The Australian Open: five subplots to keep an eye on in the men’s draw

The first Grand Slam of the season is about to begin

Andy Murray, tennis, Novak Djokovic, Australian Open,

Andy Murray of Britain, left, speaks to Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning the ATP World Tour Finals singles final tennis match at the O2 Arena in London, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Monday will see the start of the 105th Australian Open in Melbourne Park. This year’s men’s draw is one filled with unanswered questions.

At the top of the draw there is world No.1 Andy Murray, bidding to win his maiden Melbourne major. One player standing in his way will be defending champion Novak Djokovic, who could potentially reclaim the world No.1 position with a run to a record seventh title.

Further down the draw are fan favourites Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Both men are on the comeback from injury, resulting in their seeds being 9th and 17th. Then there is the threat of young talents such as Alexander Zverev and a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov, who both have the ability to spring a shock. There will be a lot to comprehend over the next two weeks of play in Melbourne, but here are five topics that everybody should be keep an eye on.

How will Federer fare?

Six months ago the world of sport was stunned when Roger Federer announced an early end to his season. Never before had the 17-time grand slam champion had to forfeit his season due to injury. Last year was the first time he has had to undergo surgery on an injury in his entire career, an impressive record for a 35-year-old.

Federer’s hiatus came to an end earlier this month at the Hopman Cup, a mixed exhibition event. The return of the Swiss legend was one that broke records with Federer attracting record-breaking crowds to the event twice within a week. His Hopman Cup performance was also impressive, recording wins over Dan Evans and Richard Gasquet in the men’s singles. The only shortfall occurred against rising star Alexander Zverev, who he lost to in three close sets.

The Australian Open will be Federer’s first competitive tournament since his semi final loss to Milos Raonic at the Wimbledon Championships. Despite his 17th seed position, the draw gods are on Federer’s side, gifting him a duo of qualifiers in his two opening matches. His first match will be against Austria’s Gerald Melzer, a former top 10 player who has been blighted by injury in recent time.

In previous years Federer would have been one of the favourites to lift the trophy. This time round, he is relishing his underdog status.

"An underdog? Why not for a change?" said Federer. "I mean, I prefer to be the favourite. Underdog is OK. It’s fine.

"As long as I’m healthy and I feel like I can go four, five sets, and I can go many matches in a row, then I think it’s going to be fun.

"If I feel like I’m in pain in the matches, then obviously it’s no fun. But no, it’s a great draw because I’m in the draw."

Federer has reached at least the semi final stage of the Melbourne tournament in 12 out of the past 13 years (2015 being the one exception).

Federer’s potential route to the final

Melzer (Q): R1

Frantangelo(Q)/Rubin(Q) : R2

 

Berdych: 3rd round

Nishikori: 4th round

Murray: QF

Wawrinka / Cilic: SF

Will Novak Djokovic regain his dominance?

The second half of last year was one of the most testing periods in the career of Novak Djokovic. Since lifting his maiden French Open trophy, the Serbian struggled with motivational issues as well as injury. The lull paved way for Andy Murray to dominate the tour by winning five consecutive titles and snatching the No.1 ranking.

Djokovic’s resurgence began earlier this month at the Qatar Open. Battling his way to a final showdown with Andy Murray, the Serbian managed to edge the Brit out in just under three hours. The win ended Djokovic’s five-month title drought and Murray’s 28-match winning streak.

"Definitely one of the best ways to start a year," Djokovic said about his victory in Qatar.

"I had three or four match points in the second set, he turned it around and I thought: Wow! I hope this isn't payback time!

"He was close... all the way to the last shot you never know with Andy."

Two weeks later, Djokovic is hungry for more silverware with another potential showdown with Murray looming. His first match at the Melbourne tournament is one filled with intrigue. He will play Spain’s Fernando Verdasco, who recently failed to convert five match points against Djokovic in the Doha semi final. Further down the draw he face potential clashes against Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem before the semi finals. Whilst the title is the priority for Djokovic, he remains cautious about his first match.

"I just see it as a huge challenge. I hope I'll be able to deliver," he said about his opening match. "Fernando is a very complete player on any surface. [Any] given day, if things go right, he can beat really anybody on any surface.

"He's not overwhelmed by the occasion of playing on centre court."

If Murray loses before the semi finals and Djokovic goes on to win the title, the Serbian will reclaim the world No.1 ranking.

How will the next generation perform?

