2012 Australian Open Preview | Inquirer Sports
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2012 Australian Open Preview

/ 08:30 PM January 12, 2012

Alan Wilkins or Wilko, as he is known in the industry, is an experienced sports broadcaster having taken up broadcasting after a career as a professional cricketer and first-class rugby player. He has been with ESPN STAR Sports since 2000.

In these financially unsettling times everyone is looking for a safe haven for their money, which is why the bookmakers have made Novak Djokovic the firm favourite to retain his title in Melbourne. The 24 year-old Serb is 11/8 to win.

Djokovic stunned Britain’s Andy Murray in the final last year and went on to dominate the tennis world in spectacular fashion, winning three of the four Grand Slams on offer – only Federer stopped him in Paris – thus ending a winning streak of 41 consecutive matches.

The World Number 1 has something in common with those immediately below him in the world rankings in that they are all carrying injuries of some sort as the Australian Open looms so early after the off-season, but Djokovic says his troublesome shoulder will be 100% for the defence of his title.

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Sixteen-time Grand Slam winner, Roger Federer, is a tempting pick at 7/2 with the Australian bookmakers. The 30 year-old Swiss failed to win any of the four Grand Slams last year, the first time that has happened since 2003, but in a disenchanting-looking season, he bounced back to win his final three events of 2011, including the ATP World Tour Finals in London, as the long season took its toll on Djokovic.

As a four-time winner of the Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010) Federer demands respect.

It is perhaps a surprise that Rafael Nadal is as long as 6/1, and it is not often that you will find the Spaniard at such long odds. The 2009 Champion found himself in the shadow of Djokovic for much of last year as he lost to the Serb in the Wimbledon and US Open Finals.

Nadal did win the French Open, but he didn’t win a singles tournament after that and he will need to improve his record of having lost twelve of the last fourteen meetings with Djokovic.

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Nadal has also had shoulder problems and, as the 2011 Wimbledon Final illustrated, the Spaniard will have to be at his exceptional best if he is to overcome the physical prowess of Djokovic.

Of the so-called ‘Big Four’ it is Britain’s Number One, Andy Murray, who arrives in Melbourne again as a realistic contender, and now with former great, Ivan Lendl, as his coach (he was appointed on New Year’s Eve) tennis’s new partnership could be the one that sees Murray finally break his duck in Grand Slam Finals.

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The Murray-Lendl partnership got off to a good start with the 24-year-old Scot clinching the 22nd ATP Tour title of his career, the Brisbane International.

Murray has long proved himself extremely effective at winning everything except the very biggest tournaments, but as he said of Lendl, a two-time Australian Open Champion: ‘He knows the feeling of playing a Grand Slam final at 7pm at night and the nerves leading up to that.’

The British No 1, who found those nerves insuperable in last year’s Australian final, plays an exhibition match against Argentine David Nalbandian as his only pre-Open appearance.

Federer defeated Murray in the 2010 final and Murray has now lost in the past two finals of the Australian Open but his preparation again is good, winning three of his final five tournaments of 2011 before struggling with a groin injury and his injury problems, including a recent back complaint, ensure that he is no shorter than 5/1 in the latest betting.

Away from the ‘Big Four’, Juan Martin Del Potro (14/1) could be a dark horse for the title – if the 2009 US Open champion is fully fit and firing. The quick courts in Melbourne should suit the big hitting Argentine, but if it’s going to be a scorcher in Melbourne then his fitness will come under scrutiny.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (22/1) has had no such fitness worries as the Frenchman reached the final of three of his final four tournaments of 2011 and he has just won in Doha, where Federer retired with a back spasm, and the 2009 Australian Open finalist is looking at his menacing best. He could be worth an each-way look at least, while Tomas Berdych (40/1) and David Ferrer (40/1) are the best of the rest.

If the men’s top players have a sports injuries clinic look about them, just cast an eye over the ladies who are the leading contenders. Five-time Champion, Serena Williams, has a badly sprained ankle, while the defending Champion, Kim Clijsters, is nursing a sore hip that took months out of her schedule last year. Both players are struggling ahead of the start of the most grueling Grand Slam if Melbourne’s summer becomes a critical factor once again.

Preparations have not been good for Maria Sharapova, the 2008 Champion, who withdrew from Brisbane with an injured ankle, or for Venus Wiiliams, who has withdrawn from the 2012 Australian Open just days after she pulled out of a tournament in New Zealand, which was to have been her first competitive match since August. The 31 year-old American, a seven-time Grand Slam Singles Champion – but never a winner in Melbourne – is still recovering from a condition which causes fatigue and joint pain.

The Ladies title is wide open – Caroline Wozniacki, like Andy Murray, is in search of a first Grand Slam and so is World Number 3, Victoria Azarenka, but possibly the strongest credentials this year belong to the 21 year-old left-hander, Petra Kvitova, the young lady who outplayed Maria Sharapova to win Wimbledon last year, her first Grand Slam title.

Kvitova has a powerful serve and an impressive all-round game, reminiscent of the great Martina Navratilova, who herself rates the young Czech as a winner of multiple titles. Could this be her second Grand Slam title?

China’s Li Na and Australia’s Sam Stosur both elevated themselves onto the honours boards of women’s tennis in 2011 with their triumphs in the French Open and the US Open respectively so they know what is required to win a Major and Sam Stosur has a passionate home crowd behind her. If the injuries stack up on their opponent’s side of the net, the experience in these two could count big time.

So where do you put your money? Maybe it is a time to hedge your bets in these times of continuing uncertainty. Spreading the pot over the top four in the men’s draw might be the best policy, but you may have to spread your money even thinner in the ladies’ draw to find the winner this year.

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Alan Wilkins is a presenter on STAR Sports’ coverage of the Australian Open. Catch the high-definition telecast on ESPN HD from 16 Jan

TAGS: Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki, Ivan Lendl, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Sports, Tennis, Tomas Berdych, Victoria Azarenka

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