- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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It’s a good omen when a new season begins and the biggest names in the game are already monopolizing the headlines. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal won tuneups two weeks ago, while Roger Federer reached the Brisbane International final.
Now for the next two weeks, we’ll be snuggled in our sofas, watching the stars take a few swings at the Australian Open. But before they do, here are 10 predictions we absolutely know won’t go wrong (cough, cough) this season.
1. Serena Williams will not, under any circumstances, lose to Sloane Stephens, not at the Australian Open, not in 2014
Little did we know that last year’s Down Under shocker would devolve into such acrimony. The short story short goes something like this: Stephens upset Williams in the Aussie Open quarters. Soon afterward, Stephens claimed she had been ignored and then, in what is a far more heinous move, she was de-Twittered by Williams. Yikes! Both players later brushed off their feud, but the damage was done. Anyway, the bottom line is this: Sloane won’t beat Serena at the Aussie this time around. Of course, it’s a fairly easy prediction considering they’re on opposite sides of the draw. And you can tell all your Twitter followers you heard it here first: Sloane won’t beat Serena at all in 2014.
2. Rafael Nadal will end the season ranked No. 1
This isn’t to say he will be the best player in 2014. But Rafa simply has very few points to lose (with the exception of Indian Wells) until the clay season begins. And Novak Djokovic is the defending Aussie champ and played a full schedule last year. Plus, Nadal lost his Wimbledon opener, and with even a modicum of success in 2014, he’ll pile on more points. Even if Djokovic outplays Nadal for the entire season, he’s not going to make much of a move in the rankings until the summer hard-court season, and by then, it might be too late.
3. Novak Djokovic will be the best player in 2014
If you watched Djokovic in the year-end championships last year, you saw something different, whether it was a chip on his shoulder, vengeance or just exasperation for losing his No. 1 ranking. He was crisper, quicker and more determined than Nadal. Of course, you can read what you want into this, given it was the end of the year, and Rafa had already secured his status atop the tennis world. But Djokovic has always said that while losing is part of life, it’s what motivates him. And, oh by the way, his hiring of Boris Becker likely means we’re going to see some pretty sweet service improvement and aggression. Pair that with his already unequaled all-court game and, well, you get the picture.
4. Victoria Azarenka will get medical attention
Rhetorical question: What better way to quell the ultimate choke job than by calling a suspicious timeout? Give Azarenka credit, though: She isn’t afraid to stoop to any level to win. Stephens, who had just beaten Serena in Oz, was mounting a comeback against Azarenka in the semifinals when the Belarussian took a 10-minute T.O. while Stephens sat on the bench and waited -- and waited. Apparently, Azarenka needed assistance dislodging whatever was caught in her throat. Don’t think Azarenka won’t pull this stunt again in 2014.
5. Maria Sharapova will reach a Grand Slam final, try really hard -- and lose
In so many ways, Sharapova is a stark reminder of Andy Roddick. She tries hard, really hard. She wends her way fairly successfully through most draws but just doesn’t quite have the capacity to win on the biggest stages. In the past five seasons, Sharapova has but one Slam title. But she won’t stop trying, that’s for sure. She hired a new, proven coach in Sven Groeneveld. But the problem with Sharapova’s problem, aside from her serve shortcomings and heavy footwork, is that she will eventually have to get by Serena and/or Azarenka. Just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.
6. Roger Federer won’t finish the season ranked No. 1
Well, duh. The question is whether he’ll finish in the top 10. Federer finished outside the top five for the first time in a decade last season. Federer claims he’s healthy and determined. But he has a few problems: Djokovic, Nadal and his advanced 32-year-old body. The Aussie Open will be a strong indication, but even if he does well there, what’s to say he can hop into Miami and Indian Wells circa 2004-2007 and whip through the fields? So the question is: What’s a respectable year-end ranking for Fed? Top five? Top 10?
7. The ghost of Andy Murray will plague Great Britain for at least one year
You know it’s going to happen. Murray will say he’s under less pressure to win at his home in Wimbledon. But the reality is that although he thinks he believes that, he really doesn’t. Who among the British faithful will be sitting in front of his telly, thinking, “Eh, it doesn’t matter if Djokovic takes down our hero; he won last year”? The nerves and burden will be just as amplified as they’ve always been. But this time around, Murray isn’t going to give his people any kind of satisfaction.
As it stands, Wozniacki is 10th and Halep 11th in the standings. Halep won six titles last year while Woz’s most notable headlines came from her very public relationship with Rory McIlroy. Wozniacki already lost in the second round of Sydney last week. Hey, don’t feel too bad for her. She’s sporting around a new five-carat rock these days.
9. Milos Raonic will make his breakthrough
For like a gazillion years, we’ve been waiting for someone to join, if not suppress, the seemingly impenetrable stranglehold the big four has created. It hasn’t happen. Not by Richard Gasquet back in the day, not by Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic or Ryan Harrison. Raonic has very much been a part of that group. Someone has to break through, no? Federer is aging, Nadal has cursed knees and Djokovic, well, never mind, he’s just stout. But there seems to be a window, albeit fairly narrow, for another player. Maybe it’ll be Juan Martin del Potro. But how can you hit as hard as Raonic, ace at will and not make some kind of move? It has to happen. It just has to.
10. John Isner’s season will look a lot like 2012 and 2013
Make no mistake, that’s not a bad thing. Isner finished 2012 ranked No. 14. Isner finished 2013 ranked No. 14. Good for him. The dude can leverage his cannon of a serve better than anyone. But you can’t teach returns, and footwork and shot selection, not at least to the level Isner needs to improve. He may very well unleash ace after ace for a few rounds at a major event. But eventually his ceiling will catch up to him. It’s just the way it is. Finish 2014 ranked No. 14, Izzy. And be proud of that.