2018 Davis Cup R1 Preview: Nick Kyrgios vs Alexander Zverev


Nick Kyrgios vs Alexander Zverev

Rivalry Lopsided, Pressure on Kyrgios

The thrilling win for Tim Puetz and Jan-Lennard Struff in doubles for Germany on Saturday has put the pressure on Kyrgios now in this do or die situation. A win gets a 5th rubber between De Minaur and Struff, a loss and the Germans advance to the quarterfinals. For these two young players, this budding rivalry has been mostly one-way traffic for Australia’s Nick Kyrgios. They met four times in 2017 with NK taking three of four meetings. The Aussie beat Zverev back-to-back early in the year at Indian Wells and in Miami. Zverev did manage to end the two match losing skid to Kyrgios at the Canadian Masters last year with a 6-4, 6-3 win. Kyrgios returned to his winning ways of Zverev later in the year in Beijing with a 6-3, 7-5 victory. It seems pretty simply in looking at the numbers for those matches that Zverev’s lone win came with Kyrgios’ worst serving performance of those four meetings. Sascha broke Kyrgios three times in Montreal and has not broken him a single time in the other three matches.

So the question is if Zverev can solve Kyrgios’ serve again in this critical rubber? Jan-Lennard Struff could not in the second rubber of this tie with Kyrgios smashing 21 aces in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win. NK had win rates of 86 percent off his first serve and 60 percent off his second. He only allowed one break chance and Struff could not convert. Kyrgios played a very clean match with just 17 unforced errors and kept the points short. Kyrgios did most of his damage against Struff’s second serve, taking 27 of 43 points. The Aussie would get one break in each set.

As expected, Zverev did have issues with the defensive play of speed Alex De Minaur in the opening rubber. To his credit, Sascha kept a mostly level head to storm back in the fifth set to take a 7-5, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) win. The German should take some confidence from the final tie break the most as he showed some of his most potent serving in the biggest moments. Overall for the match, he won 77 percent off his first serve and 54 percent off his second. He would tally 15 aces, but had seven double faults that were a bit concerning.

De Minaur pestered him the entire match as Sascha again chose to engage mostly in baseline to baseline warfare. It resulted in him looking worn down at times and spraying 40 unforced errors to 41 winners. His forehand was more erratic and will be something that Kyrgios surely will test in this one. Both Zverev and De Minaur crafted four breaks of serve with the Aussie seeing 13 break chances off of Sascha. That number obviously has to drop against Kyrgios and should if Zverev isn’t feeling an ill effects from the long match. Kyrgios simply is not in De Minaur’s class as far as returning and will pose a slightly lesser challenge to Zverev in that area.

The Formula

As with all Nick Kyrgios’ matches, it starts with the serve for the Aussie and what his opponent can or cannot do against it. An easy way to alleviate nerves is to get in a good groove early on serve. This has been a huge part of the problem for Zverev in this match-up. Outside of his lone win, he has seen just one break chance off of Kyrgios in three other meetings. NK’s win rate on first serve in the wins stands at right around 83 percent and 71 percent in the one loss. His second serve win rate was 57 percent or better in all four matches, including 62 percent and above in all three wins.

An area where Zverev has to find some improvement on his return is not letting himself get stretched out wide. Even De Minaur had really good success over the course of their match at forcing Sascha wide on serve, subsequently causing the German to chase better court positioning far too much off of those serves. If De Minaur can do it, then you know Kyrgios’ missile serve is going to have success there too. It’s a Catch 22 for Sascha in this case. He can’t cheat further outside and risk getting beat up the middle. He tried adopting a deeper return position against De Minaur to combat the wide serves, but that still left him scrambling to recover his position on court too frequently.

Kyrgios also isn’t likely to allow him to get away with playing too deep as he showed in Beijing last year, he loves to challenge Zverev to move forward. He used an array of drop shots and aggressive returns to accomplish that feat. Expect to see Kyrgios pound those serves wide until or unless Zverev can prove he can handle them. It’s great strategy and really sets up the Aussie to get quickly to the second ball to finish points quickly. Unless Kyrgios is having an off day, it figures to be the case where Sascha needs to match NK blow for blow in serve.

