Roundtable: Aussie Open preview
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a contender to win his first major in Melbourne
Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Kim Clijsters are favored for the women
Watch out for Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic and the ATP's young talent
SI.com's tennis experts take a look into the crystal ball ahead of the 2012 Australian Open, bringing you picks and predictions for what to expect in Melbourne.
Bruce Jenkins: David Ferrer. I was leaning toward Ryan Harrison until I saw the draw, where he gets Andy Murray in the first round. That's a bit too much to overcome, so I'll go with Ferrer. Nobody's more fit, few players are more difficult to outlast and his Davis Cup experience has given him a tremendous boost of confidence. Checking his draw, with potentially beatable opponents in Andy Roddick, Janko Tipsarevic and Milos Raonic (that would be an intriguing matchup), Ferrer has a fair shot to reach the quarterfinals against Novak Djokovic. Then we'll see how dark this horse really is.
Agnieszka Radwanska. Some would say she doesn't qualify in this category, but let's face it, she has never won a major, nor has she made the type of impact that captures the casual fan's attention. At this stage of her career, she's a clever, change-the-pace player capable of beating anyone (such as Caroline Wozniacki in this week's Sydney International), but never a presence when it really counts. I've got her reaching the final this time.
Jon Wertheim: Milos Raonic. Last year, the hard-serving Canadian had to qualify just to make the main draw. This year, he's seeded 23rd and coming off a win at the Chennai Open. He'll fire enough aces in the early rounds to reach the middle weekend.
Kaia Kanepi. Yes, to some extent we're chasing returns here, touting a player who won during the first week of 2012. But she's also a powerful, deceptively crafty player who tends to post her best results in the biggest events.
Bryan Armen Graham: Juan Martin del Potro's wrist is finally right after sitting out most of 2010 and dropping to No. 485 in the world. The lengthy Argentine looked great at the end of last season, knocking off Novak Djokovic in Davis Cup and showing the form that famously beat back Roger Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. Questions about his fitness and consistency linger, but that weapons-grade forehand can't be ignored. A possible quarterfinal clash with Federer could be one of the must-see matches of the fortnight.
Kanepi, the No. 25 seed, steamrolled the competition in Brisbane, knocking off four consecutive top-25 opponents in straight sets to win her second career title. The pride of Estonia has the big serve and thunderous groundstrokes to hang with the Tour's heaviest hitters and she's punched above her weight at majors before. Watch her push Serena Williams to the limit when they meet for a place in the quarters.
Courtney Nguyen: It seems like anyone outside of the Big Three is a dark horse on the men's side, but as I mentioned in this week's Toss, I'm bullish on Del Potro's chances to make a deep run. His play toward the end of last season, particularly at Davis Cup, showed that he's on his way to regaining his pre-injury form. Besides, I always favor the guys who have games that are so overpowering that they don't need their opponents to play poorly in order to win. Del Potro is that guy.
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On the women's side, I tapped Victoria Azarenka in the Toss while noting that I really like Li Na, too. (It's a stretch to label them dark horses to win the Australian Open based on the rankings, but Sydney champion Azarenka has made only one major semifinal and Sydney runner-up Li struggled badly at the end of 2011.) Li showed a lot of maturity, grit and confidence in her three-set, comeback victory over Petra Kvitova on Thursday. Kvitova was blasting her off the court, but Li weathered the storm and the minute Kvitova's form dipped, she capitalized. By the time the third set rolled around, Li seemed fully in control. She got a tough draw with a potential matchup with defending champion Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, but a second Grand Slam title would not surprise me in the least.
Richard Deitsch: Alexandr Dolgopolov made a sweet run to the quarters last year before Andy Murray knocked him off in four tough sets (Murray also took out the Ukrainian last week in Brisbane, so do your best to avoid him, Alex). As my pal Wertheim says, this Dolg "may lack an 'E' but he plays exceptional 'D,' scrambling to balls and prolonging points with his quickness and anticipation."
