What we’ve learned ahead of AO 2018

  • Linda Pearce
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The lead-in tournaments ahead of the year’s first major have been (mostly) run and won; what have they told us about what might happen at Australian Open 2018?

Hopman Cup

Take what you will from matches not played for rankings points – and then note that the three unbeaten singles stars at Perth Arena were Roger Federer, David Goffin and a back-to-2016-looking Angelique Kerber. With an honourable mention to Fed’s Swiss partner Belinda Bencic, and a nod to the improving Cash-coached CoCo Vandeweghe, the above trio all loom as strong Australian Open chances – 2002 champion Thomas Johansson even declaring at Thursday’s draw that whoever wins a potential Federer-Goffin quarterfinal will claim the title. A first major for the accomplished, understated Belgian would be No.20 for one of the most famous sportsmen on the planet, on the court where he has triumphed five times before.

Brisbane International

After a lead-in marked by the withdrawals of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, what would ultimately be Nick Kyrgios’ first ATP title at home in Australia was in other respects Alex De Minaur’s show. Kyrgios did it the hard way in some respects, three times coming from a set down, including past defending champion Grigor Dimitrov, en route to the final against Ryan Harrison, struggling at times with knee soreness, yet mostly keeping his emotions in check. De Minaur’s, though, were boldly on show, as was his terrier-like game and a warrior-like attitude eerily reminiscent of the current Davis Cup captain (C’mon! You know who we mean). The women’s was a lower-key affair, although Ukrainian Elina Svitolina continues to doggedly accumulate titles and, yes, rankings points. The Russian will be seeded a career-best fourth at Melbourne Park and, in an open field, should not be overlooked.

Sydney International

What a problematic tournament slot this remains, and not just in Australia: the week immediately before a Slam. Little wonder that Tennis Australia is grappling with a possible overhaul of the season’s opening stretch, and plotting the likely introduction of a 24-nation multi-city men’s World Team Cup as early as 2020. Meanwhile, a modest ATP field for the current 250-level event has boasted De Minaur as its shining light, and Daniil Medvedev as another impressive young talent on the rise. Yet what on paper appeared a crazy-strong women’s line-up resulted in not a single seeded player winning a match, while Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, a wildcard, added a walkover to her retirement in Brisbane. Still, a rare all-Aussie semi pitted popular pair Ash (Barty) and Dash (Gavrilova). And then, yep, there was Kerber, with a new coach but some of her old oomph. Beware.  

Hobart International

The smallest of the AO events boasts the most scenic vista from high on Hobart’s domain. More importantly, the tournament that has helped to launch the likes of Petra Kvitova, the 2009 champion, and Muguruza, who in 2014 hoisted a trophy now named for the late, brave Angie Cunningham, continues to provide valuable opportunities and accommodate many of those outside the high rankings cut-off for entry into the more elite Sydney field. This week, Britain’s Heather Watson has been among those to find some encouraging form at the place where she won her second career title and achieved a career-high top 40 ranking in 2015. 

Meanwhile, in events off-shore ...

The young stars may be coming, but it seems they’re not here quite yet. In Shenzhen, Simona Halep added a 16th WTA career title after having already been confirmed in the No.1 spot for the AO; in Auckland, 30-year-old German Julia Goerges extended her career-best winning streak to 14 matches dating back to Moscow last October by upsetting Caroline Wozniacki in the decider. While taking different ATP paths to Melbourne, two French veterans – Gilles Simon in Pune, and Gael Monfils in Doha – saw in the New Year in style, although Doha runner-up Andrey Rublev secured his maiden Grand Slam seeding and continues to rise up the list of players to watch. Meanwhile, the standout story from Auckland so far has been Juan Martin Del Potro’s, as the oh-so-unlucky Argentine returns to the top 10 for the first time since 2014. Delpo is seeded to meet Goffin in the Australian Open’s fourth round. Then one of them could play Federer. Marvellous.