2015 Australian Open tennis preview and predictions

The first major tennis tournament of the year gets underway on January 19 as the world’s elite players gather for the 2015 Australian Open in Melbourne. With very little competitive tennis available in the lead up to this Grand Slam event; the emphasis is on off-season preparation, men|tal strength and the ability to hit the ground running.

Last year, it was Stanislas Wawrinka who found the early-season form in the men’s event. The Swiss player claimed his first Grand Slam title with victory over Rafa Nadal and will be back to defend his title this year. In the women’s event, it was Li Na who lifted the trophy to record her second Grand Slam win but just seven months later; the Chinese player announced her retirement from the sport due to continued injury problems.

With an exciting mix of old guard and young pretenders in both gender categories, this year’s tournament is set to be the most fascinating in years.

The Men

Any talk of the demise of the big four may be premature but at the moment, men’s tennis is all about the big two. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer hold the top two world ranking positions and will be the players to beat this season. Djokovic bagged seven titles last year including the Wimbledon crown and finished the season with a World Tour title and the all-important number one ranking spot.

Federer defied many predictions last season by pushing Djokovic all the way before finally conceding the number one spot in London. He retired injured in the ATP finals but rounded off his year with triumph in the Davis Cup. He has already secured one title this season (Brisbane) and recorded his 1000th tour victory in the process.

The other two members of the big four, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, are both in different stages of recovery after surgery. Murray spent most of last season regaining form after a back operation in late 2013. The Scot finally found some form during the last few months of the year to force his way back into the top six and secure a place at the Word Tour Finals in London. Murray will be hoping to build on that form and push his way back into the top four in 2015. So far, things have started brightly for the Brit after he cruised to victory over Nadal in Abu Dhabi and enjoyed three good wins in the Hopman Cup.

Nadal is at the start of what could be an equally long recovery period after suffering problems with first his wrist and then his appendix. After undergoing surgery, he finally made his comeback in Doha last week but crashed out in the first round to qualifier, Michael Berrer. It remains to be seen how quickly the Spaniard can get back to form and despite reaching the final on his last two visits, an early season Grand Slam victory looks unlikely for the 28-year-old.

Tennis fans will be pleased to see the return of Juan Martin del Potro; the 2009 U.S. Open winner has been out of action for the last 10 months thanks to a wrist injury. Now ranked 338 in the world, the Argentine has already impressed with his comeback performance in Sydney and has received a wild card for the Melbourne event. An intense winter recovery program looks to have paid dividends for the former world No. 4.

Australian fans will be hoping to see further progress from Nick Kyrgios this year. The 19-year-old shot up the world rankings in 2014 thanks to a Wimbledon quarter-final appearance which included a win over Rafa Nadal. However, he missed the end of last season due to exhaustion and looks under-prepared for the start of this season. If he is physically fit to make Melbourne, he is unlikely to be a threat.

One player that could be a threat is Milos Raonic. The big-serving Canadian has already made a final this year after finishing runner-up to Roger Federer in Sydney and the world No. 8 appears to be improving all the time. The surface and conditions in Melbourne should suit the 24-year-old and he looks as well-prepared as anyone for this event.

Stan Wawrinka will be back to defend his title and has already started the season in great form with victory over the self-proclaimed star of the next generation Borna Coric. His up-and-down form has been a nightmare for punters but the Swiss No. 2 finally seems to be finding a semblance of consistency and is perhaps the one to beat in Melbourne.

David Ferrer is another of the age-defying veterans who could cause an upset in Australia. He still has the stamina to go five sets with anyone and his game looks to be in good shape. He started the year by winning his 22nd ATP title in Qatar and has made it to at least the quarter-finals in his last four visits to Melbourne. The Spaniard might not be a title contender but he is certainly a good bet for a semi-final place.

Kei Nishikori made it to the final of the US Open last year and will start the Australian Open as the No. 5 seed. The Japanese player showed great physical and mental toughness in 2014 and appears to have found a level of consistency to be a regular contender this year.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Value bet: Stan Wawrinka

Wild card bet: David Ferrer

The women

The women’s crown will be presented to a new recipient this year after defending champion Li Na was forced to retire through injury.

The women’s world rankings are topped by Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova while a mixed group of familiar names and fresh talent make up the rest of the top 20.

Sharapova started the year in determined fashion with victory in the Brisbane International. The 27-year-old could be classed as veteran but is showing no signs of fading after 13 years as a professional. It has been seven years since the Russian won her solitary title at this event but no female player looks in better shape ahead of this tournament.

Serena Williams did not look sharp at all in her recent Hopman Cup matches but it might just take a Grand Slam to get the 33-year-old motivated these days. There are definite signs of vulnerability in her game and she has talked recently about feeling fatigued. After 17 years on the circuit, Williams still has the ability to outperform anyone but it is getting harder to predict when she will be “in the zone.”

Behind the top two, the women’s game has a long list of players capable of putting in a tournament winning run. Both Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic are in great form and Wozniacki in particular seems to be enjoying her tennis more than ever.

Simona Halep pulled out of the warm-up tournament in Sydney with a stomach complaint and that could hinder her preparations for Melbourne. The 23-year-old Romanian was one of the most improved players on the WTA tour last year and could be a potential finalist for all the Grand Slams in 2015.

Petra Kvitova still seems happiest when playing on grass and has not made it past the second round in her last two visits to Melbourne.

Agnieszka Radwanska is now working with Martina Navratilova and the early signs have been positive. The Polish player has yet to win a Grand Slam but she did reach the semi-finals here last year. Melbourne has produced her most consistent performances over the last four years but she has often been let down by her vulnerable serve.

Of the young pretenders, Eugenie Bouchard has certainly made the biggest impact. 2014 was only her second year on the main tour and she reached at least the semi-finals in three out of the four Grand Slam events. She can be expected to be a contender again this year but arrives in Australia without a coach after ending her from long-term association with Nick Saviano.

Spanish player Garbine Muguruza is another name to watch in 2015. The 21-year-old hard court specialist has already added Agnieszka  Radwanska to her tally of top-ten scalps after a three-set victory in Brisbane last week. If she can improve her first serve success rate, she could be a top ten player herself this time next year.

Ana Ivanovic enjoyed a return to form in 2014 but the 27-year-old has not progressed beyond a Grand Slam quarter-final since 2008. However, the former French Open champion did bag four WTA titles last year and has returned to No. 5 in the world rankings.

Winner: Maria Sharapova

Value bet: Maria Sharapova

Wild card bet: Garbine Muguruza

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