They may have hobbled their way to Melbourne, but in the end most of the top men’s players, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Stan Wawrinka, made it into the Australian Open draw. Looking at its four quarters, you might say we have a three-way battle of generations on our hands: The top and bottom quarters are led by the old guard, Nadal and Roger Federer. The second quarter is headed up by middle brother Grigor Dimitrov, while the top seed in the third quarter is the leader of the NextGen, Alexander Zverev.
Can the first sons hold off the two generations behind them for another major? Let’s take a closer look.
Nadal and his knees looked healthy enough in his first exhibition this week, but judging by how he finished 2017, the top seed is not out of the woods yet. At his last two events, in Paris and London, he made it through his opening match only to have to withdraw from the event. If Rafa is in good shape body-wise, though, he should be in good shape draw-wise. He starts against 37-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos (they’ve never played), and the other seeds in this mild section are, in ascending order, Pablo Cuevas, Damir Dzumhur, Diego Schwartzman, Gilles Muller, Pablo Carreño Busta, John Isner, and Marin Cilic.
Players to Watch
Cilic: His disastrous showing in last year’s Wimbledon final is what we remember; what we forget is that he made it there in the first place. Can he build up enough steam to challenge Nadal in the quarters here? He’ll need a lot of it; Rafa hasn’t lost to him since 2009.
Borna Coric: The 21-year-old Croat has won two of his four matches against Rafa; they could meet in the third round.
Ryan Harrison: He made the final in Brisbane last week, and has landed in a fairly open section of the draw.
Other players come in with question marks surrounding their bodies; Dimitrov, the top seed in this section, comes in with questions surrounding his mind. Will his No. 3 ranking and breakthrough win at last November’s ATP Finals make him tougher and more confident? Or will they make the 26-year-old anxious about finally living up to the Slam-winning expectations that have followed him for years? Or is Dimitrov simply still Dimitrov, a talented player who will always be one grain of grit short of winning the big one over one of the Big 4?
He may get his first test in the third round, when he’s slated to face the teenager who routed him at the US Open last year, Andrey Rublev. If he passes that, Dimitrov could get a tougher test in the round of 16, where he’s scheduled to play Nick Kyrgios, who beat him in Brisbane last week.
Aussie and American of Interest: Kyrgios and Jack Sock. These friends and sometimes doubles partners both have a world-class weapon—for Kyrgios it’s the serve, for Sock it’s the forehand. Both had their moments in 2017—Kyrgios reached his first Masters 1000 final; Sock won his first Masters 1000 title. Now they have a chance to reach their first Grand Slam semifinal. Can they hold it together over best-of-five, for two weeks? Or will we be asking the same question of them 12, 24, 36 months from now?
Frenchmen to Watch: Lucas Pouille and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. These two finished 2017 in fine style, by winning the singles points that clinched a long-awaited Davis Cup title for France. Will those triumphs generate momentum for them in 2018, or a hangover?
First-round match to watch, and pronounce: 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov vs. 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. The winner could play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem are the top two seeds here. A year ago, we might have said that this was the quarter of the future; now that future seems a little unsettled. Neither the German nor the Austrian finished 2017 in especially brilliant form. Neither has made it to the quarters in Australia, and both would seem to be ripe to be upset before they reach that round this year. Thiem will start against Guido Pella, who played well in his opening event in Doha; after that, he could face the ever-tricky Adrian Mannarino in the third round. Zverev may have to deal with his older brother, Mischa, in the third round; Mischa is 2-0 versus Sascha, though they haven’t played since 2014.
While Thiem and Zverev are at the top and bottom of this bracket, the real power may lie in the middle. That’s where Djokovic and Wawrinka have landed. The Serb will start against Donald Young, and could play Gael Monfils in the second round; the Swiss will start against Ricardas Berankis, and could play Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round—not a bad draw for either of them. Since joining the tour in 2005, Djokovic and Wawrinka haven’t missed a major, so this will be the first time we’ll see them trying to bounce back from an extended injury. We know Djokovic loves Melbourne, where he’s won six times; and we know Wawrinka loves to win Slams from out of nowhere, the way he did Down Under in 2014. But is this one Slam too soon for both?
Wild card to watch: Thanasi Kokkinakis. He’s been out for the better part of two years, but he can still rip a forehand and get a home crowd behind him. And he’s still just 21.
Potential second-round match to watch: Djokovic vs. Monfils
Potential third-round match to watch: Zverev vs. Zverev
Over the last 12 months, a healthy Federer has been a nearly unbeatable Federer, and right now he’s healthier than most of his rivals. Who could possibly stand in his path as he pursues his 20th major title? I’ll give you two people: Juan Martin del Potro and David Goffin. The Argentine beat Federer at the US Open, and the Belgian did it at the ATP Finals in London. And they both happen to be in Federer’s quarter.
Fortunately for Federer, Delpo and Goffin are on the other side of this section, which means he can only face one of them, and it won’t happen before the quarterfinals. Until then, Federer’s draw looks manageable. He’ll play Aljaz Bedene to start, and the seeds near him are Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic, and Sam Querrey.
First-round matches to watch:
Del Potro vs. Frances Tiafoe. Delpo won their only meeting, in a third-set tiebreaker, last spring in Acapulco.
Tomas Berdych vs. Aussie wild card Alex de Minaur, who has made some noise to start the season.
Semifinals: Kyrgios d. Nadal; Federer d. Djokovic
Final: Federer d. Kyrgios
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