2017 Story Line Will Be Impossible to Match
Last year’s story book Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final in Melbourne is going to be impossible to match this year, right? Or could an encore produce even more of a frenzy? Think about it. Last year’s run for both Federer and Nadal were more than improbable. Federer was seeded 17th. Nadal was seeded 9th. They needed plenty of magic for the impossible to become possible. Denis Istomin delivered a big part of that early by knocking out Novak Djokovic in round two, opening up Nadal’s half of the draw. Federer got a bit of a favor with Andy Murray being outsted by Mischa Zverev, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
Federer would have to overcome two straight physical five set matches to get to the final. The first against Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and the next against his friend Stan Wawrinka in the quarters. He survived and so did Nadal, who had his own five set tests. One came against Alexander Zverev early and the other in the semifinals against Grigor Dimitrov. Rafa would pass both tests and the world was treated to a resumption of the #Fedal rivalry, one that had not been seen since the fall of 2015. The final wasn’t quite a classic, but it was what tennis needed at the time. Two all-time greats going blow for blow for a Slam title. Federer would win, but it also helped propel Nadal to a resugent season where he would win two Slams himself.
2018 Brings More Question Marks
The big stories entering this year’s “Happy Slam” are injury returns. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic are the big names who ended 2017 with injury questions. Nadal’s centered around a knee issue that probably stemmed from the vast number of matches played. It caused him to delay his start to 2018, but he’s proclaimed himself ready to go after taking part in the Kooyong Exhibition and the Tie Breaks Ten competition.
Djokovic? There’s been a big to-do about his injured elbow that caused him to shut it down after Wimbledon. The Serb finally came out this week and said he did not have surgery on his injured elbow despite many stories saying he did. Djokovic has admitted he will adjust his serving motion this year to compensate for the wear and tear on the elbow. Djokovic says the elbow is feeling better every day, although he has admitted he might not quite be 100 percent for the start in Melbourne.
Wawrinka seems the sketchiest of the three former Australian Open champions returning from injury. The Swiss shut his season down following Wimbledon due to a knee injury and admitted there were times when he questioned if he would even return to the game. His opening presser in Melbourne gave some insight into the work its taken for him to get back to the point where he will play this week. It also showed that there is a bit of mental fatigue I think on Wawrinka to start the season due to the rehab. He likely is not 100 percent and any wins he gets this week really would be a bonus towards rebuilding his confidence for the rest of 2018.
Those are the three players most will watch along with Federer. The talk is about who is ready to step up with the question marks surrounding Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka. Federer is another year older – but is anyone going to write off Fed or any of these other Grand Slam champs? I wouldn’t. The younger generation with Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios and even a David Goffin in his latter 20s are players being looked at to steal the crown. Time will tell if any of them or someone else can handle the pressure the way that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka have in the past.
Let’s take a look at where every fits into this year’s puzzle.
Quarter #1 Seeds
(1) Rafael Nadal: 51-11 (2009 – W)
(6) Marin Cilic: 20-9
(10) Pablo Carreno Busta: 2-4
(16) John Isner: 13-9
(23) Gilles Muller: 10-11
(23) Diego Schwartzman: 1-3
(28) Damir Dzumhur: 3-3
(31) Pablo Cuevas: 1-5
Nadal likely would not have hand written a better draw than this one. The only other non-double digit seed is Cilic, whom Nadal is 5-1 against. He opens with Victor Estrella Burgos, which affords him a chance to find his legs in the best of five format. As does a potential second round meeting with either Nicolas Jarry or Leonardo Mayer. The first seed that Nadal would see is Dzumhur in round three, if the Serb gets there. Dzumhur hasn’t had a ton of success in Melbourne and has a tricky opener against Paolo Lorenzi. A second round match with either John Millman or Borna Coric will be even tougher. I’m not expecting Dzumhur to be around more than a round or two.
