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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Australian Open Outright Picks 2015 (January 19th-February 1st)

The tennis season officially began two weeks ago, but I have made a conscious effort to wait until the Australian Open before I make my opening picks of this 2015 season after looking through the records from the last couple of seasons.

The opening weeks of the season are usually a little more difficult with players coming back of their pre-season training sessions and it is clear that most will have been focusing on the Australian Open which begins just three weeks into the season.

It seemed to be a decision that was justified by some of the results that had come through from Doha in the first week of the season with both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal exiting early from that event, while I can't imagine too many would have picked Ivo Karlovic going as deep in the event as he did.

A look at my results from the last three seasons showed I was very much behind the black ball after the first two weeks of the season, but the Australian Open, like the majority of Grand Slam events have provided decent returns so it made most sense to sit out the first two weeks. The only way it will be fully seen as the right decision is if the Australian Open develops into a good tournament for the picks and get the 2015 season off to a good start.

Men's Tournament
First Quarter
The top quarter of the draw is where the World's Number 1 player, Novak Djokovic, is usually placed and the Serb cannot be that disappointed with the manner in which the draw panned out for him. The Australian Open has been his most successful tournament to date and Djokovic will be desperate to put aside the defeat by Stan Wawrinka last season and return to winning ways here.

The early Rounds look very much a cruise for Djokovic, although Fernando Verdasco has had previous form at Melbourne Park even if he is not the same player as he was back in 2009. The Fourth Round is likely to be the first real test for Djokovic, especially if John Isner can work his way through the draw as a real dangerous player when serving at his 'A' level.

Juan Martin Del Potro and Gael Monfils are two players that can potentially upset the apple-cart on the way to a Quarter Final with Djokovic, but neither would really be expected to beat the World Number 1 for a couple of different reasons. Del Potro is only just back from a wrist injury that made 2014 a lost season, while Monfils doesn't always show the mental belief against the top players.

That means Milos Raonic is the most likely Quarter Final opponent for Djokovic and the Canadian player has begun to show a little more to his game than simply a bludgeoning serve and a heavy forehand. He is a little more consistent from behind the baseline, but his return of serve has to improve if there are serious ambitions for Raonic to win a Grand Slam event and beat a player of the calibre of Djokovic in a best of five set match.

First Quarter Winner: Novak Djokovic

Second Quarter
The highest seed in the second quarter, and the defending Australian Open Champion, Stan Wawrinka has to be very happy with the way the draw has also worked out for him with the threats in the section unlikely to come before the Quarter Final.

The seeds in his half of this quarter are Alexandr Dolgopolov, who is potentially going to withdraw with an injury, Fabio Fognini and Pablo Cuevas and you have to think Wawrinka is unlikely to lose too many sets, let alone lose a match, in the first four Rounds of the tournament.

It is very unlikely to be so easy for him in the Quarter Final with both David Ferrer, who won in Doha, and Kei Nishikori, who reached the Final at the US Open, expected to face off in the Fourth Round to meet Stan Wawrinka.

Someone like Gilles Simon could spoil that potential Fourth Round classic, while both Ferrer and Nishikori have the kind of game that will give players chances against them as they have to work so hard to hold service games. However, neither player has too many players in their sections that could spoil their first Grand Slam of the season and Stan Wawrinka will be hoping to pick up the pieces if Ferrer and Nishikori have a tough, long battle against one another in the Fourth Round.

Second Quarter Winner: Stan Wawrinka to pick the bones of the winner of the David Ferrer-Kei Nishikori potential Fourth Round match

Third Quarter
The third quarter of the draw is very open due to the fact that there are enough doubts about Rafael Nadal and his fitness going into the event having been beaten early in the Singles draw in Doha. The lack of tennis since Wimbledon last June has to be a concern, but Nadal has enjoyed previous visits to Melbourne Park and the Spaniard would be tough to oppose any time he takes to the court.

I am convinced that Nadal would have liked an easier First Round match than facing the veteran Mikhail Youzhny, but he should be too strong for him and potentially also has to face Lukas Rosol in the Third Round, a player that has given Nadal some real problems in two matches at Wimbledon in the past.

One player in this section that would love to see Nadal fall early is Tomas Berdych considering his struggles against him in the past, as well as the fact that Nadal would have played himself in by the time the Quarter Finals roll around. Berdych was a Semi Finalist in Australia last season, but he is in the tougher half of the draw if he would like to surpass that achievement this time around.

The enigmatic Ernests Gulbis is a potential Fourth Round opponent, but he has struggled with injury and form since a strong showing at the French Open last season and Berdych will be expected to at least line up in the Quarter Final. However, Rafa Nadal remains the favourite to come through this section if he can come through the first two Rounds here.

Third Quarter Winner: Rafael Nadal

Fourth Quarter
The bottom half of the men's draw is certainly one that is likely to produce the most fireworks before the Quarter Finals, and it is the fourth quarter of the draw that does look like producing the best matches.

