The rubberized Rebound Ace surface previously used at Australian Open gave a medium-fast bounce, one moderately favorable for attack-minded players. Match outcomes at Melbourne Park tended to correlate better with those at U.S. Open and Wimbledon, the other fast-court Slams, than with results on the slow clay at Roland Garros. The latter tendency had weakened in the last few years, but when the Rebound Ace was replaced with Plexicushion starting with the 2008 Open, it was supposed that the bounce would be faster and that in its results the Australian would again correlate considerably better with U.S. Open and Wimbledon than with Garros.
But 2008 data on percentage of aces and percentage of games won by servers indicated little change in bounce speed at Melbourne Park. Meanwhile match results at Australia 08 correlated better with the preceding Garros than in most past years though still less well than with the other 2007 Slams.
We therefore take that the moderate edge in Australian Open 09 should remain with the faster-court players--strong servers and power hitters like last year's winner, Djokovic, and runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And if the Plexicushion surface at Melbourne Park in its second year plays faster than in its first, as seems plausible, then that advantage should grow.
THE BIG FIVE
Our calculations, which employ weighted results of the last twelve months, make Rafael Nadal the favorite to win Australia 09. Rafa is the current world champion, having dethroned Federer in 2008 after Roger's four consecutive finishes as year-end #1. Last summer Rafa brought his relentless pounding style along with his customary periods of spectacular play to the winning of Garros, Wimbledon, and Olympics. It was a remarkable run on three different surfaces.
But there are several reasons arguing that we should temper our evidence from the calculations. A leg injury forced Rafa to withdraw from the Paris Indoors in late October 08, and he then missed both Masters Cup in Shanghai and Spain's year-end Davis Cup triumph in Argentina. Rafa returned to action on January 1 in a six-player event in Abu Dhabi, where he defeated Davydenko and then lost to Andy Murray in split sets. He then won twice the following week in Doha before losing to Gael Monfils. The January results suggest that Rafa's injury has been largely if not completely surmounted.
While a healthy Rafa is unbeatable on clay and nearly so on grass, he can be vulnerable on hard courts, especially against hard-serving opponents able to deliver flatter, more-penetrating ground strokes landing closer to the baseline. That was the case in his loss to power-hitting Tsonga in last year's semis at Melbourne, where Rafa's heavy overspin failed to produce high-enough bounces off the Plexicushion to trouble his tall opponent. Still, Rafa's resume includes considerable success on paved courts--several hard-court Masters Series crowns and the winning of Olympics 08.
Nadal at age 22 should be well below his peak tennis age. But he is already finding himself challenged by younger players--notably Djokovic and Murray. Rafa likes to win by playing physically, breaking down opponents in heavy-hitting extended exchanges, where his own physical advantages become foremost. But it is a style of play that can be wearing to Nadal himself, both during the course of major tournaments and over the longer term. His own recent leg problems are not reassuring, and his opposition at Melbourne is probably as dangerous as was ever faced by a #1 seed, including perhaps the greatest player of all time--Roger Federer, who at age 27 is only slightly past peak tennis age.
Federer's achievements during 2004-2007 may equate to the greatest four-year run in tennis history. Certainly, Roger knows better than anyone the travails and pressures of ruling the sport. His dazzling tenure required careful sustenance of his physical and mental freshness. But sickness and injury caught up with Roger in 2008, and he finished the year amid severe back discomfort.
Although it is highly plausible that Federer will capture one or more future Slams, his every meeting with the other top players will probably require supreme effort--a summoning of high aggressiveness on Roger's part, a higher-than-preferred level of risk in his playing style, and little holding back in reserves of energy. His two losses to Murray in early January, split-setters at Abu Dhabi and Doha, exposed his vulnerability but also showed his ability to contend closely with the new hitters. He then began Kooyong Classic in Melbourne with a straight-set win over Moya and a split-set win ending in a tiebreaker over Verdasco, January 14 and 15. But if Roger's January results seem lukewarm, Roger's announced focus on the Slams and his past skill in preparing for them suggest that his results in the tune-ups are probably deceptive.
The evidence is strong that the great Federer-Nadal rivalry of recent years has become a four-sided affair. Both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, both 21, have established credentials justifying places on the carousel of the elites. Both are powerful servers, capable of attacking fiercely or, alternatively, engaging in extended rallies with excellent power, precision, and court movement.
Murray, his injury problems seemingly behind, cemented his qualifications in a run starting in mid-2008, when he finished as runner-up to Federer at U.S. Open, then captured the Madrid Indoors, and finally ended the year a semi-finalist at Masters Cup 08. His January victories over Nadal and Federer, backed by his overall record of success in matches against Federer, have greatly lifted him in general esteem and show that he must be rated higher in his Melbourne chances than his calculated score indicates.
