Paul Annacone, the former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, and current consultant for Tennis Australia’s performance team, sat down with the media in Melbourne on Friday to take a closer look at the Australian Open draw.
The 52-year-old American named Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams as his favourites for the title and picked Jack Sock and Sloane Stephens – also one of his former charges – as outsiders.
Here’s what Annacone had to say…
So you mentioned Serena Williams is your tip for the title again?
I would think so, she’s my favourite. I think there’s Serena and everybody else. We’ve seen her win major titles last year in particular when she was ill and not playing that well in Paris so for her to be able to do that I think instilled kind of a new level of confidence, so as long as she stays injury-free, she’s the one to beat on the women’s side.
And on the men’s?
I think Novak on the men’s side, just because of what he’s done last year. One of the things that sticks out in my mind is that last year the entire year he didn’t get to the finals only one time, that was the first week of the year. The rest of the year, every week he played he either won or got to the finals – which to me is laughable. He’s played great tennis, to see how he started this year against Rafa (Nadal) in the finals in Doha a couple of weeks ago, I think he sent a pretty clear message that he’s ready to play.
Do you think Djokovic and Serena can win all four grand slams this year?
Yes, I think they can. We saw how close both of them came last year. I think the clock is ticking more quickly for Serena but I think she’s got a bigger talent gap so she’s got a bigger margin for error. I think in the men’s game, Novak is playing against a bunch of legends and Serena is playing against great players but not a bunch of legends, so she has a little bit of a cushion but she has less of a cushion because her age. That’s a very long and winded way to say ‘yes they can’ but it’s difficult.
Who are Djokovic’s main challengers then?
I think style-wise, Roger (Federer) still has the best game against him. Roger beat him three times last year, lost five. All finals matches. But Roger’s style of play is I think the most complex for Novak. I think we saw a couple of weeks ago that he matches up, right now, well with Rafa until Rafa makes an adjustment, and trust me Rafa will make an adjustment. And Andy (Murray) also beat Novak last year, so those three guys…
Federer only managed to beat Djokovic in best-of-three matches last year. Why do you think Federer hasn’t been able to beat him over five sets at the slams recently?
Roger has only beaten him in the two-out-of-three set matches. To me it’s a style match-up. It shows you that the best defender on the planet is better than the best offensive player on the planet. And over five sets you have to create so many opportunities to succeed that Novak’s defensive skills and wherewithal kind of take precedence, and that’s really what happened in the three-out-of-five set matches in my opinion.
Will we get any surprises in the draw this year in Melbourne?
I think we’ll have lots of surprises. Jack Sock, I’m also very intrigued to see how Bernie (Tomic) and Nick (Kyrgios) do. I think there’s a lot of expectation on both of them and they have the skills to do well. The challenge for Bernie and Nick is can they do it over five sets for seven matches? And that’s what we haven’t seen yet. We know they can do it for one match, and we know that they can beat anybody on a given day, but can they do it through an entire fortnight? And to do it here with this pressure, that’s kind of the next hurdle for them to get over.
How do you rate Tomic’s chances?
I think the thing about Bernard which will be very intriguing for me to see is the number of matches coming in. He did well in Brisbane and beat Kei Nishikori for the first time, that really should give him confidence. And he’s still going in Sydney (Tomic retired from his quarter-final). I think Bernard’s got the capabilities to beat all of the players, my question would be can he do it over five sets, for seven matches?
There’s been a lot of talk about Nick Kyrgios’ attitude and behaviour, what’s your take on that?
I think he’s got a really engaging attitude, engaging kind of temperament; the problem is when he crosses the line. And I think he’s realising now that he needs to monitor it to a point where he can use as positive reinforcement and not destruction. And I think most players take a little bit of time to do that, unfortunately for Nick he’s doing it in front of a microscope and in front of a lot of cameras and that makes it very difficult because the greater the expectation, the greater the magnifying glass. And I think that that’s part and parcel with your responsibilities as a great player but I love the energy he brings, I love the passion he has.
I’d like to reel in some of the detrimental stuff, but I think that will happen in time and it’s a matter of him sorting it out himself. Because everybody’s personality is a little bit different and his is very different. But it can be very engaging and very fun when it’s a little bit more constrained and there are a few more filters. He’s great for the game in so many ways, and the other ways that aren’t so great for the game, you hope that maturity and experience will just kind of snuff those out. I think, as a coach, they have to be tempered a little bit for him to reach his potential, not smothered, just tempered.
Do you think Nadal and Fernando Verdasco will have an epic first round like their marathon five-setter in the semis here in 2009?
