So what is it about us that we feel so compelled to make predictions?
Maybe it’s a desire for a quality we don’t possess — omniscience. Or perhaps it’s a prideful quest to proclaim, “See, I was right!” Or maybe it’s just our way of engaging on things we care about.
Whatever the reason, there’s something about the beginning of the year that ignites this tendency to the extreme — to be hyperprognosticators, if you will.
Take, for example, the Australian Open. With the first major at hand and a yearful of tennis ahead, media and fans are whipped into a conjecturing frenzy by headlines that holler: “What five things will surprise us on tour this year?” “How many titles will Serena win in 2015?” “Does Federer have one more major in him?” “Which American up-and-comer will make the biggest splash?”
The speculation-inducing questions and the speculation-resulting answers react like gas and fire. And yet the reality is, no one — not the former greats, not the expert analysts, not even the players — knows with any certainty what will happen this year. How could they — especially with this sport, and particularly at the Australian Open?
Predicting the trophy-raisers in individual sports like tennis is far more difficult than doing so in team sports. Call it the diversification principle. If one player on a team has a bad day, the team can still win. But in tennis, if a player is even slightly off, because of injury, nerves, weather, you name it, there’s no one coming off the bench to sub.
Add to that the unique dynamics of the year’s first major — scant match play leading in, unknowns such as injuries and offseason recuperation and preparation — and hypothesizing becomes even more dicey. In short, it’s a headlong rush Down Under into blazing summer heat, bouncy courts and a big-time stage, and picking two players to win seven in a row over two weeks is like ice fishing with your hands. Good luck.
With fear and trepidation, I sneaked a peek back at my major predictions last year. I had Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams to win the Australian. Williams lost early and Nadal went down with a bad back in the final. Zero-for-two. Went with the same pair at the French. Williams again out early, with Nadal hoisting his ninth title (“Brave pick,” I remind myself). Djokovic and Williams were my favorites at Wimbledon. Novak wins (barely) and Williams again makes me look like a homer.
And then finally at the U.S. Open, inexplicably and against all human tendencies, I made no predictions, instead wondering aloud why the U.S. Grand Slam champion is an endangered species. Good thing — no one on Earth would have picked Marin Cilic to win the men’s, and I wouldn’t have had the nerve to pick Williams again. Of course, she won the tournament.
With time has not come clarity. World No. 1 and four-time champ Novak Djokovic enters Melbourne as the favorite, despite losing early in his first tournament of the year. No. 2-ranked Federer solidified his rock-solid case for GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) by winning his first Davis Cup for Switzerland in November and his 1,000th career match last week during his title run in Brisbane. Whether this will propel him to an 18th major is, well, anyone’s guess. And No. 3 Nadal? He has played only nine singles matches since Wimbledon because of a wrist injury and an appendix operation. Not exactly the kind of preparation that leads to a major title.
Defending champ and world No. 4 Stan Wawrinka, Federer’s Davis Cup teammate, certainly could repeat. Or maybe it’s time for one of the younger generation, like No. 5-ranked Japanese Kei Nishikori or No. 8 Canadian Milos Raonic, to step up and win a first Grand Slam.
On the women’s side, Williams is ranked No. 1 and is the favorite yet again, even after up-and-down results to start the year. No. 2 Maria Sharapova, No. 3 Romanian Simona Halep and No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki would all be on my list, that is, if I were making predictions.
But I’m not. I’ve finally learned my lesson. Prognostication has been discarded from my lexicon. For the next fortnight, I plan to melt into the couch, have the dog up on my lap, and simply observe the proceedings Down Under.
On second thought, what fun is that? Djokovic and Wozniacki to win it all.
David Wheaton reached the singles quarterfinals and doubles final at the Australian Open in 1990. His new book, “My Boy, Ben,” is about a yellow Lab that he had during his pro tennis days. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.