Can anybody prevent Djokovic from winning his seventh Australian Open?

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WATCH—Djokovic practices with Murray ahead of Australian Open:

 

Looking down this year’s men’s brackets at the Australian Open, it’s hard to imagine where the upsets might happen. The top four seeds—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev—all have what we would traditionally call a good draw. The majority of the players they’re slated to face in the quarterfinals—Kei Nishikori, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem—seem less than fearsome on paper.

But that’s how it goes with Grand Slam draws: The upsets sneak up on you. Here’s a look at how this perhaps deceptively straightforward men’s event might play out.


First Quarter

After his win at last year’s US Open, many of us speculated that Djokovic was going to dominate the game for the foreseeable future, in the same way that he dominated it for the first half of this decade. So far, it hasn’t quite worked out that way: Djokovic has lost three matches—to Karen Khachanov, Alexander Zverev, and Roberto Bautista Agut—that he probably wouldn’t have lost in his prime. So which Djokovic will we get in Australia, the confident one of the last two majors, or the shakier one of his last three events?

His draw doesn’t include any obvious or ominous obstacles. He could play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round; the Serb and the Frenchman played the final here in 2008, but Jo is still working his way back after a long layoff. In the third round, Djokovic could face Denis Shapovalov; they’ve never played. And if the seeds hold, he’d get Nishikori in the quarters. Djokovic has won their last 14 meetings; when they met in the Aussie Open quarters three years ago, he lost just nine games.

Semifinalist: Djokovic


WATCH—Alexander Zverev suffers an injury scare during practice:

 


Second Quarter

Here we go again: Another referendum on Sascha Zverev at the Slams. This time, the 21-year-old German comes in having won the biggest title of his career, last November at the ATP Finals in London, where he beat Federer and Djokovic in the semis and final. His draw Down Under makes a repeat of that run look like a possibility. The first seed Zverev could face would be No. 29 Gilles Simon, and his potential quarterfinal opponent, Thiem, is a clay-court lover who has never been past the round of 16 in Melbourne.

Players of Interest: Hyeon Chung, Milos Raonic, Borna Coric. Chung reached the semis in Oz last year. Raonic, who has traditionally played well in Australia, was one set from the final in 2016. Coric is coming off a career-best season that concluded with a Davis Cup title for Croatia.

First-round matches to watch:

Stan Wawrinka vs. Ernests Gulbis

Raonic vs. Nick Kyrgios

Thiem vs. Benoit Paire

Semifinalist: Zverev


WATCH—Federer's tearful interview about late coach Peter Carter:

 


Third Quarter

Last year’s final—Federer vs. Cilic—is projected to be this section’s quarterfinal. What are the chances of a rematch? Both men will face obstacles.

Federer, the two-time defending champion, will have to start by navigating his way past occasional-upset specialist Denis Istomin, a hard-hitter who knocked Djokovic out of this tournament two years ago. The first seed Federer could face is No. 30 Gael Monfils; more intriguingly, the next one he might face, in the fourth round, is No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Cilic, who led Croatia to the Davis Cup title last November, will have his own tricky opener, in the form of Bernard Tomic. The Aussie has obviously had his low moments, but he ended 2018 on a high, with a title in Chengdu, and he owns a win over Cilic. After that, Cilic could face Andrey Rublev, and in the fourth round he may see either Khachanov or Bautista Agut, each of whom has posted strong results in recent months.

Player of Interest: Andy Murray. The five-time Aussie Open finalist has a tough opener, against Bautista Agut.

First-round matches to watch:

Federer vs. Istomin

Cilic vs. Tomic

Tsitsipas vs. Matteo Berrettini

Semifinalist: Cilic


WATCH—Nadal withdraws from Brisbane International:

 


Fourth Quarter

Of the top four seeds, Nadal’s immediate future is the toughest to predict. Since last summer, he has been beset by injuries, one of which forced him to pull out of Brisbane just two weeks ago. Rafa also has a history of getting hurt during the Aussie Open itself. On paper, though, his draw looks manageable. He’ll start against 245th-ranked James Duckworth of Australia; this will be their first meeting. Things could get more interesting if he faces another, younger, faster Australian, Alex de Minaur, in the third round.

If form holds, Rafa would get No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals. There’s a decent chance that form may not hold, though, as Anderson has never been past the fourth round Down Under, and he lost his opener last year. This time Anderson’s path should be smoother. He starts against Adrian Mannarino, and the first seed he could face is No. 31 Steve Johnson.

Player and Coach of Interest: Grigor Dimitrov and Andre Agassi. Dimitrov nearly reached the final here two years ago; he has a path back to the quarters this time.

First-round matches to watch:

John Isner vs. Reilly Opelka. At 6’10” and 7’0”, respectively, these two will play the tallest match in major-tournament history; Isner won their only previous meeting, in Atlanta in 2016.

Kyle Edmund vs. Tomas Berdych: Last year’s surprise semifinalist takes on a semifinalist from 2014 and 2015.

Semifinalist: Nadal


Semifinals: Djokovic d. Zverev; Cilic d. Nadal

Final: Djokovic d. Cilic


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