This blog is supposed to be raw and opinionated, but honestly, the men’s draw at the 2017 Australian Open does not give one much to be raw and opinionated about. It is the most balanced field we have seen in years. Here’s the analysis, along with the most iffy predictions I’ve made in some time.
Projected quarter-final: Andy Murray (1) vs Kei Nishikori (5) (Murray leads 8-2)
Naturally, Murray gets an incredibly dozy run to the fourth round (that is, unless rising French star Quentin Halys can make round three and give him a scare, which hasn’t yet happened for the 20-year-old at a major.) An opening round of Ukraine’s Illya Marchenko will likely be followed by a meeting with his pigeon, Yen-Hsun Lu. If Halys is to take a shot at the Brit, he would have to upend no. 31 seeded Sam Querrey in round one (far from impossible). But Mischa Zverev and Lucas Pouille are the only men that could cause the Brit some serious issues in the last 16. German lefty Zverev came into his own own at the end of last season, and would only need to upset no. 19 seed John Isner to come up against Pouille. Seeded no. 16, the Frenchman – a breakthrough star of last season – would be favourite to come through that encounter and duel Murray. He has, however, been destroyed by the Scot in all three previous meetings.
Kei Nishikori technically headlines the other section of this quarter, but all eyes will be on the no. 17 seed (the WHAT seed?), Roger Federer. The Swiss will be rather rusty coming into Melbourne, having missed the last six months of 2016 with injury. Still, last week’s Hopman Cup gave him plenty of match-play to get back into things. He will surely be grateful to have landed in a section with three qualifiers – leaving him virtually safe-guarded until the third round – but from there, he has the toughest of runs. No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych – who also opens against a qualifier, and has scored some big Melbourne upsets in the past – will likely await in round three, although Kei Nishikori will have to be on-song to make the fourth round. The Japanese star opens against the in-form Andrey Kuznetsov, and will face a dangerous second round challenge from the winner of Nicolas Almagro and Jeremy Chardy. Should he come through that test, things will relent against either Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Marcel Granollers or Dudi Sela, before a probable battle with either Berdych or Federer.
Actually, this draw could be just what the latter man needs. Would the Roger Federer of 2015 come through this quarter? I would say absolutely, yes. Would the Roger Federer of 2017? I would be inclined to say probably not.
But… what if the Roger Federer of 2015 re-emerges in Melbourne?
SEMIFINALIST: Roger Federer
Projected quarter-final: Stan Wawrinka (4) vs Marin Cilic (7) (Wawrinka leads H2H 11-2)
Wawrinka and Cilic bracket this section of the draw, but while the defending US Open champion will definitely be under scrutiny in this least-crowded of quarters, the other two men who truly headline the section are Australia’s Nick Kyrgios and 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Kyrgios – left heartbroken after a third round loss to Berdych here last season – is targeting nothing less than title victory in Oz, and only time will tell whether or not he can focus enough to make a semifinal run. As 2014 champion Wawrinka opens against fiery Martin Klizan, with America’s Steve Johnson threatening for round two, no. 14 seed Kyrgios takes on the not-to-be-underestimated Gastao Elias of Portugal. Crazy as it sounds, the 21-year-old could then breeze through to a fourth round showdown with the no. 4 seed. After all, no. 29 seed Viktor Troicki is Wawrinka’s biggest threat in the last 32, and unseeded Diego Schwartzman is the man most likely to cause Kyrgios trouble (which should not happen.)
Meanwhile, Tsonga could be gathering steam on the other side of the quarter. The Frenchman begins his campaign against Brazil’s Thiago Monteiro, with neither Dusan Lajovic nor Stephane Robert posing a real threat in round two. He would be tested more thereafter, with French duo Adrian Mannarino and Pierre-Hugues Herbert and American 23rd seed Jack Sock the leading contenders to make round three. Nevertheless, expect him to progress to a possible – but not probable – fourth round clash with Marin Cilic.
In fact, another Aussie this draw has been kind to is the under-achieving Bernard Tomic. The 24-year-old opens against Thomaz Bellucci and should face off with Cilic in round three, if the no. 7 seed makes it through his opening clash with former Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz and a potential second round collision with Sydney finalist Dan Evans.
Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Nick Kyrgios? Honestly, I have no idea. I’ll take a chance on an overlooked, underrated talent.