In 2016 the ATP launched the "next Generation" program, an initiative to promote and support the rising stars of the men’s game. One player headlining the Nextgen group in Melbourne will be 24th seed Alexander Zverev. At the age of 19, the German has already reached three finals on the tour, lifting his maiden title in St.Petersburg last year. Zverev started his 2017 season at the Hopman Cup, where he defeated Federer. The triumph earned him high praise from the Swiss player.

"I was very impressed with how he played because I’d played a few weeks earlier in Rome on clay and he was not that impressive,” Federer said of Zverev.

"And then all of a sudden I played him like month and a half later, the second time around that we play and I thought he was very good."

Growing up hitting balls against Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic as a young boy, Zverev in on a collision course with Rafael Nadal in the third round.

Nick Kyrgios is another emerging talent that has the ability to go deep in the tournament, if he can control his fragile temperament. A former quarter-finalist in Melbourne, the Australian is confident of a strong performance amid concerns over a knee injury.

"Yeah, it's feeling really good. I've done four or five treatments on it," Kyrgios told reporters at Melbourne Park on Saturday.

"Got one more tomorrow. Yeah, it's feeling a lot better since I last competed, which was in Perth. So I've had massive improvements in my knee."

Kyrgios and Zverev are two out of seven players aged under 21 that is ranked in the world’s top 100.

Players aged under 21 in the top 100

14) Nick Kyrgios
24) Alexander Zverev
51) Karen Khachanov
57) Borna Coric
65) Daniil Medvedev
91) Taylor Fritz
100) Yoshihito Nishioka


Can Nadal hold his form?

Troubled by a wrist injury in recent months, ninth seed Rafael Nadal enters Melbourne eager for redemption. The former 2009 champion crashed out in the first round last year to Fernando Verdasco.

Recently adding Carlos Moya to his team, Nadal started 2017 with a run to the quarter-finals at the Brisbane Open, where he was knocked out by top seed Milos Raonic. Prior to Brisbane, he won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, a exhibition event in the United Arab Emirates.

“I feel that I played six good matches (three in both Abu Dhabi and Brisbane), winning five, losing one. I’m going to fight for good things.” Said Nadal.

During those two tournaments, Nadal displayed glimmers of a return to the top of his form, but there is still room for further improvement. Bidding to win his first grand slam title since the 2014 French Open, the 30-year-old believes he can once again challenge the best in the world.

"If I believed that if could not have this chance during this next 11 months, I would be home fishing," Nadal said on Monday.

"My real goal is to try to compete for the important things and to compete for the important things I know I have I want to try to beat these guys.

"If I am working hard and I have the motivation and passion to keep going, I feel that if I am happy and I can work the way I want to be, I can be." 

Nadal will start his 13th Australian Open campaign on Tuesday.

Will Grigor Dimitrov fulfil his potential?

Since his run to the semi finals at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, Grigor Dimitrov is yet to score the breakthrough that many tipped him for. Nickname ‘Baby Fed’ due to his similarities to Roger Federer’s playing style, the Bulgarian peaked at a high of 8th in the world before spiralling down to a low of 40th in 2016.

Regardless of the mixed performance, few players have had a start to the new season like Dimitrov. After two-and-a-half-year title drought, he defeated top 10 players Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori to win Brisbane open. Bizarrely, he attributed the trio of wins to nightly visits to the arcades opposite his hotel.

"It's given me tremendous joy," he said.

"You know, it's something so childish. Every time I was going to bed, I was, like, 'Wow, that feels so good'. It's just something so small.

"That's why I say those, I think, these 10 days that I have been here... I don't remember the last time I felt that good on and off the court.

Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria holds the trophy after winning the final match against Kei Nishikori of Japan 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 at the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

"I don't remember having (so much) fun, but in the same time I was very focused, played quite solid all the matches. Overall, I just felt good."

It’s hard to be critical of Dimitrov's approach. Throughout the Brisbane tournament he dropped only four service games.

This year Dimitrov has pledged to work harder than before under the guidance of Dani Vallverdu, a man who previously mentored Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych.

"I'm pretty focused on myself right now, to be honest, and I'm really gonna stay away from all that—you know, talk or the commentary or anything like that." The world No.15 said.

"Because, as I said, I just want to do things and be with people in a way that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable to come out there every day.”

Dimitrov will play Australian wildcard Christopher O’Connell in the first round. If all goes to plan, he will face Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.

Grigor Dimitrov’s grand slam record in 2016

Australian Open - R3
French Open - R1
Wimbledon - R3
US Open - R4