When it comes to performing well at the Australian Open, Thomas Enqvist knows a thing or too. Back in 1999 the Swede’s flat hitting and bullet serve carried him past local favourites Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis and all the way to the final where he wasn’t too far away before going down in four sets to Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Like many Swedes, the Australian Open often brought the best out of Enqvist who also made the quarters in 1996, back in the heyday of Swedish tennis.
“I think the surface really suited me,” he said.
“Outdoor hard courts were my best surface, either in Australia or later on in the summer in the States. So that’s one of the reasons why I did well and also it’s always suited the Swedish players to play there.
We had such strong support from the fans. We almost had home advantage with crazy Swedes in the crowd and the great tradition at the tournament with Mats [Wilander] and Stefan [Edberg] doing so well over the years. You really felt like it was a Swedish tournament and that spirit lived on.
I played well a few times, Thomas Johansson won it in 2002 and there were a couple of others who also did well there.”
These days, the 39 year old spends a lot of his time on the Champions Tour. He played a few exhibition doubles matches last week at the Statoil Masters, held in the grandiose setting of London’s Royal Albert Hall.
But he already has half an eye on the serious stuff to come next month.
“It’s tough to not pick [Novak] Djokovic but [Rafael] Nadal and [Andy] Murray are also in the mix,” he said. “But it’s always the same at the moment.
I hope that more players are going to come up and challenge them but so far no one’s really stepped up. Occasionally here and there but not really. Of course, all respect should go to them. They’re players from other planets at times but it would be fun and good for the game to see somebody who could match them, on a good day for both sides.
That would be great to see.”
However BBC commentator Andrew Castle believes that there are a couple of youngsters capable of developing into the ‘next big thing.’
“[Grigor] Dimitrov has the game to create plenty of excitement,” he said.
“I’m not that excited by many of the others but [Jerzy] Janowicz is the real deal. He’s got three or four holes in his game and if he doesn’t have them anymore, that’s going to be interesting. He’s the man who was 4-1 up third set in the semi-final of Wimbledon against Murray.
We forget because we remember [Fernando] Verdasco [who led Murray by two sets to love in the quarter-finals], we remember the Djokovic match but you forget Janowicz was a semi-finalist.”
Castle has a feeling that we might see something special from Nadal but he wouldn’t be surprised if the tournament is decided by another colossal showdown between the 2009 champion and Djokovic.
“I think Murray’s going to be in the mix.
He’s good enough to be able to play himself in,” he said. “But when the ball starts skipping around with the heat, how do you get past Nadal? On the other hand, Djokovic is incredibly tough to beat on that surface as well.
So it’s tough to call.”
“Nadal can adjust his game according to the condition. When he started to step up the court, he won the US Open. But then again, Djokovic knows exactly how to beat Nadal. He did it in [the final of] Monte Carlo and at the World Tour Finals.
The one in Monte Carlo was very interesting, on clay. He just knows how to hurt Nadal. He steps in, takes the ball cross-court to the Nadal forehand. These patterns, watching these two guys going one-on-one is absolutely fascinating.
It’s actually an event when they play each other, they’ve taken tennis to a new place for me.”
The Australian Open was Roger Federer’s most successful Grand Slam in 2013 and he wasn’t far off making another final down under, losing an epic five setter to Murray in the last four.
But can he still contend against the top three on a slower surface?
“I’ve seen Federer play in so many tournaments but he still gives me butterflies watching him,” Castle said. “He just does things that nobody else does.
He’s taken my sport to a new place so I’m not going to bet against him. Do I think he’s going to win another Grand Slam? Maybe Wimbledon. But unless other people start beating Djokovic and Nadal and Murray, I just wonder if Federer can beat two of those guys in a row.”