Zverev finished the match against De Minaur with some of his best serving of that match, displaying great power. He needs to channel that against Kyrgios. I think the big thing for him is to not get rattled by Kyrgios’ sometimes seemingly endless run of easy points off of his serve. It’s going to happen. Mentally, Zverev has to prepare for that and go a good job of taking care of his serve. I think he’ll need better variety than he’s shown against Kyrgios in the past. There were a lot of serves I watched in that Beijing match that didn’t challenge Kyrgios and allowed him to be aggressive in return, especially on second serves. Look him for him to go after Nick’s backhand more in order to create better positions for himself in rallies.

Off the ground, De Minaur showed the fragility of Zverev’s forehand at times with Sascha’s backhand as the much steadier shot. Kyrgios should attack the forehand and again utilize his agility and volleying at the net. If he forces Zverev in consistently as he has done before, then it sets up well for him to have success. Sascha moves well, but he’s just so much more comfortable in a baseline battle where he stubbornly at-times tries to simply hit through his opponent. I don’t see Kyrgios letting him do that, but I also don’t see Sascha straying from that strategy. If he wouldn’t do it against someone like De Minaur who chased down ball after ball, he surely won’t do it against Kyrgios

Pig’s Bottom Line

To be honest, the one time that Sascha beat Kyrgios, it seemed like the Aussie was more keen on putting on a sideshow than winning. There were a lot of tweeners and Kyrgios often looked like he was thinking in his head as he approached the ball on whether or not to go for a flashy shot or a winning shot. Don’t expect that in this setting with Lleyton Hewitt in his ear. Kyrgios for the most part in 2018 has been well under control and a different player with better results on the court. Davis Cup is a team setting and I think that reigns him in even a bit more with or without Hewitt’s influence. Add on that this is a must win for the Aussies and I think Kyrgios is focused in this one without worrying about the showmanship aspect against his friend.

Sascha will like the fact that he won’t be running east to west as much, but Kyrgios may make him work just as hard south to north in this one. I think Sascha’s best chances come in jumping on the Aussie out of the gates. Put some pressure on Kyrgios to try and get him out of that service rhythm that usually doesn’t take long for him to find. If Kyrgios gets going early with the serve and is playing smart and aggressive off the ground, it’s a tough ask for Zverev based on how this head-to-head has played out. I do expect Zverev to be up for this match after coming through a tough opener, but he’s had trouble finding enough to match Kyrgios’ electricity. Still, the pressure is squarely on Kyrgios with Australia trailing 2-1. As such, this might be a little bit trickier than some of his past battles against Zverev. I still like NK to push this to a fifth rubber.

Prediction: Kyrgios wins in four sets


2018 Davis Cup World Group Preview: Part II


This is part two of the Davis Cup preview for this week’s first round action in the World Group. Be sure to check back in on part one with some updated information on the match-ups.

Serbia vs USA
Surface: Indoor Clay

Laslo Djere
Dusan Lajovic
Nikola Milojevic
MIljan Zekic

Sam Querrey
John Isner
Steve Johnson
Ryan Harrison

It will be interesting to see if this Serbian squad puts up a good fight. They made the semifinals last year and won the opening rubber against the French, before losing the next three. Lajovic is the experience for this side with an 8-6 mark in singles. This time around however, the 27-year-old is being counted on as the anchor for his side with no Viktor Troicki or Novak Djokovic to depend on. Djere opens play on Friday against Sam Querrey. The 22-year-old made his Davis Cup debut against France last year, losing in straights to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on clay. Querrey himself only has 16 singles rubbers played with a 7-9 record. Only two of his career Davis Cup wins have come on clay. Clay is Djere’s preferred surface. Experience is the obvious drawback, but don’t believe he’s not without a chance if Querrey doesn’t play well.

Lajovic will feel like he has a great shot to beat Isner in the second rubber. The Serb is 1-3 against Isner at the ATP-level, but that one win was on clay in Buenos Aires in 2016. He has also taken a set off of Isner the last two times they met, despite ultimately falling in three sets. Isner is 13-11 all-time in Davis Cup action, going 7-5 on clay. This is going to be a real battle I think and depending on what happens in the opener, there could be a lot of pressure on Isner. The doubles rubber should favor the Americans with Johnson and Harrison. Serbian Captain Nenad Zimonjic has Milojevic and Zekic set to pair up, but they have zero experience in this competition. It would not shock me to see Lajovic subbed into one of those spots or he could roll the dice and see what they are able to do.

