The first Grand Slam of the new tennis year has taken a big step closer with the contenders for the Australian Open now knowing the likely path that stands between them and the title. For the famed Big Four of men’s tennis, the draw has thrown up contrasting routes through to what they hope will at the very least be an appearance in the final in just over two weeks’ time.
In many ways, any draw Djokovic is handed right now is immaterial. The Serbian is the dominant best player in the world, a fact reinforced when he started 2016 with an emphatic and scintillating win over Rafael Nadal to lift the Qatar Open title last week. And his quarter of the draw is certainly not the toughest he could have been handed. He’ll start off with talented but still raw South Korean teenager Hyeon Chung, before then facing either Croatian veteran Ivan Dodig or French wildcard Quentin Halys.
Even the first seed that Djokovic is scheduled to face, Andreas Seppi, has come out on the losing end in all 11 of their previous meetings. A tougher matchup could await in the fourth round, if Ivo Karlovic advances. The big-serving 36-year-old is one of the few players with a winning record over Djokovic, having beaten him in two of their previous three meetings. Djokovic’s seeded quarterfinal opponent has also enjoyed some notable success over him. Kei Nishikori came out on top in their 2014 U.S. Open semifinal, yet there has been little since to suggest the Japanese can repeat that feat. It is, then, difficult to envisage Djokovic not getting through his quarter and likely booking a semifinal with the man he has beaten in the last two Grand Slam finals, Roger Federer.
It goes without saying that every player will want to be as far away from Djokovic in the draw as possible. Yet, while Federer’s hopes of reaching the final are harmed by being in the same half of the draw as the world No. 1, could his hopes of winning the title be enhanced? In losing the final at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Federer had his opportunities yet just didn’t have the staying power to match Djokovic over five sets. Thus the 34-year-old could benefit from a semifinal meeting, where, in theory, he will have more in the tank. Certainly at Wimbledon, Federer reached his peak in the semifinals, when he brilliantly destroyed Andy Murray.
Of course Federer has to get that far first, not a given after his third-round loss last year. And his path this time around is not an easy one. Tricky Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov is a possible second-round opponent, while the talented, and in-form Grigor Dimitrov seeded to face him in the third round. Another young potential star, Dominic Thiem, or Belgian David Goffin could then be awaiting in the last 16. Two men who have inflicted painful Grand Slam defeats on him in the past, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych, are potential quarterfinal opponents that can also not be overlooked. For the Swiss, the key will not only be getting through those matches, but doing so while having the stamina to take down Djokovic.
The good news for Nadal going in as the fifth seed is that he has avoided being dropped in the same quarter as Djokovic. The bad news is that he has been handed a very tricky first round. Fernando Verdasco may now be past his best, but the two Spaniards played out one of the best Australian Open semifinals of all-time, in 2009, when Nadal won in five sets. While that was one of only two wins Verdasco has claimed over Nadal, the other one came the last time they met on a hard court, in Miami last year.
If he can get through that, Gael Monfils or, especially, big-serving South African Kevin Anderson can provide further threats to Nadal’s progress in a potential fourth-round matchup. Things will continue to get tougher from there, with fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka likely to be lying in wait in the semifinals. Wawrinka has form for producing his best in Melbourne, notably when winning the title in 2014, after beating Nadal in the final. If he can navigate all those hurdles, world No. 2 Andy Murray is seeded to be up next in the semifinals.
Fresh from his Davis Cup triumph at the end of last year, Murray will be pleased to be on the other side of the draw to Djokovic and Federer. The fact that the top seed in his quarter is David Ferrer, who Murray has beaten in their last five meetings, is also encouraging for the Brit. His early rounds will not be without its challenges, however. Both his first round opponent, 2014 Australian Open junior champion Alexander Zverev and possible second-round opponent, Australian Sam Groth, have big serves that could cause plenty of trouble.
Another player who will garner local support may be upcoming in the fourth round, with Murray seeded to meet Bernard Tomic. Murray has yet to drop a set to the erratic Bernard Tomic, but the Australian did offer encouraging signs in Brisbane last week. Of course, the biggest threat to Murray’s continued progress could well be his future child, having made it clear he will depart immediately if his wife goes into early labor.