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.