For Men’s Tennis, 2018 = 1998 (And Why Federer Won’t Win the Australian Open)

Making tennis predictions is almost always a lose-lose proposition. If you ask at the start of the tournament whether so-and-so will win the Australian Open (or finish the year No. 1), the best answer is always no. The chances are far greater that one of the other 127 players will.

Prognosticating when it’s down to the last 16 or eight is a bit more sensible, because you have a better idea of the matchups. And matchups matter a lot in tennis. But at the beginning of the tourney, bet the field against any one player. Despite what Serena Williams and Roger Federer might make you think, these things are really hard to win.

That will become increasingly evident in men’s tennis (it already is in the women’s game) over the next couple of years. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka may all continue to be top players, but common sense and the laws of aging mean they won’t be as piggish with the big titles. We’ll see the occasional Slam title by one of them, surrounded by far more frequent “surprises.” But they shouldn’t be surprises. It’s historically abnormal for the top players to take so many of the majors.

For the men’s game, think 1998. That year, Petr Korda, the No. 6 seed, won the Australian Open, beating ninth-seeded Marcelo Rios in the final. Carlos Moya, the No. 12 seed, won the French Open, beating 14th-seeded Alex Corretja. Top-seeded Pete Sampras won Wimbledon against 14th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic. No. 3 Pat Rafter won the U.S. Open, beating unseeded Mark Philippoussis in the final. The women’s game was more top-heavy at the majors, which were won by the No. 1, 4, 3 and 2 seeds respectively.

Mark down 2017 as the last year for a long time that the top men’s players will hog the majors. I’ll venture that there’s less than a 20 percent chance that any male player wins multiple Slams this year, and that the Big 5 will combine for only one. The women’s game will be similar. Any number of players could win Slams, but it’s hard to see any of them winning more than one.

Federer appears to be the runaway favorite among both bettors and commentators to win the Australian. On the Tennis Channel this weekend, all three prognosticators queried in a draw- breakdown show predicted a Federer-Kyrgios final, with two choosing Federer to win. I don’t see it happening. Here’s why:

Federer won last year largely because he was loose, free from expectation or self-imposed pressure. That allowed him to swing from the hips on his backhand. He was attacking and short-hopping that shot without giving it much thought. That kind of looseness, which resembled how Federer played back in 2004, can’t be forced. Once you think about playing loosely, you’re not loose anymore.

There are plenty of reasons why I could turn out to be wrong. Other than Nadal, who appears to be sharp in practice (and frankly, should be getting more love from the oddsmakers), many of the usual top contenders (Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic) are either out with injuries or in questionable health. The court is presumed to be fast, which favors Federer over pretty much everyone. And of course, more than anyone else, he knows how to win majors. During a tight moment, he has no doubt that he can do what’s needed. Can the same be said for Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev, Kyrgios, or many others?

But the best guess here is that Federer will fall short. It’s not that I don’t want him to win (I do), and it’s not because he’s not the best player on that surface (he is, assuming Djokovic isn’t fully healthy). It’s because he won’t be able to play quite as freely as he did last year. And it only takes one subpar match, or really just a subpar 30-45 minutes, to lose a major. Again, it’s really hard to win these things. I’m taking the field.

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