SEMIFINALIST: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Projected quarter-final: Milos Raonic (3) vs Gael Monfils (6) (H2H is tied at 3-3)
Again, the aforementioned players may lead this quarter, but the true big name in the mix is Rafael Nadal – the no. 9 seed, and fresh off his comeback tournament at the Brisbane International last week. The Spaniard – who was downed by Fernando Verdasco in round one last season – should heave a sigh of relief at an opener against one-time world no. 18 Florian Mayer. Still, former finalist Marcos Baghdatis and former world no. 8 Mikhail Youzhny are prospective second round foes – revealing that this is a deceptively tricky line-up that could prove too hard to negotiate at this point in time. Matters will likely only get worse in round three, with in-form and highly talented Alexander Zverev – who held a match point over Nadal last season – surely awaiting. After that, a clash with Monfils – against whom the Spaniard dominates a 12-2 rivalry – is the projection, but it may not be a realistic prediction. The athletic Frenchman remains extremely hot and cold, and powerful Czech Jiri Vesely could deal him a first round blow too hard to combat. If not, the winner of Alexandr Dolgopolov versus Borna Coric would surely give the 30-year-old a run for his money, with no. 32 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber not to be overlooked in round three.
On the other side of the quarter, 2016 semifinalist Raonic – who can pretty much blame injury for keeping him out of last year’s final – has drawn what looks like a zinging opener against dreadlocked German Dustin Brown. Nevertheless, it is becoming something of a fact that Brown does nothing of note away from grass-courts, and the Canadian should soon be marching on to a second round duel with either hyped-up young American Taylor Fritz or big-serving Gilles Muller of Luxembourg. Gilles Simon – seeded no. 25, and opening against the USA’s Michael Mmoh – would provide an interesting third round opponent, seeing as his defensive game completely contrasts Raonic’s precise power. But should he make the fourth round, it would be something of a step down in resistance for the Canadian. Struggling no. 21 seed David Ferrer could easily fall in the first round to Australian wildcard Omar Jasika, and the home star or no. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut could be the favourites to make a fourth round run.
In Sydney, having taken out Rafael Nadal in three sets, Raonic flopped to Grigor Dimitrov in straights. This alone holds me back from putting him into the semifinals – although I’m really not sure whether Nadal can win more than four matches in a row in Melbourne this early on. Perhaps madly (which could describe most of my predictions here, which aren’t exactly mirroring those I made a week or so ago), I’m going to take a risk.
SEMIFINALIST: Rafael Nadal
Projected quarter-final: Novak Djokovic (2) vs Dominic Thiem (8) (Djokovic leads 4-0)
It’s still strange to refer to Novak Djokovic as the world no. 2, but people may not have to do so for much longer. The Serb went from uncertain stumbler to the strong favourite for a seventh Melbourne crown with his Qatar Open defeat of Andy Murray – which is rather typical, seeing as it coincides with the competitive return of his two biggest rivals.
Anyway, Djokovic is looking at a pretty deep run – as long as he can fight through his first round match. Verdasco’s five-set upset of Nadal in last year’s round of 128 proved that the former world no. 7 still has what it takes to beat the best. The lethal Spaniard actually held five match points over his forthcoming opponent in Doha last week. But the important piece of information is that he couldn’t convert on any of them. And if he couldn’t put away one of the game’s most fearsome in best-of-three sets, then things do not look good for the inconsistent talent in best-of-five.
Frankly – if he survives Verdasco – Djokovic is looking at a walk in the park up until round four (although Kyle Edmund could provide a little resistance in round three.) Grigor Dimitrov, looking ready to return to the top ten under the guiding influence of Daniel Vallverdu, has previously pushed the elite in Melbourne, and has a decent early draw before a potential clash with the no. 2 seed. Djokovic would be several steps up from the Bulgarian’s probable third round foe David Goffin, however, and even Dimitrov – who won the Brisbane International in the first week of the year, and has beaten Djokovic before – should not be up to the task.
Dominic Thiem – breakout 2016 star and exciting top ten talent – might have been annoyed to land in the Djokovic quarter. Nevertheless, the Austrian looked exhausted at the end of last season, and has frankly appeared irritable at the beginning of this one. The way he forced the ball in Sydney set alarm bells ringing, and Jan-Lennard Struff in the first round could therefore prove an early struggle. Really, the 23-year-old has been favoured by the draw – despite prospective second round opponent Jordan Thompson finding form in front of his home crowds, and Benoit Paire, Tommy Haas, Feliciano Lopez and Fabio Fognini all difficult third round contenders. But with Ivo Karlovic, the no. 20 seed, the leading force to make round four, anyone from Thiem’s early section could be fancying their chances to take on Novak Djokovic in the last eight.
SEMIFINALIST: Novak Djokovic
Roger Federer d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer
If that was tough to predict, it’s going to be a million times tougher to play. Share your Australian Open thoughts in the comments section!