The city of Melbourne is about to get hotter. The first grand slam of the season is knocking on the doors and tennis stars are all set to compete for the opportunity to be crowned The King, down under. As the players are coming back after the off-season, all the participants will look forward to give all they have got.
A good start in Australia will give them a confidence boost to create a platform that will allow them to carry good form all the way through the long season that beckons. It would not be a big stretch to state that only the fittest will survive the heat and pressure down under and stand alone, on the Sunday, two weeks from now. The show is about to begin on the hard courts of Melbourne. Let us take a look at how the top and bottom half of the draw stack up.
The top half is headlined by Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych. World number 1 and defending champion, Djokovic, comes to Australian Open in very strong form, clearly being the hot favorite to capture his 6th title here and equal Roy Emerson’s record. The Serb bagged a title in Doha few days ago by demolishing Rafa Nadal just at the loss of three games in the finals.
World Number 3 and four time champion, Federer will play his 65th consecutive grand slam tournament. The Swiss Maestro began this season by playing the Brisbane Open. Hampered by flu, Federer lost in the finals to Raonic, but the Swiss legend will hope to be fully fit here and show everyone that he still has what it takes to win on the highest platforms.
Last year Federer had lost in the third round and he and his fans will want to do way better than that, this time around. Ranked sixth, Berdych played in the Doha Open few days ago and lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. The Czech beat Nadal in the quarters in 2015 and will want to do something similar this year too. World number 7 Nishikori also played the Brisbane Open where he lost a closely fought three setter to Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals. After having a moderate 2015, the Japanese number one will want to kick 2016 off with a flying start.
The dark horses which will act as a major threat to top guys in this half include Grigor Dimitrov who seems to be finding some form, Marin Cilic, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic, Andreas Seppi, Benoit Paire, Vasek Pospisil and Phillip Kohlschreiber. All of them will try to bring their A-game up and pose hurdles for the top order and make a deep run, themselves. This half is also peppered with a flurry of young guns. The evidently talented Nick Kyrgios leads this newbie brigade including Borna Coric, David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Kyle Edmund, Hyeon Chung.
Djokovic, Federer, Berdych and Nishikori are seeded first, third, sixth and seventh respectively. In the first quarter, Djokovic opens against teenager Chung. He could then face Ivan Dodig. Should he make through, he could be presented with the challenge of Andreas Seppi, who beat Federer in third round last year. He could cross ways with Pospisil, Karlovic or Simon a round before quarterfinals.
If the Serb makes through the initial stages, he will play Nishikori in Quarters. Nishikori has a tough opener against German Kohlschreiber. The Japanese No.1 could play Garcia-Lopez, Paire, Tsonga before his projected quarterfinal with the world No.1. Among the mouth watering first round clashes in this section of the draw, are Vasek Pospisil vs Gilles Simon and Tsonga vs Marcos Baghdatis.
In the second quarter, Federer opens against Nikoloz Basilashvili. He might then face the Ukranian with a unique playing style – Alexandr Dolgopolov. In the third round, he could meet the often dubbed “Baby Federer” – Grigor Dimitrov. This could perhaps be the most exciting match in this half during the first week of the slam. In the fourth round Federer could play either Thiem or Goffin.
Further on, Federer could play Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. Berdych opens against Yuki Bhambri. Robin Haase could be his opponent next. But Berdych could have his work cut-out as he is projected to play local hope and rising star Nick Kyrgios. Maybe an upset could be on the cards. The winner of that match could face either Cilic or Coric in the next match, which will eventually lead up to the quarterfinals.
Predictions: Djokovic is the firm favourite in his quarter, but Federer will have to fight his way out of a competitive quarter. The smart money is on Federer making the semifinals.
The players headlining the bottom half include some of the heavyweights of the sport, namely Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. World No.2 Andy Murray’s Australian Open preparations took a hit when he lost to Nick Kyrgios in the Hopman Cup in straight sets. Adding to the uncertainty, there’s a chance that he might have to leave the tournament midway since he is expecting a baby with wife Kim Sears. However, as long as Murray is in the draw, he will be a force to reckon with, given his dazzling record on hardcourts as well as in Melbourne.