Roger Federer is the Number 2 player in the World Rankings and won in Brisbane to give his supporters more belief that he can win his first Grand Slam tournament since winning at Wimbledon in 2012. He showed consistency in the 2014 season to get back to this position in the Rankings, but only reached one Final (and two Semi Finals) at the Grand Slam events and there still remains some doubts that the best of five set matches will see the best from the Swiss superstar.

There are two major threats in this section to Roger Federer's hopes of at least making the Semi Final and those come in the form of Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov. To be fair, Federer has dominated Dimitrov in the head to head and will feel he can get the better of him, but Andy Murray has been in decent form since the US Open last season and looks to be getting back to the kind of level that saw him win two Grand Slam titles in 2012/2013.

Murray has reached the Final three times here before so he is used to the conditions at Melbourne Park and he should be well rested before a potential Fourth Round clash with Grigor Dimitrov. There are some mental issues to overcome after being close to embarrassed by Dimitrov at Wimbledon last season, but Dimitrov may have faced a tough Third Round match against David Goffin and Murray could out-last him.

I don't anticipate too many issues for Federer before the Quarter Final and I think that could give him the edge over his potential opponent in that Round. Federer won't want to under-estimate someone like Tommy Robredo who beat him at the US Open in 2013, although there were some injury issues that Federer had been dealing with, while the home support will be hoping Nick Kyrgios can show he is a potential Grand Slam winner of the future.

Fourth Quarter Winner: Roger Federer with the slightly easier run than Andy Murray/Grigor Dimitrov

Winner and Picks
There were rumours on Saturday that Novak Djokovic was about to pull out of the Australian Open, but he has admitted he has overcome some illness over the last couple of days and is feeling good for this tournament. With the way the draw has developed, it is going to be a tough task to knock off the player that has won 4 Australian Open titles and 3 Quarter Finals over the last seven years.

Djokovic should have the chance to play himself into contention through this tournament and I expect him to get stronger and stronger and it is hard to see beyond him winning the title here.

The defending Champion Stan Wawrinka is a potential Semi Final opponent and will have the belief he can beat Djokovic for the second time in a row at Melbourne Park, but he has the tougher path to the Semi Final and I expect Djokovic to exact revenge.

He might not think much of his own chances at this event, but I am going to have a small interest in Rafael Nadal to perhaps come out of the bottom half of the draw. If Nadal can come through a couple of awkward early matches, he is another player whose confidence could get stronger as the week progresses and has reached the Final the last two times he has played at the Australian Open.

Nadal hasn't really performed that well the first two weeks of the season, but he has the mental edge over Roger Federer, the most likely Semi Final opponent, and over Tomas Berdych, the most likely Quarter Final opponent. As I said, if he can get through the opening three Rounds, Nadal may just surprise some of his detractors and at least get to the Final again.

Women's Tournament
First Quarter
Serena Williams didn't have a great season in 2014 in terms of Grand Slam events won and her performances at the Hopman Cup have seen the layers lengthen her odds to win at the Australian Open. The American is the Number 1 Seed at Melbourne Park, but heavy losses in her only event prior to the first Grand Slam event of the season has to be a real concern and she is vulnerable in Australia where she hasn't won the title since 2010.

She will get a chance to try and play herself into the tournament, but there dangers lurking in this section including from Garbine Muguruza who beat Serena at the French Open last year. The young Spaniard is a potential Fourth Round opponent for Williams and players like Dominika Cibulkova and Victoria Azarenka have had a lot of success in this tournament in the past to believe they could potentially surprise Williams before the Semi Final stage.

One player that I am not convinced about is the second highest Seed in the section, Caroline Wozniacki, who has been suffering with an injury that could take away her chances. Wozniacki has been playing well over the last six months which would have made her a possible threat to win her first Grand Slam title, but I think it will be tough for her, especially with a potential match against Azarenka in the Second Round in her path.

First Quarter Winner: Hard to back against Serena Williams despite a tough draw

Second Quarter
After winning Wimbledon for the first time, Petra Kvitova admitted that she didn't deal with her new found fame in the manner she would have liked, so it will be interesting to see how this season develops after winning that Grand Slam title for the second time last June. The US Open was something of a let down, but Kvitova won the title in Sydney last week and she looks a big threat at Melbourne Park to take advantage of any let down that Serena Williams may have.

The draw looks very kind for Kvitova and I think she can come through the first few matches without dropping a set, which has been an issue for her over the last two seasons. Kvitova's biggest threat ahead of the Quarter Final could come from Andrea Petkovic as Sam Stosur has struggled in her home Grand Slam event, but the biggest match she is likely to face in this section is from Agnieszka Radwanska.

Radwanska should be able to come through the early Rounds as comfortably as I am expecting from Kvitova, but Venus Williams did show her capabilities by winning the title in Auckland to open the new season and the veteran American is a potential Fourth Round opponent. Williams could have a tough Third Round match against Flavia Pennetta to overcome and I am not convinced she has the same level of fitness as she had in her prime to win another Grand Slam event.

However, I do think Venus Williams can perhaps upset the odds and reach the Quarter Final, although that is where I would expect Petra Kvitova to just have too many winners in her locker.