Pig’s Bottom Line
When you don’t see Djokovic or Troicki on the nomination list, the temptation is to think this should be a win for the USA. Not so fast. Surface is big here as the Americans have only played one clay court tie in this competition since 2012. The indoor nature of the event could give them a bit of help, but the Serbs they face are very crafty. While you might consider Lajovic the key component for the Serbs, I think it’s actually Djere. Lajovic’s record of fighting tough against Isner and a win against Querrey on hard courts means he probably will at worst split those two rubbers. I think doubles goes to the Americans, so that means in order for the Serbs to spring an upset – Djere needs at least one win and that might not be enough.

Djere did have the perfect prep to face these hard hitting Americans though as he played Ivo Karlovic at the Australian Open. He lost in straight sets with two going to tie breaks. That gives him a little taste of the power serves he will face. I’m just not sure he’ll be able to keep pace with them even with clay being somewhat of an equalizer. I think this tie is going to be fairly intense and an upset would not be the biggest surprise here for the home side. I do think as long as the Americans don’t get swept on Friday though, that they will tough it out with the doubles rubber perhaps being the big get for them this weekend.

Prediction: USA wins 3-2

Australia vs Germany
Surface: Outdoor Hard

Alex De Minaur
Nick Kyrgios
John Peers
Matthew Ebden

Alexander Zverev
Jan-Lennard Struff
Peter Gojowczyk
Tim Puetz

Edben was a late sub for Jordan Thompson and don’t underestimate the importance of that move. Thompson provided big wins for the Aussies during their run to the semifinals last year and teamed with Peers for a win against Belgium in their semifinals loss. Ebden meanwhile has not played Davis Cup since 2013. All eyes will be on De Minaur in rubber #1 on Friday. The 18-year-old makes his Davis Cup debut after his star rose dramatically with big runs in Brisbane and Sydney prior to a first round loss at the Australian Open to Tomas Berdych. It’s a big ask for the teen though as he faces off against Zverev. Sascha is still pretty green in this competition himself with just a 1-3 mark in singles, but those matches are a big experience edge. Kyrgios faces Struff in the second rubber. Those two have never faced each other either.

Kyrgios is 8-4 in singles play in DC action, while Struff is 4-2. Struff has a big serve to match Kyrgios, but lacks the overall electricity of NK in his ground game. The worst case for the Aussies should be a split on day one. The Germans will likely make a sub for doubles on Saturday. Puetz teamed with Struff last year in the World Group play-off with the pair pulling out a five set win against Portugal. Given Struff’s recent run at the Australian Open in doubles, it seems a natural switch. That could make the doubles rubber a tough call. With Peers and Ebden not having played together before, chemistry might be an early issue.

Pig’s Bottom Line
All eyes are going to be fixated on a possible Kyrgios-Zverev showdown on Sunday in the fourth rubber. I don’t see either country sweeping through the first three, so it should set up to be the key rubber of the tie. Kyrgios is 3-1 against Sascha in tour events and arrives with a better vibe than Zverev from his burn out against Hyeon Chung in Melbourne. Still, a best of five setting makes this all the more intriguing. Zverev has had his issues as we know in that setting in Grand Slams, but this figures to be a quick paced match void of a lot of heavy rallies. That helps both players, but the key may be NK’s increased calm on court that has kept him a bit more even keel in matches. Zverev has shown a propensity for going away when things go wrong for him in these best of five matches. Given the way the universe works though, I would not be surprised if this tie gives De Minaur a shot at glory or to be totally gutted in a fifth rubber.

Prediction: Germany wins 3-2

Croatia vs Canada
Surface: Indoor Clay

Borna Coric
Viktor Galovic
Ivan Dodig
Franko Skugor

Peter Polansky
Dennis Shapovalov
Vasek Pospisil
Daniel Nestor

Two things stand out in this one: no Marin Cilic (at least on Friday) for Croatia and Polansky getting the singles shot over Pospisil. I think that might be more to due with Pospisil winning a Challenger title in Rennes in recent days and Captain Martin Laurendeau fearing burnout. That puts Polansky into DC play for the first time since 2014. He faces Coric in the opening rubber. Polansky did beat Coric back in 2014 in qualifying for a Challenger event as their only meeting. The 21-year-old Croat is just 5-6 all-time in DC play, so this is a challenge for him to raise his level as the lead singles player. He has not played a singles rubber since 2016, but do recall he has some heroics under his belt. Remember the win over Jack Sock in the 5th rubber that led Croatia to an upset win over the Americans in the quarterfinals?