Novak Djokovic scores well in our calculations because of his triumphs at Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Masters Cup 08. In starting 2009, Novak, having just arrived in Australia, lost to heavy-hitting Gulbis in his first match in the Brisbane tune-up, then won his first two matches at Sydney over quality opponents, and then lost to Nieminen in the final in two close sets. It was not an impressive start to the year.
Our calculations place the aforementioned superstars--Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray--in that order as the leaders in their chances to win Aus Open 09. The same four in slightly different order are atop the latest 12-month pro rankings and also the seeded list at Melbourne. But there is one other star slightly farther back in our calculations who requires inclusion in our list of elite candidates--a player whose strengths have already been shown tailored for success at Melbourne.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 23, was the sensation of Australia 08, beating Murray and Nadal enroute to a final-round loss to Djokovic. Powerful and athletic at 6-2 and 200 pounds, Jo-Wilfried can create openings by his sheer power alone, whether in serving or stroking. His court mobility is remarkable, his skills at net unusual for these times. He returned from knee surgery last summer to win two matches at U.S. Open, then captured the Paris Indoors with five fine wins, all but one of them in split sets. Tsonga is a streaky player, but at his best and on hard courts, he is unbeatable. But the injury miseries may have returned. After winning his first match at the Sydney tune-up, Jo-Wilfried withdrew from the event with back trouble--three days before the start of play at Melbourne Park. The news set back Tsonga's odds for winning the forthcoming event.
Head-to-head results for 2008-2009 give a striking picture. Nadal is far ahead of our other elites on clay and grass courts. But Rafael's W-L edge disappears in the tally for hard courts alone, shown below, where instead the leader is Andy Murray.
Murray over Djokovic, 2-0
Murray over Federer, 4-1
Murray over Nadal, 2-1
Tsonga over Murray, 1-0
Tsonga over Nadal, 1-0
Tsonga over Djokovic, 3-1
Federer over Tsonga, 1-0
Nadal and Djokovic, 1-1
Federer and Djokovic, 1-1
Federer and Nadal, 0-0 (Rafa won their four meetings on clay and grass)
THE SECOND TIER
A handful of other players appear capable of pressing the Big Five in head-to-head play, but the chances that one of them can sweep the two weeks at Melbourne are small. Drawing notice in late 2008 were Andy Roddick, who lost closely to Djokovic at U.S. Open, and David Nalbandian, finalist at Paris Indoors and winner of three matches to reach the finals at Sydney in the final tune-up for the Open.
Also intriguing are the chances of several young players-- near-contemporaries of Murray, Djokovic, and Tsonga and only narrowly behind them in their abilities. Attaining Masters Cup with a late-year run was Gilles Simon, now 24, who beat Nadal in the semis at Madrid Indoors. Paris-born Gael Monfils, 22, has court speed that is probably the game's best but with it a disposition to stay in deep court. Monfils scored a January straight-set win over Nadal at Doha. Other dangerous youths, both heavy hitters, are Marin Cilic of Croatia and Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina , both aged 20.
The prime leaders seem extremely close in their chances for winning Melbourne. In my opinion, his strong run in late 2008 and his stunning start in 2009 make Andy Murray the narrow choice to claim the crown.
The odds here offered are derived from the calculations and also from the considerations sketched above.
Nadal, Federer, 5-1
Simon, Blake, del Potro, Cilic, Nalbandian, each 50-1
Monfils, Verdasco, each 60-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
Shown below is each player's score Sc from our calculations predicting success at Melbourne. Players are listed in each quarter in order of official seed.
Nadal 5.33, Simon 2.20, Monfils 1.82, Gonzalez 1.77, Almagro 1.17, Gasquet 1.87. It is not a comfortable draw for Nadal, who lost matches to both Simon and Monfils in recent months. Rafa has a knack, however, of turning matters around against recent opponents. Moreover the two French players must meet each other in round three, so that Rafa need beat only one of them. Nadal should survive.
Murray 3.92, Tsonga 2.14, Blake 2.30, Verdasco 1.69, Andreev 1.96, Stepanek 1.54. Tsonga's otherwise excellent chances have been made questionable by his current back trouble. No one else here can hope to spoil Murray's fine run. Murray.
Djokovic 4.82, Roddick 2.17, Nalbandian 1.49, Soderling 1.28, Robredo 1.31, Fish 1.39. Soderlng can be difficult, but the defending champion has the weapons to prevail over the Swedish star as well as over Roddick. The American should have prevailed in an exhausting meeting with Nalbandian. Djokovic.
Federer 4.38, del Potro 1.50, Ferrer 1.71, Wawrinka 1.88, Cilic 2.15, Berdych 1.63. Faith stemming from Sir Roger's past magnificence in best-of-five-set Slam play insists that Sir Roger will prevail here. His vast experience and superb variety should make the difference against the tall Argentine.
