Australian Open preview: Novak Djokovic pursues history – but so do Federer and Murray

Marianne Bevis previews the men's draw at the Australian Open, where Novak Djokovic is the favourite to retain his title

‘Perfect’ Djokovic

The chorus of opinion, ahead of the first Grand Slam of 2016, could hardly be more harmonious. Experts, fellow players, the media and fans alike are singing from the same song-sheet: Novak Djokovic looks a dead cert to win a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title. The reasons are simple and plentiful.

For the second time in five years, the mighty Serb won three of the four Majors in 2015, and for the first time joined only Roger Federer and Rod Laver in reaching the final of all four.

He ended 2015 as No1 for the fourth time in five years, and with almost twice as many points as the second player.

He did not fall short of the final all year after losing in the first week in Doha, winning 11 titles from 15 finals—all except one at Masters or Grand Slam level: an 82-6 run. He became the first man to win four World Tour Finals in a row—and has already remedied that early Doha loss by winning it a fortnight ago.

When opponents such as 14-time Grand Slam champion and former world No1 Rafael Nadal, who won just three games from Djokovic in that Doha final, use words like ‘perfect’, people take notice. And this is how Nadal described his great rival after Doha: “I know [of] nobody playing tennis like this ever. I never saw somebody playing at this level… When I say perfect, is not one thing in particular, it’s everything.”

No wonder Djokovic is the odds-on favourite to win in Melbourne, a place where he has thrived more than any Major, where he won the first of his 10 Grand Slams, and the first of five Australian titles, in 2008.

The Swiss challenge

Where, then, do we look for challengers? Well judging from last year, it is to the Swiss. Federer and Stan Wawrinka accounted for four of the Serb’s five losses after Doha in 2015, Federer three times, Wawrinka famously denying him the French Open title. Andy Murray was the only other victor, in the Montreal final.

Federer, not for the first time, has records of his own to break in Australia, not least extending his lead at the top of the Grand Slam list with an 18th Major title. Before that can become a possibility, the 34-year-old aims to extend his Open Era record for Grand Slam match-wins, which stands just three shy of 300. He will extend his record streak of Grand Slam appearances to 65 and is only three short of the record total, the 70 Majors played by Fabrice Santoro.

He has fallen, as the No3 seed, into Djokovic’s half, so there will be no repeat of their last two Grand Slam finals. However, it looks as though, if anyone has the game to beat Djokovic, perhaps Federer’s aggressive all-court combination of touch-and-pace, angle-and-spin, and tactical wizardry is it.

Failing that, maybe the answer lies in the power and penetration of Wawrinka, one of the few players able to hit through the court and through Djokovic, off and into both wings.

The No4 ranked Swiss, like Murray at the bottom of the draw, is going for a third Grand Slam, and if there is one place both those men could make the breakthrough, it is Australia.

Few will forget how close Wawrinka came to beating Djokovic in the fourth round in Melbourne in 2013, finally going out 10-12 in the fifth set. Few will forget, too, how he avenged that loss the next year to beat Djokovic 9-7 in the quarters—then beating Tomas Berdych and Nadal in four sets. Last year, he faced Djokovic yet again, losing a five-setter in the semis. This year, he can only meet Djokovic in the final—though the friends have already practised together in Rod Laver arena—but in his way are Nadal and Murray.

Fifth time lucky for Murray?

The No2-seeded Briton has every reason to be confident in Australia. Since his fourth-round loss in 2009, he has fallen short of the final only twice, reaching the semis in 2012 and the quarters in 2014. In three of his four finals, he lost to Djokovic, and this year could meet the top man in the final again.

Murray’s problem is that he has won just one match in their last 11: His exact contemporary has opened clear water since Murray beat him to win Wimbledon in 2013, despite the Montreal win last summer.

However, Murray’s form has been on an upward trajectory: He stands at a career high No2, has coach Amelie Mauresmo back in his camp, has looked more confident and happy than ever since winning the Davis Cup, and is soon to become a father. Perhaps 2016, which also brings the chance to defend Olympic gold, will see Murray’s stars align.

Can Nadal solve his Djokovic ‘problem’?

Nadal’s Australian credentials are impressive. He may have won only once Down Under but since his quarter-final run in 2007, he has never fallen short of the same level, has reached the semis once, the final twice and won in 2009. And he very nearly beat Djokovic to the title in 2012, the infamous record-maker that lasted just seven minutes short of six hours. Indeed aside from Roland Garros, that is his best winning percentage in Grand Slam play.

Nadal’s problem is the same as Murray’s, however. Djokovic now dominates the match-up—he has one win in their last 10. And the Spaniard is still working his way back to full form and confidence after an injury- and illness-marred end to 2014. Whether he is back to the required consistency to beat first Wawrinka and then Murray before taking on Djokovic is still unproven. So tennis may have to wait until clay for the big-title-winning Nadal to fully emerge—though if he did win in Australia in a fortnight’s time, he would become the only man in the Open era to win two career Grand Slams.

Is the next generation ready?

Milos Raonic, even with time out for injury during 2015, hit a career-high No4 last year, and comes to Melbourne with a feather in his cap: victory over Federer in Brisbane. His game is big, his forward-moving tactics evolving, and his movement improving. He joins up with Carlos Moya for the first time in Melbourne, where he is drawn in Wawrinka’s eighth—along with 23-year-old No25 seed, Jack Sock. The powerful American won his first title last year, and has beaten Kevin Anderson and David Ferrer to reach the final in Auckland.

