To hear my fellow pundits tell it, the relevant question isn’t whether Novak Djokovic is going to win this Grand Slam; it’s whether he’s going to win all the Grand Slams in 2016. I have my doubts about the latter—there must be a reason it hasn’t been done on the men’s side in 47 years—but there’s no question that Djokovic is a ponderously heavy favorite to start the year with a title at the Australian Open, the major where he’s had the most success. At the moment, Djokovic is farther ahead of the field than he’s ever been. So should we stop saying Big 4 and start saying Big 1? We’ll know more in a couple of weeks.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves and start handing out trophies, here’s a look at the paths that Djokovic and the rest of the men’s draw must navigate in Melbourne. [DRAW]
Is it possible for Djokovic to have a “tough draw” at the moment? Is there anyone he could meet in the first week who would be a legitimate threat to him? His opening-round opponent, Hyeon Chung, probably won’t scare Djokovic, but he might intrigue him—and us. Chung is a 19-year-old South Korean ranked No. 51, and he took Stan Wawrinka to three tiebreakers in searing U.S. Open heat last summer. He hits a heavy ball, has a fun game to watch, has jumped 116 spots in the last 12 months, and wears groovy glasses. He’s never played Djokovic, which also might help him. I’m guessing Chung will make the world No. 1 nervous for a (brief) stretch.
Assuming Djokovic survives, he could play Andreas Seppi, conqueror of Roger Federer in Melbourne last year, in the third round; either Ivo Karlovic or Gilles Simon in the fourth round; and Kei Nishikori or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters. Is Nishikori still someone to worry about? Judging by his last result, a loss to Bernard Tomic in Brisbane, and his last result against Djokovic—a 6-1, 6-1 loss in London in November—the answer would seem to be no. Karlovic, however, is not someone Djokovic is going to want to see. Believe it or not, Dr. Ace has won three of their four meetings, including one last year in Doha.
First-round matches to watch:
—Djokovic vs. Chung
—Simon vs. Vasek Pospisil
—Nishikori vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber
—Tsonga vs. Marcos Baghdatis (Once upon a time, in a tennis past that never became a present, Jo beat Marcos in the U.S. Open boys’ final.)
U.S. Player of Interest: Noah Rubin. The 2014 Wimbledon boys’ champ starts against Benoit Paire. That should at least be interesting for him.
Here we see the quirk in this draw: Roger Federer, runner-up at the last two majors, is in the same half as Djokovic, the man he lost to in those finals. If you’re looking for a positive spin to this situation, Federer’s third-round defeat here last year should keep him from looking too far ahead. And, truth be told, there are a few people closer to him that he may not want to ignore. Federer could face Alexandr Dolgopolov in the second round, Grigor Dimitrov in the third round, and David Goffin or Dominic Thiem in the fourth. That’s a talented lineup of 20-somethings; it’s also a lineup that has yet to record a win over Federer in 10 combined tries. Still, Dimitrov has been sending out the right signals so far this month, one of which was a close three-set loss to Federer in Brisbane. Every son must conquer his father at least once, right?
The other half of this section is led by Tomas Berdych, who reached the semis last year. Of greater local interest will be the fate of 29th seed Nick Kyrgios, who starts against Pablo Carreño Busta. Kyrgios might play Pablo Cuevas after that, and is slated to face Berdych in the third round. The two have never played, but I’d be tempted to take Kyrgios in what’s destined to be a night match in Rod Laver Arena.
Youth of Interest: Borna Coric starts against Albert Ramos-Viñolas; Kyle Edmund starts against Damir Dzumhur
Once upon a time—2009, to be exact—Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco played one of the longest, and one of the best, Australian Open semifinals of all time. Now they’ll do it again in the first round. Verdasco nearly beat Nadal seven years ago here, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he nearly beats him this time. Rafa is 15-2 against his countryman, but Verdasco has won two of their last three meetings. Nadal played a lot of long matches in Doha last week, and I’d expect another one here.
Even if Rafa eventually prevails, there will surely be tougher tests down the road. Wawrinka, the champion in 2014, is the top seed in this quarter. Milos Raonic, the winner in Brisbane last week, is also here. Wawrinka obviously loves the courts in Melbourne; it was here that he first lifted himself into the game’s elite, with his classic fourth-round loss to Djokovic in 2013. It was also here that he won his first Grand Slam, in 2014. Since then, Wawrinka has made himself a steady threat at the majors, and was the only player to knock Djokovic off at one in 2015. He may also be the only guy in the world who can beat Djokovic even if Djokovic is playing well. But getting to him will take work: Wawrinka has two quality players, Raonic and Jack Sock, in his half of this section, and Rafa in the other half.
After scaling the game’s heights in last year’s Davis Cup final, Andy Murray has started 2016 off quietly. He opted for the Hopman Cup exhibition last week, and has settled into a comfortable niche at the bottom of this draw, far from the two men—Djokovic and Federer—who owned him last year. He’s almost as far from two other nemeses in Wawrinka and Nadal. Instead, the second-best player in Murray’s quarter is David Ferrer.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for worry. Murray, like Djokovic, has an interesting opener against German teen hopeful and former junior No. 1 Alexander Zverev. In the round of 16, Murray could face Tomic. The Aussie has shown signs of life recently, but he’s also never taken a set from Murray in three matches. In the quarters, it’s possible (though admittedly not probable) that Murray could play John Isner.
First-round matches to watch:
—Murray vs. Zverev
—Lleyton Hewitt vs. James Duckworth. (Is it only right for Rusty to bow out to a fellow Aussie?)
—Isner vs. Jerzy Janowicz
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Kyrgios; Wawrinka d. Murray
Final: Wawrinka d. Djokovic