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January 18, 2020

Australian Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

Well here we are, on the eve of the first Grand Slam of the decade and there's already so much to talk about.

Now I'm well aware there's a lot going on the outside* the Australian Open, and that it could have a substantial impact on what happens inside Melbourne Park -- we saw that already in the qualifying rounds. But I can't well predict how these external issues will impact the draws, so I'm going to strictly stick to the sport's tangibles. And this year, like I did a long time ago, I'm going to start off by trying to sift through the potential match-ups and pick the men and women I think will still be standing in the semifinals. And I'll introduce my own little "Confidence Meter" as a gauge of how likely I think the outcome is:

Basically a shot in the dark! →
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After all, you can basically guarantee that things won't go according to the seedings -- last year we saw upstarts like Amanda Anisimova and Matteo Berrettini and veteran Barbora Strycova all make it out of Slam quarters, and there were plenty others to do the same in seasons past. For some of these guys, deep runs will be just one-offs, and we may never hear much from them again, at least not on court -- I'm looking at you Anna Kournikova -- but for others it could be the start of something big.

But whoever makes it that far -- whether favorite or Cinderella -- you can bet they'll be in the spotlight for a good part of the new year. So here's hoping they can back up what they bring Down Under.

THE WOMEN
THE MEN



WOMEN'S DRAW

First Quarter

Ashleigh Barty headlines this section of the draw as the top-ranked player and the top seed, not to mention the hometown favorite. But despite her unassailable breakthrough in 2019, which included not just the Miami and French Open titles, but the year end championship as well, I can't help but feel she's one of the more vulnerable #1s we've seen in a while. After all she started her year with a loss to qualifier Jennifer Brady in Brisbane, and even in her title run in Adelaide this past week, was tested in most rounds. She has a decent, Serena-less quarter, but there are still some obstacles there.

Of course there's Petra Kvitova, the second best seed in the section, who took this past week off after a semi showing in Brisbane. Madison Keys, too, could meet Barty in the quarters. But the trouble may start even earlier. Barty's first opponent is Lesia Tsurenko, a quarterfinalist at the 2018 U.S. Open -- she's been a little quiet since then, off court since last year's Citi Open, and has fallen out of the top hundred, but she's certainly capable of surprises. There's also Elena Rybakina, fresh off a title in Hobart and a runner-up finish in Shenzhen -- a potential third round opponent. And Shenzhen title winner Ekaterina Alexandrova is also running a hot streak right now -- she ended 2019 with a title in Limoges and went straight on to the trophy in China -- I imagine she'd be loathe to let her streak end early. I also like Greece's Maria Sakkari, who gave Naomi Osaka a run for her money in Brisbane.

Then again, many of these players have been pretty busy in the weeks leading up to Melbourne and could be a bit tired -- given the conditions, you have to wonder how long they can keep going without a pause. They could also all eliminate each other and clear the road for the eventual survivor, and perhaps that opens the door for some others.

Take Julia Goerges, for example. She's just out of seeding territory and, though she can be up and down -- she made the Wimbledon semis in 2018 and then lost in the first round of two Majors last year -- she can have moments of brilliance. She could meet a strong Allison Riske in the third round, which won't be an easy mountain to scale, but gaining some confidence early could work wonders.

My Semifinalist Pick:Julia Goerges
Confidence Meter:If she's ever had a shot...

Second Quarter

Karolina Pliskova claims the top seed in this section of the draw, and she's coming off her second straight title in Brisbane. Last year she rode that win to a semifinal showing in Melbourne, and she could very well do it again, but she'll be tested right from the get-go. Her first round opponent is barely unseeded Kristina Mladenovic, a former doubles champion here and a two-time Major singles quarterfinalist. Pliskova's also got a potential third round meeting with surprise Auckland finalist Jessica Pegula. And while she finally had a decent showing at the Majors last year, she's never been particularly consistent at these events.

Meanwhile, on the other end of this quarter, fifth seeded Elina Svitolina lost her only match so far this year pretty handily, but she could easily rebound now. She's, after all, a two-time defending quarterfinalist here and made the semis at last year's U.S. Open. She also reached the final at the 2019 year end championships with wins over Pliskova and Simona Halep. She could face an early challenge from unseeded Garbiรฑe Muguruza, who pulled out of Hobart with a viral illness this week. There's also young star Amanda Anisimova, who reached the semis last week in Auckland.

There are a couple other potential spoilers here, and I would really like to see a low seed break through. But for now, I think it's one of the top seeds that gets through.

My Semifinalist Pick:Elina Svitolina
Confidence Meter:It'll be tough, but I'm hopeful!

Third Quarter

Defending champion Naomi Osaka brings a #3 seed to the Australian Open this year, and obviously the pressure is on to defend those points. But she didn't get the greatest draw in which to do that -- she was the lucky one to get Serena Williams in her quarter. Encouragingly, she's kept up her pace since that breakout in 2018, ending out last year with titles in Osaka (appropriately) and Beijing, so she absolutely can't be counted out.