Second Quarter Winner: Petra Kvitova

Third Quarter
Over the last couple of seasons, the women's draw in the Grand Slam events have been much more open than the men's event and that has led to a number of different faces reaching the latter stages of competition. The third quarter of the draw looks an interesting one which is led by Simona Halep and Ana Ivanovic when it comes to the Seeding.

Those two players are going to overcome some tough obstacles to reach the Quarter Final that has been seeded and it wouldn't be a surprise if one, perhaps both, of those players fail to reach the last eight. Sabine Lisicki, Ekaterina Makarova, Karolina Pliskova and Belinda Bencic will all feel they could potentially upset the top two players in the section, although the latter three of those players are in the same part of the draw as Ana Ivanovic.

Simona Halep was very consistent last season as she reached the Quarter Final, Semi Final and Final in the first three Grand Slam tournaments in 2014 and I will count the early US Open exit as an exception than anything more of a long-term concern. Halep has beaten Sabine Lisicki the last three times they have played one another, and I think she can pick the bones off the player that comes through to meet her in the Quarter Final and so surpass her last eight appearance here last season.

Third Quarter Winner: Simona Halep

Fourth Quarter
The final quarter of the draw is where Maria Sharapova resides and she has to be fairly pleased with her draw compared with someone like Serena Williams, especially after winning in Brisbane. However, Sharapova has only reached one Final in the last five years at the Australian Open and one other Semi Final in that time which suggests she isn't at her best at Melbourne Park which could open the door for someone to perhaps grab a surprising Semi Final appearance.

Eugenie Bouchard would be the only other player that fans would expect to be a challenger for the Semi Final place after her success at the Grand Slams during 2014, but that also means she comes into this season as a 'scalp' for other players on the Tour. Dealing with that pressure can be tough and Bouchard was a little inconsistent at the Hopman Cup, while the Canadian could definitely have asked for a better draw.

Players like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Angelique Kerber are potential opponents for Bouchard before the Quarter Final, especially Kuznetsova who beat Bouchard twice in 2014. That Third Round match could be the one that ends her run at Melbourne Park and the draw has favoured Sharapova who doesn't seem to have the same threats in her part of the draw.

Someone like Sorana Cirstea could bring her 'A' game and potentially surprise Sharapova in the Second Round if the latter is having troubles with the conditions here, while Lucie Safarova is a potentially awkward Fourth Round opponent. However, Sharapova can play her way into this tournament and perhaps reach the Semi Final from this section where the main threats seem to be in the upper half of the quarter.

Fourth Quarter Winner: Maria Sharapova

Winner and Picks
Over the last few seasons, any Grand Slam tournament was going to go off with Serena Williams a short price to win the event, but her performances at the major events in 2014 coupled with a disappointing Hopman Cup has raised enough doubts to make her as big as 4.00 to win this event.

The draw is potentially awkward and Serena Williams hasn't been beyond the Quarter Final in her last three appearances at the Australian Open, while she hasn't won the tournament since 2010. Those results and her results in Grand Slam events in 2014 and the Hopman Cup earlier this month would make it extremely difficult for me to back the American even if she has the capability to beat anyone she faces as long as she brings her best to the court.

Her quarter of the draw has a couple of tough players in it who could take advantage of the an under-performing Serena or make the most of a surprise exit, but it is difficult to be confident as to who that will be and instead I will have a couple of each-way picks on two players that could go all the way.

Maria Sharapova is the second favourite in the event, but she is another player that has struggled to impose herself at the Australian Open. Sharapova does have a decent draw, but her serving was letting her down towards the end of last season and that has to be a concern for a player that has only won this title once before.

Instead, I am looking for a couple of potential first time winners here- Petra Kvitova had an awful Grand Slam record outside of Wimbledon last year and you can't ignore that she has not been past the Third Round at any Grand Slam outside of SW19 since the US Open in 2012 (Fourth Round exit).

Kvitova hasn't got through the Second Round here in her last two appearances at Melbourne Park, but the draw gives her a chance to play herself into the tournament and she was in good form in Sydney last week in a competitive draw. I think she will make a lot more use of her second Wimbledon crown and I am expecting a much better showing from her at this level than she has had outside of that Slam.

The second player is Simona Halep who had a breakout 2014 season and could be the player that takes advantage of the fact she has could be playing opponents who are expected to come through tougher matches than herself. She could pick the bones of tired opponents and Halep performed well in three of the four Grand Slams last season and has the fitness to go very deep in this tournament. If Sharapova is beaten before the Semi Final stage, Halep could go all the way to the Final here having lost in the Quarter Final last season and has to be worth an interest too.

MY OUTRIGHT PICKS: Novak Djokovic @ 2.00 Paddy Power (4 Units)
Rafael Nadal @ 12.00 Sporting Bet (1 Unit E/W)
Petra Kvitova @ 11.00 Bet365 (1 Unit E/W)
Simona Halep @ 11.00 Sporting Bet (1 Unit E/W)

Season 2014+ 45.05 Units (1586.5 Units Staked, + 2.84% Yield)
Season 2013+ 21.74 Units (1251.5 Units Staked, + 1.73% Yield)
Season 2012+ 49.21 Units (855 Units Staked, + 5.76% Yield)
Season 2011+ 82.02 Units

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