The draws have been made, the anticipation is building and the pundits are predicting – it’s only three days until the singles main draws kick off in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open. There are lots of exciting first round ties and some potential match ups for later in the tournament that have got everybody talking.
Let’s start at the very top with world number one and five-time runner-up Andy Murray. The Scot goes into the tournament finely shaded by nemesis Novak Djokovic as the bookies’ favourite, following the Serb’s narrow victory in the Doha final. He begins his tournament against Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, a match-up that should be pretty straightforward for the top seed. Their only previous match came here in the second round six years, with Murray winning comfortably for the loss of only seven games.
The draw remains favourable for Murray up until the quarter final stage. In the second round, he’ll take on either a qualifier or Yen-Hsun Lu, a player he’s gotten the better of for many years, banishing the memory of his horrible loss to him in the Beijing Olympics. The third round will most likely see him take on Sam Querrey (the seeded player), though Austria’s Gerald Melzer, who gave Murray a good fight early on in Doha, has a decent shot of progressing. Young wildcards Alex De Minaur and Quentin Halys are other potential third round opponents, should they see off Querrey and Melzer. Murray’s fourth round opponent should be either John Isner or Lucas Pouille. Again, he has good records against both players (Pouille, depsite improving hugely in 2016, was unable to get close to Murray in the matches they played) and would be expected to move through to the quarter finals relatively easily.
Things get much more difficult at the quarter final stage, where it’s likely that either Kei Nishikori or Roger Federer will await. Nishikori’s first couple of rounds are slightly more complicated than Murray’s, with a first round draw against Sydney semi-finalist Andrey Kuznetsov, followed by the winner of a clash between two of the tour’s more experienced players, Jeremy Chardy and Nicolas Almagro. If he makes it through those rounds, his projected third round opponent is Albert Ramos-Vinolas, fresh from a career-best year in 2016 but very beatable.
Federer, at the time of writing, has a much less clear draw, with qualifiers drawn against him in both of the first two rounds. His expected opponent in the third round, though one who could fall earlier with Ryan Harrison or Nicolas Mahut potential round two banana skins, is Tomas Berdych. The Czech has caused Federer trouble in big matches in the past and has talked of developing a new-found blasé style of play in order to push himself to go further in Grand Slams, backed by new coach Goran Ivanisevic. However, despite his lack of matches in the past six months, I expect it to be Federer who takes the spoils.
If it comes down to Nishikori against Federer in the last 16, I’d go against what many pundits are saying and choose Nishikori as my slight favourite in a match that has the potential to be great. Whoever wins it, given his form in the past nine months or so, I have to go with Andy Murray as the favourite to progress from the first quarter.
Quarter two has its fair share of intrigue and tasty potential encounters. 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka headlines this section and doesn’t have the easiest of draws. First round opponent Martin Klizan can be very good when he’s on form, while either Davis Cup hero Federico Delbonis or the dangerous Steve Johnson await in round two. If Wawrinka struggles for form, as he often does in the early rounds, a hasty exit could await. If he makes it through, a third round clash with Viktor Troicki is an interesting prospect, though Stan should have the game to get through it fairly routinely. A match the tennis world would love to see could take place in the fourth round, with Australian anti-hero Nick Kyrgios seeded to meet Wawrinka. Given their controversial history and the brilliance that both can produce, this is a night match in waiting. Kyrgios has a good draw and it would be disappointing to see him bow out prior to the last 16.
The second half of the quarter is projected to culminate in what could be another fourth round cracker – Marin Cilic versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Both men have decent draws, though could face in-form players on the way. Cilic could meet Dan Evans, who at the time of writing is soon to play his first ATP final in Sydney, in round two, while Tsonga is projected to meet Jack Sock, who is also due to play an ATP final in Auckland in a few hours, in the third round. I’d expect Cilic and Tsonga to be the ones who make it through, but both were less than convincing in their opening tournaments in Chennai and Doha respectively, so will have to improve if they want to perform well in Melbourne.
While tennis fans should know never to bet against Stan Wawrinka, a man who has won three Grand Slams despite never being one of the major favourites, I’m going to do exactly that and predict that Nick Kyrgios will reach his second Australian Open quarter final. I’m backing Marin Cilic to be his quarter final opponent, though if Jack Sock were to make it through to the fourth round and play Cilic, who he thrashed at last year’s US Open, he also has a decent shot. Given this uncertainty, I’m going to back Kyrgios to be the player who makes it out of this quarter and set up a semi final against Andy Murray.
The bottom half of the draw begins with one of the matches with the most potential for a big first round upset, sixth seed Gael Monfils against Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic. Monfils ended 2016, the most consistent year of his career, dogged by injury and hasn’t yet played a match this season. Vesely was inconsistent in 2016, but his best form saw him stun world number one Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo and beat Dominic Thiem on his way to the last 16 of Wimbledon. I’m predicting this to be a long match and wouldn’t be shocked if Vesely comes through.
