Legendary Aussie tennis star and commentator Fred Stolle has just one word for the upcoming Australian Open: Upsets.
And with so many players in mandatory quarantine after covid tests proved positive on three flights into Australia, his prediction has an odds-on chance of being correct.
For Stolle the biggest disappointment is not being able to get to Melbourne for the opening slam of the year, an event he has attended as a player, a member of the media and as a spectator for over 50 years.
“I always look forward to Melbourne every January, but understandably that won’t happen this year,” Stolle said from his Florida home.
“So I will be watching from afar on TV and I think this will be a very, very different tournament to anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Stolle said the current Covid restrictions and quarantine rules means players will need to find both mental and physical strength to battle through the rounds.
“”It will be tough in quarantine,” he said. “For the players to effectively be in a controlled bubble for a month will not be easy.
“And I understand why Roger (Federer) and John (Isner) have decided not to compete and put families first.”
Stolle applauded Tennis Australia’s efforts to make the event work, liaising with so many bodies – State and Federal governments and player associations.
“They have bent over backwards to make this work, so well done,” he said.
Although deemed necessary, Stolle is still worried how players will react to lockdowns and quarantine.
“The effect on performances will show,” he said. “It will be tough for some for sure and that’s why I believe there will be some shocks, some upsets. Quite a few in fact.”
Not only mentally draining but physically as players rebuild fitness levels – especially the women’s game that has little competitive tennis for months.
“You can practice all you like but nothing beats match play,” he said.
“And it will be different for spectators, with the three zones in operation. That’s a smart idea, I like that. At least it gives fans a chance to watch the matches and even with some fans it’s much better than empty stadiums.”
So who does Stolle rate for the Australian Open, circa 2021?
Stolle thinks No.1 Ash Barty may have an advantage, even though she has not played competitive tennis for a year.
“She will be fit and she hasn’t got to go through quarantine, so will be ready,” Stolle said.
“Practise doesn’t equate to matches but I think she has good people around her who will make sure she is focused.”
Women’s tennis, Stolle says, has become more aggressive in recent years. “They hit the ball harder than we did with our wooden rackets,” he joked.
And there is plenty of aggression in the current WTA rankings.
“There is a lot of depth in women’s tennis right now and any one of four or five could win.
“Simona Halep will be fit for sure, her coach will make sure of that, and she is a little older and more experienced. So has to be a contender.
“But the younger crop coming through have no fear, look at Kenin – she is on top of her game, aggressive and the defending champion. She could win again, if dad doesn’t get in the way.”
“Osaka is the same, aggressive and did a great job at the US Open. My only concern with her is she has no plan B. She only knows one way to play and needs to develop alternatives to meet the demands of today’s game. But she can beat anyone on her day.”
Stolle, like many commentators asked ‘Iga who?” When young Pole Iga Swiatek won the French Open in October.
“She is another who shows no fear although I’m just not sure about her on the Melbourne courts, which are very different to Paris. We’ll see.”
Stolle also likes the fact there’s a growing contingent of Eastern European players coming through the ranks.
“I can hardly remember the names but they are fit and strong and with big, big serves.”
Another to look out, if she is fit, is Bianca Andreescu, who won the 2019 US Open and didn’t play in 2020 because of injury.
“She is another who has no fear – of anyone,” he said.
And Serena … Can she win that elusive title?
Stolle is not sure.
“Serena has been a wonderful player and ambassador for the game but age catches up with all of us and to be honest I’m not sure if she is fit enough against some of the kids, especially in the Melbourne heat.
“There was a time when anyone playing her would be in awe for the first set and she had a psychological advantage, but now … as I say, the kids coming though today have no fear, not even of Serena.”
*Tomorrow: Fred gives his verdict on the men’s draw – and there’s a surprise dark horse tip!