Our four survivors are the same four who reached the semis at U.S. Open five months ago. The match-ups too are the same. The semi-final results should not change--i.e., Murray over Nadal and Federer over Djokovic. But the final-round outcome will be reversed, as Murray's time to surpass Federer has seemingly arrived, albeit narrowly, a year or so ahead of expectations. The evidence of recent weeks is too powerful to overlook.
Australian Open became the first Slam of each calendar year starting in January 1987. Seven times in the next 14 years, the women's singles champion at Melbourne Park went on to capture the #1 ranking for the full year. Those were the times of megastars Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, and the young Martina Hingis, who between them accounted for all of the above-noted seven years of predictability. But in the eight years since then--i.e., the first eight years of the current century--not once has the Australian women's winner gone on to become the year-end #1.
Partly explaining the late jinxing of Australian champions has been the role of injuries in top women's tennis, which makes it unlikely that any star can remain at her best for a full year. Last year, for example, after winning at Melbourne Park Maria Sharapova experienced shoulder trouble that persisted through year's end. Meanwhile nearly all the other top women spent significant periods troubled by injuries, and the year's major honors were widely divided.
The strongest player at the end of 2008 was Venus Williams, who captured the women's equivalent of Masters Cup in Doha in early November. Venus won all five of her matches there, four of them in split sets, including wins over the four highest-ranking women in the 2008 final rankings. Venus beat the year-end #1, Jelena Jankovic, in the semis and showed her very best tennis in breaking down a distraught Vera Zvonareva in the final round.
More than two months have transpired since Doha--time for injuries to heal, for mental freshness to be restored. There have been few opportunities for glimpsing the current health and playing form of the players. What emerges is that the late-2008 brilliance of Venus Williams requires making Venus our top favorite to win Australian Open 09. Reinforcing this verdict was Venus's success in starting the new year at the Hong Kong team event, where she scored victories over Jankovic, Chakvetadze, and Zvonareva, all in straight sets.
But Venus has never won Australian Open in nine tries, and now, at the advanced age of 28, she faces a long list of strong, younger players. Prominent in that list is Jelena Jankovic, 23, who managed largely to avoid injury problems in attaining the first-place ranking for 2008. Jelena's playing style is varied, built upon excellent mobility, defensive skills, and match toughness, backed by top-ten-level capacity for aggressiveness and power when she chooses. It is a pattern that took her to the Final Four at Doha and at three of the 2008 Slams, excepting Wimbledon. Late in the year she drove to her final top ranking by scoring consecutive triumphs in three hard-court tournaments (Beijing, Stuttgart, and Moscow). Her run included a split-set win over Venus, but she lost to the American at year-end Doha in split sets and again at Hong Kong in January by score 62 62.
Jelena's Serbian countrywomen, Ana Ivanovic, 21, defeated Venus in last year's quarter-finals at Melbourne. She then won Garros 08 but, troubled by hand and other injuries, Ana managed only a fifth-place finish in the 2008 rankings, narrowly ahead of Venus. At year-end Doha she withdrew with injury after losing two round-robin matches, and in early January she lost to Mauresmo after winning two matches in the Brisbane tune-up. But if she is healthy and close to her best, Ivanovic's accurate heavy hitting and good court mobility place her close to the top.
Maria Sharapova remains sidelined with shoulder trouble and will miss Australia. But in strong contention will be the other leading Russkayas, presently Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Elena Dementieva, all of whom made strong runs in stretches of 2008. The youngest of these, Safina at age 22, showed greatly improved athleticism and mobility in rising to #3 in the year-end rankings for 2008, up from #15 a year earlier. Dementieva began the new year strongly, winning the January event over an undistinguished field at Auckland, then winning in Sydney, defeating Safina in a split-set repeat of their Olympics final-round match-up.
Serena Williams won U.S. Open last summer without loss of a set. But after that triumph, Serena's seemingly endless knee and leg problems returned. She played only one more match prior to year-end Doha, where she withdrew after losing to Venus in the round-robin phase. Serena then withdrew from Hopman Cup in early January, but she won her first three matches in the Sydney tune-up, surmounting a total of seven adverse match points. Then in the semis she lost one-sidedly to Dementieva. The message would seem that Serena is physically sound but that her top skills have at least temporarily departed. If she can stay healthy and regain her form of last summer, that she could reassert the dominance seen in New York seems unquestionable.
