Written by Anthony Huber
It’s January, and that means two things: that it’s time to take down the Christmas tree, and that the 2018 ATP and WTA seasons have begun. Last year, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal wound back the clock to return to dominance, contesting a legendary Australian Open final and winning two majors apiece and 13 titles between them. 2017 also saw the rise of Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev, the duo taking full advantage of the opportunity offered by the injury absences of Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, and Raonic to replace them in the world’s top 5. On the women’s side, Serena Williams claimed an Open Era-record 23rd Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park, defeating her sister Venus in a triumph which also made her the first player in the Open Era to win seven Australian Open crowns.
She then took the rest of the year off to give birth, allowing Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, and Sloane Stephens to take home Grand Slam titles. Ostapenko stunned the world by upsetting Simona Halep to win at Roland Garros as an unseeded and title-less 20-year-old, while Muguruza collected her second Grand Slam trophy by defeating a resurgent Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Stephens, who entered the US Open with a protected ranking, had only returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Olympics at the same tournament, but she shocked the field by storming to a first Grand Slam title. Now with the first Grand Slam of the year less than a week away, let’s look at who is a reliable backing, who should be faded, and who’s good for an upset.
World No. 7 David Goffin advanced to the quarter-finals last year and expect him to equal that effort in 2018. The 27-year-old Belgian defeated both Federer and Nadal en route to the title match of the World Tour Finals, where he was once again bested by his Australian Open conqueror Dimitrov. Worth a punt in the quarter-finals.
Juan Martin del Potro
World No. 12 Juan Martin del Potro had a celebrated return to form in late 2017, having been plagued by a raft of injury concerns since his US Open triumph over Federer nine years ago. Last year, he once again upset Federer at Flushing Meadows, taking him out at the quarter-final stage.
He was the form player of the final month of the season, chalking up a 14-4 record that included wins over Dimitrov, Zverev, and Cilic, and two close three-set defeats to Federer. He’ll be favoured to progress to the quarter-finals and can be trusted to do so, but his value will truly come in at that stage and beyond.
Sam Querrey, currently sitting at a career-high World No. 13, had a breakthrough season in 2017, managing a semi-final appearance at Wimbledon and a quarter-final showing at the US Open, as well as notching up wins over Nadal, Murray, Thiem, and Goffin. The big-serving American should make it to the last 16 and has the game to knock out a more fancied player once he gets there.
Kevin Anderson, the World No. 11 after reaching the Pune final last week, has been a solid player for years, but it was at the US Open that he finally made the jump from perennial fourth-rounder to title-contender. Whether he can repeat that effort remains to be seen, but the giant South African can once again be counted on to progress to the last 16, despite a patchy run of form since the US Open final.
Roberto Bautista Agut
Like Anderson, Spanish No. 3 Roberto Bautista Agut is a consistent presence in the last 16 of Grand Slams, and this feat is likely to continue at Australian Open 2018. This year the World No. 21 will be aiming for a debut quarter-final appearance at a major, but he’ll need a fortunate draw to achieve that.
Diego Schwartzman and Damir Dzumhur
Diego Schwartzman (#26) and Damir Dzumhur (#30) both enjoyed a rich vein of results in the last two months of the season, with the latter winning two titles in two months, at Moscow and St. Petersburg respectively. Schwartzman had a remarkable run to the quarter-finals of the US Open, and the diminutive Argentine also reached a semi-final in Beijing and a final in Antwerp. The duo will be seeded for the first time at a Grand Slam, and each can be expected to advance to the third round, where they’ll make a difficult opponent for anyone.
Andrey Rublev (#32), Alexandr Dolgopolov (#37), Denis Shapovalov (#50), Denis Istomin (#60), and Stefanos Tsitsipas (#80) are five players who are highly capable of upsetting the more vulnerable of seeds, and who should all win at least a round. Istomin famously defeated Djokovic at Melbourne Park last season as part of his run to the last 16, and his tenacity and refusal to go away will always make him a threat to higher-ranked players.
Dolgopolov advanced to the fourth round of the US Open last year and looks to be close to his best form, while Tsitsipas marked his arrival on the tour late last year by defeating Goffin en route to the semi-finals in Antwerp. All three men opened their 2018 seasons with quarter-final appearances, with Tsitsipas knocking out Richard Gasquet in Doha.
