It is no accident that Melbourne Park’s showpiece centre court is named after Laver, for he it was who won the first Open in Australia 50 years ago. That 1969 title would be the first in his calendar Grand Slam, having also won a pre-Open Grand Slam in 1962. He is still the only player ever to have won two calendar Slams.
Roger Federer, in the foreword to Laver’s autobiography, spoke for many about the modest Australian’s achievement:
“Few sports have a longer or richer history than tennis and no player occupies a bigger part of that history than Rod Laver. From my earliest tennis memories, Rod ‘the Rocket’ Laver stood above all others as the greatest champion our sport has ever known.”
Appropriate, then, that 50 years later, two of today’s greats, Federer himself and world No1 Novak Djokovic, should be targeting records of their own on Laver’s ‘home’ court, while the third of tennis’s modern triumvirate, Rafael Nadal, could also seal a piece of history.
The top three seeds have, between them, held the No1 ranking for the last 15 years—aside from Andy Murray’s 41-week residency between 2016 and 2017—and each took a turn during the last year. They have won 50 of the last 60 Majors, and 12 of the last 13 Australian Opens, with just Stan Wawrinka able to break their Melbourne stranglehold in 2014 by beating Nadal in the final.
So amid a near bottomless pit of records held by the three, what new milestones could they tick off with victory in Melbourne in 2019?
· Both Federer and Djokovic are targeting a men’s all-time record seventh Australian title.
· Federer could overtake Ken Rosewall to become the oldest male Major champion.
· Djokovic could move ahead of the Pete Sampras tally of 14 Major titles to go third on the all-time men’s list with 15. So he, Nadal (17) and Federer (20) would top the ranks there, too.
· Nadal is bidding to become the first man in the Open era, and only the third in history, to win each of the four Majors twice.
· Federer is aiming to win his 100th title; only Jimmy Connors has reached three figures, though with just eight Major titles among them.
But to break any new records, this year’s champion faces two weeks of intense competition, in the gruelling long-form, best-of-five format, and invariably in challenging weather conditions. And he will have to win seven matches in a field that, this year more than most, poses a lot of big-name trip-wires early in the draw.
Murray, a five-time Australian Open finalist, three-time Major champion, and twice winner of Olympic gold, was unable to play in Melbourne last year after resorting to long-delayed hip surgery. So he arrived in Melbourne ranked No230 with a protected ranking after playing just six tournaments in 2018. He opened his campaign with a Round 1 win in Brisbane but was beaten by Daniil Medvedev in Round 2—and is still limping with some hip pain.
The unseeded Murray is in Federer’s quarter, but will be more concerned about earlier problems. His first opponent, No22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, won the Doha title last week, beating Wawrinka and Djokovic in the process. US Open quarter-finalist, the upwardly mobile John Millman, could be next, and then one of the most dangerous among the wave of young stars newly into the top ranks, Paris Masters champion, No10 seed Karen Khachanov. As if that was not enough, No6 seed and last year’s runner up, Marin Cilic is favourite to reach the fourth round and beyond.
Then there is that ‘other’ Australian champion, also a three-time Major winner working his way back from surgery, Wawrinka. The still-unseeded Swiss attempted an early return from double knee surgery last January, but it would take most of 2018 to start picking off stronger opposition. Is he back to peak fitness? He will need to be, with the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis in the first round, followed by the even more dangerous Milos Raonic or sometimes brilliant, wayward and unseeded Australian, Nick Kyrgios.
This little segment is buried in No4 seed Alexander Zverev’s eighth, along with Gilles Simon, Jack Sock and Jeremy Chardy—each capable of upsets on a good day. It is an unenviable prospect for one of the young players tipped to break the ‘big three’ stranglehold, and the fourth round may bring either No7 seed Dominic Thiem or the impressive young Croat and No11 seed, Borna Coric.
Two more unseeded dangers balance out the quarters. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a former Australian finalist, is also working back from knee surgery, and showed some regained form to reach the semis in Brisbane. In Melbourne with a wild card, he could be an early test, in Round 2, for Djokovic.
Meanwhile, Nadal could face the 57-ranked Tomas Berdych in the third round as the big Czech returns from a six-month absence with back injury—and he made a promising start by reaching the final in Doha.
Berdych, though, is the first opponent for last year’s semi-finalist, Kyle Edmund, who is seeded No13. The Briton ended 2018 with his first title, but picked up a knee injury after an opening loss in Brisbane last week. However, he looked fit enough in a two-hour training session with Federer in Melbourne, so this is an intriguing opener.
Zverev, age just 21, has been the leading light of the new generation for a couple of years, but it has taken hard work and time for his rangy 6ft6in frame to develop the strength and stamina for the rigours of Major territory.
