Welcome to the land Down Under as TTI returns to preview the first Grand Slam of 2017! Island residents Victoria Chiesa, Jeff Donaldson and Nick Nemeroff teamed up with Ros Satar of BritWatchSports to preview this year’s men’s and women’s draws — from lines one to 128 and everyone in-between.
Of the ATP, who has/is…?
1) The Biggest Dark Horse?
Does anyone remember when I picked Rafael Nadal as a dark horse for the title last year? I know Twitter might, as I received a healthy dose of criticism for choosing the 14-time Grand Slam champion. Well guess what? I’m choosing him again. Nadal certainly comes into the Australian Open much more under the radar than he did last year. He’s no longer a Top 8 seed, lost to Milos Raonic in Brisbane, and hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam since 2014.
While I’d never want to patronize a tennis legend, expectations for him are low and his section of the draw isn’t insurmountable if he produces his best — so, dark horse he shall be.
I say this ever year — at every slam, but I never really know the true definition of “dark horse” because so many people take it to mean so many different things. Nonetheless, going along with our view of things, I’ll stick with the in-form Jack Sock. The American raised the trophy in Auckland and cracked the top 20, and his draw is just manageable enough for a second-week push. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marin Cilic are the two high seeds in his section, and neither lit the world on fire in the lead-up to Melbourne.
(…And in the absence of our resident German René Denfeld (who’s having a grand ol’ time on the biathlon beat this month) getting to choose him, I’m quite glad that you chose our next character, Ros.)
…I’ll go for Alexander Zverev — yes, he is a seed (No. 24), but I think he has the power to deliver the odd shock here and there — probably starting with ousting the returning Rafael Nadal.
Grigor Dimitrov seems like the obvious pick here, but with a potential fourth round match against Novak Djokovic, those prospects are not as high as others. I’m leaving Federer out of this discussion because I think it’s simply wrong — and possibly immoral (kidding) — to pick Federer as a dark horse. However, Alexander Zverev is the 24th seeded and has Nadal and Gael Monfils in his section — and a quarterfinal match with Milos Raonic is one I could certainly see him getting by as well. If he’s on his game, expect Zverev to make big waves.
2. The Early Exit?
Stan Wawrinka didn’t look too convincing in Brisbane despite his run to the semifinals. His section of the draw might appear not too difficult at first glance, but potentially dangerous obstacles in Martin Klizan and Steve Johnson are in his way. He’s a former champion in Melbourne, but “Stan the Man” only tends to play his best in the latter halves of Grand Slams.
I’m going out on a limb here and picking our World No. 3 — which still surprises me to say at no fault of the Canadian, every time — Milos Raonic.
A semifinalist in Melbourne a year ago and off to a good start this season, Raonic’s run Down Under kick-started the best season of his career thus far — but his early path is filled with potential pitfalls. He opens against German Dustin Brown, who we know has a flair for the dramatic and loves the big stage, before a potential second round with talented American teen Taylor Fritz or big-serving — and newly crowned Sydney champion Gilles Muller.
While both outside the Top 8 purview reserved for the traditional “early exit,” I pick Roger Federer and/or Rafael Nadal — much has been mad of their semi-triumphant returns, but let’s be honest, Hopman Cup does not count, and when the chips were down Nadal could not find away past the beasting serves of Raonic in Brisbane.
I know everyone is all kinds of giddy that the “boys are back in town,” but I fear it will be one week only — if I may paraphrase my musical numbers.
Unfortunately for Tomas Berdych, he was the player ranked just outside the Top 8 with the misfortune of having to play Roger Federer in the third round. It’s a brutal draw for Berdych and he’s going to need put together a valiant effort to get by this one.
3. The Toughest Road?
Novak Djokovic has been the undisputed king of the Australian Open this decade, and to knock him off his throne has truly required something special in the past (we see you, Stan.) That being said, his route to the quarterfinals is far from easy. Fernando Verdasco, who had five match points against the Serb in Doha this year and who knocked out Nadal in the first round last year, is Djokovic’s first opponent.