Shapovalov, meanwhile, last year stunned Nadal and del Potro as he roared into the semi-finals at Montreal, and then proceeded to qualify for the US Open and bundle Jo-Wilfred Tsonga out in straight sets as he rocketed to the last 16. The 18-year-old Canadian is an enormous talent who will almost certainly end 2018 inside the top 30, and if he and Rublev can continue their current rate of development, they look set to join Zverev as the leaders of the generation that will follow Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Shapovalov gets up for the big matches, and he’ll be a wise gamble against anyone outside the top 10.
19-year-old Rublev stunned Dimitrov and Goffin in straight sets on his way to the 2017 US Open quarter-finals, and the young Russian reached the final in Doha last week, falling to Monfils, earning a debut seeding at a Grand Slam as a result. The Umag title-holder should progress to the third round, will make a worthwhile punt against almost anyone, and is an excellent choice against top 20 opposition.
Frenchman Gael Monfils (#39) and Gilles Simon (#57) both took home the trophy at their first tournaments of 2018, in Doha and Pune respectively, and the two friends will be the most un-envied early draws at Australian Open 2018. Simon, in particular, was supremely impressive, shrugging off his worst season in years to stun Bautista Agut, Cilic, and Anderson on his way to the title. Monfils reached a career-high ranking of World No. 6 at the end of 2016 before an injury-ravaged 2017 saw him fall to 46, but the former French and US Open semi-finalist, who hadn’t played since the 2017 US Open, looked extremely sharp in his return to the court in Doha, and will be the most dangerous unseeded player at Melbourne Park.
Simon’s victories over three top 20 opposition in Pune mean that he will be a wonderful underdog punt in his matches, while Monfils, as the superior player and on a successful comeback trail, will be even better. Monfils, who was knocked out of the Australian Open in the fourth round last year by Nadal, should be backed against top 20 opposition and is worth the gamble against top 10. The two Frenchman, along with Rublev, Shapovalov, and Alex de Minaur, will comprise the best-value wildcard bets at Australian Open 2018.
Australians John Millman (#127) and Alex de Minaur (#167) have had sensational starts to the season, with former World No. 60 Millman earning a quarter-final appearance at Brisbane, where he had two match points against Dimitrov, and 18-year-old de Minaur stunning Raonic en route to his first ATP semi-final at the same event.
De Minaur then travelled to Sydney and upset Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez in straight sets to earn a place in his second consecutive ATP semi-final, where he’ll play Benoit Paire. The Sydney-born talent is one of the brightest young prospects on the ATP Tour, and will, barring injury, end the year inside the world’s top 100. Both Australians will be good for an upset, with de Minaur especially being terrific value to send a far higher-ranked opponent packing. Back him against anyone outside the top 15.
Last year Venus Williams (#5) reclaimed her place at the upper echelons of the game after years languishing in the doldrums by winning her way to two Grand Slam finals, as well as the title-match of the WTA Tour Finals, though she lost all three. The elder Williams also earned a semi-final place at the US Open, and is a solid bet to at least advance to the quarter-finals at Australian Open 2018.
Ukrainian Elina Svitolina had a breakout season last year, winning five titles, including three Premier 5, and reaching a career-high World No. 3. The two-time French Open quarter-finalist established herself as one of the most consistent players on tour in 2017, and in 2018 will be looking to challenge for Grand Slam titles. The World No. 4 began 2018 by triumphing at the Brisbane International, defeating Karolina Pliskova in straight sets in the semi-finals. The 23-year-old can be depended upon to progress to the last eight at the Australian Open, and beyond that is a worthwhile punt against anyone, though her lack of latter-stage experience may be her undoing. She has the game to go all the way.
CoCo Vandeweghe claimed her first major scalp of the season by clinically dispatching then-World No. 1 and defending champion Angelique Kerber at Australian Open 2017, and followed that up by dismantling Garbine Muguruza 6-4 6-0 to earn a place in the semi-finals. The 26-year-old American, who at her best can defeat anyone on the tour, was able to play at that performance level much more consistently in 2017, managing another Grand Slam semi-final appearance at the US Open, and a quarter-final at Wimbledon. In 2018 World No. 10 Vandeweghe will rightly believe she can emerge victorious at a Grand Slam, especially after the unexpected triumphs of Ostapenko and Stephens. Expect her to make it to the quarter-finals in Melbourne as a minimum, and see her as a smart bet further than that. An outside pick for the trophy.