Unbelievable that they’re playing first round. I’ll be watching. I’ll be very surprised if that’s not a long battle because they know each other so well and they’re very comfortable. Fernando is not going to be afraid of Rafa. Rafa knows how difficult it will be, so I expect it’s going to be a long match.
Do you think it could be better for Federer to play Djokovic in the semis and not the finals?
It’s probably better for everybody not to play Novak, that would be my suggestion. I think if you get to the semi-finals and you’re a great player, I always feel – my time with Roger (Federer) and with Pete (Sampras) – they always felt that they’ve got to beat those guys regardless where it is. So I don’t know that it comes in. But if you had to make a guess, sure I would think it’s probably better not to play the best player in the biggest match.
Sloane Stephens started her year by winning a second career title, do you think we’ll see a new Sloane in 2016?
I think we’ve seen a new Sloane already, I think last year when she won Washington DC she saw kind of a new environment, new landscape. Now whether or not she can sustain it throughout a whole tournament and a whole year, that’s the next question. It’s a similar analogy of Nick and Bernard. Sloane can beat everybody, we saw her beat Serena a few years ago. And then for players’ evolution, it’s how do you sustain it for a whole tournament, then for a bunch of tournaments, then for a whole year? So it’s a progression. And now Sloane knows she can win tournaments, so now it’s about her trying to sustain it and I think that comes with maturity. So I think we will see a new Sloane Stephens, and I hope she keeps playing like she has been, because she’s a great talent.
The opening grand slam of the season is a mere two days away and all the players have been flooding the courts here at Melbourne Park to get in some last-minute practice sessions with some of their biggest rivals.
Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray practiced together on Rod Laver Arena on Friday with their coaches, Toni Nadal and Francis Roig from Team Rafa, and Amelie Mauresmo from Team Murray, joining them on court while Great Britain team captain Leon Smith was watching from the stands.
Unlike the other majors, the Australian Open only allows media to watch the first 15 minutes of the practice sessions taking place in the arenas so I only caught Nadal and Murray hitting serves before they started playing a practice set.
Over on Margaret Court Arena, defending champion Novak Djokovic was hitting with Spanish lefty, and former semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco. Their session was quite different as it seems they were focusing more on volume, going through what felt like 100-shot rallies and endless crosscourt exchanges.
Think I just watched like a 100-shot rally between Djokovic and Verdasco pic.twitter.com/H6beP5jEP2— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 15, 2016
During a break, Djokovic and Verdasco shared a bench while the Serb’s coach, Boris Becker, appeared to be talking to them about his serve and his foot-positioning on serve.
It dawned on me just how exciting it must be for some of the players to have a hitting session with Djokovic as they could end up getting free coaching and hearing some incredible stories from a legend like Becker.
Verdasco got up to show the German his own foot positioning on serve before he and Djokovic resumed with their marathon rallies.
Ending one of those exchanges, Verdasco flicked a forehand winner with so much power that Djokovic jokingly told the Spaniard: “When you have biceps like that of course you can hit a forehand like that.”
I’m pretty sure Verdasco would trade those biceps for at least one of Djokovic’s slams.
Djokovic is probably the fittest player on tour and it’s hard to imagine there is any part of his training regime that gives him a hard time but the world No.1 on Friday revealed his least favourite portion of his pre-season preparations.
“I think it would be uphill sprints. I live in Monte Carlo so there’s a lot of hills. My coach tells me ‘you see that top of the hill, just wave when you get there’,” said Djokovic.
Sprinting up a mountain in Monaco? Sounds like fun to me.
Few people can argue with Novak Djokovic’s opening remarks at the Australian Open draw on Friday – “everybody loves Melbourne” the world No.1 said with a big smile on his face as he posed with the Norman Brookes trophy alongside the tournament’s other defending champion Serena Williams.
The Australian Open is dubbed the “Happy Slam” for a reason as it continues to be the players’ favourite stop of the year.
Standing at the entrance of Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park in cool and breezy weather that is rather uncharacteristic for an Australian summer, Djokovic and Williams were back on familiar ground as title holders of a grand slam.
Between them, the two world No.1s own 11 Australian Open crowns and twice last year they grabbed titles at the same slams – in Melbourne and Wimbledon – and their pose with the trophies together is becoming a common sight.
At the Wimbledon Champions’ Ball last year, they revived the winners’ dance, a long-time tradition that had been dormant for many years and Djokovic and Williams are hoping they share the dance floor again this year with further history at the All England Club.
“That was the highlight,” Djokovic said laughing referring to their dance last year.
