The Australian Open Seed Report
The opening Grand Slam of the 2017 season is upon us as tennis resides down under for the next few weeks to crown our first Grand Slam champion of the new season. This is the 112th Australian Open, which began back in 1905. This marks the 30th year that the tournament in Melbourne has been played outdoors on a hard surface. Prior to 1988, this was a grass court tournament. The flip to hard courts has also brought the Australian Open into premier status with three covered courts to fight the heat and rain with Rod Laver, Margaret Court and Hisense Arenas all roofed for our pleasure.
This year’s second seed, Novak Djokovic, has a chance at history. Djokovic has won the Australian Open six times, tying him with Aussie great Roy Emerson for the most singles titles at this event. A win this year would put him in sole possession of that record. Djokovic has won this event in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 & 2016. Djokovic has dominated with five titles in six years with only Stan Wawrinka’s 2014 win keeping him from having won six straight. Andy Murray, this year’s top seed, has been a mainstay in the finals of this tournament too. Murray has made the final five of the last seven years, losing four times to Djokovic and once in 2010 to Roger Federer.
The men still revolve around the top tier players as the most likely winners of Grand Slams. You have to drift back to 2005 to find a winner in Australia not named Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Wawrinka. That is when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt for the title. The dominance in the final is even more evident from the “Big Four” + Wawrinka when you consider that there has not been a finalist outside of that group since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Djokovic in 2008.
Last year was one of the rare occasions when an “outsider” made it into the semifinals with Milos Raonic doing that trick as the 13th seed. 2011 was the last time the top seed didn’t make the semifinals as Nadal was struck down by 7th seed David Ferrer in the quarterfinals. 2010 was the last time a pair of double digit seeds got into the semifinal picture with Tsonga as the 10th seed and Marin Cilic in as the 14th seed. Tsonga’s run to the final in ’08 stands as the last time an unseeded player made it to the semifinals or better. Since that run, only three unseeded players have even made it as far as the quarterfinals. Alexandr Dolgopolov in 2011, Jeremy Chardy in 2013 and Nick Kyrgios in 2015 were the others.
So for the most part, seeds have been the story in the business end of this tournament. Here’s a look at how they have fared over the last five years in Melbourne.
While seeds play the majority role in the latter stages of the Australian Open, there are occassions of course where they flame out early in the opening round. Over the last five years, five seeds or more have lost in the opening round in three of the last five years. Four or more have lost in four of five years in that same stretch. Let’s take a look at those early birds who might get choked out by the worm.
Early Bird Specials
2016 continued the trend where at least one Top 12 seed was one and done in Melbourne. Last year that number was two players with Fernando Verdasco providing the fireworks early in a dazzling five set win over (5) Rafael Nadal. (11) Kevin Anderson joined him on the sidelines after retiring in the fourth set against Rajeev Ram due to a knee injury. He trailed two sets to one and was down a break in the fourth set when he threw in the towel. Nadal’s loss was the biggest shocker albeit in a tough match-up. He was the highest seed to lose in the first round since 2010 when 8th seed Robin Soderling fell to Marcel Granollers after blowing a two sets to love lead.
Generally, the top ten seeded players have been immune to the early upset in recent times, it has been the fringe seeds right there around 11-13 who have traditionally been the highest seeds ousted early. Due to some of the “new” faces inside the Top 10 at this point though, there could definitely be some seeds inside the top ten who face immediate danger in round one. Here’s a look at the seeds who might have the hardest time avoiding a first round flame out.
6. Gael Monfils
With no actual match prep prior to the start of the Australian Open, Monfils is an obvious red flag in round one for the upset watch. The Frenchman has a career mark of 21-11 at the AO and did make the quarterfinals last year. He’s only been taken down in round one once, way back in 2006 when he was a teenager. His opener though could be tough as he draws talented Czech Jiri Vesely. They have split two career meetings, but it’s the 23-year old Czech who win their lone Grand Slam meeting at Wimbledon in 2014. Monfils won on clay last year in Monte Carlo. Vesely has lost all three of his treks to Melbourne in round one and this is another tough task, but he’s pushed his opponents to five sets in two of those matches. With La Monf possibly rusty, Vesely is going to have a chance here.
