Roger Federer had not played for six months as he continued to recover from knee surgery months before. Rafael Nadal picked up a wrist injury at Roland Garros, missed the whole grass swing, and won just two matches after the US Open.
But the Swiss, ranked just 17, beat four top-10 players to win the title, including the No9-ranked Spaniard. They would go on to end the year at No2 and No1 respectively, and have carried those rankings into the seedings in Melbourne.
The biggest questions this year surrounded the other two former champions, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka. In a near mirror image of the Nadal/Federer story, both men succumbed to injury during the 2017 season, and played their last matches at Wimbledon.
Djokovic struggled with persistent elbow pain, Wawrinka eventually underwent knee surgery, and they still had question marks alongside their names when each pulled out of warm-up tournaments this month. But they are in—seeded 14 and nine respectively.
But here’s the rub. Where last year, the four former champions each fell in a different quarter, this time around, Nadal has the entire top half of the draw to himself, while Djokovic and Wawrinka share the third quarter, with Federer a possible semi-final opponent.
And although last year’s No1, Andy Murray, does not feature after undergoing hip surgery, another Major champion does, Juan Martin del Potro—who this week returns to the top 10 for the first time in three and a half years. He has fallen into the Federer quarter, and the big Argentine has a habit of causing problems for Federer. In their four meetings last year, he knocked the Swiss out of the US Open, and took the first set in both Shanghai and Basel.
Del Potro has some big hurdles if he is to set a second straight Major quarter-final clash, though: Frances Tiafoe in the first round and Karen Khachanov in the second bring some big #NextGen firepower to the table, before a man who has become many pundits’ outside pick for the Australian title, David Goffin.
Six of the top-10 seeds were born in the 1990s, all of them reaching career-highs at the end of 2017. Two of them, Grigor Dimitrov at No3 and Alexander Zverev at No4, head their own quarters, and it was Dimitrov who converted his two previous Major semi runs, including Melbourne last year, into a big-time title, the World Tour Finals, having won his first Masters title in Cincinnati, too.
He beat Goffin in the London title match, but it was Belgian who claimed the rare feat of beating both Nadal and Federer on his way to the final.
Indeed Goffin impressed many times last year. He missed the entire grass season after a severe ankle twist at Roland Garros, but sealed his qualification among the elite eight with back-to-back titles in the Asian swing, a semi run in Basel, and some superb tennis to win both his rubbers in the Davis Cup final. And that dazzling tennis was on full show in the Hopman Cup last week—three wins.
But both Dimitrov and Goffin are in tough sections: The Bulgarian could face young Andrey Rublev, seeded for the first time in a Major, in the third round, and the charismatic Nick Kyrgios in the fourth. If he then gets past Jack Sock—another ‘90s player to come good at the end of 2017—Dimitrov could set a replay of last year’s scintillating five-set battle in Melbourne with Nadal.
Sascha Zverev has two Masters titles under his belt, and an ever-improving game built on big power from the back of the court, plenty of ability in the forecourt courtesy of doubles tennis with brother Mishca, and confidence in spades.
Thus far, he has not stepped up in the Majors, his best being the fourth round at this year’s Wimbledon, but he is growing into his 6ft 6in frame, and with increased strength and stamina, he should change that very soon. His section is fraught with problems, though, including fellow young guns Thanasi Kokkinakis, Daniil Medvedev and Hyeon Chung all possible in the third round. Then the fourth round brings one of the most decorated Australian champions, Djokovic, followed perhaps by Wawrinka.
Another clutch of youngsters has also fallen together with No17 seed Kyrgios—who is still only 22 himself. Teenage stars-in-the-making, Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas, two single-handers with charisma to spare, face-off in the first round in their first main-tour showdown. The winner could take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, then Kyrgios, with Dimitrov or Rublev in the fourth round. It is an intriguing section.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge for both men since they were last here. Djokovic has a completely new coaching set-up that includes Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek, while Wawrinka parted ways with the coach who guided him into the top four and to two Major titles, Magnus Norman.
