Well, tennis fans, the layoff is over! Despite the dead of winter, the first Grand Slam of 2018 is here from sunny Melbourne, Australia. It’s everyone’s favorite sporting event that’s best moments occur after 4 am in the morning. And this year the obscene time change serves another purpose: adjusting your sleep schedule to be ready for the Winter Olympics a week later, which takes place in a time zone just two hours different. Alas, despite the strange timing, there will be some high quality tennis and both brackets are pretty wide open. Thus, it’s time to dig in to WCBN Sports’ inaugural Australian Open preview.
For reference, here is the link to the full draw. Injuries have beset the men’s stars thanks to the fact the old guard is now all over 30, with Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray withdrawing. Additionally, the younger players have yet to establish themselves, though 2018 could be the year to do it.
Last year was perhaps the most improbable season in tennis history, with Roger Federer becoming the best player in the world again for the first time since 2009, a day that Roger diehards like myself never thought would happen. He has essentially waited out the primes of his main rivals and while they struggle with injuries, he has perfected a Tim Duncan Schedule of his own that preserves his stamina and keeps him healthy. In 2017, Federer went 52-5, the highest win percentage of any major player on the circuit, winning this tournament and Wimbledon for his first season with 2 Grand Slam titles since 2009. Federer played 12 tournaments, winning 7 of them, and most importantly, he went 4-0 against arch-rival Rafael Nadal. And when Federer wasn’t playing, like the clay court season, Nadal was dominating. The Spaniard played 17 tournaments, winning 6 of them and finishing 67-11. It was return to the Big 2 era.
So how does this draw shape up? Nadal is the 1 seed, Federer the 2. Outside of that, it’s a big drop off. The most brutal quarter is no doubt Dominic Thiem/Alexander “Sascha” Zverev’s quarter. Thiem is the #5 and Zverev is the #4. But also tossed in there is a pair of former champions who are lower seeds due to injuries in 2017: Stan Wawrinka (#9) and Novak Djokovic (#14). Both players haven’t played since Wimbledon, with the Nole coming off an elbow injury and Stan dealing with a knee injury. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this draw and no one is sure how healthy Djokovic and Wawrinka actually are. I’d be inclined to go with one of those young stars, but Thiem is a clay court player. Thiem went 24-7 on clay with 1 title and 2 other finals in 2017, but just 25-20 on hard court. And Zverev? He’s climbed through the rankings mostly through playing tournaments and not actually doing all that well in them. The 20 year old German has freakish potential (he needs to bulk up to reach it) but he needs to start showing more results in big tournaments. Between the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000 tournaments, he reached the quarters just twice in 13 tries and still has never made the quarters in a slam. Maybe this will be his breakout? But I can’t bet on it to happen until I see it. I honestly have no idea who comes out of this quarter. I could easily see it being Djokovic reclaiming his past glory, but that injury, along with the fact he wasn’t all that good before he got hurt, makes me question him.
Nadal’s draw is the most favorable. There are questions about his health, but I struggle to see him not coming out of this quarter. Marin Cilic is his top opponent and that’s not a super formidable challenger. Maybe John Isner could be an issue? Again, weird things happen, but it’s hard to see it happening. Federer’s quarter is also pretty nice. Against the seeded players he might have to play to reach the Round of 16, he’s 48-5. David Goffin is the main seed in the quarter but he’s more of a pretender than a contender. I think it’s more likely that Roger plays Berdych or Del Potro in the auarter if he is to get there. And against those foes? He’s 8-0 in his last 8 against Berdych and 5-1 in his last 6 against Del Potro. So I think it’s likely that the Big 2 reach the semis.
The last draw is pretty intriguing to me. The #3 seed in the tournament and the anchor of this quarter is Grigor Dimitrov. The 26 year old Bulgarian is a player I’ve liked since he nearly knocked off Rafa at this tournament a year ago in the semifinals. His 2017 outside of that run wasn’t too great, but he closed strong, winning in Cincinnati and London, and making the quarters of Shanghai. He could meet the ever polarizing Nick Kyrgios, who has the weight of the home country on him, in the 3rd round, which would be brutal for both players. Kyrgios made the finals of Beijing in late 2017 and won Brisbane to start the year, so he enters 2018 with confidence. This could be the year where he puts it all together, but don’t bank on it. Also in this quarter is the American with the best chance, Jack Sock. Sock went 38-21 and won 3 titles (albeit small ones) in 2018. I still favor Dimitrov to come out of this quarter and think he’d have a great shot at Nadal in the semis.
So does this add up to a Rafa vs. Roger final? Perhaps. That would certainly set up for another epic, but don’t count out the old faces on Federer’s side, Djokovic and Wawrinka, nor Dimitrov and Kyrgios on Nadal’s side. And there’s the chance with age and injuries mounting, that their could be just a total wipeout of big names like in Wimbledon last year. Anything could feasibly happen, so let’s wait and see. If I had to make a prediction though, I’d probably be a homer and take Federer. He was the best player in the world last year, on a surface he’s comfortable with. He’s took a few months off to rest his back and returned in Perth two weeks ago and played well, going 4-0 and defeating Sascha Zverev and Jack Sock. He has the least injury concerns and the most proven track record. He’s my pick.