8. Dominic Thiem
Our chronic over-scheduler is only playing the main draw for the fourth time in Melbourne. He lost in round one in 2015 to Roberto Bautista Agut and had a tough time shaking Leonardy Mayer in four last year 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6. He’s been in tough matches already this season, losing in three sets to Grigor Dimitrov in his second match in Brisbane and then being extended to three sets twice in Sydney. He would lose in the quarterfinals going away to Daniel Evans 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. Thiem draws Jan-Lennard Struff to open. They have split two meetings with Thiem winning in Monte Carlo last year in three on clay and Struff beating Thiem in Auckland on a hard surface back in 2015 in three. Struff arrives in good form after making the Canberra Challenger final, where he lost to Dudi Sela.
You may better remember Struff as the one who jetted out to a big lead on Djokovic in Doha earlier this year, only to ultimate lose a 1st set tiebreak and the match in straights. The best news for Thiem is that Struff is 3-13 in his career in Grand Slam main draws. Still, their past history indicates that he could trouble the 8th seed some and have Thiem on shaky ground in the opening round.
9. Rafael Nadal
Until last year, Nadal probably would not have been on this list. Wimbledon is his great early round struggle, not Melbourne. Perhaps it was simply a tough year because of drawing a really solid play in round one in Fernando Verdasco. Prior to 2016, Nadal had made the quarterfinals or better in Melbourne eight straight trips since 2007. He only missed out on making it eight straight years by missing the 2013 Australian Open due to injury. His form early this season has been pretty solid, but he gets quirky shot maker Florian Mayer in round one. Rafa leads the head-to-head 2-1 with Mayer winning their lone hard court meeting in Shanghai in 2011. They have not met since 2012. I’d rate this one lower than most others in terms of seeing the upset. Mayer dropped both his matches to start the year against Horacio Zeballos and Paolo Lorenzi.Unless Rafa cracks under pressure, I think he’ll likely be safe in round one.
11. David Goffin
The Belgian is another who is still fairly inexperienced here with this being just his fourth year in the main draw. Last year was his best finish as he made the fourth round before losing to Federer. Goffin is usually solid, but he’s gone out in the first or second round of at least one Slam since 2012. His rise in late 2014 has seen his Grand Slam results become more consistent, but he still went out in round one at the U.S. Open last year to Jared Donaldson. In Melbourne, he gets serve machine Reilly Opelka. Opelka made it into the main draw through qualifying. The six foot eleven American is short on experience with this being his first GS main draw. It would probably take a perfect serving clinic from Opelka to have a realistic shot here as the 19-year-old’s ground game can’t come close to Goffin’s.
21. David Ferrer
Ferrer is still grinding at age 34, but his results have continued to take a dip in recent times. He’s lost to Jordan Thompson and Robin Haase so far this season, sporting a 1-2 mark overall. He’s still been a rock at this tournament with fourth round or better finishes since 2011. He hasn’t lost his opener in Melbourne since 2005. He faces Aussie Omar Jasika to start. The 19-year old could be poised to break out a bit at this tournament. He played well at the Happy Valley Challenger, making the final. Jasika got his first Grand Slam win here last year against Illy Marchenko. He’s in the main draw in 2017 after winning the wild card playoff last fall. He won’t overpower Ferrer, but he’s compact and quick. Jasika might need more seasoning before he can beat even an aging Ferrer, but he should push the Spaniard to play well if he wants to advance.
