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5 things to look forward to at the Australian Open

FEATURED COLUMNIST
Top 5 / Top 10
881   //    12 Jan 2016, 20:36 IST

The year's first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, commences on the 18th of January, and has seen several smaller tournaments in the lead up to the tournament in Melbourne.It's the final tournament for local player and former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who will be retiring from professional tennis at the end of the Open.World No. 1  Novak Djokovic won all but one Slam last year, and has been in strong enough form that he looks all set to continue the trend. For now, his only serious challengers look to be the other three in the Big Four - and each of them bar Wawrinka has gone down to Djokovic, most recently and ignominously Rafael Nadal, who was breadsticked by the Serb and went down in straight sets to kick off what he described as his 'comeback year.'But Big Four aside, here are some matches we could look forward to:

#5 Some big upsets

Belinda Bencic 2016

18-year-old Belinda Bencic is 14th ranked and a giant slayer

Several upstart young women's players have shown immense potential in 2015, and look set to rule once the current guard let up - or perhaps even challenge them as some of these youngsters have done.

Taking over from an old Swiss Miss, Belinda Bencic has shown she can hold her own against just about any opponent. At only 18-years-old, Bencic is already in the top 15 and things are only looking up for her from here.

She’s had a big year on the WTA circuit, and even managed a fourth round finish at the US Open last year, although she has not progressed beyond the second round in Melbourne.

Bencic has pulled off major upsets last year – over former World No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic – in addition to defeating reigning No. 1 Serena Williams. She has also defeated a long list of top-10 players besides them, a number of those victories in straight sets.

With her immense talent and potential, Bencic could even be a title challenger.

Elsewhere, American upstart Sloane Stephens, who has earlier taken victories over both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, last year beat Carla Suarez-Navarro and Karolina Pliskova. Could she be a thorn in Serena’s side?


#4 A Sharapova-Serena Final

Maria Sharapova Serena Williams 2015 Wimbledon

Top of the World: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova

It’s always a good match when two of the greatest in the game face off against each other, and Williams and Sharapova faced off for the title last year – not just for the win but also for the World No. 1 ranking, which Williams would eventually take and hold on to.

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Of the staggering twenty times the two have previously met on the professional circuit, it is Williams who has been by far the most successful, winning 18 of those matches.

Williams’ victories have also nearly all been taking in simple fashion, with the American beating her opponent in straight sets on nearly every occasion. Last year, however, the Russian former No. 1 managed to tax her opponent in the second set, taking it to a tiebreak.

They faced off at the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year too, with Williams emerging the eventual champion of the tournament.

Although Williams is by all accounts the superior player in every aspect, a potential face-off between two of the most successful players in women’s tennis is an exciting prospect.

#3 An Andy Murray resurgence

Andy Murray 2016

He ended 2015 on a high – can Murray carry his momentum into 2016

The Scot held onto his No. 2 ranking to end the year, edging past GOAT Roger Federer. While by most standards Murray has had a strong year of tennis, it has been somewhat hit-and-miss for him.

He had a shock ouster from the US Open, losing to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson in the Round of 16 then, and did not make it past the semi-finals at either Wimbledon or the French Open.

Given that his highest Grand Slam finish last year was at the finals of the Australian Open, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic, he will look to capitalise on that.

At last year’s final, Murray stretched a tense Djokovic to four sets, with the first of those going to a tiebreak and the second in Murray’s favour as he put up a spirited fight against the reigning, in-form World No. 1.

Murray also ended the year on a high, having guided Great Britain’s Davis Cup team to their first victory in 78 years. He also won two Masters titles last year, one of them over Djokovic  and will want to build on that to put up another fight for the Australian Open title.

He last won a Grand Slam in 2013 and is yet to win a title at the Australian Open, so could this be his first ever title there?

#2 Young Australian talent

Nick Kyrgios 2016

Giant-killer Kyrgios will be at the tournament; colleague Kokkinakis will not

Australia has seen immense tennis talent over the years; the legendary Rod Laver and Margaret Court, both regarded as two of the greatest to have ever played the game,are both from the country – and the main venue for the Australian Open is, after all, the Rod Laver Arena.

But the country has also shown some quickly rising young talent that promises to fire in the coming years – and that young talent has already shown what it is capable of.

Several of Australia’s youngest have already had their breakthrough seasons, and others have begun to show its mettle.

Although he has become more infamous than famous, with his on-court behaviour taking centrestage over what is a doubtless strong game, Kyrgios is prodigiously talented and has victories over the world’s best tennis players to show for it. In his short career so far, he has beat Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray – and some significantly more experienced players than himself in France’s Richard Gasquet and Milos Raonic.

His Davis Cup teammate Thanasi Kokkinakis has far less experience on the circuit than his counterpart, but last year broke the ATP Top 100 and would have been a talent to look out for at the Open. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury means Kokkinakis will sit out the tournament.

#1 Lleyton Hewitt\'s swan song

Lleyton Hewitt Australia 2016

The Australian Open will be Hewitt’s last professional tennis tournament

It isn’t just his last Grand Slam – it’s his last ever tennis tournament. The youngest ever man to become World No 1, Hewitt was only 20 years old when he achieved the milestone. One of the country’s best, most well-loved players, he has had success at Grand Slams in his youth.

Hewitt has won singles at Wimbledon and the US Open, the latter of which he is also a doubles champion at.

The now 34-year-old has been part of 19 consecutive Australian Open singles tournaments – this year will be his 20th, and he has made the finals of the event before, losing the title to former World No.1 Marat Safin.

Hewitt’s longest rivalry was with Greatest of All Time Roger Federer, against whom the Australian has played 27 matches, and taken some almost impossible-seeming victories. It is a testament to his talent that the earliest part of their rivalry was dominated by Hewitt.

The draws to the Australian Open are not yet out, but an unlikely combination of circumstances and something short of a miracle could see an unseeded Hewitt play Roger Federer at the tournament.

Considering his first match at the tournament could be his last, here’s to watching out for each match the former World No. 1 plays.

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FEATURED COLUMNIST
Tennis, Formula One, motorsports and running editor at Sportskeeda. Serious F1 enthusiast and data collector, Senna fan, swimmer, runner and musician. Contactable at: anuradha@sportskeeda.com
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