Australian Open preview

Australian Open 2017 preview: Murray and Djokovic renew rivalry; Federer and Nadal return

For the first time since last year’s Australian Open, the famous ‘big four’ of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are all present

For the first time since last year’s Australian Open, the famous ‘big four’ are present and correct in a Grand Slam draw.

During 2016, Roger Federer missed a Major for the first time in 16 years—indeed two Majors, the French and US Opens—after undergoing the surgeon’s knife for the first time in his career. Rafael Nadal also succumbed to injury: He missed Wimbledon.

Lucky Melbourne, then, to be the place for the reunion—but a lot of water has passed under the tennis bridge in the intervening year.

The form of Federer and Nadal

For a start, the long absence of those two former champions hit their rankings. Not since he was seeded No11 in 2002 has four-time champion Federer been outside the top 16, where he is exposed to a top-16 player in Round 3 and a top-eight man in Round 4.

With Nadal also pushed from the top eight last season, the two old adversaries could have faced one another in the third round. As it turned out, they were drawn in opposite sides of the draw, with Federer picking up No10 seed Tomas Berdych in Round 3 and Nadal drawing No24 seed Alexander Zverev: neither match is a walk in the park.

Both though showed good form on their return to court. For someone who had not played competitively since Wimbledon, Federer looked fit and sharp in the Hopman Cup, losing to a blazing Zverev in three tie-breaks but cruising past Richard Gasquet and Daniel Evans.

Federer may have avoided Nadal, and may have the good fortune of two qualifiers before facing Berdych, but thereafter, his lowly ranking bites. He should face Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and Andy Murray in the quarters, with Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic the highest ranked options in the semis and final.

But make no mistake: Melbourne suits the Swiss. Since 2003, he has fallen short of the semis just once.

Nadal defended his Mubadala exho event with good wins over Milos Raonic and David Goffin, though Raonic exacted revenge in a long quarter-final battle in Brisbane. The Spaniard also seems to be bristling with intent, and will be keen to banish memories of that rare Round 1 loss to Fernando Verdasco last year.

However, he has a tough section to negotiate: An opener against the unconventional Florian Mayer, then former top-10 veterans Marcos Baghdatis or Mikhail Youzhny, followed by the #NextGen star most likely to take the year by storm, Zverev. Round 4 could be the resurgent Gael Monfils, with a quarter-final promising that big Canadian Raonic again.

Raonic, Dimitrov, Zverev, Kyrgios: Rising and ready

One of the big developments since last January is indeed the rise of the next generation. Teenage Zverev claimed his first title in St Petersburg late last year, has wins over Wawrinka, Berdych, Marin Cilic and Federer to his name, and had match-points over Nadal in Indian Wells. He is proving to be the real deal.

Also seeded for the first time is 22-year-old Lucas Pouille, the highest ranked man in Murray’s eighth. Dominic Thiem, still just 23, is at No8 after winning four titles last year to rise from No 20.

After a year or more in the relative wilderness, Grigor Dimitrov has begun to rise closer to a level justified by his talent, and edged Federer out of the top-16 seedings for Melbourne after winning his first title in over two years in Brisbane. He beat three top-eight players to do so.

Dimitrov was ranked No8 at the age of 23, and is still only 25, just like another big riser last year. Raonic, ranked No3, is tipped by many to pick up a Major this year, and reached the semis here ranked 13 last year. His dedication to improvement—now with his third fresh pair of coaching eyes in 12 months—are bringing him into contention with the elite men.

Witness Nadal, and Federer at the same event last year. Raonic played Murray six times last year, pushing him to the limit three times—including in Australia. He has fared less well against Djokovic, but then few have. He does sit in the tough Nadal quarter, but will still be a hot tip to take on Djokovic in the semis.

Then there is Australian hope, the hugely talented but often wayward Nick Kyrgios, seeded among the top 16 after playing last year at No30. He too has a string of top-10 players to his credit: Berdych, Raonic, Wawrinka, Monfils. He is drawn into a big-hitting quarter, however, but has the chance to prove his worth in front of a home crowd.

Old guard continues to flex its muscles

It is not just the younger generation that has changed the Australian landscape. One of the most impressive transformations has come from last year’s No23 Monfils, up to No6 this week. Ivo Karlovic, now 37, is close to his career-high at No20 after winning two titles last year. And to the delight, and surprise, of many, 38-year-old Tommy Haas, three times a semi-finalist since his first appearance in Australian in 1998, is defying countless surgeries and odds to play with a protected ranking. And he is in a segment that holds No28 seed, 35-year-old Feliciano Lopez, playing his 60th consecutive Major.

