Tennis Expert Picks - Australian Open
Editor's note: In selecting our picks, the "toughest road" must be by a player seeded in the top eight, and a "sleeper" is someone seeded 17th or lower.
It's already summer in Melbourne, and hope springs eternal in the hearts of ESPN's tennis analysts. That's because it's time for our first Tennis Expert Picks of the 2014 tennis season.
Will Serena Williams continue her terrific form -- or will she run into another Sloan Stephens-like upset at this Australian Open? Can Victoria Azarenka win her third consecutive title Down Under? How about Rafael Nadal? Can he possibly keep up his momentum of 2013, when he was the only man to win two majors? Or is Novak Djokovic, fueled by Nadal's theft of his No. 1 ranking, going to win his fourth Australian Open in a row and fifth in seven years?
Last year seven experts were in contention going into the final Grand Slam, but three of them separated from the pack with some shrewd choices. Pam Shriver and Cliff Drysdale, who both correctly tabbed Williams and Nadal as US Open champions, finished with 11 picks out of 24 for the season, a formidable .458 winning percentage. Tennis editor Matt Wilansky -- who, unlike Shriver and Drysdale, is not yet a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame -- rallied with four winners to force a three-way tie.
It was the first time we've seen tri-champions, which underlines how competitive this event has become.
Three months after the fact, Shriver, who won 21 Grand Slam doubles titles all told, was still second-guessing herself.
"Since I led most of the season on my own -- there were rule changes midyear, and the person that compiles the picks had a sudden year-end burst -- I am feeling like the USA basketball team versus the USSR decades ago in the Olympics," she wrote in an email. "I do feel honored to be the first female to finish on top of the ladder. I am still currently formulating my methods for picking in 2014 with the help of Billy Beane. Tennis Moneyball."
Drysdale, a newly minted member of the Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., managed to finish on top again in the same year he celebrated his 72nd birthday. This success has caused him to reflect.
"I think if you go back into the history of this competitive extravaganza," he wrote, "you will find the most mature player is also the most consistent winner. Modestly, I feel I should step aside in '14 to allow the plebeian prognosticators their moment in the sun. It loses a little cachet when everyone is gunning for second or in the case of '13, to just stand alongside the undisputed champ.
"Maybe we should have a gender competition so Pam has a better chance to hold a winner's trophy."
Ah, the first volley of the new season. But not the last. Let the 2014 games begin.