22. Pablo Cuevas
An interesting first round clash is set with Cuevas against Diego Schwartzman. Schwartzman owns a 2-1 advantage in their head-to-head matches with a win last year indoors on a hard surface. His other win against Cuevas came in a clay court Challenger. Cuevas’ lone victory also came on clay in 2015. This is a super tricky spot for Cuevas who has rarely produced his best results at Slams. In fact, he’s only played in Melbourne four times previously with three first round exits. Schwartzman is 0-2 in main draw action in Australia in the past, but this looks to be perhaps his best shot to break through.
26. Albert Ramos-Vinolas
The Spaniard has shown an allergic reaction to Melbourne in his career at just 1-5 in five main draw trips. 2016 did see him score his first main draw win at the AO over Borna Coric, but his early season form is mediocre at best. He lost in his second match in Chennai to Dudi Sela in fairly routine fashion. He opens against qualifier Lukas Lacko. Lacko whipped American Denis Kudla 6-2, 6-2 in the final round of qualifying to secure this spot. It’s Lacko’s first trip back to the main draw in Melbourne since 2015. He owns the lone win in their head-to-head, beating Ramos-Vinolas in 2012 on a hard court in Tokyo.
27. Bernard Tomic
You simply have to include Tomic as an upset possibility even in his home Slam where he has only lost in the first round once. Still, his pre-AO form has been putrid with a loss to David Ferrer in Brisbane and then a pair of losses in Kooyong to Goffin and Gilles Simon. The more troubling aspect of his early season is that reports indicate he lost some weight fast in the past ten days in a bid to apparently improve his fitness. Not the kind of thing you want to hear about heading into the first Grand Slam of the season. He opens against Thomaz Bellucci, the tricky lefty from Brazil who has a 2-1 record against Tomic. That included a win on hard courts last year. Bellucci hasn’t been great at this event, but he knows how to beat a disinterested Tomic or perhaps an unfit Tomic. Red alert here.
28. Feliciano Lopez
A health concern puts the Flodonis here after he withdrew after one match in Auckland last week due to a lower back concern. It likely was precautionary to make sure he was fit for the Australian Open, but should still be monitored. He has a potential tough opener against Fabio Fognini. Their two previous encounters both came at Slams with Lopez winning a grueling five setter at Wimbledon in 2016 and a straight sets affair at the U.S. Open in 2015. The good news for Lopez is that the Italian has failed to get out of round one in six of the last seven trips the Melbourne. If healthy, Lopez should get through with that in mind.
31. Sam Querrey
Querrey’s Australian Open history is littered with middling results, including five first round flops in ten trips. That included retiring last year in the opening round. He faces heavy hitting Frenchman Quentin Halys who can match him serve for serve. Halys hasn’t done much this year with a 2-2 mark in two Challenger events, but that serve is a weapon when he finds the consistency and rhythm. The 20-year old’s first Grand Slam win came last year in Melbourne over Ivan Dodig. Querrey lost his lone tune-up match to Diego Schwartzman in Brisbane, so there is a chance that Halys can steal this one in round one.
32. Philipp Kohlschreiber
The German comes into the tournament after retiring in Sydney due to a back problem, which is an immediate cause for concern. That was bad news for Kohlschreiber who had found some decent form with wins over Fabio Fognini and Jordan Thompson prior to his withdrawal due to injury. He opens with Nikoloz Basilashvili. He hasn’t shown anything this year, failing to get out of qualifying in two tournaments, that would warrant the upset alert if Kohlschreiber was 100 percent. He’s only been in the main draw once in Melbourne and lost, but Kohlschreiber did fall last year in round one. That was his first opening round flop at the AO since he debuted in 2005. That can be forgiven however as he was drawn against Kei Nishikori. All signs point to Kohlschreiber winning if fit, but that might be a big if.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
If the trend of a top 12 seed losing continues, Monfils or Thiem is my pick to be the victim. Trickling down through the rest of the seeds, it’s easy seeing a few more losing in round one as well. I think it should fall right around that average of five players KO’ed in round one of the Australian Open that we’ve seen in recent times.