The seeded match-up for Rafa in round four would be John Isner. Isner and Schwartzman are the seeds in the section directly below the top seed. Isner has some manageable matches, starting with Matthew Ebden in round one. A second round encounter with Alexandr Dolgopolov could be Isner’s downfall. The Dog has some modest success early this season and brings his quirky game of slices and odd shot selection to the mix. If Dolgopolov beats Andreas Haider-Maurer in round one, he’ll be a tough out for Isner. Schwartzman too may be in for a short ride in Melbourne. He opens with Dusan Lajovic, whom I highlighted in The Eliminati as a player who could ruffle the Argentine’s feathers. Even if Diego survives, one of two qualifiers – Casper Ruud or Quentin Halys – has the power game to cause an upset.
In the bottom half of this quarter, Cilic has qualifier Vasek Pospisil first-up. I don’t think that will be as easy as some think. From there, his road does look a bit easier. A second round foe is either Joao Sousa or Dustin Brown. Brown could be the tougher out with Dreddy beating him last year in their lone meeting indoors in France. Cilic is 3-0 against Sousa. Cuevas is seeded to meet Cilic in round three, but his past history in Melbourne suggests he won’t make it. He opens against Mikahil Youzhny and then if he advances would see Dudi Sela or Ryan Harrison. Cuevas is 3-0 against Sela, beating him twice at Slams at the U.S. Open in both 2015 and 2016. Harrison hasn’t had great luck in Melbourne (2-7), but comes in hot off that finals run in Brisbane.
The other section in Cilic’s half is lead by Carreno Busta and Muller as the seeds. Carreno Busta has had some major problems winning since making the U.S. Open semifinals with losses in nine of this last ten matches. That includes eight first-up losses. He goes against Aussie wild card Jason Kubler and it’s a long season for PCB if he loses this one. Muller takes on Federico Delbonis in round one, who can be tricky. It’s still an advantageous draw for Muller. Gilles Simon might be the dangerman in this part of the draw. The Pune champ would get Carreno Busta if he wins potentially in round two. Simon opens with Marius Copil. The Frenchman has two wins each against PCB and Muller. Simon has made the third round or better in five straight trips down under.
If Rafa is healthy and by all acccounts, he looked good in his shortened pre-Aussie Open prep, he is without a doubt the favorite to go through this quarter. I honestly don’t see the threat unless Nadal is well under 100 percent. We could see a rematch of the Pune semifinal between Cilic and Simon if things shake out right for the other quarterfinal spot.
Quarter #2 Seeds
(3) Grigor Dimitrov: 16-7
(8) Jack Sock: 4-3
(11) Kevin Anderson: 11-9
(15) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: 34-10
(17) Nick Kyrgios: 8-4
(18) Lucas Pouille: 0-4
(27) Philipp Kohlschreiber: 20-12
(30) Andrey Rublev: 1-1
This quarter is my favorite. There are alot of highlight reel players here who could make deep runs. The focus is going to be on Dimitrov and Kyrgios obviously, but you have a lot of dangerous seeds in this quarter. For Dimitrov, his half has Tsonga, Kyrgios and Rublev stuck in it. First-up, Dimitrov should be in good shape against qualifier Dennis Novak in round one. The 24-year-old from Austria will be playing his first main draw at Slam and matching up against a Top 10 player for the first time – very tough to see him pushing Dimitrov in the end. The second round will get Dimitrov another qualifier, either Elisa Ymer or Mackenzie Macdonald. Again, hard to see him slipping up. Rublev is seeded to see him in round three, but must beat David Ferrer in his opener and then either Marcos Baghdatis or Yuki Bhambri in round two. There’s some definite upset possibility to prevent a Dimitro-Rublev match, but I’d love to see it.
The section under Dimitrov’s in the top is led by Tsonga and Kyrgios. All eyes will be on NK after his Brisbane title and his newfound attitude this season. He fought through an injury issue in Brisbane to win the title and despite ups and downs, problem solved well for wins. He opens against Rogerio Dutra Silva and a win would get him either Viktor Troicki or Alex Bolt. NK crushed Troicki in straights last year at the Rogers Cup. Tsonga as always is hard to read coming into the year. He’s 32 and pulled out of the Qatar Open due to a problem with a wrist injury. Not ideal heading to Melbourne, where Tsonga opens with qualifier Kevin King. You’d expect a mostly healthy Tsonga to win that, but he could be in trouble in round two against either Denis Shapovalov or Stefano Tsitsipas. Both possess big hitting styles that I think can match a rusty Tsonga and produce an early upset.
