MELBOURNE - You could put Nostradamus, the Oracle of Delphi and a clairvoyant octopus in a room and they still couldn't decide on a pick to win this Open. So this column instead is about to utter a prophecy which is only good for the next few hours. Then it might have to change. Please understand, this is the 2017 Australian Open. The court is fast, the weather uncertain, rankings irrelevant, reputations rubbished.
Once a player gets on court, anything is liable to happen. Just ask Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, world No. 79, once a young, forgotten star who is now 34 and unforgettable. She was a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1999, disappeared from tour, hadn't won a match at this Open in 11 years, wears mismatched brands because no one will sponsor her and yesterday played her way into the quarter-finals. Only sport can be so cruel and so kind.
Suffused with emotion, she said on court: "Eff everything and everybody, whoever tells you you can't do it. Just show up and do it with your heart." It seems to be the war cry of this Open, as if the entire field, fed up of being bullied, has struck back.
No. 1 man, gone. No. 2 chap, sent home. No. 1 woman, history. It's not just champions being tested but lesser-known players advertising their skills. They are telling us this: "We are not just fodder for champions, we are not merely a statistic, we are not the person who you see on TV and ask whatshisname? No, we can play, too."
Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we fail to remember that an open Open is tasty. "Absolutely," said Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion. "It's great," said Thomas Johansson, who is well versed in the DNA of upsets. In 2002, the Swede, who'd never been past the third round, won this Open as the 16th seed and now says: "Coming in I was playing really badly. Then I got better and better and the final was the best match I ever played."
Who will peak at this Open, who will fall to nerves? All here are human. Except for him, you understand. At least that is what Johansson said about a 35-year-old just back from six months out: "Federer comes from another planet."
Cash clarified that Federer had taken time off as opposed to recovering from injury and the distinction matters. Yet even he was dazzled by Federer's ability to rediscover his feel so swiftly. "He has such an amazing eye and his hand-eye coordination is fantastic." Ah, the Swiss and their fascination with timing.
But can he win? And why not Nadal, who hasn't won a hardcourt event since January 2014? And if Spaniard is to play Swiss will it all end in tears and silent cowbells? But wait a serious minute. We're talking about a Rafa-Roger Slam final 12 years after they first played one? Mad. Silly. But delicious.
Maybe we should listen to the gut of Goran Ivanisevic, that greying beanpole, which tells him, "We're going to have a new Grand Slam champion". Perhaps it will be the stylishly resurgent Grigor Dimitrov or the quietly advancing Milos Raonic. Either way men's tennis has forgotten what it feels like not to have a clear favourite and it is delightful.
Everyone has a theory and it is about as convincing as picking a name from a bush hat. So this column will make a prophecy by choosing Serena Williams for the women's title. For the men, however, it picks a Swiss with a backhand that should be stored in an armoury when not in use. Yes, that guy...
... Stan Wawrinka. What, you were thinking Federer?
Wawrinka reminds one of an unsmiling bouncer, who doesn't so much outplay rivals as evict them with his muscular play. The further he goes, the more dangerous he becomes and it is pertinent to note that he's the last man to win a Slam (the US Open) and has more Slams in the last three years (three) than Federer and Nadal combined (one).
Of course if Wawrinka loses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, then Nadal is my pick, but only if he beats Raonic, who otherwise would be my choice. This, sigh, could change with every round, three of which remain.
Confidence is the primary weapon for players and it will be worn as much as it will be faked. Years from now, in books, players will reveal hidden insecurities but for now the athlete's mental well-being is camouflaged. As Wawrinka said when asked about Djokovic's defeat: "Tough to say anything if you're not part of the team and you don't know what's happening inside."
In interviews, players will keep tiresomely muttering, "We take it one match at a time" but they say it as a reminder and a protection. If you look at the draw and not at the ball, you might go home. And yet even as no one knows who will win this Open, surely they think for a fleeting, fabulous second that it could be them. Why else do they play?
But that is Sunday and this is only Tuesday. Bodies will be iced, massaged, taped and pain will be played through. Nothing is ever too much for victory. When I asked Lucic-Baroni how she feels physically, she laughed. "I'm not going to talk much about it. I'm still here. I'm still fighting," she said.
"The heart is a hundred per cent, so that's all that matters."