As for the women, Kanepi won Brisbane last week, including victories over world No. 10 Andrea Petkovic and No. 11 Francesca Schiavone. She also ended 2011 strong and is a big-serving, big-hitting threat when healthy. At 26, if the breakout year is coming, it has to come now.
Jenkins: Andy Roddick. If I ran a forecasting service, it would be called Dead Wrong in Public, chock full of remarkably inaccurate predictions. But this call is a staple for me in big events, and it seldom disappoints. One more thing about Roddick: For the first time in his career, I'm glad to see him wearing a hat. Anything to cover up that dreadful new haircut. Did someone pull a prank on Roddick in his sleep?
Caroline Wozniacki. She looks to be in even better physical shape than before, and I loved that exhibition in which she and Kim Clijsters mocked the insufferable shriekers of the women's Tour. There's nothing new about Wozniacki's game, though. She still can't close out the important points in a crisis, and it's difficult to instill a killer instinct in a player lacking big-time weapons. Her search for that first major title will continue.
Wertheim: Mardy Fish. He deserves admiration for his late-career resurgence. But the results at majors are iffy, at best. And his play early this year suggests they won't improve next week.
Sam Stosur. A lot pressure on the most recent major winner, now burdened by playing in her "home Slam."
Graham: If you still regard Roddick as a top player, consider his possible road to the quarters: Robin Haase, Lleyton Hewitt, Milos Raonic and Novak Djokovic. Doesn't augur well. Same for compatriot Fish, the top-seeded American at No. 8, who drew Gilles Muller in the first round.
At 27, Vera Zvonareva's window for a major is closing. Possible early-round matchups with Kanepi and Serena will make her stay Down Under a short one -- and that's if the Russian survives a tricky first-round test against Alexandra Dulgheru.
Nguyen: Andy Murray. The jury is still out on whether hiring Ivan Lendl will help him, but my concern is whether the increased scrutiny of the hire adds an unnecessary distraction to the Scot's already cluttered mind. Has he had enough time to adjust to the change? I can't imagine so.
Maria Sharapova. While I admire the Russian's fight and don't like counting her out, she has, by far, the toughest draw of any of the top seeds on the men's or women's side. Just to get to the semifinals and live up to her seeding, Sharapova would have to beat Giselo Dulko, Angelique Kerber, Sabine Lisicki or Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena. I just don't see it happening.
Deitsch: I think Fish gets picked off during the first week.
I rolled with Wozniacki for a long time in 2011 and, though I still think she'll win a major in the next 24 months, her form tells me it will be a short stay in Melbourne. I'd be stunned if she reached the quarters this year.
Jenkins: Ashleigh Barty, the 15-year-old Australian prodigy, does something spectacular. Coached by David Taylor, known for his work with Martina Hingis, Barty won last year's Wimbledon junior event and now gets a massive dose of exposure in her home country. It's all conjecture at this point, but it sounds as if she might be more comfortable in that setting than Sam Stosur, who has so often crashed out in Australia. "Ashleigh is the real deal, amazing," Taylor said last week. "She's intuitive, just like Martina was. You can't teach that." How interesting would it be to see any under-20 player make some noise these days?
Wertheim: We're going for bold, way out there, right? How about this: Rafael Nadal doesn't survive the middle weekend. I feel vaguely guilty just typing that, given his consistency and propensity to grind out wins at majors. But his body is betraying him already this year, so the prospect of his winning best-of-five matches, in heat, on hardcourts, must make even his biggest fans nervous.
Graham: Andy Roddick crashes out quietly and respectfully to rising Dutch talent Robin Haase, the American's first opening-round loss at a major in five years.
Nguyen: Roger Federer will not make a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time since the 2004 French Open; we'll get a major withdrawal/injury retirement from a top five player; and Caroline Wozniacki will regale the press with a tale of Rory McIlroy's being chased out of a park by a Tasmanian devil.
