This year’s Australian Open draw was probably the most anticipated in a long time with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both seeded outside the top-16 having slipped in the rankings because of injuries.
While the possibility of the two all-time greats facing off in the third round did not transpire, with the draw placing them on opposite sides, Federer and Nadal did throw up intriguing potential classes in the sections which they landed. Federer is in Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori’s quarter, while Nadal turned up in Milos Raonic’s.
Raonic and Nadal have already played twice in the last three weeks, with the Spaniard getting the upper hand in an exhibition clash in Abu Dhabi before Raonic avenged that defeat with victory in their Brisbane quarter-final last week.
While Nadal will be happy to have avoided the quarters of the draw that house the world’s top-two Murray and Novak Djokovic, Raonic would be a serious obstacle for the 14-time grand slam champion, should he make it to the quarter-finals.
Federer is surrounded by qualifiers in his section, which would give him a chance to ease in to the competition, with world No10 Tomas Berdych being the first seed he could face, in the third round.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams was thrown a curveball in the form of Swiss ex-world No7 Belinda Bencic, but it’s worth noting that the teenager is returning from an injury-plagued 2016 and is down to No48 in the rankings.
Here are a few questions thrown up by the Australian Open draw:
WILL VERDASCO DO IT AGAIN?
The Spaniard has a chance to play the role of party-pooper for a second year in a row after he was drawn to face No2 seed Novak Djokovic in the first round.
The powerful Verdasco, whose game is definitely better than what his No40 ranking reflects, upset Rafael Nadal in the first round at Melbourne Park last year.
He also almost beat Djokovic last week in Doha, but inexplicably squandered five match points. Djokovic is someone who learns quickly from his mistakes though and it’s unlikely he’ll face similar trouble to what he had to overcome in Doha.
#Djokovic on Verdasco, his 1R opponent: "I hope I don't have to defend match points again! He's a complete player and can beat anyone"— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 14, 2017
WILL RUST AFFECT SERENA’S CAMPAIGN?
The American legend’s only match since last year’s US Open is a defeat to Madison Brengle in Auckland earlier this month. She committed 88 unforced errors in that clash and was unable to deal with the windy conditions.
Williams’ Australian Open path is potentially a treacherous one. Should she get past Bencic, who beat the American in Toronto in 2015, Williams would have to defeat the likes of Lucie Safarova, Caroline Wozniacki or Dominika Cibulkova should she wish to get through her quarter. She will have no time to ease into her game, Williams must come out blasting from the blocks.
lS KYRGIOS READY TO GO BIG?
The young Aussie has already performed well on the big stage, making the quarters at both Wimbledon and his home slam before. He is in Stan Wawrinka’s quarter of the draw and has several beatable opponents in his potential path.
Is the talented 21-year-old finally ready to reach his first semi? It’s highly possible if the knee injury he is currently nursing is not too serious.
CAN KERBER RECAPTURE HER MAGICAL 2016 FORM?
The German has suffered two losses already this season, to Elina Svitolina in Brisbane and Daria Kasatkina in Sydney. She could face the latter in the fourth round in Melbourne but her draw is fairly tamer than that of Williams.
Coach Patrick Mouratoglou insists Serena Williams did not lose the Australian Open final due to nerves.
Williams suffered her second successive defeat in a major, having lost in the semi-finals of the US Open last September to Roberta Vinci, where she was gunning for the calendar-year Grand Slam as well as Graf’s historic mark of 22 major tournament wins.
In the opening set against Angelique Kerber, Williams committed 23 unforced errors and struggled with her serve and her movement.
Mouratoglou, who has been working with Williams since mid-2012 and has helped her win eight of the 15 grand slams she’s entered since, said the final came down to an underdog playing with nothing to lose, against a favourite who struggled to hit her peak.
“I’ve seen Serena much tighter in some other grand slam finals. She’s human, and when you’re a big favourite in a grand slam final you are a bit nervous, if you’re not, you’re not normal,” said the Frenchman. “We just have to congratulate Angelique. She was able to play the perfect match and that was the only way to beat Serena.