For Djokovic in particular, there are early tests of his elbow and new serve: Donald Young followed by Doha champion, the ever-dangerous Gael Monfils. Should he make it to the fourth round, he could meet one of two Zverevs or another of those rising stars… and all before Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem.
The young Austrian, incidentally, has something to prove in Majors: He has twice made the semis on Paris’s clay but not gone beyond the fourth round at the other three. He may have to top the older and stronger mirror of himself, Wawrinka, to do so in Melbourne.
Nadal, if his knee problems of last autumn are fully healed, should have little trouble against the seeds in his quarter—though Gilles Muller beat Nadal 15-13 in their final set at Wimbledon. The next highest seed, Marin Cilic, has scored only one win over Nadal, back in 2009, and John Isner has lost all seven matches against Nadal—though gained some credit at the Laver Cup.
The Spaniard’s big test is unlikely to come before the semis, but for the 36-year-old Federer, the heavyweight tests come from the fourth round—unless Richard Gasquet turns around a long run of losses in the third round. Milos Raonic and Sam Querrey have firepower, as does del Potro in the quarters, and the Argentine also has the psychological advantage of knowing that he has regularly pushed Federer to the limits.
Should it be Goffin rather than del Potro in the quarters, the Belgian out-foxed Federer in London in some style, coming from a set down, and his confidence and tennis are growing with every tournament.
All that said—and despite the prospect of some of the biggest names in tennis blocking progress through to final Sunday—Federer’s confidence, fitness and form are all a cut above this time last year: In his only outing this year, the Hopman Cup, he looked impressive in notching up 4-0 in singles matches, including Sock and Zverev.
The Swiss says it is win-win for him: just being in Melbourne and fit to play again is a plus. But make no mistake: He will still leave everything on the court in his attempt to lift that 20th Major trophy.
Previous champions and finalists in draws
Djokovic (six), Federer (five, and defending), Nadal (one), Wawrinka (one). NB These four together have won the last 12 titles.
Murray, Kei Nishikori, Steve Darcis
Tour winners/runners up this year
Kyrgios beat Ryan Harrison
Monfils beat Rublev
Gilles Simon beat Kevin Anderson
SFs: Medvedev, Fabio Fognini, Alex de Minaur, Benoit Paire
SFs: David Ferrer, Robin Haase, Roberto Bautista Agut, del Potro
R1: Victor Estrella Burgos
R2: Leonardo Mayer or Nicolas Jarry
R3: No28 Damir Dzumhur
R4: No16 Isner or No24 Diego Schwartzman
QF: No10 Pablo Carreno Busta, No23 Muller, No31 Pablo Cuevas, No6 Cilic
SF: No3 Dimitrov, No8 Sock: also here Anderson, Tsonga, Kyrgios
R3: No30 Rublev
R4: No17 Kyrigos or No15 Tsonga
QF: No11 Anderson, No18 Lucas Pouille, No27 Philipp Kohlschreiber, No8 Sock
SF: No1 Nadal, No6 Cilic: also here Isner, Carreno Busta
R1: Thomas Fabbiano
R2: Mikhail Kukushkin or Peter Gojowczyk
R3: No32 Mischa Zverev
R4: No14 Djokovic or No21 Albert Ramos-Vinolas
QF: No5 Thiem, No26 Adrian Mannarino, No20 Bautista Agut, No9 Wawrinka
SF: No7 Goffin, No2 Federer: also here Raonic, del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Querrey
R1: Aljaz Bedene
R2: Jan-Lennard Struff or Soonwoo Kwon
R3: No29 Gasquet
R4: No22 Raonic, No13 Querrey
QF: No12 del Potro, No19 Berdych, No25 Fognini, No7 Goffin
SF: No4 Zverev, No5 Thiem: also here Djokovic, Wawrinka
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge