In last year’s Australian Open men’s final, Novak Djokovic wore down Dominic Thiem over five sets. That championship clash won’t happen this time around, after Thiem landed in Djokovic’s half of the draw Friday.
Seeking his ninth title at Melbourne Park, top seed Djokovic begins his campaign with veteran Jeremy Chardy. It’s been six years since their last Happy Slam meeting, but No. 17 seed Stan Wawrinka looms in the Serbian’s quarter, this time as a possible fourth-round opponent. From 2013 to 2015, the two provided a tasty trio of five-setters, with the victor ultimately going on to lift the trophy (Djokovic in 2013 and 2015, Wawrinka in 2014). Djokovic owns a commanding 19-6 lead against the Swiss, though Wawrinka’s last four wins have all come on the major stage.
Beyond Wawrinka, finding viable challengers for Djokovic is a tough ask. Tenth seed Gael Monfils and No. 14 seed Milos Raonic are a combined 0-28 against the world No. 1. Sixth seed Alexander Zverev, a semifinalist last year, just lost to Djokovic Friday in three sets at the ATP Cup. With his volatile serve, asking Zverev to produce three winning sets at the Serbian’s best Grand Slam event is one tall order.
That leaves Thiem, who has proven over the past two years that he is capable of stepping up against the ATP’s superstars. The 2020 US Open champion opens with Mikhail Kukushkin and finds a variety of seeds in his section, including No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman, who edged him in last year’s Roland Garros quarterfinals. But the Thiem quarter might be overshadowed by the floaters looking to wreak havoc.
Denis Shapovalov, seeded 11th, arguably drew the toughest first-round opponent in world No. 36 Jannik Sinner. Two of their sport’s emerging shot-makers, Shapovalov, who cracked the Top 10 last September, and Sinner, who beat Zverev on his way to the 2020 French Open quarterfinals, are squaring off for the first time.
Marin Cilic’s form wasn’t up to his high standards in 2020, but it was just three years ago when he reached the final. He owns a 4-2 advantage against his initial opponent, No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov. How fit is Kei Nishikori for best of five? He’s been to the final eight here on four occasions and his first foe, No. 15 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, has struggled with an abdominal issue this week. And then there’s Nick Kyrgios, who starts with qualifier Frederico Ferreria Silva and could give Thiem something to think about if No. 29 seed Ugo Humbert doesn’t have something to say about it.
Anchoring the bottom half is No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal, who is looking to end his Down Under drought dating back to 2009, his lone trip to the winner’s circle. His early projections are favorable on the surface. It commences with Laslo Djere, follows with a qualifier to be determined, and meeting with No. 30 seed Dan Evans. In week two, Nadal could meet No. 16 seed Fabio Fognini, No. 21 seed Alex de Minaur or two-time quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren, before a potential last eight showdown with No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Greek, fresh off a pair of ATP Cup wins over De Minaur and Roberto Bautista Agut, squares off against Gilles Simon in a first-time meeting to begin his tournament. January’s Delray Beach champion Hubert Hurkacz is his first potential seed (No. 26). Ninth seed Matteo Berrettini, who has impressed this week with victories over Thiem and Monfils, and No. 19 seed Karen Khachanov, are among his round-of-16 prospects. Berrettini has his own immediate test in two-time major finalist Kevin Anderson.
Rounding out the field, reigning ATP Finals titlist Daniil Medvedev is the highest seed in his quarter at No. 4. Currently on a 12-match win streak dating back to last year’s Paris Masters, Medvedev’s battle testing should help with his intriguing starting block: Vasek Pospisil. The pair have met three times over the past 16 months, with Medvedev taking two of their three contests, but Pospisil’s strong return from a back injury saw him earn the ATP’s 2020 Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Should Medvedev get through to the quarterfinals, past the likes of No. 13 seed David Goffin and No. 22 seed Borna Coric, his good friend and compatriot, No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev, may await. Rublev, who played more matches than anyone in 2020 and tied Djokovic for match wins with 41, is looking to build off recent final-eight runs at the US Open, where Medvedev stopped him, and Roland Garros. His bid launches with Yannick Hanfmann and could include run-ins with an unseeded Sam Querrey in round three and No. 12 seed Bautista Agut or floating Jan-Lennard Struff in round four.