12 January, 2014

2014 Australian Open Men's Preview

Didn't we just see the confetti falling around a trophy-kissing Novak Djokovic in an indoor arena in London?  This is how it always feels when the tennis world pivots to the azure blue courts in Melbourne, but it never ceases to make you shake your head. The fleeting offseason has flown, the cash grab hit-and-giggles in far-flung outposts of the tennis world are a distant memory and all of the world's best (fit) tennis players have again converged in the stifling heat of Melbourne for one of their four annual chances at tennis immortality.

As the new season truly gets underway, we take a look at the men's singles draw of the Australian Open. We do so in a bit of a different fashion than before, but with the same end game: to prep you for two weeks of big, big tennis in the land down under.

The Storyline - Throwback Fortnight

Ivan Lendl, plus Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang and Sergi Brugrera.  If that sounds like the quarterfinals of an early 90s French Open to you, you're not alone.  As most tennis fans are aware by now, those Champions Tour refugees are returning to the big stage to coach some of the major contenders for this Australian Open title. 

Lendl's success transforming Murray from the best player to never win a major to a slam-dunk Hall of Famer has inspired many of the Great Scot's contemporaries to add former champions to their own payrolls.  Novak Djokovic's pairing with Becker is the most intriguing of the bunch.  The 4-time Australian Open champion has hired a coach with virtually the same credentials as himself, but one who has no coaching experience.  Djokovic, strangely made the hire on the back of a 22-match win streak, concluding a deconstruction of his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal in London at the World Tour Final. It could be seen as a damning repudiation of the importance of the post-US Open season as there's ever been but there could be upside for the Serb. Maybe Becker will help steel Djokovic mentally from the dips in concentration that seem to plague his game; maybe he will help the Serb rely more on his serve in the big moments.  On the other hand, maybe Becker's outsized personality and lack of expertise in guiding a player other than himself will prove an insurmountable challenge to the success of the decision.  It's all a question mark right now, but it promises to be fascinating to watch. The Federer/Edberg, Chang/Nishikori and Brugera/Gasquet pairings are all attention grabbing, but in those cases the results seem much less tied to the success of the coaches than the ceilings of the players themselves at this stage of their careers.  Becker/Djokovic, on the other hand, could go either way.

The First Round Throwdown

Bernard Tomic is known for a few things: his preternatural talent, his party-boy inclinations, his head-butting father/coach and his ability to find his very best tennis in his native Australia.  It's the latter that will potentially trouble Rafael Nadal in their first round match on night two of the tournament. That, the faster-than-he-remembers courts at Melbourne Park, the placement of his water bottles and of course his own body.  

Nadal got no favors when the draw for the tournament was made and the top seed got the 57th-ranked Aussie thrown his way, but neither did Tomic. The 6'5" Aussie's 2013 saw him win the tuneup event in Sydney and reach the 3rd round in Melbourne, losing in straight sets to Federer.  This time around, he was thrashed in the Sydney final by Juan Martin Del Potro 6-1, 6-3 and opens his home major against the World No. 1. Tomic is an incredible talent who can certainly test Nadal, especially the out-of-form version that scratched his way to the title in Doha two weeks ago. That said, last year Tomic notched just one win against a top ten player, a four-set battle over Gasquet at Wimbledon.  Expect an involved home crowd, an inspired Tomic, and a less-than-perfect Nadal, but don't expect an upset.

The Matches That Matter

Besides the Nadal/Tomic opener, here are four other first-round matches to lose sleep over:

(24) Andreas Seppi vs. Lleyton Hewitt - The aging Aussie battler (and Federer-slayer in Brisbane two weeks ago) has a tough opener versus the seeded Italian.  Hewitt expects to compete in Melbourne, and will certainly get a boost from the home crowd, but he still has to get past Seppi...the same Seppi who handled Hewitt in straight sets in Shanghai just a couple of months ago.

(23) Ernests Gulbis vs. Juan Monaco - Monaco are Gulbis are two talented, mercurial ballstrikers who are moving in opposite directions at the moment.  Gulbis seems to have buckled down in terms of dedication and is seeing the results.  Monaco is slumping and a late-2013 wrist injury didn't help matters.  The good news for Monaco is a 3-1 edge in their head-to-head, 3-0 in completed matches.  Will the start of a new season boost one, the other, or both in Melbourne? 

Marin Cilic vs. Marcel Granollers - The most compelling early round matches are almost always between closely ranked opponents.  Cilic returns from his doping suspension barely unseeded (World No. 36) and looking to regain his place amongst the tennis elite.  Granollers isn't exactly elite in singles, but ranked 35th, he's exactly one step ahead of Cilic.  Granollers, for his part, is also a former top 20 player and has won an ATP World Tour Finals title in doubles.  This could be a compelling, hard-fought contest between two players trying to re-assert themselves nearer the top of the game. 

Sam Querrey vs. Santiago Giraldo - Querrey wrapped a difficult 2013 ranked 46th in the world.  He joins the fray in 2014 looking to put a broken engagement and the resulting poor spell of tennis behind him.  He opens against the tough, hard-hitting Colombian in conditions that can be tough for big guys like himself and compatriot John Isner.  It's a nice section of the draw for the winner with Ernests Gulbis (who's facing his own first round challenge) the seed here.


Filling Out The Draw - The End Game

When all is said and done, we expect this Australian Open to be more formful than, say Wimbledon 2003, but not without intrigue.

Projected Quarterfinals:

(1) Nadal v. (5) Del Potro
(4) Murray v. (10) Tsonga
(7) Berdych v. (20) Janowicz
(2) Djokovic vs. (8) Wawrinka

For the record, I have Federer losing to Tsonga in R16.  We vacillated between Pospisil and Wawrinka in the bottom section quarterfinal.  Though we picked Janowicz to slug his way past a fading David Ferrer to take on Tomas Berdych in the quarters, you can laugh heartily later when Janowicz loses his first rounder...but if he doesn't...!

Projected Semifinals:

(1) Nadal v. (4) Murray
(2) Djokovic v. (20) Janowicz

Jerzy Janowicz is a wildly inconsistent competitor who loves a big stage. If the conditions are playing fast as reported, we might all find ourselves "how many times" Janowicz can oust a higher seed.  With Ferrer the 3rd seed, No. 5 Del Potro getting outslugged by Nadal in the quarters and Murray finding enough form to get past Tsonga, the semis look set as above.

Projected Final:

(1) Nadal v. (2) Djokovic

So will the Norman Brookes Memorial Trophy be kissed or bitten at the end of the tournament?
Nadal will come into this final severely tested by a tough draw; while Djokovic may take a lump or two finding his equilibrium with a new head coach, but should be generally untroubled by his competition. Nadal missed the 2013 tourney with injury, but his last two trips to Melbourne Park ended with heartache. There was the injury that led to a dismantling by Ferrer and stopping his bid for a Rafa slam (2011) and the razor's edge loss in an epic final to Djokovic (2012).  The last three Australian Opens have ended for Djokovic in the same fashion, with him raising the trophy.

Nadal leads his head-to-head with Djokovic 22-17, but when it matters most, the majors, Nadal has won eight of their 11 meetings. Djokovic's only wins were in that Robo-Nole stretch between 2011-12.  When history is on the line, I'll put my (entirely theoretical) money on the trophy being bitten.


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