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Big Four Facing Uncertain Starts to 2018
The 2018 ATP World Tour begins with a stop in Brisbane, Australia ahead of three other tournaments kicking off on New Year’s Day in Sydney, Doha and Pune. The start of the season has already been marred by health questions surrounding both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nadal announces his withdrawal from the Brisbane International, saying that he was still not fit to compete after ending last season prematurely due to a knee injury. Nadal is hopeful that he can continue to train and be ready for the Australian Open, but that is certainly a big question mark for the ATP’s top ranked player.
Djokovic reported feeling some pain in his surgically repaired right elbow this week, which caused him to skip the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. The Serb seems likely to miss the Qatar Open in Doha, which starts on Monday. Djokovic has not played since Wimbledon last year. He will be replaced in Abu Dhabi by Andy Murray, who is crafting his own return from a hip injury that ended his 2017 campaign early. As of now, Roger Federer looks to be the lone member of the “Big Four” who will enter the 2018 season healthy. Fed is starting his season at the Hopman Cup in Perth this weekend.
Opportunity Beckons for Next Generation & Twenty-Somethings
With the lingering questions about the health of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, it’s obvious that there is no better time than the present for other players to step into the spotlight and grab some glory. One of those twenty-somethings of whom something will be expected of this season is this week’s top seed, Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov capped off his 2017 by winning the Nitto ATP Finals. That pushed Dimitrov to a career-best 3rd in the rankings. He finished the season 49-19, but was not a factor in three of the four Grand Slams.
Dimitrov will need to strive for better consistency over the course of the season and not get into those stretches where he can’t win matches like he did in March & April. In that span, Dimitrov flopped in Indian Wells and Miami, losing his opener at the Miami Open. He followed that with successive first round losses in Marrakech and Monte Carlo. It’s been too familiar for Dimitrov who found the same thing with five straight first-up losses in May & June of 2016.
Brisbane will also feature one of the game’s most mercurial players in Nick Kyrgios. The Aussie is the third seed behind Dimitrov and Andy Murray. Kyrgios comes off another up and down season, finishing 2017 at 31-17 with no titles won. Health and effort were once again front row and center for Kyrgios last season with shoulder and hip ailments limiting him. NK was another young player who made no impression at Slams, losing in the first round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and in the second round both at the Australian and French Opens.
2018 might signal a new version of Kyrgios. The 22-year-old has shown his philanthropic side since late last Fall when he announced the start of his own foundation to benefit underprivileged children. It has shown a side that the mainstream media has not focused on in the past and perhaps has given Kyrgios a bit more focus. Kyrgios said he heads into the new season healthier than last year and he’s been training with the Australian Davis Cup team in the past month. Could this be the year where things come together for the uber talented Aussie?
Spruced up for 2018, it’s a look at the seeds in the draw and those who might spring those upsets on the seeds – aka The Eliminati. Recently, Brisbane has been an anti-upset location for seeds with only six dropping their openers in the last four years. In 2015 and 2016, just one seed was taken down early. And since 2014, just one top four seed has been eliminated in their first match. Perhaps that could change in 2018 with some different names in the seeded field and a couple players – Murray and Raonic – coming on off lengthy layoffs.
Here is a look at who could play the part of the Eliminati in Brisbane in the early going.
The home standing Aussie will take on a qualifier in round one with the prize being a date against top seed Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov is the defending champion of this event and has made the semifinals or finals in three of his five trips, but he’s got a big target on his back this time as the #3 player in the world. Millman has a history of being a tough out at this tournament, losing in three sets to Murray in 2012 and Federer in 2015 in his last two trips to Brisbane. Keep an eye on Millman if he passes his first round test.
Ryan Harrison/Leonardo Mayer
The winner of this first round match gets a shot at (2) Murray. The Scot has been rehabbing an injured hip since losing in five sets to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon last summer. He made his return to the court in exhibition play against Roberto Bautista Agut this week, losing 6-2 in Abu Dhabi. The 30-year old was a late sub for Novak Djokovic, so perhaps he was off the mark after not expecting to play. Still, he showed rust and both Harrison and Mayer have taken sets off of him in the past. Given his lack of competitive match play, this would be an opportune time for one of these two to jump on the second seed and get a win.