World No. 12 Julia Goerges is currently on a remarkable 14-match winning streak that comprises three titles, including a straight-sets victory over World No. 2 Wozniacki in the Auckland final last week, as well as the year-end WTA Elite Championships for players ranked 9-19th. Such impervious form means that the German will be highly touted to advance to a first Grand Slam quarter-final. From there, she will have tremendous momentum behind her and would make a clever punt to maintain her sequence of victories. A real dark horse to go all the way, though she’ll probably be overawed at the deep end of the tournament due to her lack of experience.
21-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty (#21) began the year ranked 271 and ended it ranked 17 after a year in which she emphatically announced her arrival as a top player and potential future Grand Slam challenger. Last year she had already notched up wins over Muguruza and Venus Williams before she entered Wuhan in the last month of the season.
She proceeded to incredibly sweep past Konta, Radwanska, Pliskova, and Ostapenko in consecutive matches, winning against the latter 6-3 6-0, before falling to Caroline Garcia in a tough three-set final. It remains to be seen how she’ll cope with the expectation in front of an Aussie crowd, but with the ability to secure results like that, she’ll make a shrewd bet against anyone in the competition.
World No. 33 Ekaterina Makarova is a regular giant-killer, last year tallying wins over Dominika Cibulkova (three times), Kerber (twice), Radwanska, Konta, and Wozniacki. Just last week she booted Ostapenko from Sydney in straight sets. The 29-year-old Russian is one of the strongest bets against a top opponent.
Petra Kvitova (#29), the dual Wimbledon champion, has, since the horrific knife attack she suffered in a home invasion in December 2016, yet to find the consistency in her game to challenge for majors once again, but she is an astute pick against top 10 players as she showed last season she is more than capable of beating the best on her day. Another player who has been unable to find their best form since returning to the game is Maria Sharapova (#47), but as with Kvitova, the four-time Grand Slam champion is a canny punt against top 10 opposition, as evidenced by her elimination of World No. 1 Halep in the first round of the US Open last year.
Former World No. 7 Belinda Bencic (#77) endured a torrid time with injury and a lack of confidence last season, slipping to as low as 197. Many players fail to ever return to such lofty heights once such a spiral occurs (see Jankovic and Bouchard), but the Swiss came back with aplomb, and has won her last 15 matches. She also took home the Hopman Cup trophy with Federer last week, managing four wins from four in the singles, including an impressive straight-sets victory over Vandeweghe. The former US Open quarter-finalist seems to be back to her best and will be the unluckiest match-up any seed could draw. The 20-year-old is the best punt there is for an upset, and I fancy her to advance to the last 16. Her confidence is sky-high and she will cause problems even for top 5 opponents. Will be back in the top 20 in no time.
Finally let’s briefly turn to players who you should stay away from/ bet against. If Djokovic lines up, he’ll be worth a fade, especially from the aforementioned players capable of a big-time upset. The inconsistency and tendency to be upset at Grand Slams of World No. 8 Jack Sock and World No. 4 Zverev means that one should be extremely cautious in backing them, though for Zverev, in particular, this tournament could finally be his Grand Slam breakthrough.
US Open semi-finalist and World No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta has been in absolutely awful form since Flushing Meadows, posting a 1-8 record, and he’ll make a fine fade, as will the ever-inconsistent Lucas Pouille (#18) and Fabio Fognini (#27), the fading Tomas Berdych (#20) and Gilles Muller (#25), and the exclusively clay-court specialist Albert Ramos-Vinolas (#22) and Pablo Cuevas (#33).
World No. 17 Nick Kyrgios, on the contrary, is a fantastic punt against top 10 and even top 5 opposition, seeing as he has the game to be there but so far lacks the discipline to maintain the results required. When the temperamental Australian is at his best, he’s almost unstoppable. The 22-year-old defeated Dimitrov in Brisbane last week, and contested an epic semi-final with Federer at the Miami Masters last season, going down in three tight tie-breaks. However, don’t back him against the lower-ranked opposition, as he is one of the most unpredictable personalities on tour, and prone to shock defeats if his heart isn’t in it (which it often isn’t).
For the women, Kristina Mladenovic (#11), one of the most in-form players early in the year, is a great pick for a fade, having lost her past 14 matches, as is the declining Radwanska (#28), and to a lesser extent Svetlana Kuznetsova (#14), as well as the inconsistent Ostapenko (#7), Elena Vesnina (#19), Barbora Strycova (#21), and the only-decent-on-clay Kiki Bertens (#32).