I think it is a huge spot for Croatia and Coric NEEDS to win if they are going to take this tie. A loss and you put a ton of pressure on inexperienced Viktor Galovic. Galovic is 27, but has just one DC rubber to his credit and it was a dead one in Croatia’s World Group play-off win over Colombia last year. Shapovalov got some good big match experience in this competition last year and helped spearhead the Canadians win over India in the playoffs with two singles wins. I don’t see him losing to Galovic. The doubles rubber turns pivotal on Saturday with both teams bringing a wealth of experience. Dodig has played 24 doubles rubbers in his career, while his partner is far less experienced – Skugor and Dodig have played twice in DC play together and are 2-0. Pospisil and Nestor are very familiar. They played twice in DC action last year, going 1-1 and are 6-4 for their careers together in this competition.

Pig’s Bottom Line
It is crucial for Croatia to get a win from Coric in the opener. A loss there and this could go quickly to the Canadians. The doubles rubber is really hard to call with both teams being experienced in big matches. The home factor could just edge that one for Croatia and put the pressure on Shapovalov to beat Coric in the fourth rubber. That’s a big one that I am really looking forward to and hoping it’s a live rubber! Those two have never met and I think El Shapo’s offense against Coric’s defense would be something to behold. This is another tie that I really think could come down to the final rubber and who isn’t all-in on a Galovic-Polansky decider?

Don’t forget than Marin Cilic and Vasek Pospisil are on their respective squad’s nominations list and likely available Sunday for singles. There is no way in hell that Cilic doesn’t lace up his sneakers on Sunday if Croatia needs a win in the fifth rubber. As such, I think Croatia probably just gets it done in this one unless Coric flops in the opener and then there is a good chance that Cilic doesn’t come into play at all with Canada stealing the tie.

Prediction: Croatia wins 3-2

Belgium vs Hungary
Surface: Indoor Hard

Ruben Bemelmans
David Goffin
Julien Cagninna
Joris De Loore

Marton Fucsovics
Atilla Balazs

The Hungarians do have more than just Fucsovics and Balazs on their roster, but they’ve been listed as the players for all five potential rubbers this weekend. That is nothing new for Hungary’s dynamic duo who played in all eight of their country’s Davis Cup rubbers in 2016. The Belgians finished as runners-up in 2017, the second time they’ve accomplished that in the past three years. Goffin is the obvious star in the field and he’ll be expected to win twice if needed. Bemelmans is experienced, but being called on for singles for the first time since Belgium beat Germany in this round last year. He’s been utilized more in doubles. Fucsovics has beaten him twice in Challenger play and arrives hot off his fourth round showing in Melbourne. I do think Hungary can get a win to open. That means Goffin will be expected to be Balazs to pull the Belgians even on Friday. Balazs is 10-7 in DC play in singles, but he’s rarely had to play anyone of Goffin’s caliber.

Don’t be surprised to see Bemelmans or Goffin sworn in for doubles duty on Saturday. Cagninna is a Davis Cup virgin and that doubles rubber is one the Belgians would like to win to set up Goffin for a potential clincher in singles on Sunday. As such, I would bet that Bemelmans might be the choice with the thinking that if all goes well – he wouldn’t be needed on Sunday in singles any how. Fucsovics and Balazs definitely won’t be pushovers as they helped crafted a win over the Russians last year in the playoffs that had what most would consider better talent. They will need the doubles rubber to have a realistic chance at a possible upset.

Pig’s Bottom Line
Fucsovics is the one to watch in this tie. He’s playing with confidence, so it will be interesting to see how he matches up against Goffin. Goffin will be happy to be playing indoors where weather plays no factor in his demise as it did in Australia. He’s been ridiculous in Davis Cup play at 21-3 in singles. He’s won nine straight rubbers since Andy Murray beat him in the fourth rubber in Great Britain’s 2015 Davis Cup clinching victory. He’s been an animal at this event, perhaps taking a cue from “The Shark” Steve Darcis, his Belgian teammate who isn’t included in this squad due to injury.

