Australian Open preview: Djokovic, Federer locked in race for title and No1

Marianne Bevis takes a look ahead to the men's draw at the Australian Open, which gets under way on Monday

There is a certain symmetry between the men’s draw at this year’s Australian Open and the women’s draw.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, just like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, will be playing not just for the title but also for the No1 ranking.

Not that the top two men will face off for No1 in the final: Djokovic would need to fall before the fourth round and Federer win his fifth title for the top spot to change hands. And the draws, many agree, do not favour such a scenario.

There is a symmetry, too, in there being a ‘rogue’ presence—arguably two of them—in the men’s draw, just like the unseeded Victoria Azaranka on the women’s side. Juan Martin del Potro, like Azarenka, has slipped down the rankings due to injury—and he too fell into the top seed’s quarter.

The other ‘rogue’ in the pack is Andy Murray because, despite his status as a member of ‘the big four’, he is currently seeded No6 after a difficult return to form from back surgery. So Murray was ranked to meet Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal before the semis and, just as last year, he fell to Federer who, in 2014, found himself in the exact same position, No6, after a season of back injury.

The 2015 draw is led by the quartet that has claimed victory in Melbourne before. Federer and Djokovic have four titles apiece, Nadal the 2009 trophy, and Stan Wawrinka won his first Major here last year. However this is the Major that can often throw up new stars, and there are many in the Melbourne pool who could cause a few ripples.

US Open finalist Kei Nishikori has proved himself a worthy No5, with wins last year over Djokovic and Federer, Wawrinka and Murray, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov.

And that last duo has been closing the gap on the elite and edging into the top 10 with Grand Slam semi runs. Just last week, Raonic came within a hair’s breadth of beating Federer in Brisbane having already beaten him at the Paris Masters. In 2014, Dimitrov won three titles and scored wins over Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic and Tomas Berdych.

And a still younger generation is ready and willing to take advantage of less-than-perfect tennis by senior colleagues. Teenager Borna Coric beat Nadal and Ernest Gulbis in Basel, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios exploded into the Wimbledon quarters via Nadal and Richard Gasquet. Dominic Thiem beat Wawrinka, Gulbis, Gilles Simon and Feliciano Lopez last season, and just misses out on a seeding in Melbourne. Now big left-hander Jiri Vesely has won his first title in Auckland.

There is one more unknown quantity in Melboune: Nadal. That he retains the No3 ranking after missing months of the 2014 season with wrist and back problems as well as appendicitis, speaks volumes. So while he looked a touch rusty on his return to the tour, adversity has only ever sharpened his competitive edge. Nadal reached the final last year, despite a sore back, beating Nishikori, Dimitrov and Federer in the process. This year, he may have to beat Murray or Federer to reach the final—but don’t put it past him.

Novak Djokovic quarter

It’s unusual nowadays for Djokovic to play a ranking tournament before the Australian Open, especially after the Mubadala event in Abu Dhabi, but he did so this year.

The new father took time off after retaining the end-of-year championships, and clearly aims to be match-sharp for his pursuit of an Open-era record five Australian titles. That Federer is chasing the same record and the top ranking may also have added a little spur.

It is hard to see Djokovic being overly taxed in the first week: He opens against a qualifier, has No31 seed Fernando Verdasco as his first seed, followed by Roberto Bautista Agut or John Isner, with Raonic in the quarters. He has a 4-0 record against the Canadian, though Raonic is looking a much more complete player this season: He pushed an in-form Federer to the limit in Brisbane.

Raonic also opens against a qualifier, but has a tougher eighth than Djokovic: Lleyton Hewitt a possible third-round opponent and Gael Monfils or del Potro in the fourth—though Jerzy Janowicz is a dangerous opener for del Potro, especially if the big Argentine’s left wrist is hindering his backhand.

Briton James Ward, enjoying his first main-draw entry in Australia, has a difficult first match against Verdasco—and should he progress, the prospect of Djokovic in the third round.

Matches to catch: Ward vs Verdasco, R1; Thiem vs Bautista Agut, R1; del Potro vs Janowicz, R1; Raonic vs Monfils, R4

Quarter-final: Djokovic vs Raonic

Stan Wawrinka quarter

The defending champion also appears to have a relatively trouble-free first week, especially if he produces the form he showed at the end of 2014. He has Marsel Ilhan in his opener, Pablo Cuevas as his first seed, and the unpredictable Fabio Fognini in the fourth round.