Yet among 10 titles, he now has three Masters, and took a further step with the Nitto ATP Finals title in November. He is a solid member of the top five with wins over Federer and Djokovic to his name, and could indeed overtake Federer into No3 with a good run: He lost in third round last year, and Federer has championship points to defend.
So Zverev remains the leading light—depending upon the accuracy of injury rumours emerging from a practice session in Melbourne—despite some tough early matches.
But what of the other four 22-and-under men who are seeded in that valuable top-16 region? Khachanov, ranked 10, closed 2018 with his own Masters title, one of three trophies in 2018, and with an increasingly big and confident game. That final title came via Djokovic, Thiem, Zverev, and John Isner—no mean feat.
Close behind him is Coric, seeded 11, who made two finals in 2016 before undergoing knee surgery and has now come back bigger, stronger and with more all-court skill. He beat Federer for the Halle title, made the Shanghai Masters final, and the semis at Indian Wells. He has a decent draw as far as Thiem, with whom he has contested two close matches in the last eight months.
No14 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has made a big splash with his tall frame, flowing hair, and flamboyant shot-making—including a single-handed backhand. From 91 at the start of last year, he ended his season at 15 with final runs in Barcelona and Toronto, losing to Nadal on both occasions, but beating Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev and Kevin Anderson along the way.
With an increasingly attacking game and net skills, he has become many pundits’ tip for a breakthrough Major run. Still only 20, he has a decent enough draw to set a fourth-round showdown with his idol, Federer, their first meeting aside from the Hopman Cup a fortnight ago—though the Swiss may first have to negotiate a man who has troubled him before, Gael Monfils.
The fourth young player to have broken from the pack in the last year is Medvedev, up to 16 from 65 last year via his first three titles, and he has already been runner-up in Sydney this month with wins over Murray, Raonic and Tsonga. He, too, is a big and expressive player, and if he gets past David Goffin, could be looking at Djokovic in the fourth round.
Another young player who stand out is No27 seed Alex de Minaur, age just 19, and one of the more slight and speedy new stars to emerge in the last year. But his first seed may be Nadal in Round 3.
Nadal, with one title and three finals to his name in Melbourne, is playing his first main-tour event since retiring injured against Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open. Once past de Minaur, he could move on to two of the biggest challenges on a tennis court, Isner or Anderson. The latter in particular has proven himself an increasingly impressive opponent into his 30s. Just ask Federer and Isner, who were beaten by him in successive marathons at Wimbledon last summer.
Meanwhile, at the other end of his half is last year’s runner-up, one of a small band of men to have won a Major title, Cilic. His, though, is in tough section that includes Andrey Rublev, Fernando Verdasco, then Murray, Bautista Agut or Khachanov, all before a possible Federer rematch.
Former champs in draw: Djokovic x6, Federer x6 (defending), Nadal x1, Wawrinka x1
Former finalists in draw: Murray x5, Tsonga x1, Cilic x1
Missing seeds: del Potro, Richard Gasquet
Britons in draw, and first opponents:
Murray (PR) vs Bautista Agut (22)
Edmund (13) vs Berdych
Norrie vs Taylor Fritz
NB Dan Evans also in last round of qualifying
Draw size 128: 32 seeds; 16 qualifiers; eight wild cards
R2 Tsonga or Martin Klizan
R3 First seed Denis Shapovalov (25)
R4 Seeds are Goffin (21) and Medvedev (15)
QF Seeds are Fabio Fognini (12), Pablo Carreno Busta (23), Philipp Kohlschreiber (32), Kei Nishikori (8)
SF Zverev and Thiem are top seeds
R1 Aljaz Bedene
R2 Chardy or Ugo Humbert
R3 First seed Simon (29)
R4 Seeds are Hyeon Chung (24) and Raonic (16)
QF Seeds are Coric (11), Marco Cecchinato (17) Lucas Pouille (28), Thiem (7)
SF Djokovic and Nishikori are top seeds
R1 Denis Istomin
R3 First seed Monfils (30)
R4 Seeds are Tsitsipas (14) and Nikoloz Basilashvili (19)
QF Seeds are Cilic (6), Verdasco (26), Bautista Agut (22), Khachanov (10)
SF Nadal and Anderson are top seeds
R1 James Duckworth
R2 Matthew Ebden or Jan-Lennard Struff
R3 First seed de Minaur (27)
R4 Seeds are Edmund (13) and Diego Schwartzman (18)
QF Seeds are Anderson (5), Steve Johnson (31), Grigor Dimitrov (20), Isner (9)
SF Federer and Cilic are top seeds
Discover the Australian Open schedule here
Find more background at Seeds & champs, facts & figures—setting the scene as first Major kicks off Down Under
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge