The Asymmetrical Age
MELBOURNE—Back in the days when the Big Four occupied the ATP’s Top 4 ranking spots, the draws at the Grand Slams were studies in logical, inescapable repetition. Tournament after tournament, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray were placed in separate quarters and thus were heavy favorites to face each other in the semifinals. None of them began the event with a notable competitive advantage over the others.
But Federer, by dropping out of the Top 4 last year—he begins 2014 at No. 6—has thrown the balance of power out of whack. Take the 2014 Australian Open draw, which came out on Thursday. Nadal, Murray, Federer, and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro are all in the top half, while Djokovic is conspicuously lonely in the bottom half. The top three seeds he might have to face to reach the final are David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, and Stan Wawrinka. (You could also, I suppose, pin the blame on Ferrer, who has had the gall to move all the way up to No. 3.)
Still, there’s no reason to fiddle with the draws, Wimbledon-style, to bump Federer up. In many ways, this newly illogical system makes the possibilities and permutations at Grand Slams more fun and intriguing—the draws have a chance of meaning more, both positively and negatively, for the top players now. At the same time, if you want the world’s Top 2 players, Nadal and Djokovic, to face roughly the same chance of losing before they reach the final, there's a high probability you’re not going to get it now. As the Aussie begins, the scales are obviously tipped toward Djokovic.
Which should only remind us that, in the end, draws rarely work out the way we imagine they will. After a few rounds, a road that appeared to be filled with obstacles can turn into a wide-open highway to the final. Look at the drastic turnaround that Andy Murray’s prospects went through at Wimbledon last year. One day he had Nadal and Federer in his half, a couple days later he had neither.
So while the men’s draws can seem lopsided to the point of unfairness these days, they still don’t mean a thing until the matches get played—they're still just pieces of paper with lots of lines and names on them. Here’s a look at how this piece of paper may play out at the Australian Open over the next two weeks.
Nadal, as mentioned above, can look ahead and see del Potro in the quarters, the winner of Murray and Federer in the semis, and Djokovic in the final. Of course, Rafa will insist that he won’t be looking ahead, and I think this is one time when we can definitely believe him. That’s because the first player he’s going to see across the net will be the ever-dangerous and even more mysterious home favorite, Bernard Tomic. The Aussie is, as usual, playing well Down Under at the moment; he's in the final in Sydney. And while Bernie lost his only match against Rafa, at this tournament in 2011, in straight sets, he put a second-set scare into the Spaniard with his deceptively penetrating shots.
This match, like that match, will bring out a raucous night crowd and a fired up Tomic—the fact that his father, John, is banned from the grounds may stoke that fire even more. But Nadal obviously lives for these moments as well, and over the last three years in Melbourne, Tomic has lost once to Rafa and twice to Federer, each time in highly anticipated night matches, and each time in three sets. I think Bernie will throw Rafa off enough to win one set this time.
Tomic isn’t the only player of note in this quarter—there’s a lot of game here, and Nadal might see quite a few night sessions. Gael Monfils could be Rafa’s third-round opponent; he opens against the undisputed king of the bad draw, Ryan Harrison. Lleyton Hewitt, champion in Brisbane, might get Rafa in the round of 16. On the other side is Juan Martin del Potro, the consensus Most Likely to at Least Dent the Big 4 in 2014. Delpo is healthy, his draw in Melbourne looks manageable, he's in the Sydney final, and he beat Nadal in their last match, in Shanghai in October, 6-2, 6-4.
Also on del Potro’s side: Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori
Also on Nadal’s side: Jack Sock
Third-round match that should, but quite possibly won’t, happen: Dimitrov vs. Raonic
You might wonder, after scanning the first quarter, what’s left for the second. A fair amount, as it turns out. Andy Murray will play his first match of consequence since the 2013 U.S. Open against Go Soeda, while on the other side Roger Federer will begin the Stefan Edberg era against Australia’s James Duckworth. Federer and Murray both love Oz, but both come in with some uncertainty surrounding their games. Neither has what you would call a brutal draw. Murray, who is scheduled to play the winner of two qualifiers in the second round, should like his chances to work his way back into form.
One player who could take advantage of any uncertainty from Federer is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a traditional fast starter who is slotted to play Federer in the fourth round. Rog beat Jo in a superb five-setter here last year. Another possible sleeper is John Isner, though his ability to survive a hot first week of three-of-five-set tennis is questionable, no matter how well the current Auckland finalist may be playing.
Third-round match that should, but quite possibly won’t, happen: Federer vs. Sergiy Stakhovsky
Now the pickings get slimmer. No. 3 David Ferrer and No. 7 Tomas Berdych headline this bracket, and there’s not a lot that jumps out at you in the brackets between them. The recently injured Jerzy Janowicz is in Ferrer’s half. The 35-year-old Tommy Haas is in Berdych’s. The highlight for me may be the name of Berdych’s first-round opponent, Aleksandr Nedovyesov—to my ears, the 26-year-old Ukrainian sounds more like one of Chekhov's doctor's than he does a 21st century tennis player, but we shall see. Berdych, with his strange, frat-style army of fans in Oz, usually plays well here before losing to one of the Big 4. This time he won’t see one of them until the semis.
Upset alert: Ferrer, who has been struggling
Possible much-hyped first-round blowout: Janowicz vs. young Aussie Jordan Thompson
No player likes to look ahead or start believing they have a good draw, but Novak Djokovic probably can’t help but do a little of both at the moment. As I wrote above, his closest rivals are all clustered in the top half, and he would only have to face one of them, in the final. The guys he will have to face in the early rounds go by names like Lacko, Montanes, Mayer (the second-best one, Leonardo), Istomin, Baghdatis, Russell, and Tursunov.
One challenge to Nole’s crown—he’s the three-time defending champion in Melbourne—could come from Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round, if Ernie can keep it together for that long. But his record at the Slams, and at this Slam in particular, doesn’t bode well: Gulbis has made it out of the second round at a major just once since 2008, and he's lost in the first round in Melbourne four of the five times he’s played there.
But Djokovic’s other potential challenger, Stanislas Wawrinka, could be more contender than pretender. We all remember the match these two played here a year ago, and Wawrinka has started well again in 2014, winning his first event in Chennai. Stan has a doable draw and must feel ready to take the next step upward.
Also here: Richard Gasquet and Nikolay Davydenko, both in Wawrinka’s half
Third-round match-up that should, but quite possibly won’t, happen: Wawrinka vs. Vasek Pospisil