But of course, Serena is going after Major #24 with history in her sights. After ending a three-year title drought in Auckland, she's arguably shaken that monkey off her back (if there ever was one there...) and could be primed to roll. She opens against talented teen Anastasia Potapova, who gave Coco Gauff a tough time in their U.S. Open first round last year, but she should be an easy win for Williams.

Speaking of Coco, the other talented teen with a slightly higher profile -- at least in the States -- makes her Australian Open debut with another first round against Venus Williams, the more-than-twice-her-age legend she beat last year at Wimbledon. She's still the on-paper underdog in this match, but the gap is much narrower these days, and she's got a lot more experience under her belt now. Whatever the outcome, the winner could face Osaka in the third round.

Also in this quarter is 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, who's saying goodbye to the Tour once her run here ends. We've seen pending retirement inspire players before, and it may have helped her to the semis in Auckland, after all. But she's got a tough section too, with U.S. Open standout Kristie Ahn in the first round and potentially Adelaide runner-up Dayana Yastremska in the second. The crowd will be rooting for her, but I expect she'll be stopped by Serena at the start of the second week.

My Semifinalist Pick:Serena Williams
Confidence Meter:She's on a roll, man, and hungry!

Fourth Quarter

This may be one of the more wide-open sections of the draw. On-paper favorite Simona Halep, who lost to an on-the-mend Aryna Sabalenka this week in Adelaide, kicks off her campaign against Brisbane giant-killer Jennifer Brady, who made the quarters as a qualifier. Halep, a two-time Major titleist -- she shocked Serena last year for the Wimbledon title -- can also be spotty at Majors, though, so the early test may not be welcome. And on the other end of things, you've got Belinda Bencic, who got bumped up a seed thanks to Bianca Andreescu's withdrawal from the event. She's sitting at a career-high ranking, but can also be up-and-down in her play -- she made the U.S. Open semis last year, but this season lost her opener in Brisbane and was upset in the Adelaide quarters by Danielle Collins, who's also in this section.

And let's talk about Collins -- the twenty-six year old, twenty-sixth seed has had a solid start to the year, notching wins not only over Bencic, but Elina Svitolina and Sofia Kenin too. She also was the unexpected semifinalist here last year, her first breakthrough at the Slams -- she hadn't won a match at one before that. She'll have a little more pressure to defend points, though, which could weigh on her in later rounds. If not for that, I may have chosen her as my Cinderella here.

But there are also a couple high profile early rounds to watch in this section. Former champion Maria Sharapova, who lost her first round in Brisbane to Brady and is ranked all the way down at #145 in the world, got a wildcard to the Open and in return was gifted a first round against Donna Vekic. It's certainly a winnable match for her, but not one she can be assumed to win. And then there's Heather Watson, on the comeback trail. She starts off against a similarly strong Kristyna Pliskova, the #2's twin, and could set up a second round rematch against Elise Mertens, who she beat this week on the way to the Hobart semis. But ultimately, I'm not sure any of these ladies will keep up their streaks into the final four.

Who could be interesting, though, is Karolina Muchova, who after qualifying for the event last year made the quarters at Wimbledon and gave Serena Williams a tough time in her U.S. Open third round. She's now the twentieth seed, and starts off against an always tricky Kirsten Flipkens. But given her draw, she might just be the spoiler.

My Semifinalist Pick:Karolina Muchova
Confidence Meter:Why the hell not?



MEN'S DRAW

First Quarter

Moving on to the men's draw, Rafael Nadal takes the top seed and, while he may not be considered a favorite for the title -- he's only got that one win here from waaaay back in 2009 -- he's certainly capable of doing some damage. He has made the final four other times, including last year, and he's become a real force on hard courts. He's also had some time to recover since that grueling ATP Cup schedule, so hopefully he'll at least be in good physical shape.

My big concern for him, though, is Nick Kyrgios, who despite my concerns has been pretty spot on this year. There's no love lost between him and Rafa, though, and that could be on full display if they do meet in the fourth round. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw an upset.

The bottom part of this quarter also has a lot of opportunity. While two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem is the headliner, he had some mixed results at the ATP Cup, losing to both Borna Coric and Hubert Hurkacz. It does feel like we could get a breakout from Felix Auger-Aliassime -- the teenager from Canada has never played a main draw here before and actually had a surprisingly dismal showing at the ATP Cup. But he had a solid run in Miami last year as a qualifier, and lived up to expectations in an Adelaide draw this week that saw more than its fair share of upsets.

Still, you have to believe this quarter will be decided in the top half, and that could mean our best matches come early.

My Semifinalist Pick:Nick Kyrgios
Confidence Meter:This pains me, but there it is...