Prediction: Belgium wins 3-1

2018 Australian Open R4 Preview: Grigor Dimitrov vs Nick Kyrgios


(3) Grigor Dimitrov vs (17) Nick Kyrgios

Focused Kyrgios Thriving

This season started off differently when looking at Nick Kyrgios. The brash, often hot-headed Aussie had spoken openly about his philanthropic side and wanting to help kids. It has given him more of a purpose on court with money won going towards those efforts. So far, so good. Kyrgios came to Melbourne with expectations swirling around him from the Aussie faithful after winning the Brisbane International. To date, he has not disappointed at the Australian Open. His latest win came over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It was a stern challenge, but one Kyrgios passed 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5).

Kyrgios overcame a pretty great performance from Tsonga, who has nearly untouchable on his first serve – winning 87 percent of the points. Kyrgios in turn, won 79 percent of his first serve points. They matched each other with 28 aces. Tsonga scored two breaks on five chances, while NK got just one on four chances. Kyrgios’ best moments came in the tie breaks obviously and his low unforced error count (34) was a big boost with Tsonga having 16 more winners, but also eleven more UEs than his Australian counterpart. Kyrgios’ rally from down 2-5 in the final set tie break to reel of five points was electric for the crowd and showed another hint of the “new” Nick.

Dimitrov Wins, But Still Seems Off

The third seeded Bulgarian came through a tough test of his own in round three, surviving 30th seed Andrey Rublev 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. It was a more inspiring effort than his five set roller coaster against Mackenzie Macdonald in round two, but Dimitrov still leaves you with that feeling that he’s not found his best yet in 2018. Both Dimitrov and Rublev alternated with struggles on serve and in their ground games. They combined for a ridiculous 28 double faults and it was Dimitrov surprisingly with more (15). His second serve was a big trouble spot again with the third seed taking just 38 percent of the points played.

Both players were under pressure on serve with Dimitrov seeing 19 break points off the Russian’s serve, cashing in on six. Rublev could only convert four of 15 and missed some key opportunities to put more stress on Dimitrov. The Bulgarian did find better rhythm with his groundies later in the match to tally 45 winners with Rublev only sporting 29. Dimitrov’s unforced error count was poor though with 61 and Rublev tallying 59. It wasn’t the cleanest match, but for Dimitrov, it did show good mentally that he was able to overcome a slew of mistakes to beat the guy who took him out at last year’s U.S. Open in straight sets.

The Formula

This is meeting number four between Dimitrov and Kyrgios and their second encounter this season. Kyrgios broke a two match losing skid when he topped Dimitrov 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the Brisbane semifinals earlier this month. Kyrgios finally made some inroads on Dimitrov’s serve that had troubled him in the Bulgarian’s wins over him at Indian Wells in 2015 and Cincinnati last summer. Dimitrov had win rates well over 80 percent on his first serve in the wins, but fell to 73 percent in Brisbane. After breaking Dimitrov just twice in the two previous matches, he would pressure him into three breaks on six chances in Brisbane.

Kyrgios said after beating Dimitrov that he switched up his tactics from the previous meetings and it worked. He was aggressive all-around, coming to net and going for big returns. It’d be difficult to think that NK won’t employ similar tactics in this match. Let’s start with the obvious, Kyrgios should have the edge in serve. So far in Melbourne, it’s been solid, but not quite at that elite level. NK has only won over 80 percent off his first serve once in three matches. He has been broken three times on just nine chances, so he’s still doing a good job of not letting opponents have too many chances.

Dimitrov’s serve just flat out needs to be better. The third seed has allowed 26 break chances against the last two rounds and if he’s giving out double digit chances against Kyrgios, that is deadly. Second serve is going to be a massive talking point for Dimitrov in this one. To win two straight matches with your second serve win rate at 38 and 28 percent is pretty impressive, usually that’s a death blow. Credit a decent first serve percentage, averaging 66 percent in those two matches, as part of being able to overcome the bad second serving. Dimitrov will need that first serve consistency again, but really does have to find something more on second. If I am the Aussie, I’m super aggressive on all second serves from Dimitrov.

