TTI Talks: State of the ATP (Australian Open 2016 Edition)
Not long after the draws were announced, the TTI Crew reconvened in their secret lair to hash out all the details heading into the first major tournament of 2016. Check out Part I of our super-sized roundtable, where we talk through what promises to be quite an exciting men’s event. Stay tuned for our WTA picks, out Sunday afternoon! Check out our full picks compiled into an easy-to-follow grid at the bottom.
Of the ATP, who is/has:
1. The Biggest Darkhorse?
I’m at a point where I think anyone other than Novak Djokovic is a darkhorse in Australia. Milos Raonic has been drawn into a section that’s most likely to break open as far as I’m concerned, and he played well in Brisbane.
Recency bias is a dangerous factor here, but I’m inclined to buy into his form starting off 2016. Jack Sock would have been my original pick but I’m not sure how quickly the American is going to recover from the illness that forced him to retire in the Auckland final.
We’re in this fascinating time of men’s tennis of unprecedented dominance by the World No. 1, with no succinct rival in sight. In fact, it sort of mirrors the women’s game in that anyone not named Serena Williams (or in this case, Djokovic) could be thought of as a darkhorse for the title. Raonic seems like a decent choice, giving a sound effort to start the year winning Brisbane and defeating a lackluster Roger Federer in the final — however, I think it’s fair to call Rafael Nadal a lucrative darkhorse choice.
Nadal hasn’t been at the business end of a Grand Slam since the French Open in 2014 and the days of “Big Four” dominance appear to be gone with the wind. Thus, Nadal could very well string together enough strong performances in a row to peak just in time for the final, where he might just be able to win a set (or maybe even more) off of a likely Serbian opponent who could already be feeling pressure to repeat 2015 heroics.
After losing a tight match to Roger Federer in the 2015 Brisbane final, I thought it might be the year of Milos Raonic’s rise. Well, it wasn’t, but with his one-better result this year in Brisbane, I’m convinced my conviction was a year early.
He didn’t get an easy draw, but I favor him against either Jack Sock or Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, and probably against Nadal in the quarterfinals. As for a potential semifinal against Andy Murray — who knows?
Kevin Anderson was one point away from beating Rafael Nadal in Paris last fall, beat Andy Murray at the U.S. Open and has been a thorn at the side of Stan Wawrinka for years.
If Anderson can find his way through to a fourth round match with Nadal and a quarterfinal encounter with Wawrinka, he’ll have the firepower, mental fortitude and experience needed to cause some havoc in a tough section of the draw.
No. 24 seed Roberto Bautista Agut is a lowkey sleeper in the top half, for me. The Spaniard has had a very strong start to 2016, losing a marathon match to Borna Coric in the quarterfinals in Chennai before claiming his third career title in Auckland. While he was fortunate to get a retirement from Jack Sock in the final, Bautista Agut picked up a series of good wins over Jiri Vesely, Donald Young, John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to make the final.
No. 12 seed Marin Cilic is 2-0 against the Spaniard head-to-head, but both meetings have come 1) indoors and 2) in the final of Moscow each of the past two years. Since the Australian Open is neither of those things, and because the Spaniard comes into the tournament in strong form, he could spring a second-week surprise.
2. The Early Exit?
Kei Nishikori is my default option because he has the most difficult first round opener in Philipp Kohlschreiber and I wasn’t entirely convinced by his performance in Brisbane. Realistically speaking, however, none of the Top 8 should be crashing out right at the beginning of the tournament — particularly not over best of five sets.
Most of the top seeds face early opposition in some unique and challenging players, from youngsters Alex Zverev and Chung Hyeon facing Andy Murray and Djokovic, respectively — to veterans Kohlschreiber and Verdasco against Kei Nishikori and Nadal. Yet the cruelest twist of fate would be Roger Federer going out in his early rounds with no foreseeable troubling opponents.
Nikola Basilashvili? Sure, why not.
I have a feeling Roger Federer will be leaving Melbourne sooner rather than later for the second straight year. He should be okay in the first round, but hard-hitting and variety-loving Alexandr Dolgopolov would be a tricky test for Federer, who admitted to press in Brisbane that his “defense was never quite there throughout the week.”
Even if he makes it to the round in which he lost last year, Grigor Dimitrov will probably be waiting in the wings to finish what he couldn’t in the Brisbane quarterfinals.
I answered this question without looking at the draw, and my answer was Tomas Berdych. I then looked at the draw and my answer was still Berdych. Nishikori is a close second because he is facing Kohlschreiber in the first round, but Berdych could face a major test in Nick Kyrgios in the third round.
Andy Murray hasn’t lost in the first week of a Grand Slam since the US Open in 2010, but something tells me we won’t be seeing the World No. 2 in the “-finals” stages in Melbourne for the seventh straight year.