Elsewhere in the third quarter, a potential classic could occur in the third round if both Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev make it that far. Nadal will have to battle through a wall of experience in Florian Mayer in round one and Mikhail Youzhny or Marcos Baghdatis in round two, while the young German has a more straightforward route to the last 32. Both men have showed great form already this year, with Nadal looking close to his best at times in Abu Dhabi and Brisbane, while Zverev beat Federer over three tie-breaks in the Hopman Cup. I’m backing the winner of this one to make the quarter finals at least, though if Monfils can make it through to the fourth round, he could be a fourth round opponent. My heart hopes that Rafa can go deep in the only Grand Slam he’s never won more than once, but my head says that given his mixed form in Grand Slams in recent years, Zverev would pull of the upset and make the quarters.
Third seed Milos Raonic has a good draw all the way to the quarter finals. While first round opponent Dustin Brown’s flashy brand of tennis has seen him perform well on grass, it’s unlikely he’ll have much in the way of resistance when faced with Raonic’s massive game. Assuming he comes through, Raonic will then play either veteran Gilles Muller (Evans’ opponent in the Sydney final) or young up-and-comer Taylor Fritz in round two. While both players have good games, they would have to perform at their very best against an off-colour Raonic to pull of the upset. Raonic is projected to face Gilles Simon in round three, again a match he should win with few problems, and could face Roberto Bautista Agut or David Ferrer in the last sixteen. Bautista Agut is playing the best tennis of his career, while Ferrer in comparison is sadly falling quickly from the upper echelons of the game. Both players have the potential to cause Raonic problems, but I expect the Canadian to reach the quarters pretty straightforwardly. I’m backing Raonic to make the semis for the second straight year, though if Nadal makes it as far as the quarters, I’d call Raonic vs. Nadal as 50/50.
The top half of the fourth and final quarter is headlined by eighth seed Dominic Thiem. The Austrian has a good draw and, if on form, should make it through to the fourth round comfortably. The danger in his way comes from experienced but inconsistent performers in Feliciano Lopez, Fabio Fognini and Benoit Paire. Heroic veteran Tommy Haas, attempting his umpteenth comeback, could be a surprise third round opponent if he can beat Paire and either Lopez or Fognini. Thiem’s fourth round opponent is projected to be Belgium’s David Goffin. Though he suffered a surprise early exit in Doha, Goffin has performed well in exhibitions in Abu Dhabi and Kooyong and given his decent draw and Thiem’s indifferent form in Brisbane and Sydney, I’m backing Goffin to reach his second Grand Slam quarter final.
Six-time champion and world number two Novak Djokovic is the final name on the drawsheet and has a very interesting first round match against veteran Fernando Verdasco. The two met last week in Doha, with Verdasco squandering four match points in the second set, allowing Djokovic to edge the set before running away with the match. Verdasco has form here, beating Andy Murray on the way to his one and only Grand Slam semi final in 2009, before losing an epic to Rafael Nadal. He also stunned Nadal in the first round here last year. However, I don’t expect this one to be as close as the match in Doha. I feel that Djokovic’s win over Murray in the final will have helped him to regroup and I predict he’ll see off Verdasco in three or four sets.
Djokovic’s draw improves for rounds two and three but his fourth round opponent could be very tricky, with Grigor Dimitrov or Richard Gasquet potential opponents. Dimitrov was excellent in Brisbane last week, beating Thiem, Raonic and Nishikori en route to his first tour title since 2014 and if he can find the same form, I’d expect him to also beat Gasquet. Whether he could surprise Djokovic is a different question. He’s only beaten him once in seven matches – on clay – so the history books would suggest this is a very tall order, but we’ve seen a number of uncharacteristically shaky performances from Djokovic since Wimbledon and anything is possible in tennis. Nonetheless, I would be a fool to predict anyone other than Djokovic to make the quarters, and I expect him to win his quarter final pretty easily, whether it’s against Goffin, Thiem or anyone else.
I’m going to be dull and pick Murray and Djokovic to make the final, despite there being a number of potential upsets on the way. If I was to pick a winner, it’s again a split between the head and the heart. The head says Djokovic will win his seventh Australian Open title, given that he’s beaten Murray in four finals here, as well as their most recent match in Doha. The heart, however, opts for Murray. He won their last big match, the final of the ATP Finals in London, pretty comfortably to secure the year-end world number one spot and his demeanor against Djokovic in Doha was as calm as I’ve seen it in such a tight match. The choice is almost impossible, but I’m going to pick head over heart and agree with the bookies, Djokovic is my favourite for the title by the slimmest of margins.
Highest ranked 1st round exit: Gael Monfils
Last unseeded player in the draw: Jiri Vesely (fourth round)
Quarter Final 1: Murray vs. Nishikori
Quarter Final 2: Kyrgios vs. Cilic
Quarter Final 3: Zverev vs. Raonic
Quarter Final 4: Goffin vs. Djokovic
Semi Final 1: Murray vs. Kyrgios
Semi Final 2: Raonic vs. Djokovic
Final: Murray vs. Djokovic
Winner: Novak Djokovic