Sunday, January 18, 2015

Players to watch in the Australian Open

   The Australian Open begins today at 4 p.m. California time (ESPN2) in Melbourne and continues through Feb. 1. Seedings are in parentheses.
Novak Djokovic seeks his fifth Australian Open title.
2012 photo by Paul Bauman
MEN
 Novak Djokovic (1)
   Why he'll win -- Four of Djokovic's seven Grand Slam singles titles have come in the Australian Open (2008, 2011-13), and he has extra motivation after losing 9-7 in the fifth set to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals last year. That ended Djokovic's 25-match win streak in Melbourne. 
   Why he won't -- Djokovic canceled a Saturday practice session because of an undisclosed illness or injury.
   NorCal connection -- None.
Roger Federer (2)
   Why he'll win -- Federer has won a record 17 Grand Slam titles, including four in the Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010). He extended Djokovic to 6-4 in the fifth set in last year's Wimbledon final, ended 2014 at No. 2 and won Brisbane last week.
   Why he won't -- Federer, 33, hasn't won a Grand Slam crown since Wimbledon in 2012 or reached the Australian Open final since capturing the 2010 title. Winning seven best-of-five-set matches in the heat, even with a day off in between, is asking too much at his age. 
   NorCal connection -- None.
Rafael Nadal (3)
   Why he'll win -- Nadal is tied for second all-time with Pete Sampras at 14 majors, including the 2009 Australian Open. Nadal also has extra incentive after suffering an apparent back injury during last year's upset loss to Wawrinka in the Melbourne final.
   Why he won't -- Nadal is rusty after missing three months last summer with a right wrist injury and undergoing surgery for appendicitis on Nov. 3. He lost to qualifier Michael Berrer, a German ranked No. 127 at the time, in the first round at Doha last week. 
   NorCal connection -- None.
Stan Wawrinka (4)
   Why he'll win -- Wawrinka broke through for his only Grand Slam championship in last year's Australian Open. Like last year, he's coming off the title in Chennai.
   Why he won't -- Last year was a fluke because of Nadal's injury, and Wawrinka faces pressure as the defending champion.
   NorCal connection -- None.
Kei Nishikori (5)
   Why he'll win -- Nishikori advanced to his first Grand Slam final in last year's U.S. Open, and the 25-year-old Japanese is playing in his home Slam in the Asia/Pacific region but without the massive pressure faced by Australians.
   Why he won't -- Listed at 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 150 pounds (68 kilograms), he can be overpowered, and he's too frail to hold up in the heat over two weeks.
   NorCal connection -- Nishikori played in the now-defunct SAP Open in San Jose three times, losing in the second round in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Brad Gilbert of San Rafael coached Nishikori in 2011.
  Andy Murray (6)
   Why he'll win -- Murray has won two Slams (2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon) and reached three Australian Open finals (2010, 2011, 2013). Plus, he's 8-0 in singles this year in an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi and the Hopman Cup in Perth.
   Why he won't -- He slumped last year -- although he reached three quarterfinals and one semifinal in the Slams -- after undergoing "minor" back surgery in September 2013. Also, he has encountered lingering pain in his left shoulder this year despite his hot streak.
   NorCal connection -- Murray won the SAP Open in San Jose in 2006 at 18 years old and repeated in 2007. He also won the Aptos Challenger in 2005.
Milos Raonic (8)
   Why he'll win -- The 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Canadian with a monster serve reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon last year. He beat Federer en route to the Paris Indoors final last fall and went toe-to-toe with him in last week's Brisbane final. 
   Why he won't -- The 24-year-old Raonic is not quite ready to win a Slam, cracking at crunch time against Federer in Brisbane.
   NorCal connection -- Raonic never lost a set in his 13 SAP Open matches, winning the last three titles (2011-13).
Others
   Tomas Berdych (7) -- The 2010 Wimbledon runner-up pushed Wawrinka in a 6-3, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) loss in last year's Australian Open semifinals after reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne the previous three years. Berdych was the runner-up to David Ferrer in Doha last week.
