The Australian Open is fast approaching and there’s lots to deliberate ahead of Monday’s kick-off.
Novak Djokovic having a No. 14 seeding was always going to cause some drama while many players looking for a maiden Grand Slam title feel they have a greater chance in Melbourne with several top stars either missing the tournament or coming back from long injury breaks.
Is it going to be another Federer-Nadal show? Or will we see someone new break through?
Here are the main talking points surrounding the Australian Open men’s draw…
FEDERER CLOSING IN ON A LIKELY 20TH
Federer is looking to become just the fourth player in history to win 20 or more Grand Slam singles titles. A fifth Australian Open crown this month would see Federer take sole ownership of fourth place on the all-time list where he trails Margaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22) and is currently tied on 19 with Helen Wills Moody.
Of the ‘Big Five’, Federer seems to be the one entering the Australian Open in the best shape, with Andy Murray out of action due to hip surgery, Novak Djokovic playing with a sleeve on his right elbow that kept him away from the tour for the past six months, Rafael Nadal returning from a knee injury and Stan Wawrinka coming back from double knee surgery.
The Swiss appeared nearly untouchable at the mixed teams exhibition Hopman Cup earlier this month and while his draw is tougher than Nadal’s, it is still a manageable one for the 36-year-old.
His toughest obstacles could come in the quarter-finals against 11th-seeded David Goffin ,who defeated Federer in the ATP Finals last November, or 12th-seeded Juan Martin del Potro, who is in Saturday’s Auckland final on the back of blistering form this week and ousted Federer from the US Open last September.
Federer said after winning the Hopman Cup that he’s approaching his title defence in Melbourne “the right way” and won’t be adding pressure on himself irrespective of the length of the list of absentees or injured stars.
His path Down Under could look like this: R1 Bedene, R2 Struff/Kwon, R3 Gasquet, R4 Querrey/Raonic, QF Goffin/Del Potro, SF Thiem/A Zverev/Djokovic, F Nadal/Dimitrov.
If he defends his title, that would be some effort — at 36 nonetheless!
RAFA’S FAVORABLE DRAW
It doesn’t require an analyst to see that Nadal’s draw could have been much tougher but that doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the (Melbourne) park for the Spaniard. The 31-year-old delayed the start to his season to fully recover from a knee issue that prompted him to pull out after his first match at the ATP Finals in November.
One could argue that Nadal was coming back from a wrist injury at the start of 2017 and still managed to make the Australian Open final but it’s worth noting he played Brisbane prior to Melbourne last year whereas this time his only match play came in an exhibition in Kooyong and the Tie Break Tens. Luckily, his draw allows him to ease into the tournament.
The world No. 1 is looking to complete a career Grand Slam double — winning each of the four majors twice — is bidding become only the sixth player in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.
He has won two of the last three Slams, picking up a 10th title at Roland Garros last June and a third US Open in September.
TOP RANKING IS ON THE LINE
One of Nadal or Federer will finish the Australian Open ranked No. 1 in the world. Nadal needs to at least reach the quarter-finals in order to keep his top spot while Federer can overtake his nemesis by winning the title and Nadal losing before the last-eight.
THE RETURNING FORMER CHAMPIONS
How Djokovic and Wawrinka will perform in their first tournament appearance since Wimbledon is probably the million-dollar question at the moment.
Djokovic, seeded 14 and handed a difficult draw, sounded optimistic following his appearance at the Kooyong Classic (we’re ignoring the fact he lost in Tie Break Tens to LLEYTON HEWITT). The Serb has a new service motion to reduce pressure on his elbow and is targeting a seventh Australian Open crown. Meanwhile Wawrinka sounds a bit undercooked. “Still a lot to do,” he said in Melbourne earlier this week, adding that he was positive nonetheless.
Wawrinka has Roberto Bautista Agut (possible third round opponent) and Dominic Thiem (possible fourth round) in his section of the draw and shares the quarter with Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.
Last year we saw a fairy tale comeback from Federer at the Australian Open. Can Djokovic or Wawrinka follow suit?
THE MUST-SEE FIRST ROUNDS
Add the following clashes on your must-watch list:
Juan Martin del Potro v Frances Tiafoe
Denis Shapovalov v Stefanos Tsitsipas
Mischa Zverev v Chung Hyeon
Thanasi Kokkinakis v Daniil Medvedev
Tomas Berdych v Alex de Minaur
Roberto Bautista Agut v Fernando Verdasco
DELPO’S BIG CHANCE
With lots of question marks surrounding that loaded bottom half, and two previous victories against Federer at the majors, Del Potro could finally grab his opportunity to add a second Grand Slam to his name. He’s looking great in Auckland this week (faces Bautista Agut on Saturday in the final), is hitting backhands comfortably once again, and is back in the top-10 next week for the first time since 2014.
Can he capitalise on his chances? He’ll be tested from the get-go against Tiafoe in the first round.
Nick Kyrgios also has a golden opportunity. While he’s got the likes of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov in his quarter of the draw, he should be beaming with confidence from his victory over the third-seeded Dimitrov on his way to the title in Brisbane.
Fitness and mentality are often touch-and-go with Kyrgios but he’s probably learnt from blowing a two-set lead against Andreas Seppi in the Australian Open second round last year and will do everything to avoid a repeat. How juicy would a Nadal-Kyrgios semi-final be in Melbourne?
Here’s some quickfire for you: Will Dimitrov back up his ATP Finals title run? Can Goffin come through? Any chance Raonic finds his lost form? Will a young gun break out? Will Zverev finally replicate his tour results at a Slam?
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