The maiden Grand Slam of the 2018 season takes place in Melbourne, Australia. The Australian Open is contested on fast hard-courts, with reigning and five time champion Roger Federer aiming for a 20th major title. While Serena Williams is missing her fourth consecutive major making this another extremely competitive and open field.
Covers Experts’ resident tennis cappers, Tennis Insiders, break down the candidates to lift the the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy and the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, down under later this month.
Favorite: Roger Federer +200
Federer entered 2017 Australian Open as a write-off, no one expecting him to feature in the latter end of his first tournament after a six-month layoff. He proved everyone including himself wrong by going all the way and winning his 18th major, defeating Rafa Nadal in a five set thriller. Andy Murray's withdrawal, combined with injury doubts surrounding Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka see Federer likely to win his 20th slam title. At 36, he was certainly a beneficiary of some kind scheduling from tournament directors, which have seen the majority of his matches played at night, away from the searing on court heat of daytime tennis in Melbourne.
The faster courts also aided his challenge last year, allowing his ultra aggressive backhand and return game to flourish, along with the increased effectiveness of his serve. There's unlikely to be a change back to slower conditions this season, leaving Federer the deserving favorite to hoist another major crown.
Underdog to watch: Alexander Zverev +900
Alexander Zverev had a breakout 2016, winning his first Masters 1000 title in Rome, before following it up with a convincing victory against Federer in Montreal. Zverev struggled under the pressure in the majors though, falling in the first and second rounds in Paris and New York respectively. He's been to the second week of a major tournament just once and will have to prove his body has developed to withstand these brutal conditions over the course of two weeks.
He succumbed to cramps in the 3rd round against Nadal last season, losing in a draining five setter. The main focus for the No.4 seed will be advancing through the first week unscathed, as he will need all his energy if he wants to go deep in a major for the first time. He's beaten Federer, Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, Marin Cilic and David Goffin, so there's no reason for the young German to fear anyone in the draw.
Watch out for his scheduling, the more daytime matches he plays the tougher it will be considering his height and huge ball striking, which prove fatiguing over the course of a five set match. The more night matches he plays, the further his stock will rise.
Live long Shot: Jack Sock +6600
It's been a while since an American player has had a realistic shot at a major title, but the odds makers still aren't pricing Jack Sock at his true worth. He won his first Masters 1000 title in Paris in the latter stages of 2017 and came very close to reaching the ATP World Tour finals, losing to eventual champion Dimitrov in a deciding set.
Sock's game continues to improve and this plexi-cushion surface will help his game, the surface is very easy to move on and allows him to scramble to hit his vicious topspin forehand during the longer exchanges. He's the No. 8 seed heading into this event so he should reach the second week comfortably, leaving him a very valuable ticket to hedge in the latter stages of this tournament.
Co-Favorites: Garbine Muguruza & Karolina Pliskova +650
These two appear to be the most popular among the betting public, but no one should be trusting their money on either of these players. Muguruza's best result here has been a quarter-final appearance, achieved last season but her issues in the heat are difficult to ignore, considering last week she collapsed on court with cramp and was forced to retire, her fourth consecutive season retiring due to injury at an Australian warm-up tournament.
Pliskova reached the US Open Final in 2016 and the French Open semi-finals last season, but apart from that has struggled to make an impact in the sports biggest tournaments. Again, last years Australian Open was her biggest achievement at this venue, reaching the quarter finals, but she is another player who struggles in the heat due to her height and massive ball striking, which leads to fatigue over the course of a tournament in brutal conditions.
Neither player should carry the favorite tag, look further down the list for experience and proven success in tough conditions.
Underdog to watch: Simona Halep +800
Halep carries huge value in a very open field. Yes, she suffered a meltdown when she appeared to be coasting towards a first major title at the French Open but that defeat only fueled the fire, and she fought hard in the latter stages of 2017 to secure the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
Her last two appearances down under have not been kind, bowing out in the first round of both, but she should come into this tournament with a new found confidence and she claimed the title in Shenzhen last week, a very good opening to the 2018 season. Questions remain around her mental game and ability to produce in the key moments, but it's only a question of when rather than if in terms of winning her first slam title.
Live long shot: Aryna Sabalenka +5000
2018 might be too soon for the young Belarusian but the 19 year old has shown she can compete at a very high level, losing narrowly to Maria Sharapova in the final of Tianjin in October. She has the attributes to reach the higher echelons of the game and her enormous ball striking and aggressive returning will sync well with this surface. She could prove a valuable ticket to hedge in the second week and this should be her last major entering the draw unseeded, so be sure to take advantage of the obvious value.