic Plexicushion surface just isn’t fast enough to bring out the best in his dazzling shot-making, and the four-time champion goes down in the quarters or semis.

Novak Djokovic wins his sixth Australian Open for three main reasons. Style match-ups matter — a lot. “Federer and Nadal have people who they don’t necessarily like to play against. Djokovic, I don’t see a player that he minds playing,” former world No. 1 Mats Wilander told The Wall Street Journal Magazine. Second, superior technique is crucial both offensively and defensively. “(Djokovic) is just so sound on both sides — can punish you equally with both wings... Novak is the best offensive defender I’ve ever seen, and maybe the best pure defender ever,” pointed out Paul Annacone, who formerly coached superstars Sampras and Federer. Third, great competitors frequently prevail in close matches. “He’s a tough cookie. I’d call him a street fighter. When the going gets tough, he gets better,” six-time major titlist Boris Becker, Djokovic’s coach, told Wimbledon Live. Besides, how can you bet against a self-described “holistic” bloke who eats “superfoods” such as maca root (from Peru) and goji berries (from China) and meditates at a Buddhist temple?

The Women

Victoria Azarenka won both her majors Down Under in 2012 and 2013, but she’s struggled the past two years. As Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport said, “She has to get fitter and faster, the way she was when she was No. 1.” Another self-inflicted problem is that she’ll continue to face tough draws until her rankings and seedings improve, but it’s hard to improve her results and rankings because of her tough draws. Azarenka loses in the quarterfinals.

Johanna Konta, an attacking Australian-turned-Brit, started realising her top-10 potential last year with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza and Ekaterina Makarova at Eastbourne, Muguruza and Andrea Petkovic at the US Open, and Simona Halep, Azarenka, and Petkovic at Wuhan. Fast-improving Konta, 24, has confidence and momentum and knocks out a seed or two in Melbourne.

Venus Williams reached the Oz Open quarters and ranked No. 7 last season, her best season since 2010. As Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob said, “It’s going to be tough for her to replicate that (this year). There are so many (talented) young players coming up.” Venus is 35 and afflicted with Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder which sometimes reduces her stamina. Her impressive resurgence ends in the brutal Melbourne heat when she’s upset in the first or second round.

Belinda Bencic’s non-Slam breakthrough came at the 2015 Rogers Cup where she became the youngest player to beat Serena Williams since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova in 2004. Bencic, 18, also upset five other Slam finalists to win Toronto: Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki, Ana Ivanovic and Halep. At the Aussie Open, Bencic again shows why she’s destined for stardom. Formidable groundstrokes and winning big points are her forte. The smiling Swiss makes her second Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Martina Hingis, who occasionally mentors Bencic, rarely plays singles at 34, but she won three mixed doubles majors with Leander Paes and two doubles majors with Sania Mirza in 2015. As 1980s doubles superstar Pam Shriver says, “Hingis proved 19 years ago and now that whoever she chooses to play with can be the best team. Mirza’s tremendous forehand power is a great fit for Hingis’s genius.” Without defending champions Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the draw since Safarova is ailing, the Swiss-Indian duo easily grabs another Grand Slam title this fortnight. Garbiñe Muguruza sounded like her legendary compatriot Nadal when she told Tennis Channel, “I work hard, and I have to continue suffering if I want to be up in the rankings.” Indeed, the dedicated, 22-year-old Spaniard works rigorously with her physical trainer 9 to 11 sessions a week for 12 to 17 hours. Mugu is too talented and determined not to capture her first major this year. But it doesn’t happen this fortnight as she commits too many unforced errors to offset her many winners and is ousted in the semis.

Agnieszka Radwanska, nicknamed “The Ninja,” played strong as a bull after the French Open last year, going 33-10. And strongest at the Serena-less, season-ending WTA Finals, which she claimed for her biggest career title. Radwanska, the 2012 Wimbledon finalist who turns 27 in March, harbours a burning desire to win a Grand Slam title. At Melbourne, a surprisingly aggressive Aggie comes close again, losing in the semis or final.

Serena Williams “faces uncertain future as the pressure of being one of the greatest ever takes its toll,” wrote 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in The Times (UK) after Serena shockingly lost to Roberta Vinci in the 2015 US Open semifinals. “Now her dreams of creating history have been shattered so alarmingly, where does she go from here?” Although Serena has won six Aussie titles, her game — especially her vaunted serve and vulnerable open-stance backhand — rather than her psyche, lets her down this year at Melbourne. An inflamed left knee, which forced her to withdraw from the Hopman Cup, slows her movement. Serena is eliminated in a three-set quarterfinal. Thus, her bid for a 2016 Grand Slam ends soon after it starts.

Simona Halep finished a career-high No. 2 last season and was also the most “clicked on” player at for the second straight year. Unfortunately, aside from the 2014 French Open, she seldom plays like a No. 2 in high-stakes matches. Either the unassuming, 5’6” Romanian gets nervous, or she gets overpowered by taller, stronger opponents. One of them upsets Halep before the semifinals.

Eugenie Bouchard, at the season-opening Shenzhen tournament, acknowledged, “It’s going to be a long journey back — I don’t know how long it will take,” to regain the form and confidence she showed in 2014. Then she reached the Wimbledon final, the Australian and French semis, and a career-high No. 5 ranking. But her 2015 was a total disaster. Not only did Bouchard win just 12 matches, but she suffered a concussion from a fall in the US Open locker room. Ranked only No. 48 now, she’s short of match play, getting used to new coach Thomas Hogstedt, and still hampered by serve and backhand stroke defects. Not even Genie’s Army of boisterous fans can save the snake-bitten Canadian from being eliminated early.

Petra Kvitova, much like Hana Mandlikova, another attacking Czech of 30 years ago, isn’t a great player, but she can play great tennis at times. Last season she suffered from mononucleosis and a lack of motivation. Always a threat because of her explosive groundies and lefty serve, Kvitova lacks the consistency and energy in the third set and succumbs in quarterfinals.

Maria Sharapova boasts two off-court claims to fame. She’s far and away the all-time leader in women’s sports endorsement income; and in 2014, the Russian veteran became the first tennis player to pass 15 million fans on Facebook. On-court, though, she trails far behind nemesis Serena in both Grand Slam titles (21 to 5) and head-to-head matches (18-2).

Maria fortuitously avoids Serena in the draw at the Oz Open. Summoning her trademark competitiveness and power game, she escapes near-defeat in three matches and grabs her second Australian crown. During the trophy presentation, Sharapova tells the crowd she’s donating $5 million to the Union of Concerned Scientists to help combat global warming.

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