While Djokovic, at his best, would probably sleepwalk through his opening few rounds here, he still doesn’t appear as confident on court as he once was and could find some major troubles, particularly in the form of an in-form Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round.
I worry for a possibly-still-exhausted Dominic Thiem. The No. 8 seed is the projected quarterfinal opponent for No. 2 seed Djokovic, the Austrian’s prep for the first Grand Slam of the year was less than ideal. Losing his second match in both Brisbane and Sydney to Dimitrov and Dan Evans saw him fade in deciding sets, and I’m not entirely sure he’s recovered from the massive amounts of tennis he played last season — and his globe-trotting exhibition schedule in the offseason.
He opens against German Jan-Lennard Struff; from there, any one of Joao Sousa, No. 28 Feliciano Lopez, Fabio Fognini or Benoit Paire have the pedigree to take him out in week one, and just to reach his projected quarterfinal, he might have to go through one of Ivo Karlovic or David Goffin.
I fear Rafael Nadal‘s progress will grind to a halt at the hands of Zverev in the third round. I know at this juncture, the Spaniard is a big name without little number in the men’s draw — and his comeback for glory may be better served on the terre battue.
It might seem like I’m picking on Berdych, but — in all likelihood, he will have to beat Federer and Nishikori to reach the quarterfinals. Ouch.
It doesn’t get much tougher than that. For any Top 8 player. Ever.
4. Most Exciting R1?
Roger Federer makes his long await return to Grand Slam tennis against Jurgen Melzer, a former Top 10 player whose latter stage of his career has been marred by injury.
Two veterans, one of which is an undisputed legend of the game, looking to kickstart competitive comeback? I’m all in for it.
A couple of unseeded and looming tilts caught my eye in this men’s draw — but my pick has to be N0. 27 Bernard Tomic vs. Thomaz Bellucci.
The seeded Aussie and the Brazilian lefty have played three times before, with all three matches ending in two sets, but a meeting between the Aussie No. 2 and the volatile Brazilian Down Under — especially at night on one of the three shows courts — could light up Melbourne in more ways than one.
Novak Djokovic starts with a tricky one against Verdasco. The Spaniard can be capable of a shock — much as he was last year…
…but sometimes lacks the mental strength to carry it through.
*cough* Five match points… *cough*
I don’t think the first round matchups in this draw are that appealing, but of course, Verdasco vs. Djokovic sticks out. As everyone probably knows, Verdasco and Djokovic faced off in Doha, where Verdasco squandered five match points in the semifinals. I think Verdasco will come out swinging freely and present the defending champion with a stern test.
5. The Unheralded Opposition?
Alexander Bublik, who admittedly was an absolute non-entity to me prior to the end of last season, has shown some guts in his qualifying matches. He’s got game and he follows the same style as fellow youngsters Medvedev and Zverev: big serve, powerful backhand wing, and surprisingly swift lateral movement. He’s drawn Lucas Pouille in the first round, but the ripples he made in qualifying could turn into waves in the main draw.
And of course, there was this.
I’m glad Jeff brought him up, because I’ll be keeping an eye on rising Russian Daniil Medvedev — who’s started off the year with a flourish by making his first ATP final in Chennai.
Granted, his scalps in Chennai weren’t all that notable — with his most notable victory being against No. 8 seed Lu Yen-hsun, but the young Russian has a favorable draw early on. He’ll face American qualifier and fellow 20-year-old Ernesto Escobedo in the first round, with the potential to have a rematch against his Chennai conquerer, No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, in the third round.
My Aussie nod on the men’s side is Omar Jasika who battled his way into the main draw for the second time in the wildcard playoffs — and the 2014 US Open boys’ singles champion could deliver a shock if he knocks out veteran David Ferrer and makes the most of a qualifier-heavy sub-section.