   David Ferrer (9) -- The 5-foot-9 (1.75-meter) Spaniard has gained the Australian Open semifinals or quarterfinals for the past four years. He's still going strong at 32, as his Doha title indicates.
   Grigor Dimitrov (10) -- He reached the quarterfinals of last year's Australian Open before losing to Nadal and, like Raonic, advanced to his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. But Dimitrov lost 6-2, 6-2 to Federer in the Brisbane semifinals last week.
    Champion
   Djokovic will make it four Australian Open titles in five years, although his undisclosed illness or injury is worrisome.
Serena Williams has won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, tied
with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for fourth place
all-time. Tri Nguyen/TriNguyenPhotography.com, 2014
WOMEN
Serena Williams (1)
   Why she'll win -- Williams has won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, tied with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for fourth place all-time. Five have come in the Australian Open (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010).
   Why she won't -- Williams, 33, hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals in Melbourne since winning the 2010 title. Also, she dropped two of her four singles matches in the season-opening Hopman Cup and -- surprise -- her temper in the final, which she and John Isner lost to Poland.
   NorCal connection -- Williams won her third Bank of the West title at Stanford last year.
Maria Sharapova (2)
   Why she'll win -- The five-time Grand Slam champion has regained her health after shoulder problems, winning the Brisbane title last week. She won the Australian Open in 2008 and reached the final in 2007 and 2012. 
   Why she won't -- Sharapova is 2-16 against Williams with no victories since 2004. 
   NorCal connection -- Sharapova was the runner-up to Victoria Azarenka in the 2010 Bank of the West Classic.
  Simona Halep (3)
   Why she'll win -- Halep advanced to her first Grand Slam final last year in the French Open and began this year with the Shenzhen title.
   Why she won't -- At 5-foot-6 (1.68 meters) and 132 pounds (60 kilograms), she can be overpowered on hardcourts. Also, she withdrew from Sydney last week with gastroenteritis. 
   NorCal connection -- Halep lost to Sabine Lisicki in the first round of the 2011 Bank of the West Classic in her only appearance.
Petra Kvitova (4)
   Why she'll win -- Kvitova won her second Wimbledon title last year and the Sydney crown this week. She'll be on a mission after her shocking loss to Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand in first round of last year's Australian Open.
   Why she won't -- She's streaky and could meet Williams, against whom she's 0-5 (not counting a walkover victory in Madrid last year), in the semifinals. 
   NorCal connection -- None.
    Others
   Ana Ivanovic (5) -- The former world No. 1 returned to the top 10 in the year-end rankings for the first time since 2008. She lost to Sharapova in the Brisbane final in three sets in a rematch of the 2008 Australian Open final.
   Agnieszka Radwanska (6) -- The 2012 Wimbledon runner-up beat Williams in the Hopman Cup, winning the title with Jerzy Janowicz for Poland. Radwanska, who recently added Navratilova to her coaching team, then lost to Garbine Muguruza in the second round at Sydney. 
   Eugenie Bouchard (7) -- The 20-year-old Canadian reached the semis of the Australian Open and French Open and the final at Wimbledon last year. She beat Williams in the recent Hopman Cup. 
   Caroline Wozniacki (8) -- The former world No. 1 advanced to her second major final (both in the U.S. Open) last year but still seeks her first Grand Slam title. The right-hander retired from her first-round match in Sydney this week with a left wrist injury.  
   Venus Williams (18) -- The 34-year-old Williams won the last of her seven Grand Slam singles titles (five at Wimbledon and two in the U.S. Open) in 2008. But she won her 46th career singles crown last week in Auckland.
   Victoria Azarenka -- The 2012 and 2013 Australian Open champion was hampered by foot and knee injuries throughout last year.
Champion
   Serena Williams is virtually unbeatable when healthy and motivated. She appears to be both.

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