“I think she was a bit tight, but I think everybody is when you play a grand slam final and when you have a lot to lose compared to a player who plays against someone who is supposedly unbeatable.”
Mouratoglou defended Williams’ strategy of frequently coming to the net, a tactic that was only successful on 15 of 32 approaches.
“There are so many high balls, so many balls floating in the air that she can finish,” he added. “It makes complete sense to come to the net.”
Looking ahead, Mouratoglou said there were still lots of improvements Williams can make.
“There is still work and it’s good because when she’ll be able to do that, she’ll be even more difficult,” he said. “She can still improve a lot. If she couldn’t, she’d stop.”
Angelique Kerber does not know what awaits her as she faces the world now as a grand slam champion, but she’s excited to find out.
The 28-year-old stunned Serena Williams in the Australian Open final to become the first German to win a major this century and vault up the rankings to No. 2 in the world.
Kerber didn’t sleep a wink the Saturday night after the final as she celebrated with her team before jumping into Melbourne’s Yarra River early in the morning, fulfilling a bet that she would take the plunge should she win the title.
She then went back to her hotel for hair and makeup before heading to the Government House for her official trophy photo-shoot. Her life will not slow down for a while. Asked if she had any clue on what kind of expectations people will now have of her, Kerber said: “I have no idea. I don’t know also what will come in Germany.
“I know I got so many messages. I know that I will make a lot of media and press when I go back but I think I deserve it. I’m looking forward to it. I will take every experience with me for the next challenges I will face in the tournaments. But right now I’ll just focus on the moment, enjoying everything and then let’s see what happens because I have no idea, I was never in this situation.”
Kerber’s journey has been about perseverance, as she constantly searched for the self-belief she knew she lacked.
“I’m not the easiest person sometimes. I had also a few downs where I was not believing in myself,” she admits. Now that she has conquered her demons and taken out two tournament favourites in Victoria Azarenka and Williams en route to the title, what message does she think her triumph can convey to the world?
“I think the message from me is that you can work very hard and some day the work will pay off,” said Kerber. “Just follow your dreams and be patient. You will always have up and downs in your life, in your career and just stay positive and just go for it.
“Just do what you love, and that’s what I’m doing. Now my dream has come true so that’s the message I can give out to everybody.”
Williams joked she had better watch her back now that Kerber was at No. 2 and could be gunning for top spot. But while world No1 is a dream for the champion, she isn’t obsessing over it.
“My dream was always to win the grand slam and my second dream was to be No. 1. So I think the first dream, I’m done already and the next one will be No. 1. But it’s still so far and Serena is still the best player in the world, she wins every tournament she plays. That’s actually so far for me,” said Kerber. “If the day comes and I will be No. 1 that’s great, but for me the biggest dream was to win a grand slam and I did it.”
Kerber explained how she played mind games with herself in order to treat the Australian Open like any other competition in order to try and perform as well here as she has done in smaller tournaments. At the slams, she would usually change her routine, avoid staying at the official hotel, not eat at the players’ restaurant… but in the past two weeks in Melbourne, she decided she wasn’t going to complicate things anymore.
“At the slams, I’m not the same player, that’s true,” Kerber confessed. “That changed after the first round (where she saved a match point against Misaki Doi). I didn’t have the pressure anymore. “I remembered in 2015 I lost in the first round. After this year’s first round I was telling myself not to think it’s a grand slam, think that it’s Brisbane, and that helped me.
“I was trying to stay relaxed, stay like I am, not thinking too much to make things complicated. I was staying in the official hotel, and going to the players’ restaurant like in the smaller tournaments.”
The trick worked and she’s now champion. Would Kerber want to face Williams in a slam final again?
“Of course. She’s challenging you to play the best and this is what you as an athlete would like to show people,” she said. “To play Serena is always a challenge so I’d like to do it again.”