The American could cause a shock if he gets to round two, where he would face fourth seed Milos Raonic. Raonic ended his 2017 campaign early in Tokyo due to a calf injury. It was the last in a string of injuries that derailed the Canadian last season with wrist and leg injuries leading Raonic to a 29-12 mark with no titles won. Raonic’s last title came at this tournament in 2016, so he will be hoping that a return to this tournament will jump start his season. Johnson could be dangerous in this spot, if he gets past talented Aussie Alex de Minaur in round one. The American will have to overcome a poor history at this event to do so (1-3) though.
Mischa Zverev was one of the surprises of the early going in 2017 with his shocking defeat of Murray at last year’s Australian Open that pushed him into the first Slam quarter of his career. That looks like more of an anomaly for the German vet who often struggles on outdoor hard courts. This will be his third main draw in Brisbane with just a 1-2 record previously. Given that he’ll go against someone with play in match conditions, he could be ripe for an upset if the qualifier can handle his serve and volley tactics.
The Dog heads into another season with the same M.O. that has followed him during his career; a player who can beat almost anyone when he gets on a roll, but a player who can lose to anyone, any week. Dolgopolov takes on sixth seed Diego Schwartzman in round one. Schwartzman won their lone meeting back in 2016 in three sets on clay in Buenos Aires. Schwartzman comes off his most successful ATP season, where he made his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. This is his second straight trip to Brisbane. Last year, he went 1-1 in beating Querrey and losing to Raonic. Dolgopolov has some modest success in Brisbane at 8-6 for his career.
*Career record at Brisbane in (parenthesis)*
Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Grigor Dimitrov: 14-4 (2017-W)
(5) Gilles Muller: 1-2
Dimitrov has shown a great affinity for Brisbane in his career with two finals appearances and quarterfinal or better finishes in four of five trips to this tournament. There are plenty of pitfalls in this quarter however that could preclude Dimitrov from getting that sort of result again. Fifth seed Gilles Muller owns three wins in his last four meetings with Dimitrov, including two wins last season. Muller will need to be careful in round one against Hyeon Chung, but could be a serious contender to the crown if he gets rolling.
The floaters here worth watching will meet in round one with Denis Shapovalov going head-to-head against Kyle Edmund. These two met three times, all in 2017, with El Shapo taking two of three. Interestingly, two of the matches were settled via retirement. That includes their last at the U.S. Open, where Shapovalov won when Edmund retired down two sets to one and 0-1 in the fourth.
This figures to be an intriguing season for the 18-year-old Shapovalov who struggled outside of his two big finishes at the Rogers Cup (SF) and U.S. Open (R16). El Shapo went just 2-6 after his U.S. Open heroics. There will be some lofty expectations due to those marquee results, but perhaps they should be tempered some with this season being the Canadian’s first “full” season at this level. Still, the winner between Shapovalov and Edmund will be a tough out for Muller or Chung, which makes this quarter much more of a toss up than you might think.
Quarter #2 Seeds
(3) Nick Kyrgios: 0-0
(6) Diego Schwartzman: 1-1
Kyrgios will make his Brisbane debut and should be expected to be on a show this week. The Aussie has a workable draw that should give him a shot at making the semifinals. He will either American Frances Tiafoe or Aussie Matthew Ebden in his opener. Both have talent and could pull off an upset, but I think Kyrgios’ serve is too electric for either player to keep up with.
Schwartzman’s side of the quarter could go any which way. The Argentine showed that he can win on this surface as he scored 22 of his career 35 wins on outdoor hard courts during his breakout campaign last year. That turned around an 8-16 mark prior to 2017. He faces the tricky game of Dolgopolov to open and then would get Horacio Zeballos or a qualifier. With what else inhabits this quarter, Kyrgios really should get through here as long as his serve is rolling to start the season.