Wawrinka continues to prove that great things come to those who wait—and work hard: His US Open title helped edge him into the top four for Australia, one of four former Australian champions in the draw, and he is more than capable of winning again at the age of 31. His is a powerhouse quarter, though, not least with Kyrgios lined up for Round 4 and Cilic for the quarters.

Then there is the evergreen Federer, looking to extend his record number of Majors to 18, his record 307 Grand Slam match-wins, and to move within one of the record of Grand Slams played, 70.

Will it all come down to Murray and Djokovic?

But the talk of the tournament is the rivalry that has come to dominate tennis since this time last year: Murray vs Djokovic.

The mighty Serb seemed unbeatable this time last year, and sure enough, Djokovic extended his record in Australia to six titles, and by Roland Garros he was champion at all four Majors. He headed the rankings by almost twice as many points as Murray, and beat him in the title match in Melbourne for the fourth time. Add in Murray’s loss to Federer in 2010, and the Briton has endured heartache in Australia five times.

This year, though, the scenery has changed. Murray slowly but surely reeled in Djokovic through 2016, beating him in Rome, winning Queen’s, Wimbledon, and Olympic gold before going on a 28-match winning streak through Asia to claim the No1 ranking in the title match at the World Tour Finals. By his own admission, it was the best season of his career.

But Djokovic’s weary up and down form through the latter stages of 2016 was banished last week when, once again, the two top men in tennis contested a title, in Doha, and Djokovic came out the victor—just. And his record in Australia tells its own story: his first Major appearance in 2005, his first Major title in 2008, and a record-equalling six titles.

Djokovic has a very intriguing opener against Verdasco, who had match-points to beat him in Doha, but has avoided both Federer and Nadal in his quarter—as well as bete-noir Wawrinka. Expect him to make the final, but expect Murray to take the harder route to one more title bout, facing down the likes of John Isner, Pouille, Federer, Nishikori, Wawrinka and Cilic on the way.

Both men have records on the line: Djokovic could win a record seventh Aussie title, Murray could be the first to win a Major after losing five finals. And just in passing… both men will be members of the over-30 club by the time Australia comes around again.

Former Australian Open champions in draw: Novak Djokovic (6), Roger Federer (4), Rafael Nadal (1), Stan Wawrinka (1)

Other Grand Slam champions: Marin Cilic (1), Andy Murray (3)

Missing injured: Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin del Potro, Ricardas Berankis, Thanasi Kokkinakis, John Millman, Juan Monaco, Tommy Robredo

Winners/runners up this year
Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi
Rafael Nadal beat David Goffin
Hopman Cup, Perth
Gasquet/Mladenovic beat Sock/Vandeweghe
Brisbane
Grigor Dimitrov beat Kei Nishikori
Doha, ATP
Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray
Chennai Open, ATP
Roberto Bautista Agut beat Daniil Medvedev
Kooyong Classic
David Goffin beat Ivo Karlovic
Sydney ATP
Final TBD Dan Evans vs Gilles Muller
Auckland ATP
Final TBD Jack Sock vs Joao Sousa

Who falls where?

Murray quarter

R1: Illya Marchenko
R2: Yen-Hsun Lu or qualifier
R3: No31 Sam Querrey
R4: No16 Pouille or No19 Isner
QF: No17 Federer, No10 Berdych, No5 Nishikori, No26 Albert Ramos-Vinolas
SF: No4 Wawrinka, No7 Cilic: also here Kyrgios, Sock, Tsonga

Wawrinka quarter

R1: Martin Klizan
R2: Federico Delbonis or Steve Johnson
R3: No29 Viktor Troicki
R4: No14 Kyrigos or No22 Pablo Cuevas
QF: No12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No7 Cilic, No27 Bernard Tomic, No23 Sock
SF: No1 Murray, No5 Nishikori: also here Federer, Berdych, Pouille, Isner, Querrey

Djokovic quarter

R1: Verdasco
R2: Denis Istomin or qualifier
R3: No30 Pablo Carreno Busta
R4: No15 Dimitrov or No18 Gasquet
QF: No8 Thiem, No11 Goffin, No20 Karlovic, No28 Lopez
SF: No3 Raonic, No6 Monfils: also here Nadal, Zverev, David Ferrer, Gilles Simon

Raonic quarter

R1: Dustin Brown
R2: Taylor Fritz or Muller
R3: No25 Simon
R4: No13 Roberto Bautista Agut or No21 Ferrer
QF: No6 Monfils, No9 Nadal, No24 Zverev, No32 Kohlschreiber
SF: No2 Djokovic, No8 Thiem: also here Karlovic, Goffin, Dimitrov, Gasquet

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