Deitsch: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be one of the finalists. Hell, let's be bold: Tsonga is going to win it all. I predicted at the end of 2011 that Tsonga would win a major this year. Australia is his best chance, given his success there (he was a finalist in 2008) and his current form (he defeated Gael Monfils in an all-French final at the Qatar Open).
Jenkins: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He has played some of his career-best tennis in Melbourne, particularly in 2008 (when he defeated Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal), and he has been moving steadily toward this moment. Roger Federer seems a dubious choice due to his bad back. Rafael Nadal still has some mental obstacles to clear, and Murray isn't deep enough into his bold new venture with Ivan Lendl. I'm not sure if Novak Djokovic, an obvious pick on the surface, is ready for two weeks of health dominance after such a short offseason.
Petra Kvitova. With Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters in such unsettled sates, it would be great to see someone take a firm grip on that No. 1 ranking, complete with big performances under pressure. We're all waiting to see if Kvitova has the type of relentless motivation that helped create so many champions, from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, and we won't have the answer this soon. But I've got Serena going down before the semifinals -- pick a reason; it could be anything -- and that's the only break Kvitova will need.
Wertheim: Novak Djokovic. The temptation, of course, is to go sentimental and pick Federer; go bold and tip, say, Tsonga; or go high-risk, high-reward long shot and tip, say, Milos Raonic. But realistically, how do you not pick Djokovic to defend?
Petra Kvitova. Much more wishful thinking than deeply-felt sentiment. But with Serena and Clijsters still shaking off "court rust," Sharapova still fighting with her serve, and Wozniacki still a defensive counterpuncher, maybe it's Petra Time. Piggybacking a dominant fall with a win in Melbourne would vault her to No. 1. And end our quest for the WTA vacuum-filler.
Graham: The draw gods smiled on Nadal, who finds himself in a quarter with seven qualifiers and a lack of red-letter threats (Tomas Berdych? Nicolas Almagro?). He'll be well rested for a potential semifinal showdown with Federer, himself a deadly serious contender after winning 17 straight matches to close the 2011 season. And Murray's shrewd hire of Lendl might be just what the talented Scot needs for his elusive Grand Slam breakthrough. But you'd be mad to pick against a refreshed Djokovic after what he showed us last year, even if his post-U.S. Open swoon removed some of the luster from his historic campaign.
The only thing Serena Williams loves more than winning is proving the pundits wrong. Her ability to contend at majors at less than full strength graduated to legend here five years ago, when she arrived in Melbourne unseeded (ranked No. 81) and won it all. Even with the ankle sprain that forced her withdrawal from last week's Brisbane tune-up, I'm not ready to pick against her -- certainly not at her best Slam. The jackals will circle when she struggles early, and she will struggle, but we've seen Serena play herself into form so many times that it should come as no surprise when she wins her 14th major title at the ripe old age of 30.
Nguyen: Djokovic has done absolutely nothing to make us believe he's incapable of defending his title. As the guy who won the last two Slams of 2011, a fit Djokovic is hands down the man to beat. Plus, for the first time in years, he won't have to go through both Nadal and Federer to do it; they're both on the other side of the draw.
Serena was one match away from finishing off a jaw-dropping return to tennis last summer, and after taking off the entire fall season, she's arrived in Australia fit and motivated. I'm not taking her comments about hating tennis or the ankle injury she suffered in Brisbane too seriously. Williams is out to prove herself again and that's when she's the most dangerous.
Deitsch: Well, you already know I'm going for Tsonga (though my backup is Federer).
The women's side is its usual funhouse, with injuries and a lack of force at the top. But I'll gamble that Clijsters comes back from the left hip injury she suffered in Brisbane. She's always played well in Australia, and while I think Kvitova is going to end up as the year-end No. 1, Aussie Kim is my pick for the hardware here.