The tennis world kicks off 2018 with the Australian Open, the first major, and Tennis-Pulse goes through the draw and tells you all you need to know.

With all the question marks surrounding the top men’s players’ fitness like that of Rafael Nadal (2009 chamption), Novak Djokovic (six times champion), Stan Wawrinka (2014 champion) and Kei Nishikori just to name a few, makes this slam – along with all the next-gen names pushing through – the most unpredictable in recent memory. To make matters worse Andy Murray withdrew from the tournament two weeks prior to its start and eyes his comeback when Wimbledon comes around after undergoing successful surgery.

All the injury woes meant that in advance of the draw coming out Federer could meet Djokovic in the round of 16. If you told that scenario to an avid tennis fan just one year ago they would not have believed you.

So, did these crazy match-ups roll out of the draw? Let’s take a look. I will initially break down the draw per quarter, talk most anticipated match-ups and favorites and will try my utmost to make a case for the eventual winner.

It’s advisable to have the actual drawsheet with you before continuing your read.

First Quarter

At first glance it looks like world no.1 Rafael Nadal does not have the toughest of draws. He’s pinned against world no.81 Viktor Estrella Burgos from the Dominican Republic. His opponent is 37 years of age and his resume pales in comparison to that of Rafael Nadal. It seems Nadal’s knee is the only thing that stands in the Spaniard’s way of overcoming his first hurdle.

Potential second round and third round opponents for Nadal are Leonardo Mayer and Borna Coric respectively, which does show a steady rise in difficulty for the 16 time Grand Slam champion. 16th seed John Isner is the most notable last 16 opponent. The highest seed Nadal could face in the quarters is no.6 in Marin Cilic but a juicy contest with his Wimbledon 2017 conqueror Gilles Muller is on the cards as well.

Most anticipated match-up: Rafael Nadal vs Viktor Estrella Burgos (due to a lack of other interesting matches).

Winner first quarter: Rafael Nadal. His injury troubles might not be behind him still but considering his opposition I see no obvious player to oust Rafa before the semifinal stage. This is as good a draw as the Spaniard could have hoped for.

The finalist of 2017 hopes to go one further this year and win the title

Second Quarter

Bulgarian and 3rd seed Grigor Dimitrov leads the second quarter and sees his name up against a yet to be determined qualifier. His second round consists of only qualifiers as well, so it looks he’s riding a good stroke of luck there. Marcos Baghdatis, the finalist of 2006 or 30th seed Andrey Rublev are his possible third round opponents.

From then on things get interesting, very interesting. Possible fourth round opponents of Dimitrov are either 17th seed Nick Kyrgios (vs Dutra Silva) – who already notched up a title this year in Brisbane – or 15th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The quarters hold names like 2017 US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, Lucas Pouille and Philipp Kohlschreiber. World no.8 Jack Sock is the highest seed Grigor could meet in the quarters.

Most anticipated match-up: This has to either be Kevin Anderson vs Kyle Edmund or Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Denis Shapovalov. Tsitsipas has started the year strong and the Greek player is really someone to look forward to in the coming years with a stylistic looking one-handed backhand. Canadian Denis Shapovalov of course made a name for himself when he beat fellow ‘lefty’ Nadal in Montreal last year.

Winner second quarter: Nick Kyrgios. A surprising name to mention, I know. But with already one title under his belt and with his confidence soaring it’s my strong hold belief that he can reach a level that the others in his quarters can’t get to.

Has the Bad Boy of tennis matured into a Grand Slam champion?

Third Quarter

By far the most interesting quarter as it is simply littered with eye-catching household names. Alexander Zverev is the highest seed at no.4 with Dominic Thiem as no.5 on the opposite side. Both Zverev and Thiem have relatively easy looking first round opponents in Thomas Fabbiano from Italy and Argentine guido Pella respectively.

Roberto Bautista Agut from Spain has waned somewhat and has seen his ranking drop and the tennis Gods have not been kind to him early in 2018 as he has a clash with the always dangerous compatriot Fernando Verdasco.

The intrigue intensifies with 9th seed Stan Wawrinka. He was quoted as saying he almost quit the game after a four month rehabilitation from a knee injury. Everyone will zoom in how his knee will cope against Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis.

All eyes will be even more on Novak Djokovic. The almost alienating number 14 behind his name is derived from over a half year lay-off due to his elbow injury. His first round opponent is veteran Donald Young. His elbow in Kooyong didn’t seem to bother him too much after he convincingly beat Thiem in straights just yesterday. Maybe he will enjoy the fairytale comeback his rivals Nadal and Federer had in 2017. If anyone can do it, he most certainly can.

At the bottom side of this quarter we find the Zverev brothers. The brothers in arms might face off in the third round. The clash in styles alone will be something to look forward too. Mischa, however, will have to dispatch of ATP Next-Gen Finals Champion Hyeon Chung first. The spectacles wearing South-Korean arguably has the fastest wheels on the ATP tour and his star is rising quick.

Most anticipated match-up: There are just too many to call as a lot of players are on the comeback trail but just looking at their respective different approach to the game I have to call the Mischa Zverev vs Hyeon Chung encounter as the most salivating one.