The bottom half is where Jack Sock resides. Plenty has been made of Sock’s lackluster first round loss in Auckland, where he seemed not to have a care in the world about playing. So much so that the tournament is considering not paying Sock his scheduled $100,000 appearance fee. He comes to Melbourne without a ton of match play and last year’s third round run was his best. He matches up with Yuichi Sugita in round one, a player who has beaten Sock in the past. Don’t look past an upset there and expect Sock to simply turn it on and win. If the American does move on, a second round encounter might see him against Ivo Karlovic.
The 38-year-old ace machine starts with Laslo Djere. 22-year-old Serb did score his first ATP win in Pune this month. Karlovic did make round three last year, but he’s also lost in round one three of the last five years. Don’t assume he’ll win easy. The other part of this section sees Kohlschreiber meeting Yoshihito Nishioka who could pose a challenge, but Kohli is normally a good early Slam player on this surface. The winner gets Andreas Seppi or French wild card Corentin Moutet. This is a pretty open section of the quarter given Sock’s attitude so far, so a consistent pro like Karlovic or Kohlschreiber could reap the benefits of Sock’s immaturity if it shows again.
The other section in the bottom is led by Anderson, who made a good run to the Pune final to start 2018. He does not have the kindest of draws though with Kyle Edmund first and possibly last year’s story, Denis Istomin, in the second. Edmund looked prett good in the pre-Melbourne swing until injuring an ankle. If he is healthy, he is a threat. Istomin faces Pierre Hugues-Herbert in round one. Istomin has had plenty of trouble since last year’s shocking runs to the fourth round, but perhaps could be invigorated by a return to Melbourne. Lucas Pouille is seeded to see Anderson in round three and he should be eager to finally get a win in Melbourne. He opens against Ruben Bemelmans and then would have either Gerald Melzer or Nikoloz Basilashvili in round two. No excuses for Pouille not to get some wins this year. Side note – Pouille is working with Tommy Haas on a trial basis as a coach during this Slam.
The marquee match-up here would be a Dimitrov-Kyrgios showdown in the fourth round. Kyrgios vanquished some demons by beating Dimitrov in the semis in Brisbane this year and that confidence boost could go a long way. For NK, I think getting early “professional” wins is a key for his body to hold up, if he’s to make a big run.The winner of that match looks the man to beat in this quarter. Keep your eyes on Kevin Anderson in the bottom half. He does have some tough matches, but he’s also playing with confidence and that positive attitude we saw during his U.S. Open finals run. He could swoop in for another semifinal run depending on how this quarter shakes down.
Quarter #3 Seeds
(4) Alexander Zverev: 2-2
(5) Dominic Thiem: 6-4
(9) Stan Wawrinka: 36-11 (2014 – W)
(14) Novak Djokovic: 58-7 (2008, 2011, 2013, 2013, 2015, 2016 – W)
(20) Roberto Bautista Agut: 11-6
(21) Albert Ramos Vinolas: 1-6
(26) Adrian Mannarino: 3-8
(32) Mischa Zverev: 5-6
This quarter is loaded by name, but not by game right now. The lead seed, Sascha Zverev, has yet to prove himself at a Grand Slam. The young German third round run here last year was his best, until he finally made round four at Wimbledon. He also lost in the opening round at Roland Garros and in round two at the U.S. Open. He must find some consistency in the best of five format. Unfortunately for Sascha, the starts seem aligned against him with big shots Djokovic and Wawrinka in this quarter – no matter what level they are at to start this week. Djokovic is in Sascha’s way in his half of this quarter as the play seeded to play him in round four.