Quarter #3 Seeds
(4) Milos Raonic: 9-3 (2016 – W)
(8) Mischa Zverev: 1-2
Raonic has played well down under in previous seasons and should be out to prove himself healthy to start the new year. The 27-year-old has been one of the more outspoked players this offseason when it comes to the ATP calendar. Raonic believes the season should end with the U.S. Open in order to give players proper rest and it’s not really that bad of an idea. In any case, Raonic’s serve and power should play well in this quarter – but he will be tested. Steve Johnson still looks like the biggest potential landmine for the fourth seed.
Zverev will try to keep his opponents off balance per usual with his serve and volley tactics. The 8th seed actually might have a better set up on his side of the quarter with a couple of qualifiers and Federico Delbonis in the mix. The qualifying field isn’t exceptionally strong with top seed Alexander Bublik already beaten by Aussie John Patrick Smith. I don’t generally trust the German outdoors, but he might be lined up to win a few in this quarter.
Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Andy Murray: 9-0 (2012, 2013 – W)
(7) Damir Dzumhur: 0-0
Murray will look to keep his perfect record intact in Brisbane as he looks to get some match play under his belt before Melborne. Murray looked sluggish in his debut in the Abu Dhabi exhibition, but said that was too be expected after the long layoff. The Scot is hopeful that his body will respond better this week in Brisbane, but sounds like he’s not necessarily expecting to make a deep run. I’m not going to be stunned if Murray loses his opener to Ryan Harrison or Leonardo Mayer.
Dzumhur debuts in Brisbane with his opener against Denis Istomin. Istomin is closing in on the one year mark since his stunning defeat of Novak Djokovic at last year’s Australian Open. Istomin returned to his normal inconsistency after Melbourne, going 17-18 with a title in Chengdu late in the season. Between the Aussie Open and Chengdu, Istomin tallied about half his wins for the season.
The 25-year-old Dzumhur scored his maiden ATP title in 2017 in St.Petersburg and followed it up with his second in Moscow. The Serb has shown good skill on hard courts, but has just two wins in January over the last three years. He’ll have to prove himself all over again to start the year off. Given Murray’s sketchy physical condition, Dzumhur could take advantage of this quarter and get through to the semifinals. He will have a tough time in round two against either Jared Donaldson or Jordan Thompson. The winner of that match has definite darkhorse possibilities.
Each tournament previewed, the Pig-nosticator will list out @tennispig‘s picks to sizzle and fizzle for the week. Don’t forget that if something you peruse through in the preview provides you with something helpful – a visit to the Tip Jar would be kindly appreciated.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
The top seed has been involved in the business end in Brisbane, but has won just once in the last four years (Federer – 2015). Among the top three seeds are three former champions at this stop on the tour in Dimitrov, Raonic and Murray. I’d erase Murray off the list of contenders until he can prove he’s fit enough to handle several matches in a row. Raonic is a shorter question mark and can blister opponents with his serve. The positives for Dimitrov are that he is 3-1 against Raonic if it came down to that for the title. The negative is that Dimitrov has a tougher route prior to that possibly showdown with Gilles Muller and Nick Kyrgios in his path to the final.
Dimitrov is 2-0 against Kyrgios, but 2-3 against Muller. A win this week would make him the first repeat champion since Murray did the trick in 2012 and 2013. Damir Dzumhur is the sleeper for me amongst the seeds. The #7 seed is in Murray’s quarter and could benefit from the Scot not being up to snuff yet, but there are dangerous floaters like Jared Donaldson, Jordan Thompson, Leonardo Mayer and Ryan Harrison who could spring some surprises as non-seeded players. Non-seeds haven’t done much the last few years at the Brisbane International though with Lleyton Hewitt as the last non-seed to make the final (2014) and Dimitrov as the last non-seed to win the title (2013).
Bottom line – Kyrgios is the gut pick with Dzumhur as the longer shot. Dimitrov may prove me wrong by rolling this week, but I just have a feeling that he’s going to get got before the final.