Winner third quarter: Here as well, it’s the toughest quarter to call by a landslide with former champions Wawrinka and Djokovic in the mix. Still I have to say that Sascha Zverev edges it out by the smallest of margins. I feel his time has come to step it up at Grand Slam level. He has improved his fitness and his days of cramping up in a long five-set match (like the one at the Australian Open vs Nadal last year) are behind him. The potential clash between him and Djokovic in the fourth round could well be the match of the tournament.

The Sascha Zverev serve: one of the most feared shots in tennis today

Fourth Quarter

Here we find defending champion Roger Federer as the 2nd seed and he has to face world no.51 Slovenian Aljaz Bedene in the first round. A more tricky tactician in Jan-Lennard Struff awaits him in a possible second round clash. I don’t expect Federer to have much trouble against 29th seed Richard Gasquet in the third round either as their 16-2 head to head in favor of Federer speaks volumes.

The Frenchman has slipped in the rankings and he has a tougher Slovenian opponent himself in Blaz Kavcic to cast aside before he can dream of facing Federer in the Rod Laver Arena.

Serve machine Sam Querrey would love a match-up against Federer in the fourth round I’m sure. He’s up against good ol’ Feliciano Lopez. In order to get to face Federer Querrey will have to face Milos Raonic most likely. If Raonic prevails in that one Federer will probably pass a sturdy test to get to the quarters, as the Canadian then will have played himself into form. But alas, he too, has slipped in the rankings – seeded 22nd – and has to prove he’s worthy to clash with the elite again in the second week of a slam.

Let’s examine the top side of this quarter. Atop sits David Goffin, comfortably I must say as a qualifier has yet to be named as his adversary. The Belgian has climbed to a career high of seven in the world and he’s now reaping the fruits of his rumored daily Spartan routine. A delicious possible third round with crowd pleaser Fabio Fognini could be a special contest in prospect.

A fourth round opponent for David Goffin looks to be either Thomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentinian looked strong in the second half of last year’s season and he very well could surprise the tennis world yet again. The gentle giant is up against next-gen star Frances Tiafoe and has his work cut out if he’s to have a run like he had at the US Open.

Most anticipated match-up: The one that stands out has to be Frances Tiafoe versus Juan Martin del Potro. Two attacking minded players going toe to toe with one player nearing the end of his career and the other just on the rise holds all the ingredients to be a fantastic match-up. Let’s hope I’m right.

Winner fourth quarter: There’s no talking around it. Federer is the man in form and the man to beat. He is at least the overwhelming favorite to win his quarter as he, just like Nadal, have been dealt a pretty good hand. Even though David Goffin beat Federer at the Nitto ATP Finals last November, he remains in my mind the top dog. Especially after his Hopman Cup showing and David Goffin losing against Pablo Carreno Busta at Kooyong two days ago.

The defending champion and the man in form

Semifinals

To recap, here are my predicted semifinal match ups:

First semifinal: Rafael Nadal vs Nick Kyrgios. Such a dream match in the making that I really wouldn’t mind this one coming to fruition. I’ll go even further to shock you by saying I think Nick Kyrgios will take this one and advances to the final, beating Rafael Nadal not even in five, but in four sets. Surprised yet? The fact that Kyrgios is a volatile creature with all the lack of consistency that goes with it can be jettisoned to a certain degree when he’s playing this well. Combine this knowledge with Nadal not 100% yet and the fact Kyrgios has upset Nadal before at slam level and even I myself feel this prediction is not too mind-boggling and dare I say it, warranted.

Second semifinal: Alexander Zverev vs Roger Federer. There’s an argument to be made that of all the next-gen stars Sascha Zverev has distanced himself from the rest with his two Masters wins at the Italian Open in Rome and the Montreal Masters in Canada. Simply put: when he’s on, he’s on! He’s got the touch, amazing footspeed for someone his height, the ability to overpower opponents from both the backhand and forehand side, and a service delivery that neutralizes everyone’s return game. But, he’s up against Roger.

If 2017 is anything to go by they both had wins over one another but they’ve never met at slam level where I give Roger the edge not just because of his polished game, but because of his experience. I predict Roger to overcome Sascha in five tough sets.

Final

Nick Kyrgios vs Roger Federer. If this doesn’t get your skin tingling of pure and utter excitement nothing will. Even more so than Sascha, Nick Kyrgios has the ability to take the racquet out of Federer’s hand as he serves even bigger than his German fellow protege, and often takes the ball on the rise just as easily as Federer seems to do.

Federer on the other hand often exudes comfidence when his service rhythm is like clockwork. Everything flows from that. If that starts clicking it surely spells certain doom for the young Australian. Even in his native slam he might not be the crowd favorite against the global icon Federer has become. It will be fascinating to see how Kyrgios deals with that scenario should the two meet in the final.

If this year’s final of the Austrlalian Open will be as good as last year we’re in for a treat

I predict the Australian Open 2018 winner to be…..Federer, in a classic five set blockbuster final. The theme of this Australian Open edition will be the youngsters versions the establishment and the final would be the perfect apotheosis to seal a perfect fortnight of tennis.

It’s a tough ask For Federer along the road, as his age has to start gaining in on his tennis powers sometime soon. If anything Federer is a true winning machine, a force of nature, but father time will always come out victorious in the end.

Federer, however, will have a few swings of the Wilson racquet at this year’s Australian Open before his time is up.

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