Zverev opens with Thomas Fabbiano. A win takes him to round two against either Mikhail Kukushkin or Peter Gojowczyk. Both Kuku and Gojo are solid players, they won’t roll over. Still, Sascha should be in relative control through to round there. That is where he is seeded to meet his brother (32) Mischa. It seems unlikely that happens with Mischa needing to beat Hyeon Chung in round one and then either Thanasi Kokkinakis or Daniil Medvedev in round two. I think that’s a big ask despite Mischa’s heroics here last year. Medvedev arrives off his first ATP title in Sydney and could parlay that into a good run, but I think both Chung and Kokkinakis have just as good a shot at meeting Sascha in round three. This should be a fun part of the quarter.
in Djokovic’s section of this half, it’s Ramos Vinolas as the only other seed. Djokovic is going to be tested here. He starts with Donald Young and likely faces Doha champion Gael Monfils in round two. Despite Monfils’ 0-14 mark against the Serb, this could be the perfect time to score that elusive win. Ramos Vinolas has poor history in Melbourne and a tough opener against Jared Donaldson. The survivor gets one of two wild cards, either Tim Smyczek or Aussie Alexei Popyrin who I wrote about in the Qualifiers & Wild Cards preview. It is hard not to feel like Donaldson can make a run in this section. We should know plenty about Djokovic’s elbow by the time he meets Monfils in round two, if it happens.
In the bottom half, Thiem leads he way and he’s still looking for something better in Australia. He did make the fourth round last year for the first time. His first rounder against Guido Pella will be a good test to see if Thiem is recovered from a virus that afflicted him earlier in the month. Pella has notched a couple of wins over Thiem and figures to be a tough out. The winner gets Steve Johnson or Denis Kudla in round two. Its 26th seed Adrian Mannarino who is seeded to be the third round foe for Thiem if seeds hold. His part of the draw looks advantageous with lucky loser Matteo Barrettini first up and then either Jiri Vesely or Vaclav Safranek in round two. Vesely could be a tough match-up however for Mannarino, having beaten him in Auckland in 2015.
The other section here features Wawrinka and Bautista Agut. Bautista Agut comes in with the Auckland title in his pocket and the better health of the seeds. Wawrinka faces Ricardas Berankis in round one and we will know more about his knee at that point. Stan still sounds to me like a player not just down playing his chances, but genuinely not expecting to do much. If he wins there, he faces either Tennys Sandgren or Jeremy Chardy. These are winnable matches, but it’s definite wait and see territory. RBA meanwhile will need to be on alert in round one against Fernando Verdasco, who has beaten him three of four previous meetings. If RBA gets past Verdasco, then you really feel like he should get through to the fourth round past a questionable Wawrinka.
There is a lot of drama I think that can take place in this quarter. Perhaps it’s the return to form of Djokovic, perhaps it’s Sascha Zverev finally breaking through to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal or better. A Sascha-Djokvic fourth round clash would bring plenty of eyes to it in lieu of Sascha’s dismantling of Nole in Rome last year. Let’s hope we get to see the match-up with a healthy Djokovic. If there is a time for RBA’s consistency to be rewarded with at least a quarterfinal, this seems like it. He’s 3-0 against Thiem and would probably fancy his chances on this surface. I won’t be stunned if the old guard gets off the mat here and takes this quarter, but I’m going with Bautista Agut here.
Roberto Bautista Agut
Quarter #4 Seeds
(2) Roger Federer: 87-13 (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2017 – W)
(7) David Goffin: 8-4
(12) Juan Martin Del Potro: 17-8
(13) Sam Querrey: 11-11
(19) Tomas Berdych: 40-14
(22) Milos Raonic: 23-7
(25) Fabio Fognini: 5-10
(29) Richard Gasquet: 22-13
Having a 36-year-old come to a tournament as the odds-on favorite is phenomenal and a testament to the legend that is Roger Federer. It’s pretty impossible for him to provide more entertainment and drama than he did in capturing this title and the one at Wimbledon in 2017. He’ll give it a go though and again appears to have some tough outs standing in his way. First-up, Fed gets Aljaz Bedene. You’d expect a pretty routine win there to set up a second round clash against Jan-Lennard Struff or Soonwoo Kwon. Again, the path looks rather straight forward. Richard Gasquet is seeded to meet Fed in round three with the Frenchman opening against Blaz Kavcic. Gasquet has been the model of consistency, making round three or four in six straight trips to Melbourne. A second round match against Robin Haase might put that in jeopardy. Gasquet has won six of seven from the Dutchman, but Haase has been highly competitive in losing.