I think he’ll be fine against the teenaged Zverev in his opener, and the big-serving Aussie Sam Groth could give him some trouble before his return game finds its mark in the second round. Despite his head-to-head success against them, is a potential fourth round meeting with Bernard Tomic or Fabio Fognini the stage where Murray gets tripped up this year? It could happen.
3. The Toughest Draw?
There are a couple of players who don’t have “easy” draws throughout the first three rounds but Tomas Berdych has drawn the shortest straw by virtue of potentially meeting Nick Kyrgios in the third round. Depending on the day, you could get any sort of performance from the Australian, from absolutely lackluster and confusing to scintillating and all the way back (see Wimbledon 2015).
On the right day and with the Melbourne crowd behind him, he could cut Berdych’s journey Down Under a whole lot shorter.
Stan Wawrinka is slated to play one of two qualifiers — one of whom is Radek Stepanek — in the second round, but his first round match with Dimitry Tursunov might not be as straightforward as one might think — the Russian has game, despite coming back from (yet another) injury.
More worrisome for the No.4 seed is his matchup with Jack Sock in the third round, who is in some brutal forehand form as of late. Even if #Stanimal does manage to make the second week, awaiting him in the fourth round could be Raonic, whose game is looking sharper and more focused than ever.
Stan Wawrinka was given the hottest of the No. 25-32 seeds (sorry, Nick) in No. 25 Sock as his potential third round opponent. I think Wawrinka is the favorite here, but (potentially) following up a tough one with Sock in a fourth round date with Raonic isn’t an easy ask of the former Aussie Open champion. His reward for getting past those two? Probably Rafa.
Playing Dolgopolov and Dimitrov in the first week is not easy. These are two players that have proven they can hang with anyone on turn and while neither of them has recorded a victory over Roger Federer, the Swiss will surely be expecting a battle assuming both matches come into fruition.
With veterans Tursunov and Stepanek (out of qualifying!) looming before he could even face a seed, Wawrinka can’t be happy with the draw he’s been dealt. It doesn’t get easier for the former champion from there, as he’s projected to face the in-form (if slightly ailing?) Sock, or even the mercurial Lukas Rosol just to get to the second week, where either Raonic (the Brisbane champion) or Troicki (the Sydney champion) could be waiting.
If the 2014 champion gets back to the business end of the tournament in Melbourne, he’ll have earned it.
4. The Most Exciting 1R?
There are a couple of opening rounds that stand out, but to me, some of the potential second and third round matches are a lot tastier. Stil, I’m curious to see how Taylor Fritz fares against his countryman Sock and both Djokovic vs. Chung and Murray vs. Zverev are on my radar.
As mentioned previously Nishikori vs. Kohlschreiber could be very entertaining, but I’ll pick Fabio Fognini vs. Gilles Muller because it’s a fun contrast of styles — and personalities.
Eyes will be on Nadal-Verdasco in the first round in a repeat of one of the greatest Australian Open matches ever (their 2009 semifinal), but I’ll be tuning into Marcos Baghdatis vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Both of these players are showmen by nature with big, flashy games and have both made the final here in Melbourne many moons ago.
It has five-set thriller written all over it, but will it deliver?
Lleyton Hewitt vs. James Duckworth is sure to be a slugfest, as the former is playing his last tournament while the latter has to deal with the pressure of possibly ending his countryman’s career. Duckworth is the better player at this point, so it will be interesting to watch how he deals with what is sure to be a rowdy crowd. This feels like a guaranteed five-setter.
Bonus popcorn: Bernard Tomic vs. Denis Istomin, Tsonga-Baghdatis, Dominic Thiem vs. Leonardo Mayer.
Hewitt vs. Duckworth. The fact that Lleyton Hewitt’s career could end against a young Aussie under the lights in Melbourne is crazy. I think Hewitt will win this match and end up losing to David Ferrer in the second round, but rest assured there will be nonstop coverage of this match.
I’m eager to see what Long Island native Noah Rubin brings to the table against the always-volatile Benoit Paire. The 18-year-old played his freshman season at Wake Forest before turning pro over the summer, and won the USTA’s wildcard challenge to get into the main draw. Last we saw Paire, he was raging at ATP Supervisor Mark Darby in Auckland because the court was too fast.
As one does.
Rubin like to grind, and would certainly have no problems keeping Paire out there for a few hours and letting the Frenchman self-destruct in the Aussie heat. #strongisland
5. The Unheralded Opposition?
I’m really really excited for the potential second round match between Borna Coric and Marin Cilic, and with a bit of luck, the younger Croat could make the second week at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career. Coric didn’t always play tremendous tennis en route to the final in Chennai, but his competitive instincts were there.
Lleyton Hewitt, because this tournament is his metaphorical fifth set tiebreaker and you just know it’s gonna be epic.
