With seven of the top eight men’s seeds still in the hunt for Australian Open 2014 glory, the race is tight. Former greats, for the most part, are hedging their bets, sticking with the favourites when it comes to the crunch of picking next Sunday’s champion.
Speaking at the Legends launch on Monday, three-time Australian Open champion – and the only player to have won at both Kooyong and Melbourne Park – Mats Wilander found it difficult to go past the men’s No.1 and 2009 champion Rafael Nadal to join Rod Laver as the only player in the modern era to have won each major twice.
“The best guys are playing very well, but I don’t think they’ve played their best tennis yet, apart from Rafa,” Wilander said. “The other night against Gael Monfils, I thought that was an unbelievable match.”
Fabrice Santoro, the Frenchman affectionately known as “The Magician” for his extraordinary array of double-handed shotmaking off both wings, would love nothing more than to see one of his countrymen returning a Grand Slam trophy to France.
“I think what the (French Tennis) Federation is doing is a very good job since so many years. Of course, French system most of the time is a model, but at the end of the day we’re still waiting for a Grand Slam winner because the last one who won a Grand Slam was Yannick Noah 30 years ago,” the 2006 Australian Open quarterfinalist said.
“OK, so we have like 17 guys in the main draw. We’d like to have one or two just going to the final.”
As the last Frenchman to win a major, Noah was also keeping his loyalty to les bleus, tipping 10th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to finally end his nation’s drought.
“If I don’t say Tsonga, I can’t go back to Africa ever,” he said. “I think he’s going to win. Jo’s a good chance. He has nothing to lose.”
Todd Woodbridge, a winner of 16 Grand Slam doubles titles including three Australian Opens, was quick to empathise from an Australian point of view as the host nation’s wait for a home champion extends to at least 39 years.
For his part, though, the world No.1 was the surest bet.
“Nobody’s talked much about Nadal in this group. I picked him at the beginning of the tournament,” Woodbridge said.
The player he won the majority of his majors with, fellow Australian Mark Woodforde, was expecting the top two to hold true to form in what would be a rematch of the 2012 five-set epic.
“Probably we’re all just assuming Rafa’s going to be in the final,” Woodforde said. “He started off the tournament, probably he and Novak (Djokovic), playing the best tennis so far. It’s maybe up to the others to try and reach that level. Maybe that’s the final that we’ll end up seeing again.”
Former South African player Wayne Ferreira, an Australian Open semi-finalist 11 years apart, decided to buck the trend, casting aside the obvious predictions to look a little further afield for a first-time champion.
“It’s been the same three, four guys who’ve been winning everything. I’m going to put a little outside bet on (Stanislas) Wawrinka,” Ferreira said.
“I’ve watched him a little bit over the year. I think he’s improving mentally. He has the shots to be able to do well against the guys, just mentally he’s been a little bit soft and hasn’t been able to win. Hopefully this might be the time.”