Second Quarter

This quarter may be the easiest to call. Novak Djokovic is the defending men's champion (and seven-time titleist) and arrives on the heels of six match wins at the ATP Cup, including ones over Nadal and Daniil Medvedev. Plus he smartly sat out last week's event in Adelaide, so he should be well rested when he hits the courts in Melbourne. Of course, he's had some early exits here -- notably a stunning second round defeat by Denis Istomin in 2017 -- but he's probably one of the surest bets in the field.

It doesn't mean there won't be drama, though. Roberto Bautista Agut was the unexpected standout for the Spanish team at the ATP Cup, winning all six of his singles matches, including one over Nick Kyrgios. He was a quarterfinalist here last year, and with his biggest on-paper challenger in the early being a potential fourth round against a recently spotty Stefanos Tsitsipas, he could make it back there. Spoilers for him, though, could be young Corentin Moutet, who stunned Stan Wawrinka on the way to the Doha final and faces unseeded Marin Cilic in his opener, or Benoit Paire, who's fresh off a final run in Auckland.

There's also Diego Schwartzman, who surprised me with his performance against Rafael Nadal at last year's U.S. Open. He kicks off against Adelaide's surprise runner-up Lloyd Harris, who made the final there as a qualifier. I'd like to see the Argentine make a deep run here and see no reason he can't at least give Djokovic a bit of a challenge.

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:You just gotta go with the odds here

Third Quarter

Djokovic isn't the only one who knows how to win here, of course -- Roger Federer has six trophies himself and has only not made the semis twice since 2004. Of course, one of those early losses came last year, when he was ousted in four (tiebreak) sets to then-rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas, who he lost to again at the year end championships. Unlike many of the top seeds in Melbourne, we haven't seen Fed in action yet this decade. That's not necessarily strange -- he hasn't played a lead up event to the Australian Open since 2016 and won the thing twice since -- but it could mean he's less accustomed to the extenuating circumstances this year.

He's also got an interesting draw. He's got a first round against American Steve Johnson, who if nothing else, is certainly capable of pushing the great to five sets. More interesting, though, would be a potential third round against Ugo Humbert, who won his first career title in Auckland this week, or a fourth against Grigor Dimitrov, who finally got that elusive "W" over the master at the 2019 U.S. Open and played solid ball to start the year at the ATP Cup.

The other high seed in this section is another New York Cinderella, eighth-ranked Matteo Berrettini, whose favored status I wonder about. While he has what should be some easy early rounds, he could be an opportunity for Borna Coric to stand out -- the one-time Croatian wunderkind hasn't quite lived up to his potential yet, but I continue to root for it. If he can take care of a struggling Sam Querrey in his opener, he could be the breakout here.

It's also worth watching young Denis Shapovalov. The twenty-year-old Canadian did well at ATP Cup, beating both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, and though he lost in the Auckland quarters to Humbert, he could surprise us this fortnight. At the very least, here's hoping he puts together enough wins to keep it interesting.

My Semifinalist Pick:Roger Federer
Confidence Meter:Sure, but this does feel a little long in the tooth...

Fourth Quarter

Okay this section could get interesting. Daniil Medvedev's performance at the ATP Cup helped bump him up a seed for the Australian Open so he's the headliner, and you have to think he'll be as ruthless in his early rounds as he was through the end of last year. The twenty-three year old Russian was more than impressive in his first Slam final in New York and bookended that run with titles in Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, and Shanghai. While he (somewhat surprisingly) lost all his matches at the year-end championships, he recovered for a solid run at the ATP Cup. His opening round against Frances Tiafoe breaks my heart a little, but he should make it through the first week untested.

Meanwhile Alexander Zverev will need to step up to the plate. The seventh seed is winless so far this year and had some surprising losses at the end of last. He has a potential fourth round against Andrey Rublev, seeded only seventeenth but moving higher after titles in Doha and Adelaide already in 2020. I'm always worried about exhaustion playing a factor in runs like that, but the Russian will be eager to keep his win streak alive.

A potential spoiler here -- as much as a former champion can be a spoiler -- is fifteenth seed Stan Wawrinka, who may have had a surprising loss to Corentin Moutet in Doha but is otherwise well on the comeback trail. In the second round, he could face veteran Andreas Seppi or young Miomir Kecmanovic, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the start of the year, but you have to like his chances to give some of the favorites a run for the money.

All said and done, though, Medvedev has future Major champion written all over him, and it feels like he's going to make some strides to get there soon.

My Semifinalist Pick:Daniil Medvedev
Confidence Meter:I just don't see a lot of early challenges...



Well there you have it. My first preview piece in years. I'm sure I'm out of practice and may only get one or two of these picks even close to correct. Whatever the case though, I hope we're in for an exciting two weeks of play. And let's all stay safe out there.


* If you'd like to help in the relief efforts from the bushfires that have ravaged Australia's wildlife over the past several weeks, please visit the Red Cross website or the multitude of other nonprofits lending aid to the region. Here's a good list of options.

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