Saturday, October 16, 2021

2018 Australian Open: Welcome to Melbourne

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Jaafar Jaafar
Jaafar Jaafar is a graduate of Mass Communication from Bayero University, Kano. He was a reporter at Daily Trust, an assistant editor at Premium Times and now the editor-in-chief of Daily Nigerian.
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The curtain-raiser for the 2018 Tennis Calendar serves up in Australia, aptly named the Grand Slam of Asia Pacific. It was at this event last year that the winner and finalist garnered huge points that kept the pair atop the rankings, after another Grand Slam title each. Nadal and Federer come to Melbourne Park determined to lift the trophy but with formidable hurdles in their path.

Last year’s edition started with great expectation from strong contenders of the next generation; notably Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios. The old guard prevailed at Melbourne and warded off the upstarts all year long although Zverev and Thiem held steadily to their positions in the rankings all through the year.

It is likely to be a different story this year. Last year, Australia was the soil of Dimitrov’s stepping out. After winning in Brisbane, he came close to victory in Australian Open semi-final match against Rafael Nadal, in a five-set thriller that lasted close to five hours. He ended the year by winning the Nitto ATP Tour Finals title in London. This year, his weak second serve cost him the defence of the Brisbane title. However, the third seeded player knows how to win matches.

Alexander Zverez, at 20 years of age, stands out as a contender. He had a b great run in 2017 when he won many tournaments, and defeated Federer in Stuttgart. His linguistic mate, Austria’s Dominic Thiem is also a strong contender. Known to be big hitter, firing heavy and hard balls across the net, off both wings, he is in the toughest quarter of the Draw.

With steady progress, he might face 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka in the Round of 16, and in the quarter-finals, he could face either Alexander Zverev or Djokovic (holder of 6 Australian Open titles).

Although it may seem far-fetched, Australia may retain the trophy down under. Handlers have succeeded in taming the highly talented Kyrgios with newly infused professional discipline. In the Brisbane tournament, he came back from the first set loss to defeat Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-final and a battle-weary Ryan Harrison in the final. The American had been softened by the battle against the uprising Australian teenager, Alex de Minaur. Seeded 17th, Kyrgios may face Dimitrov in the Round of 16 and could repeat his victory in Brisbane. The combination of mental toughness with his lethal serve and forehand could take him all the way to the title.

When Lleyton Hewitt won Wimbledon, the cover story of the American “Tennis Week” magazine was “Hewitt Humbles Wimbledon.” He did it by chasing down every ball. As trainer of Alex de Minaur, Hewitt has infused that doggedness into his 18-year old protégée. In the tune-up events for the Open, Alex entered Brisbane as a wildcard and played all the way to the semi-finals. A week later, he reached the finals in Sydney where he leveled from 0-4 in the deciding set before losing to Daniil Medvedev of Russia. This kid will be a giant killer who could go all the way and give his country the history that Ken Rosewall achieved in winning the title at age 18. Rosewall also holds the record as the oldest player to win the title at age 37; a feat Roger Federer aims to achieve.

Angelique Kerber’s victory in Perth suddenly placed the 2016 champion as a contender for the title. After her maiden Grand Slam title, she also won the US Open. She started the 2017 season with a first round loss in the title defence bid. An appalling year saw her going down in the WTA rankings. She contributed to Germany’s march to the finals of the Hopman Cup in which she and Zverez lost the deciding mixed double match to the pair of Federer and Belinda Bencic. This year, she takes on a qualifier and compatriot Anna-Lena Friedsam, thereby avoiding her first round jinx. She survived match point against Misaki Do of Japan on her way to the 2016 title.

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