For Kyrgios, that aggressiveness he talked about incorporating last time against Dimitrov should be a game plan again with his own serve. Nick utilized this well in Brisbane, coming to net to put pressure on Dimitrov off his serve. He had success doing that consistently, but didn’t overuse it either. Kyrgios did a good job of stretching Dimitrov on return with power up-the-T and out wide and that will be another key. The more he gets Dimitrov off balance on return, the easier it is for Nick to finish with a quick 1-2 punch.

For Dimitrov, he’ll need to find more on return. He’s just chipping or flipping the ball back a bit too much against big servers. He did it against Rublev, but was fortunate not to pay for it too much. Against Kyrgios, the Aussie showed that he can take mediocre returns and convert those into quick and aggressive points. I think Dimitrov needs to be aggressive in return. He set up in a normal position against NK in Brisbane, so he has the opportunity to hit solid returns if Nick isn’t hitting his spot. I think if Dimitrov simply is happy to chip it back, he is putting himself into losing court position more often than not.

The Pig-nosticator

Dimitrov still needs to avoid getting into too many baseline to baseline clashes. Rublev had his best success against Dimitrov in those situations and Kyrgios has better variety and power to exploit those changes. For me, Dimitrov’s lull to start 2018 has involved his lack of aggression at times. He’s been too keen on getting into rallies and a lot of that starts with lackluster returning. That’s why I think his chances in this one hinge on him being the guy who turns up the aggression. You know Kyrgios will bring that, but Dimitrov simply cannot try to be a defender and expect to find consistent success.

Look for Kyrgios to go after the backhand of Dimitrov, which has been the more exploitable wing of late. For Dimitrov, he’d do well to do the same – but caannot simply settle for flipping slice backhands back and forth. That is where I think his aggressiveness needs to be on display. The player who does a better job of turning those defensive backhands into offensive forehands will likely have the leg up in this match-up. The key stats likely will be Dimitrov’s second serve win rate and the number of break points allowed. The higher he is on second serve winners and lower he is on break chances allowed, the better shot he has to fend off the 17th seed.

To me, all of Dimitrov’s work in 2018 has been less than what you would expect from someone that is being talked about as a true contender in Melbourne. I think it will take something special for him to win tonight. This is Kyrgios’ country and he is getting another match under the lights in front of a friendly crowd that is growing to embrace him. Dimitrov is capable of stepping up, but I just have not seen it consistently so far to make me believe he wins this one.

Prediction: Kyrgios wins in four sets


2018 Australian Open Preview: ATP Draw


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.

Draw Preview

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.

The Pig-nosticator

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.

Rafael Nadal
Gilles Simon

Diego Schwartzman
Pablo Cuevas

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 Pig-nosticator

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.

Nick Kyrgios
Kevin Anderson

Jack Sock
Andrey Rublev

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.

The Pig-nosticator

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
Gael Monfils

Stan Wawrinka

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.

The Pig-nosticator

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.

Roger Federer
Juan Martin Del Potro

Milos Raonic
Richard Gasquet

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.


2018 Australian Open Preview: Qualifiers & Wild Cards


Qualifying for the 2018 Australian Open turned into a sprint to get all rounds complete before the main draw begins on Monday. A heavier workload for the qualifiers in a short span could leave some of them a bit fatigued heading into the main draw. Still, qualifiers are usually ones to watch in round one. By verge of getting match play in real conditions, they can have a small leg up on their opponents. For me, that is magnified even more at the Australian Open where many players in the 128 player field don’t necessarily have a ton of match play under their belts heading into the week. That means qualifiers can spring some upsets or push some higher ranked/seeded players to the brink of elimination in the opening rounds.

Qualifiers Seek More Seeded Scalps in 2018

Last year, qualifiers went 7-9 overall in round one. That marked the third time in the past five years that at least seven qualis won their openers. When you couple in that there is usually at least one qualifier vs qualifier match in the opening round, qualis do a pretty good job of going about .500 in round one. In 2017, they also scored two seeded scalps in round one. The biggest was Alexander Bublik’s win over 16th seed Lucas Pouille. Lukas Lacko would add another scalp, taking down 26th seed Albert Ramos Vinolas. Lacko continued the tradition of a qualifier making the third round in 2017.

