Few Grand Slam tournaments in recent memory has been as anticipated as this year’s Australian Open. After a 2017 where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer rose to the very top of the game yet again and the next gen players finally broke through at Masters level, many questions have been posed regarding the future of the game. Can Novak Djokovic, the best player of the decade, bounce back after his elbow injury? Will the other recently injured top players – Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic – be able to return to previous heights? And, last but not least, will the younger generation of Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem, accompanied by the even younger Alexander Zverev, deliver when it matters at most, at the latter stages of a Grand Slam tournament?
Well, Australian Open will provide us with the answers for some of these questions and tell us just what 2018 might have in store for us. It’s indeed an exciting time in men’s tennis. Tennis-Pulse will now take you through all you need to know about the 2018 Australian Open!
The court speed
Last year much was made of how the speed of the courts potentially helped Federer capture his first Grand Slam title in four and half years. The courts were even faster than those at Wimbledon in 2016! However, we were provided with high quality tennis and drama throughout the tournament; five-setters in both the semifinals and the final. It was without doubt the best tournament at Grand Slam level in 2017. Thus many experts and fans alike have applied that fact to the faster courts. Not unexpectedly, a lot of talk surrounding this year’s Australian Open have been about the courts. And just the other day, tournament director Craig Tiley revealed that there will be no change to the courts from last year. A statement players like Federer and Nick Kyrgios will be particularly happy about.
Australian Open was supposed to be one of Andy Murray’s first tournaments back since he took the rest of 2017 off after losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinal to Sam Querrey. But not long into the new year it became clear that he was far off from being able to play. With a heart felt message on Instagram, he gave an insight of just how much the hip injury has been troubling him and that he would not contend at the Australian Open. On Monday it was announced that Murray went under the knife and that he aims to be back once the grass court season comes around.
Another top player to miss the tournament is Kei Nishikori, who hasn’t been able to recover fully from a right wrist injury that has seen him sidelined since August. Murray and Nishikori are, however, the only top players to have withdrawn from the Australian Open thus far. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic will all be back in action after several months away from the game. Rafael Nadal, the world No. 1, seems to have his knee troubles under control, but question remains whether he will be in top condition at Melbourne Park.
Considering Nadal’s injury woes, long-time rival Roger Federer must be considered the main favourite going into the tournament. The Swiss 36-year-old impressed during the late fall with titles in Shanghai and Basel, and also looked sharp in last week’s Hopman Cup. If Nadal is fully fit physically – it’s a big if – and can find his hard court form from the US Open, he’ll be the joint favourite together with Federer. I do favor the 19-time Grand Slam champion slightly due to the faster conditions at Rod Laver Arena, even though he’s been handed the tougher draw of the two.
But perhaps the name that the top players fear most out of the lower-ranked top players is Australia’s own golden boy Nick Kyrgios. The 22-year-old can beat just about anyone when playing at his best and chances are he’ll bring just that in Melbourne. He displayed a fantastic level of tennis at Brisbane where he defeated Ryan Harrison in the final. If anything, Kyrgios’ serve seems to be even better than before! Question is: can the hot’n’cold Kyrgios show the consistency needed to challenge over the fortnight?
Another contender is Grigor Dimitrov. He proved last year that he has what it takes to compete at the very highest of levels. In 2017 he won the Masters tournament in Cincinnati and triumphed at the season-ending event in London. Is he now ready to taste Grand Slam glory in Melbourne? He’s been placed in the top half of the draw, meaning he’ll avoid tough competitors like Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Goffin and Del Potro.
It feels weird to place Djokovic as a contender here, opposed to having him as the main favourite. After all, the 30-year-old Serb is the tournament’s greatest-ever player with six titles at the event. But after pulling out of Doha, Djokovic’s fitness remains in doubt. Furthermore, he is likely to show some rust in his first tournament back on tour. His first round match will be telling. And out of the Big 3, the Serb has been handed by far the toughest draw.
Alexander Zverev has been lauded as a future no. 1 player and it’s easy to understand why. The German is still only 20 years old and is far, far ahead of any player of his generation. He rose as high as to No. 3 in the ranking last year – he lost that spot to Dimitrov at the end of the season – by winning two Masters titles (Rome and Montreal). However, he has yet to reach a quarterfinal at a Grand Slam tournament. My guess is he won’t do it this time around, either. Zverv stands far, too far, behind the baseline. Over the course of two weeks, that takes it toll on the body. But more than that, he is likely to run into a player who will be able to exploit that defensive position in more ways than one. We also saw him struggle mentally while falling behind to both Thanasi Kokkinakis and Federer in the Hopman Cup.
My other flop selection is Dominic Thiem. Always mentioned among the contenders in Grand Slam tournaments over the last couple of years, no matter the form or the surface. I think it’s time we remove him from that position… until he proves us wrong. He’s a fantastic clay court player, but on hard court he has yet to deliver – anywhere. Chances are he won’t reach the second week at the Australian Open.
For a long time it looked like David Goffin was stomping around on the same place. Seen as a future top 10 player when he first rose to the scene back in 2012, he has had trouble converting that potential. Until last year, that is. He defeated Federer for the first time as he reached the final at the Nitto ATP finals (loss to Dimitrov) and was the main man as Belgium reached the Davis Cup final (loss to France). While the 27-year-old is ranked No. 7 in the world, it’s hard to list him as a contender for the title as his top level is not as good as Federer’s, Nadal’s, Djokovic’s or Kyrgios’. But the baseliner has shown glimpses of superb tennis at the Hopman Cup in the first week of 2018, winning all three singles matches without the loss of a set. He might not win the entire thing, but he’s bound to prove a menace for several players at the Australian Open.
We at Tennis-Pulse would love to hear your thoughts of the upcoming Australian Open. Who will flop? Who is your dark horse? And most importantly, who will walk away with the title? Share your thoughts in the comments field below!