Closing on the aforementioned leaders are several European teenagers. Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, 19, who reached the final eight at both Melbourne and Wimbledon last year, along with Wozniacki of Denmark, Azarenka of Belarus, and Cornet of France, all finished in the 2008 top sixteen and are seeded accordingly at Melbourne. All four started the new year impressively. Azarenka, 18, won the recent tournament at Brisbane, beating Bartoli. At Sydney, Alize Cornet, who will turn 18 during the Open, defeated strong Nadia Petrova in straight sets. At the same event Wozniacki, 18, won two matches and then held three match points before losing to Serena, while Radwanska carried Dementieva to three close sets. Any of these rising stars could intrude into the final eight or even final four at Melbourne.
Here are my odds for winning the tournament:
V. Williams, 3-1
S. Williams, Safina, 15-1
A. Radwanska, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Cornet, Kuznetsova, Mauresmo, each 50-1
The leading players in each quarter of the draw are listed here in order of official seed.
Jankovic, Zvonareva, Petrova, Bartoli. The top three in this section seem safe through three matches. Petrova should extend Zvonareva in round four. At year-end Doha 08, Jankovic and Zvonareva in turn carried Venus Williams to third sets, but Zvonareva's melt-down in the final of that tournament is too recent to ignore. Jankovic's superior mental strengths make her the choice over Vera here.
Safina, Ivanovic, Wozniacki, Cornet. Veteran Hantuchova will be a difficult third-round hurdle for young Cornet. After that, the match-ups pitting Cornet against Safina and Wozniacki against Ivanovic will be intriguing, pitting players of succeeding tennis generations just a few years apart. Ivanovic's recent months have not been glorious. But Ana's strong game, which should expectedly be close to its full potential, should carry her through. Ivanovic.
V. Williams, Dementieva, Pennetta, Schnyder. There are no players in this quarter able to seriously threaten the two leaders. Elena's recent victories in January give her hope against Venus, but an on-form and intelligently playing Venus is not likely to allow an upset here. V. Williams.
S. Williams, Kuznetsova, A. Radwanska, Azarenka, Mauresmo. Serena was far below her best at the Sydney tune-up last week, while Kuznetsova withdrew there with abdominal strain. The impressive teenager Radwanska seems ready to step upward and the opportunity seems ripe. The choice is Radwanska over Kuznetsova, while Serena seems likely to find her strong game in surviving Azarenka. If she does, she then should be able to hold off the Polish teenager. Serena over Radwanska.
There is little question that since U.S. Open 08, the stronger sister has been Venus Williams. Venus should command matters in their semi-final, answering Serena's artillery with her superior defense and delivering her own controlled attack amid superior avoidance of error. There will be many furious, indeed violent, points, but in the end Venus should prevail by comfortable scores. As to the other semi, Ivanovic leads Jankovic by wide margin in their past meetings. But Jelena seemed to strike her best style of play during 2008, maturing as a competitor even as the year proceeded. Jelena won their most recent face-off in straight sets, albeit over a still-recovering Ana, at year-end Doha. Ana is assuredly the younger and has the bigger game, but the nod here is to the more patient and varied game of Jelena. Jankovic.
The last eight times that our two prospective finalists--Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic--played each other prior to 2009, matters were decided in split sets. Venus won their last meeting of 2008, at Doha, completing a run of superb tennis. More recently, Venus's straight-set win over Jelena at Hong Kong in January confirms that Venus's current edge remains. Both are playing intelligent tennis. The verdict must go to the more powerful and athletic star. Venus Williams is the choice to claim her first Australian Open.
Last year the French males scored more match victories at Melbourne Park than the men of any other nation. Led by singles finalist Tsonga and doubles-finalist pair Clement-Llodra, the French contingent ended six consecutive years of leadership by the U.S. males. Slippage in doubles is likely, but with Tsonga, Monfils, Simon, Gasquet, Mathieu, and Llodra all good candidates to contribute well in singles, French chances to claim the inter-nation honor seem excellent. The Americans should again finish second, as the Bryans should surpass their quarter-final and Andy Roddick his third-round finish of last year. Spain behind Nadal and with wide strength in the early rounds, remains likely to finish third.
Meanwhile the Russkayas, who have captured the honor in every Slam for the last four years, are almost certain to lead among the women. American chances rest with the sisters Williams and in the doubles. Serbia has superstars Jankovic and Ivanovic but little depth otherwise.
Best wishes to players and watchers everywhere. May our sport once again serve in bringing together the peoples of the world.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
FOOTNOTE ON THE CALCULATIONS
Here are the weights used here as a first step in predicting likely results at Australia 09. The weights are taken from correlations between results at various predictor events and results at Australian Open over the past nine years.
Australian Open 08, 9.0%
Garros 08, 4.2%
Wimbledon 08, 8.2%
U.S. Open 08, 10.7%
Indian Wells, Miami 08, each 5.3%
Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg 08,each 4.0%
Canada, Cincinnati, Olympics 08, each 5.9%
Paris, Madrid indoors 08, each 6.0%
Masters Cup 08, 12.6%
Australia tune-ups 09, 3.3%