January 1, 2011

A Couple Major Calls

Well here we are at the start of another year, and already I'm about to break one of my resolutions.

Now I know I said I'd hold off before making any lofty predictions about how this year's Majors would turn out, but here I am all aglow in the potential of a new year and I just can't help myself. I'll try to keep it relatively brief though, as I'm still working off the morning's hangover.

So here you have it -- my completely unsubstantiated (so far) calls for the four men and women who will win the Grand Slams this year.

Australian Open

The Women

This one could get interesting -- with two-time defending champion Serena Williams out of the mix, it'll be the first odd-numbered year in a decade where she won't claim the title. And yes, that will open the door for other players to pounce early -- Caroline Wozniacki as the year-end #1, Kim Clijsters as the Doha winner, Ana Ivanovic as a resurgent star.

But I'm giving this first Major to Victoria Azarenka, who had her previous two attempts in Melbourne heart-breakingly stopped at the hands of the eventual champion. Traditionally she's had her most success early in the year, and if she's able to retain the momentum she captured during her Asian tour, she'll already be a step ahead Down Under.

The Men

In situations like this -- hard courts, best-of-five matches, the experience of a champion -- you have to favor Roger Federer, and I do. Sure Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have both tasted victory on these grounds, and Andy Murray made a solid run to the finals here last year. But the record Roger piled up in the last three months of the season proves you can never count him out -- and with four trophies to his name already, no one knows better how to win in Melbourne.

French Open

The Women

By the time spring rolls around, I think we're all hoping Serena will be back and battle-ready. But this has never been her best Slam, and with her last semifinal appearance coming in 2003, I would wait a bit before she makes her biggest impact on Tour. Defending champ Francesca Schiavone put up an amazing fight to claim her first Major title last year, but I'm not sure she's quite up to repeating this time around.

The woman she beat in the 2010 finals, though, might just be ready to go one better. Sam Stosur had a stellar clay court season this past spring, but more importantly, rebounded nicely post injury to make the semis at her first year-end championship. Some may say she has to work on her backhand, but the sheer power in her groundstrokes makes her just as formidable an opponent as either of the Williams sisters, and her first Major could be just around the corner.

The Men

All evidence points to another Nadal victory, and chances are that will be the case yet again. The five-time champ in Paris has only ever lost one match here, and his runs to the U.S. Open title and the finals in London prove that his game is not peaking, but actually getting better.

Still all streaks must come to an end some time, and on the tricky clay we know anything can happen. Players like Robin Soderling, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco have all shown they can keep up with the big guns on the terre battue and might be able to pull off an upset. But as much as I'd love to call for one of these guys to make this their breakout tournament, my good sense tells me Rafa still has at least one more title left in him, and he'll chalk up Roland Garros #6 in June.


The Women

The Williams sisters have dominated the Championships for the better part of the decade -- at least one of the pair has appeared in the finals every year since 2000, and only twice did neither of them win it. And if you're thinking that both will be coming off injuries and neither will be ranked quite at the top of her game, let's not forget that Serena made the 2008 finals when ranked sixth and Venus won in '07 while only 31st in the world. We all know better than to count either of them out, but with her career ever-so-slightly closer to its end, I'll give the advantage to the elder sister this time.

The Men

Okay, here's where I make my sacrilegious bet. Of course Roger and Rafa are the favorites, Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray have proven their mettle on the grass courts of the All England Club. But us Americans have been patiently waiting for the next big force to emerge in the men's game, and I think this might be the time for that to happen.

Andy Roddick has come so close so many times, but some less-than-inspiring performances to round out 2010 make me less sure about his prospects. Sam Querrey was once my favorite to take over the reins, but with only one win since the U.S. Open I'm a little more sanguine. So I'm pinning my hopes on the big guy -- six-foot-nine John Isner spent almost as much time on the lawn in his first round epic last year as Nadal did in his seven matches to the title. As long as he doesn't concentrate all his effort on one opponent this time, I think he could make a solid run in this Major.

U.S. Open

The Women

Kim Clijsters has now won this title two years in a row, and the last three times she's played. I wouldn't be surprised to see her take it again, but she has been known to deliver some surprising matches in the past. Remember last year's Australian Open where she won only a single game against Nadia Petrova in the third round? Of course this is practically her home court, though, so she'll more than bring the fire, but that doesn't mean she won't be caught off guard.

In fact I think we'll see another first-time Major winner this year in New York. With all of my heart I hope it's Vera Zvonareva -- for all the effort she put in during 2010 I feel she needs a payoff immediately. Still plucky Caroline Wozniacki spent the entire fall proving she deserves the #1 ranking, and I think she'll be spending the next nine months doing the same. She may not be able to defend all of the titles she earned this past year -- some of those tournaments won't even exist in the new year -- but I think she's ripe for a Slam before year end.

The Men

It's likely the men too might give us some surprises in New York this year. Twice in a row we've seen the previous King of Queens dismissed -- albeit in grand style -- by Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 and then by Novak Djokovic this past September. I wouldn't count Federer out, of course, but we have seen signs that he might be ready to pass the torch.

Nadal's title run last year was inspiring, but I'm not sure he has it in him to repeat so quickly on his worst surface. Andy Murray has made a few valiant attempts here, but unless we see his emotional game mature this year, I think it's still too early to call for the win. Instead, I'm giving this year's U.S. Open to two-time finalist Djokovic whose game just gets more mature over time. If he's going to make a real run to #1, this could be his opportunity to do it.

Of course the lead up tournaments to each of the Majors will give us a better idea of who's most fit going into each of these events, so all these predictions could change on a dime. But with little certainty as to how things will turn out in the next twelve months, I've done my best with the existing evidence. Who knows, it could happen -- otherwise I may be forced to put away my crystal ball for good.

Anyway, here's hoping I do better with my other resolutions -- in fact, I'm heading to the gym right now.

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