Since 2013, five qualifiers have made the round of 32 with at least one doing it in four of those five years. In 2016, it was a pair of Frenchmen who made the third round. Stephane Robert and Pierre Hugues-Herbert pulled off that feat. 2015 was the lone year in the last five that did not have a quali make the third round. It probably wasn’t shocking given that qualis went 4-12 in the opening round. That was the second time (2013) that qualis had a poor record in the past five years in Melbourne. Interestingly though, Ricardas Berankis did make round three in 2013. Check out the Australian Open version of The Eliminati for a bit more on Berankis in this year’s draw.

Tradition of Scaring Higher Seeds Before Losing

There was very nearly a third massive upset of a seed by a qualifier last year. That continued a pattern of qualis pushing high seeds to the brink of elimination. Last year, American Reilly Opelka pushed (11) David Goffin to five sets. In 2015, it was another American qualifier, Tim Smyczek, who had the spotlight. Smyczek took Rafael Nadal to a deciding fifth set, but ultimately fell 6-2, 3-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. Nadal suffered from stomach cramps and nausea, but was somehow able to close out the match. In 2013, American Steve Johnson took (10 Nicolas Almagro to a fifth set after getting through qualifying. Johnson would fall 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-2. That same year, qualifier Daniel Brands would score a seeded scalp of (27) Martin Klizan in round one.

Wildcards Provide Anxious Moments for Seeds

Qualifiers are not alone in their ability to push seeds to their limits in round one, wild cards have an even riched tradition of doing this at the Australian Open. Perhaps it’s added motivation for the wild cards who generally would not have been in the main draw without the invite. In any case, they have a history in recent years of pushing big name players and in several cases – securing some of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

That was highlighted in 2017 by Denis Istomin. Wild cards went 3-5 in round one play last year, but it was Istomin’s second round KO of Novak Djokovic that drew the spotlight. The year prior, it was American Noah Rubin who stunned 17th seed Benoit Paire in round one as a wild card. Wild cards went 4-4 in round one play in 2016, their best mark in the last five years. From 2013-2015, wild cards had gone just 5-18 in first round play.

They still managed to steal the show plenty early on in 2015. Denis Kudla and Lucas Pouille both took wild card entries and took their seeded opponents to five sets in round one. Kudla would fall to 12th seed Feliciano Lopez and Pouille would drop his contest with 17th seed Gael Monfils. A third wild card that year would do the deed to the delight of the home crowd as Thanasi Kokkinakis outlasted (11) Ernests Gulbis in five.

There were plenty more close calls involving wild cards in 2014. Nick Kyrgios narrowly lost to (27) Benoit Paire in five and fellow Aussie Jordan Thompson nearly stunned (21) Jerzy Janowicz, also going the distance. One year earlier, American Rhyne Williams lost in five to 25th seed Florian Mayer. That same year in 2013, Aussie James Duckworth was the only wild card to score a round one win and he delighted the crowd with two straight five set matches, although neither involved him played a seeded player.

It’s been the Aussies as you’d expect who have provided some special moments, but the Americans as both qualifiers and wild cards have done the same. Knowing all of that, let’s take a look at the first round draw and see which qualis and wild cards could provide this year’s magic moments.

2018 Qualifiers to Watch

Casper Ruud or Quentin Halys
The winner of this qualifer vs qualifier round one clash gets either (25) Diego Schwartzman or Dusan Lajovic. Both Ruud and Halys have the big ground strokes needed to contend, they just lack the experience and consistency. Both were solid in qualis and Ruud at 19 is a name I think you’ll hear much more from in the coming years. This is his first Slam main draw. Halys ar 21 is playing his fifth and this is his third time in the Melbourne main draw, where he’s made the second round once.

Vasek Pospisil
The Canadian has been trying for the better part of two plus years to get his career back on track after his career highlight in 2015. That is when Pop made a Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon. In the past two years, he is just 18-36 on tour. The 27-year-old has been first round fodder in six of the last seven Slams he has qualified for since the Wimbledon run. He draws tough in round one against 6th seed Marin Cilic.

That is tough, but it’s also a switch for Cilic who was expecting Yen-Hsun Lu before the vet pulled out of the tournament. Cilic hasn’t lost in round one since his first year qualifying back in 2007, but the quick change of opponents can be off-putting for players. I think that gives Pospisil a little bit of a shot. Cilic has been taken to five sets in round one two of the last three trips to Melbourne.