“She was phenomenal, I don’t know what I was doing. I just kneeled down and pretended to know how to dance. But she did great. It’s still called a Champions’ Ball so you kind of expect to relive that memory and that kind of tradition (the dance). It was nice, because it was lost for some time and I hope – well at least from what I’ve heard from people from Wimbledon that they’ll keep that tradition going now, hopefully we’ll have another dance this year.”
But well before Wimbledon, the pair will be chasing history in the upcoming fortnight in Melbourne where Djokovic targets Roy Emerson’s all-time record of six Australian Open titles while Williams has her eyes set on Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 grand slams.
Williams enters the tournament with some question marks surrounding her fitness having withdrawn from the Hopman Cup two weeks ago with a lingering knee problem.
But the American top seed declared herself fit ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, and says she’s ready to go for a record-extending seventh trophy Down Under.
“Everything’s actually really well, I’m feeling really good. I’m excited about it. I’ve been training every day for so long and I’m okay, I’m ready now. It feels good,” said the 34-year-old.
And considering the draw Williams was handed, she will definitely need every bit of health she can muster. In the first round, the No.1 seed will face Italian Camila Giorgi, who is the highest ranked unseeded player in the draw and one who has troubled many top guns in the past.
Williams’ potential path could see her square off with her good friend Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, take on Maria Sharapova or Belinda Bencic in the quarter-finals, before a possible semi with Agnieszka Radwanska or Petra Kvitova and a final against Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka or Garbine Muguruza.
Radwanska, seeded No.4, and sharing a quarter of the draw with Kvitova, could get a scorcher of a second round against former Melbourne semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard while two-time champion Azarenka, seed 14, could meet third-seeded Muguruza in the fourth round.
Halep and Venus Williams could face-off in the quarters with their section also including ex-world No.1 Ana Ivanovic, last year’s semi-finalist Madison Keys and ninth-seeded Karolina Pliskova.
In the men’s side, tennis’ young generation will get an early taste of the big leagues as talented 19-year-old Chung Hyeon of South Korea plays Djokovic in the first round while big-hitting German teen Alexander Zverev opens against No.2 seed and four-time runner-up Andy Murray.
No.7 seed Kei Nishikori landed in Djokovic’s quarter of the draw with a mouth-watering last eight clash between them potentially on the cards while Roger Federer is a possible semi-final opponent for the world No.1.
Rafael Nadal, looking to become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the four majors at least twice, was handed a difficult opener against fellow Spanish lefty Fernando Verdasco. The pair produced one of the most memorable matches in Australian Open history when Nadal beat Verdasco in five sets in the 2009 semi-finals.
Nadal, seed No.5, could get 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals and the winner could face-off with Murray or David Ferrer in the semis.
Australia was thrown a curveball as Lleyton Hewitt, playing the final tournament of his career, drew fellow Aussie James Duckworth in the first round. Hewitt is making a record-extending 20th appearance at the Australian Open and will take on his country’s Davis Cup captaincy upon his retirement.
Should Hewitt get past Duckworth, he could face eighth-seeded Ferrer.
There are two seeded Aussies in the draw with Nick Kyrgios (No.29), who opens against Pablo Carreno Busta, landing in Tomas Berdych’s section and Federer’s quarter, while 16th-seeded Bernard Tomic is a potential dangerous fourth round opponent for Murray.
Federer has a possible daunting third round in his path against No.27 seed Grigor Dimitrov.
Men’s projected quarter-finals
Novak Djokovic (SRB x1) v Kei Nishikori (JPN x7)
Roger Federer (SUI x3) v Tomas Berdych (CZE x6)
Stan Wawrinka (SUI x4) v Rafael Nadal (ESP x5)
Andy Murray (GBR x2) v David Ferrer (ESP x8)
Women’s projected quarter-finals
Serena Williams (USA x1) v Maria Sharapova (RUS x5)
Agnieszka Radwanska (POL x4) v Petra Kvitova (CZE x6)
Garbine Muguruza (ESP x3) v Angelique Kerber (GER x7)
Simona Halep (ROU x2) v Venus Williams (USA x8)
Notable first rounds
Rafael Nadal (ESP x5) v Fernando Verdasco (ESP)
Jeremy Chard (FRA x30) v Ernests Gulbis (LAT)
Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) v James Duckworth (AUS)
Andy Murray (GBR x2) v Alexander Zverev
Novak Djokovic (SRB x1) v Chung Hyeon (KOR)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x9) v Marcos Baghdatis (CYP)
Kei Nishikori (JPN x7) v Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER)
Nick Kyrgios (AUS x29) v Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP)
Serena Williams (USA x1) v Camila Giorgi (ITA)
Caroline Wozniacki (DEN x16) v Yulia Putintseva (KAZ)
Kristina Mladenovic (FRA x28) v Dominika Cibulkova (SVK)