The section above this finds Querrey and Raonic as the seeds. Querrey has a difficult opener against Feliciano Lopez. The survivor there looks like a good bet to be in round three with their second round opponent being either Radu Albot or Marton Fucsovics. I would not be surprised if its Lopez. Raonic has to prove health and fitness this week. Lacko could push him some in the opening round after playing qualis, while Raonic lost his lone tune-up match. The winner likely gets Jordan Thompson, who faces Nicolas Kicker in round one. Watch Thompson here as the home standing Aussie could take advantage of upsets or poor play from Raonic. I trust Querrey slightly more than Raonic right now as a seed in this draw.
In the other half of the quarter led by Goffin, the Belgian will have a bandwagon of support behind him to push towards a third Slam quarterfinal. The 27-year-old made his second Slam quarter last year in Melbourne. The draw is nice early with Bachinger in round one and then either Julien Benneteau or Taro Daniel in round two. Fabio Fognini is seeded to meet him in round three. Fabmode has been in effect in the erly season with the Italian losing in the semifinals in Sydney. He has had a rough go of it in Melbourne traditionally though, so watch Horacio Zeballos in round one. A win would pit either player against Florian Mayer or Evgeny Donskoy. Donskoy hits hard and flat and can be tough to deal with, so he’d be the tougher out to me.
The section below features Del Potro and Berdych as the seeds, but all eyes may be on Australian wunderkind Alex De Minaur, if only for a round. De Minaur was drawn against Berdych who has been very solid in his career in Melbourne with six quarterfinals in the last seven years. De Minaur made his first ATP final in Sydney and will have a lot of hype on him coming into the week. I think he needs a fast start to compete against Berdych. The winner there meets Benoit Paire or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Paire fell victim to De Minaur in Sydney and is usual rollercoaster self so far this year. Paire made round three here last year DelPo could well see Karen Khachanov for the second time already this season if both win their openers. DelPo starts with Frances Tiafoe in round one and Tiafoe still has been unable to consistently produce wins at this level. Khachanov takes on Peter Polansky. I’d be a bit surprised if this didn’t wind up as Berdych vs Del Potro. DelPo leads that head-to-head 5-3.
Federer should be fine getting to the quarterfinals I think, unless Raonic finds some other worldly and unexpected form. The intrigue seems to lie in the other half of the quarter with Goffin, Del Potro and Berdych in the mix. For Aussie fans, they’ll hope that is De Minaur somehow, but I think there is still a learning curve for the teen phenom in the best of five format that he has not played much. Del Potro’s fatigued look in the Auckland final is a bit worrying, but he also doesn’t have a draw where he’s going to be forced to run a lot.
Goffin would the exception to that going 1-1 against the Argentine. Berdych was embarrassed by Berdych in Rome in 2016 in their last meeting with a double bagel to score Goffin’s first win in three matches against the Czech. It’s hard going against Federer, but I think Del Potro has the best shot. Goffin’s win over Fed in the Tour Finals last year was his only one in seven tries and I think still more of an anomaly. Gimme Fed here with Del Potro as the outside shot to upset the apple cart.
Juan Martin Del Potro
Pig’s Bottom Line
While there are a lot of question marks coming into this one, this still has the feel of who is going to beat out Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal for a spot in the final? I do think Del Potro is one option in Federer’s quarter with Djokovic and Sascha Zverev as the next most hopeful, but with much more work to do to get that shot. For Nadal, the danger is less with his bigger tests likely not to come until the semifinals and finals – if he gets there of course. Dimitrov proved he could go toe-to-toe with him here last year, but I still don’t see Dimitrov as a legitimate contender at the very end for some reason. Kyrgios is the obvious other name to watch for in Rafa’s way. NK got the one win in three tries against Nadal last year and still holds that 2014 Wimbledon shocker.
Bottom line – I’m going with Nadal or Kyrgios if he pulls that stunning upset of Rafa first.