Bernard Tomic is seeded at 16, his highest in a Major, beat Kei Nishikori in Brisbane, and ran Raonic desperately close. He retired in the semis in Sydney this week, but he is drawn in Murray’s eighth, and has yet to win a set from the Briton.

Grigor Dimitrov is coming off a poor year that saw him slip from No10 in February to a current 28. But he looks revitalised this year, gave Federer a three-set run for his money in Brisbane, and has made the finals in Sydney. He is in Federer’s eighth, along with another strong, improving talent, Dominic Thiem, seeded 19. The Austrian won his first three titles last year, and reached the semis in Brisbane—though retired with blisters in Sydney.

No6 seed Tomas Berdych, who has reached the quarters of the last five Australian Opens and the semis of the last two, picks up perhaps the most dangerous youngster, Nick Kyrgios, a flamboyant shot-maker who thrives on the big stage—and his home Australian Open produced his only junior Major title and a quarter-final run here last year. He beat Wawrinka, Raonic and Federer last year, and sizzled at the Hopman Cup, beating Murray, in the first week of this year. Also in this section, just outside the seedings, is impressive teenager Borna Coric, who reached his first final in Chennai last week. He also beat Murray in Dubai last year.

Lleyton Hewitt: the farewell

The bristling, blood-on-the-court Aussie has stirred the spirits through 66 Majors, but the 34-year-old is hanging up his racket at his 20th Australian Open. He has a wild card and a kind draw in the early rounds, but the two-time Grand Slam winner’s success in Melbourne has been surprisingly poor: He made it beyond the fourth round only once, losing in the 2005 final. That won’t stop every remaining match being packed to rafters—and rightly so.

Former Australian Open champions in draw: Novak Djokovic (5), Roger Federer (4), Rafael Nadal (1), Stan Wawrinka (1)

Other Grand Slam champions: Lleyton Hewitt (2), Marin Cilic (1), Andy Murray (2)

Who falls where?

Djokovic: the French quarter

R1: No51 Hyeon Chung (winner of the ATP’s most improved player in 2015)
R2: Quentin Halys or Ivan Dodig
R3: First seed No28 Andreas Seppi (who shocked Federer in R3 last year)
R4: No22 Ivo Karlovic (one of the few to beat Djokovic last year, in Doha) or No14 Gilles Simon
QF: No9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (the former finalist opens against another former finalist, unseeded Marcos Baghdatis) or in-form No17 Benoit Paire will contest a QF place with No26 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez or No7 Kei Nishikori
SF: Federer, Berdych, Kyrgios, Dimitrov, Cilic are all possibles

Matches to catch:

R1 Simon vs Pospisil
R1 Tsonga vs Baghdatis
R1 Nishikori vs Kohlschreiber
R3 Tsonga vs Paire

Federer: the ‘young guns’ quarter

R1: No117 Nikoloz Basilashvili
R2: The always-tricky No36 Alexandr Dolgopolov or Ricardas Berankis
R3: First seed No27 Dimitrov
R4: No19 Thiem or No 15, David Goffin
QF: Berdych, Cilic and Kyrgios are potential quarter-final opponents, with Coric, Nicolas Almagro and Briton Kyle Edmund in the mix
SF: A potential 45th career meeting with Djokovic: they are locked at 22-22, having shared their two matches at the World Tour Finals and contested seven finals last year.

Matches to catch:
R1 Thiem vs Mayer
R1 Goffin vs Stakhovsky
R1 Kyrgios vs Carreno Busta
R2 Cilic vs Coric
R3 Federer vs Dimitrov
R3 Goffin vs Thiem
R3 Kyrgios vs Berdych

Wawrinka: the qualifiers quarter (8 of them)

R1: Dmitry Tursunov (protected ranking)
R2: Qualifier
R3: First seed No21 Sock
R4: No13 Raonic or No21 Viktor Troicki (finalist in Sydney). Veteran Tommy Robredo is a floater
QF: Should be against Nadal, but the No5 seed faces tough opener against Fernando Verdasco in a replay of epic five-and-a-quarter-hour 2009 semi-final. Thence Nadal has a decent draw (Benjamin Becker, Jeremy Chardy) until fourth round, where he could find No11 Kevin Anderson or No23 Gael Monfils, though both have had injury niggles this year already.
SF: Hard to see beyond Murray, but Ferrer, John Isner and Tomic are possibles

Matches to catch:
R1 Nadal vs Verdasco
R1 Chardy vs Gulbis
R2 Sock vs Rosol
R3 Wawrinka vs Sock
R3 Monfils vs Anderson

Murray: The Australian quarter (7 of them)

R1: No83 Alexander Zverev (Australian boys champion in 2014, now aged 18)
R2: No66 Sam Groth or No44 Adrian Mannarino
R3: First seed (the lowest) No32 Joao Sousa
R4: No20 Fabio Fognini or No16 Tomic
QF: Scheduled to be Ferrer, but the Spaniard could face Hewitt in R2 and Briton Aljaz Bedene (recently SF in Chennai though withdrew with a leg problem in Auckland) in R3. Also in Ferrer’s eighth are No10 Isner and No18 Feliciano Lopez
SF: Scheduled to be Wawrinka or Nadal

Matches to catch:
R1 Murray vs Zverev
R1 Isner vs Janowicz
R1 Bolelli vs Baker
R2 Hewitt vs Ferrer
R3 Tomic vs Fognini

MORE: Australian Open 2016 preview: Can Azarenka reclaim title from Serena Williams?

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