Later this evening, the tennis world will turn its eyes to the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season. But who will win it all? Here are my predictions:
Quarter 1: As the oddsmaker’s favorite and 3-time champion, Novak Djokovic will cruise through this quarter, especially with a cakewalk draw. Do not expect him to drop a set until the second week. The dark horse in this group is South American Kevin Anderson, who has a big hard court game that should smash through the weaker parts of this section.
Quarter 2: World No. 4 Rafael Nadal’s absence leaves a huge void in the bracket and provides a huge opportunity for a non-Big Four player. With no clear-cut favorite in this section, rising star Kei Nishikori is my pick to make it to the semifinals. He owns a winning record against fourth seed David Ferrer, who is likely exhausted after a long 2012 and two warm up tournaments, and eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic has a difficult draw that ensures an early exit.
Quarter 3: This section is all about Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro. Both stars posted impressive finishes to the 2012 season and should enter the Aussie Open in form. In what will be a titanic quarterfinal, I stuck with Del Potro because he has taken at least a set off of Murray in each of their meetings and so desperately wants a win against the Big Four in a major. Also, the first round match between Gael Monfils and Alexandr Dolgopolov should be entertaining, but both players are too inconsistent to make a deep run in the tournament.
Quarter 4: Since the release of the bracket, one of the big stories has been Roger Federer’s “nightmare” draw. However, the Swiss maestro’s path is not quite that perilous. Benoit Paire and Nikolay Davydenko lack the level of play to give him more than a bit of trouble. Up-and-comers Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic are mentally suspect and cannot match Federer’s full court game. Unfortunately, the health and consistency of seventh seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga always make the Frenchman a huge question mark in the later stages of a tournament. Inevitably, we will see Federer emerge from this quarter victorious, though not unscathed.
Semifinal #1: While Nishikori will make an amazing run to reach the semifinals, Djokovic will simply outplay him in this matchup. The Serb’s superior talent and experience will pull him through in straight sets, though look for the first two to be very competitive.
Semifinal #2: While Federer may own Del Potro in their head-to-head record, the Argentine owns big wins over the superstar at the 2009 U.S. Open and in their past two meetings. Still, the Swiss will make his way to the final in four tight sets, as Del Potro struggles against him in the bigger events and will surely be sapped from his epic victory over Murray.
Final: The blockbuster final will feature best player of recent times against the best player of all time, both with multiple Australian Open titles. Based on their match-ups in 2012, neither player has a decisive match advantage, meaning that intangible determinants–the need for victory and public expectation–will decide this final. These factors will weigh heavily on World Number One Novak Djokovic, who has not won a Major in a year. Additionally, Federer’s tougher draw will better prepare him for a challenging final, and he will come away with his fifth Australian Open title.