On the back of his first and long awaited ATP title, Luxembourg’s finest, Gilles Muller, comes into the Australian Open brimming with confidence. He’s got a tough draw, facing Taylor Fritz in the first round and potentially Milos Raonic in the second, but I would not be totally shocked if we see Muller make a strong push in to the second week.
6. The Semifinalists?
Andy Murray vs. Marin Cilic. Murray looked in his usual gritty form in Doha, and despite losing to Djokovic, looks more motivated than ever to claim his first Australian Open crown. His draw is potentially tricky, but the main rivals in his section have big question marks over their heads. Is Kei Nishikori fit? Is Federer ready to compete for the big titles again? Tough to say.
Marin Cilic in the second half of the draw is looming large in spite of a poor showing in Chennai. He knows how to win Grand Slams and knows how to beat the players in his early draw.
The bottom half of the men’s draw is tough to call. On one hand, Raonic looked in good form when he took out Nadal in Brisbane, but then fell flat against a focused Dimitrov. Thiem’s form is questionable, while no one is sure what to expect from Djokovic. My head says Nadal and Djokovic will find a way through their draws for a semifinal classic, but gut thinks we’re in for a massive upset on that latter half. I’m going with Nadal vs. Dimitrov.
I think the top and bottom halves of the draw will see their anchors, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic get through to the final stages of the event — with varying degrees of absurdity and difficulty as Murray defeats Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. For me, the other two quarters appear almost wide-open, and I think Murray will face Nick Kyrgios in the final four. His draw is an interesting one, and some how, some way, I see him edging Stan Warinka in the fourth round. As far as Djokovic’s opponent? If I’m operating under my theory of Raonic losing early, I think Gael Monfils steps in and goes one better than his quarterfinal showing from 2016.
On the men’s side, it all feels a bit predictable — I think we’ll have thrills and spills along the way, but in the top half of the draw I think Andy Murray will need to duke it out with Stan Wawrinka. I feel Djokovic will taken through the ringer a bit — maybe from the first round on — and would love to see a Zverev vs. Djokovic semifinal after the teenager backs up my-already-predicted Nadal upset.
Andy Murray vs. Marin Cilic. My instinct is to put Federer here, but with his form being a bit of a unknown, I’ll stick with Murray, despite the fact that he’s 0-5 vs. Federer in their last match five matches, having only won one set in that time. Wawrinka’s draw is going to be very tricky early, and I don’t see Cilic having too much trouble navigating through his, so Cilic gets the nod there.
Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic: Nadal’s quarter is pretty wide open, but I suspect a quarterfinal matchup with Milos Raonic is in the cards, one I think he’ll get through. Novak Djokovic’s toughest test to the semifinals could be the surging Grigor Dimitrov — so yeah, I think he’ll make it safely through to the semifinals.
7. The Champion?
Sixth time’s the charm? Andy Murray could face a few major tests, but the new World No.1 looks in fine shape to pass all of them and claim his first Australian Open crown.
It’s going to take a big effort for anyone who isn’t Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic to stop the world’s two best players from making the final at what is each’s most successful major. While that might be a strange sentence to read about Murray — yes, the five-time runner-up Murray — he’s never has much difficulty in going deep here. His new status as the world’s best, however, might just be the extra little something he needs to get himself over the line in Melbourne.
For the men, I am now nationally required to kneel before Sir Andrew Barron Murray. I just feel it is his time — although I do not doubt he will put the entire nation through the ringer and make us regret for voting him BBC Sports Personality of the Year three times en route to his first trophy.
Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer. It would be a dream return for Roger Federer, but it’s very unlikely that he’d have what it takes to take down the Australian King, Novak Djokovic. Another four-set slam victory for Novak over Roger wins him the trophy.
Ros Satar is a Brit journalist who recognized that Brits love watching sport, and are occasionally good at it — find her ramblings at britwatchsports.com or @britwatchsports.