The Italian faces a couple of unseeded players capable of causing an upset, too—Vasek Pospisil and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez—with the equally unpredictable Alexandr Dolgopolov competing for a fourth-round place.

The other eighth looks more challenging, with No9 seed David Ferrer, who looked revitalised in winning the Doha title, lined up to meet Nishikori in the fourth round. Ferrer has the punishing Simon as a first seed, and a tricky opener in Thomaz Bellucci. Nishikori’s first opponent may also be tough, the returning former top-10 Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro.

Nishikori and Ferrer met four times last year, and every contest went to three sets. All the worse, then, that the winner may then have to take on defending champion Wawrinka in the quarters.

British qualifier Kyle Edmund is also in Nishikori’s segment, playing 39-ranked Steve Johnson in his opener.

Matches to catch: Ferrer vs Bellucci, R1; Nishikori vs Almagro, R1; Dolgopolov vs Fognini, R3; Simon vs Ferrer, R3; Ferrer vs Nishikori, R4

Quarter-final: Wawrinka vs Nishikori

Rafael Nadal quarter

It is unusual to see Mikhail Youzhny outside the seedings, for the last time the former top-10 Russian was ranked as low as his present 47 was in 2009. With more losses than wins last year, the 32-year-old looks a less daunting first-round opponent for Nadal than was once the case.

Nadal then faces either wild card or qualifier before facing a series of big-hitting men on his way to a quarter-final against Berdych. His first seed may be Lukas Rosol, who famously beat him at Wimbledon in 2012—and pushed him hard there last year too—followed by either Kevin Anderson or Richard Gasquet.

Nadal’s form is unproven thus far this year, so the in-form Berdych, who has reached at least the quarters in Australia for the last four years, and the semis last year, is certainly dangerous. He, though, could also face some big-hitting opposition, including 21-year-old Vesely and the returning Viktor Troicki, who has just triumphed in Sydney. Berdych’s fourth-round seeds include Philipp Kohlschreiber and Ernests Gulbis, both dangerous on their day.

Matches to catch: Nadal vs Youzhny, R1; Vesely vs Troicki, R1; Gulbis vs Kokkinakis, R1; Rosol vs Nadal, R3; Gulbis vs Berdych, R4

Quarter-final: Nadal vs Berdych

Roger Federer quarter

Federer enjoyed one of the best seasons on the tour in 2014—including the most match-wins and most finals—and took barely a break between winning the Davis Cup, joining the IPTL in Delhi, playing a charity exho at Christmas and launching into 2015 with the Brisbane title. So there is no doubting his current form, nor his prowess in Australia. He has reached the semis for the last 11 years and won the title four times. But he will need all his resources to reach a 12th.

As last year, he finds Murray in his quarter, but before that, the man who beat him in the US Open in 2013, Tommy Robredo, or Ivo Karlovic, at his highest ranking in six years and with Djokovic’s scalp already this year—though Kyrgios will fancy his chances in this segment, too.

Even the first week has its trip wires. Opening seed Jeremy Chardy has taken Federer to three close sets in all three meetings, and beat him in Rome last year, Every player in this corner, other than No90-ranked Coric, is ranked over 60—including Juan Monaco, Andreas Seppi and Federer’s first opponent, the 46-ranked Yen-Hsen Lu, giving this segment the toughest average ranking in the draw.

The Murray eighth starts well for the Briton with a qualifier, with the lowest seed in the draw, Martin Klizan, in the third round. Then it could become very tough, with Grigor Dimitrov or David Goffin set to contest a fourth-round place.

Dimitrov beat Murray twice last year, including the Wimbledon quarters—so a match to relish. And a quarter-final between Murray and Federer is also a blockbuster: They scored a win apiece in the last two years at Melbourne.

Matches to catch: Chardy vs Coric, R1; Dimitrov vs Brown, R1; Kyrgios vs Karlovic, R2; Goffin vs Dimitrov, R3; Federer vs Chardy, R3; Dimitrov vs Murray, R4

Quarter-final: Federer vs Murray

MORE: Australian Open: Women’s draw preview

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