We all know that Bernie Tomic sure likes his draw, but he might not if he runs into Gilles Muller in the third round. Muller reached the semifinals in Sydney — beating Coric and Thiem (via retirement) — before bowing out to Dimitrov. The big-serving lefty should get to the fourth round if he can get by Tomic.
After reaching the final in Chennai before losing to the King of Chennai, Stan Wawrinka, Borna Coric has established a great foundation to build upon for the rest of 2016. The young Croatian is incredibly gifted and has been pegged by many as being a future Grand Slam champion. While he won’t win this one, look for Coric to stir up the pot a bit in week one — particularly when he faces Marin Cilic in a likely second round match.
Most of the ATP’s next generation got hosed in this draw, but one who didn’t is Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund. The British No. 3 had a nice little run in Doha, as he qualified, scored a Top 50 win over Martin Klizan and reached his first ATP quarterfinal.
Should he defeat Damir Dzumhur in the first round, Edmund could potentially face a rematch with David Goffin in the second round, and I would think that the 21-year-old learned a lot from his last defeat of 2015: a 6–3, 6–1, 2–6, 1–6, 0–6 loss to Goffin in the Davis Cup final.
6. The Semifinalists?
Djokovic. Is there any question? Like, really? And don’t even say “…but Ivo Karlovic” because it’s not going to happen.
The Serb should saunter into the quarterfinals and I see neither Nishikori nor Tsonga (if they get there, that is) endangering the World No. 1 on his way to the semifinals. His opponent? This is a little bit trickier. Dimitrov looked better in Brisbane and Sydney than he has in a while, but I don’t expect the Bulgarian to take out Federer in a Slam and there isn’t anyone in the section below to really stop the Swiss in the 4th round. Now the quarterfinals could be a little more interesting depending one how the bottom half of this quarter pans out but I’d put Federer into the semifinals regardless.
This Raonic pick is going to come back and bite me because Wawrinka has a 4-0 head to head against the Canadian, isn’t it? Still, I fancy the 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist’s chances to get through this draw and take out Nadal in the quarterfinals. My confidence in this pick is not sky-high though.
Murray‘s got himself a fine draw into the semifinals and unless we see the “Rise of Bernie” or something along those lines, I’m struggling to see anyone really stopping the World No. 2 on his way towards the latter stages of the tournament. The biggest question mark is whether Murray might actually miss a match because Kim Murray goes into labor.
Djokovic vs. Marin Cilic: Djokovic’s path to the semis is devoid of any huge land mines, so it seems almost definite that we’ll see him there. If Cilic’s serve catches fire, he might be able to navigate Tomas Berdych and Federer back-to-back — he’s done it before.
On the other side, and as I mentioned, I think we’re going to see a strong tournament from Nadal, who will likely find himself against Murray in the semifinals in a tournament where the Brit has seen his most consistent success, but not yet a title.
On top, Djokovic vs. Berdych is my pick. No one is going to challenge Djokovic, and Berdych (yes, he is going to beat Kyrgios) should take advantage of an early Federer exit to skate into his third straight semifinal in Melbourne.
On bottom, Raonic vs. Murray. I was very impressed by Raonic in Brisbane and I think he’s ready for the next step. Murray is the most reliable player in this section, and I don’t see John Isner, David Ferrer or anyone else blocking his road to the semis.
Djokovic vs. Federer and Murray vs. Wawrinka.
Djokovic was in all four Grand Slam semifinals in 2015, Murray and Wawrinka were in three of the four semifinals and Federer was in two of the four semifinals. I wouldn’t be shocked if Nadal reaches the semifinal, but I’m still going with the top four seeds to make it to that stage.
Three of my four semifinalists would be the players you’d expect: Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka, with the third successfully navigating his loaded draw against most odds. If Murray does indeed go out early, David Ferrer will likely be the player to take advantage of that quarter and reach the semifinals. Although I was hesitant to back the Spaniard Down Under after his surprising loss to Ilya Marchenko in Doha and his comments afterwards, he restored order with a semifinal showing in Auckland. Will he be the latest to prove the #marriageworks (© A. Murray) and match his best Australian Open showing? #maybe
7. The Champion?
Novak Djokovic. Duh.
If I was grasping at straws, I’d say it might be blessing in disguise for Federer’s title hopes that he definitely won’t play the Serb in the final, but I really don’t have any doubts that Djokovic is going to make it half a dozen Down Under.
Djokovic. Dominance is dominance, and so long as he steers clear of injury, he’s given us no reason to believe his dominance is otherwise failing. Djokovic also proved he can win this tournament playing at a level far below his best — and that was a year ago. He’s look sharp starting 2016 and I expect him to continue as so.
Djokovic is the best player in the men’s game by an increasingly wide margin. Any further analysis is unnecessary.
Djokovic has shown no signs of slowing down, and picked up right where he left off last year to open 2016. The only reason to be contrarian with this pick is for the sake of it, and I’m certainly not about that.
Who are your ATP picks? Sound off in the comments!
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