Australian Open 2016 men's draw breakdown: Is it time to start calling this the Novak Djokovic Open?
Wimbledon has its history and prestige, the French Open has the gruelling, gladiatorial theatre, and the US Open has all the glitz and glamour. What does the Australian Open have?
Something that none of the other three Slams can ever hope to possess: the platform for everything that takes place in the tennis season. The results at the Australian Open usually set the tone for the rest of the year, with the big winners Down Under carrying their confidence forward – sometimes even turning in all-time great seasons on the back of that initial breakthrough.
So who's going to register that vital confidence-boosting performance in Melbourne this year? This decade there's been very little to cheer at Melbourne for any player not named Novak Djokovic, so much so that there have been calls to rename the tournament as the ‘Novak Djokovic Open'. But anything can happen in tennis, as the cliche goes, so here's a breakdown of the men's draw:
First quarter: The Djokovic juggernaut marches on (and on and on and on....?)
Let's cut out all the riff-raff here, and get straight to the point: is there anyone around Djokovic who looks even remotely capable of unseating the World No. 1 from his perch? The short answer – no.
The Serb starts against talented Korean youngster Hyeon Chung, but don't expect the teenager to challenge the top guys yet. Andreas Seppi, Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic are some of the other obstacles in Djokovic's path, but unless Karlovic wins his first three matches AND then serves from a tree, there's little to stop the top seed from reaching the quarterfinals.
On the other side of the quarter is the almost-forgotten Kei Nishikori, whose win over Djokovic seems at the US Open seems like a generation ago. The Japanese has been struggling with injuries, as always, and enters Melbourne with very little momentum. That would seem to open the door for all the other contenders here...if there were any.
The next highest seed in Nishikori's section is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who's done well at Melbourne in the past, but arrives this year with barely any confidence. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Benoit Paire find themselves here too, but neither is known for performing particularly well at the Slams (aside from Paire's run at the US Open last year).
I am almost tempted to pick Nishikori's first-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, as the dark horse to emerge from this section. But I'll go with a known quantity instead, and plump for former finalist Tsonga to be the fifth victim of Djokovic at this tournament.
Prediction: Djokovic def. Tsonga
Dark horse: Benoit Paire
Second quarter: Federer and Berdych face the group of death
The common consensus lately has been that if Federer is ever going to win another Slam, he'll need a really good draw to help him along. By that logic he's definitely not going to win that elusive 18th Major in Melbourne this year, because he's been placed in a quarter that would have been called the 'group of death’ if this were a football tournament.
Federer starts against the seemingly innocuous Nikoloz Basilashvili, but then faces a murderer's row of opponents: Alexandr Dolgopolov (2r), Grigor Dimitrov (3r), and David Goffin or Dominic Thiem (4r).
On the other side of the quarter, Tomas Berdych doesn't have it much easier – while he starts with a straightforward match against India's Yuki Bhambri, he could face Nick Kyrgios in the third round and one of Marin Cilic, Borna Coric or Roberto Bautista-Agut in the fourth.
If Federer and Berdych get past all those obstacles, they would be rewarded with a quarterfinal against each other – a match-up that isn't particularly favourable to either of them at the moment.
Prediction: Federer def. Kyrgios
Dark horse: Borna Coric
Third quarter: Nadal returns to face his ghosts
One of the biggest questions heading into 2016 was how long it would take Rafael Nadal to re-establish his place in the top 4. And his first tournament of the year, at the Qatar Open in Doha, gave a few answers but also raised a few more questions.
While the Spaniard seems to have rediscovered his famed ability of winning matches through sheer grit even when he's not at his best, his limp performance against Djokovic in the final made us all wonder whether he'll ever challenge the Serb again. Fortunately for him, he won't be seeing Djokovic anytime before the final, so that's half the battle won already.
Or is it? Nadal starts against Fernando Verdasco, the man who memorably stretched the Spaniard to his absolutel limit back in the 2009 semifinal. Gael Monfils lurks in this section too, and so does Kevin Anderson – both opponents who could trouble Nadal, at least on paper. But the 14-time Slam champion should still be favoured to make the quarterfinals, which is where things could get REALLY interesting.
You guessed it right; the man slated to meet Nadal in the Round of 8 is none other than Stan Wawrinka, who's made the Australian Open something of a home Slam in recent years. But the Swiss’ path is no cakewalk; among the slew of big servers he could face are Lukas Rosol or Jack Sock (potentially in the third round) and Milos Raonic or Victor Troicki (in the fourth).
If we do indeed get a Nadal-Wawrinka quarterfinal, the ghosts of the 2014 final could well be banished forever.
Prediction: Nadal def. Wawrinka
Dark horse: Jack Sock
Fourth quarter: Is Andy Murray's “No. 1 goal” a lost cause?
Andy Murray has gone on record to say that winning the Australian Open is his "No. 1 goal” this year. And it's not hard to see why; if any of us had lost four finals at a single Major, we'd be itching to get on the winners’ board too.
But how realistic is that goal, when the Scot knows he could have to leave the tournament mid-way if his wife goes into labour? More importantly, does he really believe he's good enough to win, considering he has publicly expressed hope that Djokovic's otherworldly level of play would drop soon?
Murray's draw does seem to give him a bit of a lifeline though. He starts his campaign against Alexander Zverev, a talented teenager who the Scot handily defeated at the Hopman Cup last week, and doesn't seem likely to encounter much trouble until the fourth round, where he could face Bernard Tomic or Fabio Fognini.
Murray's potential quarterfinal opponent, David Ferrer, doesn't seem like an insurmountable hurdle either. Ferrer has never been a great big-match player, and he just lost in the Auckland semifinal, a tournament that he has pretty much owned through the years.
There ARE a couple of noteworthy names in this quarter though. Lleyton Hewitt, playing the last tournament of his career, faces his countryman James Duckworth in Round 1 and could run into Ferrer after that. And John Isner, who impressed with his steady play last season, seems to have a relatively clear road until the third round, where he could face Feliciano Lopez.
Could any of these gentlemen derail Murray's avowed goal? Not likely.
Prediction: Murray def. Isner
Dark horse: Bernard Tomic