The Indo-Pak Express of Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna gathered major steam last year and made headlines in the region. Qureshi had a successful year as he won three ATP titles – including a Thailand Open triumph with Austria’s Oliver Marach – and improved his individual, as well as doubles, rankings.
Bopanna, however, has decided to partner with Mahesh Bhupathi for 2012 in the hopes of making a run at the Olympics. Undeterred, the Pakistani tennis ace is partnering with Dutchman Jean-Julien Rojer, a top 20 doubles specialist and a natural serve and volleyer, for the season. But it’s questionable if they’ll be able to develop the chemistry required for a deep run in a slam so soon. The run-up to their 2012 Australian Open campaign hasn't been promising either with the pair crashing out in the first round of the doubles event at the Sydney International, beaten by the top-ranked team of Mike and Bob Bryan 7-5, 6-4 on Thursday.
In the singles bracket, 2011 was an interesting year in tennis as the various story arcs of the top three took unanticipated turns. But the first Grand Slam of the year always sets the tone for what we can expect over the next 10 months. It’s time to let go of the old and start with a clean slate. So here’s our take on what to expect Down Under.
Novak Djokovic Djokovic is coming off one of the greatest seasons in recent memory with three Grand Slam wins, 10 victories overall and a 70-6 record in individual matches. He ran through this event in 2011, defeating Roger Federer and Andy Murray in straight sets in the semi-finals and finals to win the tournament for the second time in his career. With Federer at the tail-end of his career and Nadal struggling, Djokovic deserves to be the overwhelming favourite at this year's Open.
Rafael Nadal Last year Nadal admitted quite honestly that the six losses against Djokovic had gotten into his head. Add to that a bit of a shoulder issue and it doesn’t look good. He was routed in straight sets by Gael Monfils in Qatar. Despite that it’s always dangerous to write off Nadal’s animal will to win. If there’s any one who can win off pure guts, it’s Nadal.
Roger Federer The Swiss maestro ended the year 2011 with the proverbial bang and came into the season with the most momentum. But the former world number one hasn’t won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2010 and had to retire before the semi-final of the Qatar Open last week because of a bad back. His match in Abu Dhabi against Djokovic was not encouraging, but Federer has always played his best in Slams and showed last year that only he, more than Nadal, can really compete with and beat a top-form Djokovic.
Andy Murray With new coach Ivan Lendl on board, Murray’s season got off to the perfect start with victory in the Brisbane International event. The Scot may have reached the last two Australian Open finals but he hasn’t shown the ability to beat players like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in Slams when crunch time rolls around.
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga He's a good bet after his Qatar Open win and has had no such fitness worries as the Frenchman reached the final of three of his final four tournaments of 2011. The 2009 Australian Open finalist has been threatening to pick up a first Grand Slam for a while, but I doubtt 2012 is his year. A semi-final appearance is more than likely.
There’s no doubt we are primed for a spectacular start to the season as former champions look to reclaim lost glory and the young guns vie for their place at the top of men’s game.
The women’s tour, on the other hand, has always been wide open when picking winners for the majors. Seedings and rankings really don’t carry as much weight on the women’s tour these days, and it almost seems that titles are decided based on which side of the bed Serena Williams woke up on.
Nonetheless, there are a few intriguing storylines to follow. From the rise of Petra Kvitova and Carline Woziniacki’s search for her maiden slam to glam-girl Maria Sharapova and the “Slammin” Sam Stosur, this year’s first Slam is there for the taking.
Here’s a look at the players to watch out for:
Petra Kvitova Thanks to an incredible 2011 campaign which included a Wimbledon title, Kvitova is on the verge of overtaking Caroline Wozniacki for the No. 1 ranking. The huge-hitting Czech ended the season on a 12-match winning streak. She went undefeated at the prestigious year-end championships then led her country to the Fed Cup title. She’s seeded No.2 behind Wozniacki, but it’s fair to say that she’s the player to beat this year.
Caroline Wozniacki The world No.1 has managed to hang on to her position at the top of the game across 2011 despite still not winning her first Grand Slam. The young Dane came desperately close to making the final in Melbourne last year and does tend to favour the hard courts. However, a solid run to the semi-final in New York back in September was halted in a complete demolition at the hands of Serena Williams in the semi-finals. It would be great to see Wozniacki finally achieve her Grand Slam dream at the end of January but unless she develops a true weapon, consistency alone is not going to win her a slam.
Victoria Azarenka As one of the most consistent players on tour, she has consistently threatened to make the breakthrough to her first slam. With Serena seeming to lack motivation this year, this might be the best opportunity to shriek her way to a first Grand Slam.
Maria Sharapova It’s a little disconcerting to call Sharapova a veteran so soon, but she’s getting there. With multiple slams in her trophy cabinet, the tennis starlet knows what it takes to win a major. She’s made a remarkable comeback from an injury that would’ve ended the careers of many players. Her chances to win majors will always lie in how well she serves. If her serve can hold up for two weeks, Sharapova is the kind of player that can win a slam on pure will.
Kim Clijsters After missing a huge portion of 2011 through injury, Clijsters will be back in Australia looking to recreate the magic which saw her defeat Li Na in the final 12 months ago. Although the 28-year-old has had a long period out of the game, you can be sure she’ll have worked twice as hard on her fitness ahead of this one — and a straight sets victory over Wozniacki in her return to action in December shows she certainly hasn’t lost her edge. She has the weapons to defeat Serena and Kvitova on her day and if she’s playing well, nobody else in the draw should trouble her.
Serena Williams It’s a testament to her domination that barring a disqualification from the tournament, Williams, is always a contender to win a Grand Slam. You’ll be hard pressed to find any other player who you can say that about. She might have been out of the game for a while, and we’re not sure how bad her ankle sprain is, but counting out Williams at a Slam borders on the stupid. That said, should she find a way to win this year’s Aussie Open, it’ll be her finest win yet.
The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com