Yuki Bhambri
This may not be a spotlight match in round one, but Bhambri could give Marcos Baghdatis a run at an upset in their opener. Baghdatis at one time was the dangerous floater that no one wanted to see. Injuries and inconsistency as he has gotten older have made it tougher on the Cypriot. The 33-year-old enjoys a good fan base down under, but has dropped his opener two of the last four years. At 25, Bhambri is playing in just his third main draw at Slam, but this might be his shot to score a win. He notched a big win last year at the Citi Open against Gael Monfils to showcase his potential. A win and he could be a danger in round two to the survivor between Andrey Rublev and David Ferrer.

Denis Kudla
He fits the bill as a past player who has been able to push players to the brink and he’s an American qualifier this year. Kudla takes on fellow American Steve Johnson in what could be a real barner burner. Kudla, like Pospisil, has not been able to build on a 2015 Wimbledon breakout. Kudla had a poor Slam season last year, failing to qualify for a Slam in four tries. That was the first time since he became a regular on tour in 2012 that he failed to play in any Slams.

Back in the mix this year, the 25-year-old faces a familiar foe. He’s played and lost to Johnson five times, but only one was at tour level and that came well back in 2014 on clay. Johnson hasn’t lost in round one in Melbourne since 2014, but he still seems very and down and prone to getting a big test from a motivated player. The winner of this clash likelt gets Dominic Thiem in round two.

Lorenzo Sonego
A hero to many now as the man who kept Bernard Tomic from making the main draw this year, the Italian could carry that confidence over to the main draw. He faces Robin Haase, who is coming off a nice run at the ASB Classic in New Zealand. He lost a thrilling three set tie break match to Bautista Agut in the semifinals. Haase is a solid veteran, but he’s dropped six straight opening round matches at the Australian Open. Some of that is due to tough draws, but that’s still something to overcome. He may well roll over the 22-year-old Italian Grand Slam debutant, but I think this one could be one to keep an eye on.

2018 Wild Cards to Watch

Alex Bolt
The 25-year-old Australian gets Viktor Troicki in round one. Bolt is playing the main draw for just the second time in his home Slam. He’s more known for doubles than singles, but Troicki has a propensity for making his first round matches in Melbourne difficult. Troicki has played five set matches four of the last five times he has played in Australia. He’s won all but one of those, but Bolt could use the home crowd to put Troicki on the ropes in round one.

Alexei Popyrin
Another Aussie and despite his greenhorn status at just 18, he scored a couple of solid wins at the Sydney International in playing qualifying. He beat Nicolas Mahut and Federico Delbonis before losing to John Millman in the final round of qualis. He’s tall (6’5″) and lanky at 171 pounds, but has shown plenty of promise. He won the 2017 French Open juniors title. He gets Smyczek in round one and although the American has the experience advantage, he’s been more miss than hit in his career. At 5’9″, expect Smyczek to try and use his quickness advantage, while Popyrin will hope his power can help him score his maiden Slam win.

Thanasi Kokkinakis
Kokkinakis battles Sydney champion Daniil Medvedev in one of the better round one match-ups on paper. Kokkinakis made his return to tour last season after shoulder surgery. He was up and down, but did manage to make his first ATP final in Los Cabos. The Aussie has made the second round two straight years and is an obvious crowd favorite. Despite Medvedev’s recent success, the Russian is only 1-4 in Grand Slams. The winner has a winnable match in round to against either Mischa Zverev or Hyeon Chung. Watch for Kokkinakis, who could get his career restarted and yes, he is still only 21.

Alex De Minaur
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the story of the first two weeks of the season. The Aussie teen followed up his first ATP semifinal in Brisbane with his first ATP final in Sydney. He ultimately lost, but has beaten enough solid tour level players that he’s one to watch. De Minaur is playing freely and without consequence which makes him dangerous, even to the 19th seed Tomas Berdych. The 32-year-old Czech has a string of six straight quarterfinal or better finishes stopped last year in Melbourne thanks to Roger Federer and his lower seeding.

The full draw preview is next. Stay tuned to @tennispig for that in a few hours leading up to Day 1 action at the Australian Open!

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