By Russell Fuller-BBC tennis correspondent
The dawning of a new tennis season has in past years triggered lots of confident predictions – whether it be the continued domination of Serena Williams or, in most seasons, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Last year’s course of events, though, should give even the most brazen of futurologists food for thought.
Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens won maiden Grand Slam titles, while Federer and Nadal – for once less fancied, having both spent a lot of time away from the tour in 2016 – improbably split the four major titles down the middle.
The Roger & Rafa show?
At the start of 2018, Federer and Nadal appear best placed to reap more rewards.
Just like 12 months ago, Federer opted to watch his new year fireworks in Western Australia. Having posed with a quokka and enjoyed the surf at Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth, he teamed up with Belinda Bencic as Switzerland won the Hopman Cup team exhibition event. Federer won all four of his singles, and it appeared an idyllic way to ease into the new season.
The Australian Open’s defending champion deserves the tag of favourite as he was only beaten five times in the whole of 2017.
He won all four of his matches against Nadal, but in his 37th year would be the last to take his fitness for granted. His back has troubled him in recent years, and problems in the build up to the US Open rendered him a shadow of the man who played with such magnificence in Melbourne and at Wimbledon.
Nadal remains a deserved world number one, and as Federer has a mountain of ranking points to defend in the first three months (he won 19 of his first 20 matches last year), the Spaniard is in a strong position to remain at the top until at least the start of the European clay court season in April.
But Nadal is disadvantaged by a far from ideal build-up to the new season.
Knee problems hindered him after winning his second Grand Slam of the year at the US Open, but he still appeared at the season-ending ATP Finals – playing one match against David Goffin before pulling out.
He was due to play in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi between Christmas and new year, and feature in the Brisbane International in the first week of the year, but withdrew as he felt he was “still not ready.”
Nadal played 78 matches last year, which is 21 more than Federer. But then again he is a 16-time Grand Slam champion, and was bursting with intensity at the Tiebreak Tens exhibition event on Wednesday night.
Absent and returning rivals
The other three multiple Grand Slam winners of recent years have not been seen since Wimbledon.
Andy Murray’s hip surgery is likely to keep the Briton out until at least May, and Stan Wawrinka’s participation in Melbourne is in some doubt. The Swiss 2014 champion has not been able to play a warm-up event, having resumed training in November following knee surgery.
Novak Djokovic, though, has a spring in his step despite pulling out of his scheduled comeback event in Doha after feeling a recurrence of pain in his troublesome right elbow.
I’m told he felt no pain in the elbow on Thursday, having played in two exhibition events the previous day. Time will tell how the Serb’s body stands up to the rigours of a Grand Slam, but to ease the strain on his elbow he has developed a more compact service action and is wearing a compression sleeve on his right arm.
Djokovic also sounds like a man who has rediscovered the intense desire required to triumph, telling Sport360 of his wish to retire even later than his coaches: Andre Agassi was 36 when he called it a day, and Radek Stepanek 38.
The next generation?
So can the two players who follow Nadal and Federer in the rankings build on their impressive 2017?
Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov allowed himself just a week off after winning the ATP Finals to finish the year at a career-high position of three.
Alex Zverev, meanwhile, who is still only 20, won a staggering five titles last year. The German’s challenge this time around is to transfer that form to the Grand Slams, where he is yet to go beyond the fourth round.
And then there is Nick Kyrgios, who remains an eternal fascination. The Australian’s first title on home soil in Brisbane last week was lauded by British rock star Liam Gallagher, who tweeted:
Twelve months ago Kyrgios was booed in Melbourne as he relinquished a two-set lead in his second-round match against Andreas Seppi. Consistency has so far been his Achilles’ heel.
Can anyone fill gap left by Williams?
For the fourth Grand Slam in a row, there will be no Serena Williams.
The American says she was “super-close” to returning from maternity leave at Melbourne Park, and is once again likely to be a formidable foe in Paris, Wimbledon and New York. Even more formidable, perhaps, when you read what she has been telling Vogue magazine.
“I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately,” she said. “It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25 [Margaret Court, who has won more Grand Slam titles than any singles player in history, has 24]. And actually, I think having a baby might help.
“When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born. Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match.”
Spain’s Garbine Muguruza has beaten Williams in a Grand Slam final before, but she is the only one of the current top four to have won a Slam.
While Muguruza, who is carrying a thigh injury into the Australian Open, may crave the consistency of Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Elina Svitolina, they no doubt crave her ability to touch the heights when the sport’s crown jewels are on the line.
Those three have started the season well. All have been in finals, with Romania’s world number one Halep winning in Shenzhen, and Svitolina in Brisbane. The Ukrainian, who is the partner of the England cricketer Reece Topley and trains at Chelsea Harbour when in London, is yet to go past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.
All three must spy a wonderful opportunity to break their duck in Melbourne. But there are so many other players you can throw into the mix. Venus Williams will be 38 in June but was a runner-up at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year.
She is no fan of the heat, but just over a year after being stabbed in her playing hand, Petra Kvitova says she finally “feels like a normal tennis player again”. Angelique Kerber, a double Grand Slam winner in 2016, looks to be playing with much greater freedom again after linking up with Johanna Konta’s former coach Wim Fissette. And Maria Sharapova has hauled her way back into the world’s top 50. She is a former champion, with a point to prove.
And what of Konta’s chances of becoming the first British woman to win a Grand Slam since 1977? Her early-season form has been mixed, but she remains in that group of players with the potential. If her serve – one of the most potent on the WTA Tour – is working well, then the rest of her game often falls into place.
She also has the experience of two previous Grand Slam semi-finals: one of which was at Melbourne Park two years ago.