World number 4 Stan Wawrinka looks like the strongest player in the bottom half. The French Open Champion is fresh off his 4th title in Chennai and is enjoying some great form. The 2014 champion has played some inspiring tennis here in recent past and is regarded by many experts as one of the players who could threaten Djokovic’s chances along with the usual suspects Federer, Murray and Nadal.
World No.5 Rafael Nadal will look for some resurgence at this year’s Australian Open. After having failed to win a slam last year, the 2009 champion will want to be back at his very best. He played the Qatar Open few days ago and suffered a heartbreaking loss to Djokovic in the finals. Nadal will want to put that on the back of his mind and play the kind of pulsating tennis, he usually does.
World number 8 David Ferrer will also want to put up a great show and try to win his first Grand Slam. He played the Auckland Open and lost to Jack sock in three sets in the semifinals. But when it comes to Grand Slams, Ferrer can never be counted out of contention, keeping in mind the trouble he can cause to the players at the top of the tennis order, if playing on the top of his game.
Other strong players in the bottom half include big servers like John Isner Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson along with Gael Monfils, Jack Sock, Feliciano Lopez, Fernando Verdasco and Fabio Fognini. Local hope and promising young gun Bernard Tomic is also placed in this half. Tomic can cause some serious upsets with the talent he has, whether he will do it is a totally differnt question all together!
Tomic is joined by other young guns like Alexander Zverev and Lucas Pouille. Last but not the least; Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt is also placed in this half. He will be making an emotional last appearance here. This will be Rusty’s 20thAustralian open after which he will be saying goodbye to the sport. All things said, I would lean towards the bottom half out weighing the top half
Murray, Nadal, Wawrinka and Ferrer are seeded 2nd, 4th, 5th and 8th respectively. In the third quarter Stan Wawrinka opens against Dmitry Tursunov. He is on track to play a qualifier in the round after that. He could next face the test of Jack sock in the next match. A consummate clash with Milos Raonic is possible in the fourth round. Raonic captured a title in Brisbane, beating Federer in the finals. He has put the tennis galaxy on alarm that he has his weapons loaded and is ready to fire.
If Stan the Man wins all these matches, a ‘fire meet gasoline’ quarterfinal clash against Nadal could become a possibility. Nadal probably has been presented with the toughest challenges in the early rounds. In a blockbuster first round match, Rafa will lock horns with countryman Fernando Verdasco. This match, without a doubt will be one of the best first round clashes at a Grand slam.
Verdasco could cause some serious troubles to Nadal like he has in the recent past, winning two of the last three clashes of the Spanish duo. If Nadal passes this test, he could play either Benjamin Becker or Dudi Sela next. His third round opponent could be Jeremy Chardy. And in the fourth round, he might play against Gael Monfils or Kevin Anderson. Nadal will have to be on the top of his game to make through and play Wawrinka in the quarters.
In the fourth quarter, Murray has an easier draw than all his opponents. He would be happy to not have Federer in his half, provided his recent struggle against the Swiss Maestro. The Brit opens his campaign against the young Zverev. This could be an interesting match. He might play either Sam Groth or Adrian Mannarino in the next round. Donald Young or Joao Sousa could be his opponents in the third round.
In the fourth round, Murray might face his first real test. A possible clash with Bernard Tomic is likely to happen. And thereafter he could face Ferrer in the Quarterfinals. Ferrer faces a qualifier in the first round. He could then face Lleyton Hewitt who plays countryman James Duckworth in the first round. The winner of the match could play Thomaz Belluci or Steve Johnson in the round of 32. And in the fourth round John Isner could be standing tall in the way of a quarterfinal spot.
Prediction: All said and done, I will choose Nadal in a toss-up over Wawrinka in the 3rd quarter and Murray is the safe bet to cruise through a relatively good quarter for him
The Final Weekend
The Big 4 look in prime form to make another run at regaining the combined territory they have lost in the Grand Slams of late. The first semifinal with Djokovic taking on Federer looks like a safer call, given the recent dominance of the Serbian. The second one, however, is much tougher to call. Given the uncertainty surrounding Murray’s campaign, I will lean towards Nadal making his first slam final in almost 2 years.
Djokovic defeats Nadal in straight sets to lift his 11th major title of his career.
-Vishakha Khandelwal [Vishakha is a Tennis Analyst for Sportz Cosmos. You can reach her at the gmail id : sportzcosmos]