Australian Open 2018, men's preview: Can the ATP Next Gen prevent another Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final?

At Melbourne Park this year, the Australian Open has turned into a battle of the fittest, literally. Rafael Nadal (knee), Novak Djokovic (elbow) and Stan Wawrinka (knee) are among the walking wounded while Andy Murray decided to skip the event altogether to undergo a hip surgery.

Thirty-six-year-old Roger Federer returns to defend his title, 12 months after his age-defying comeback that saw him emerge victorious despite being the 17th seed. The Swiss ace is keeping the flag flying for the old guard but there couldn’t be a better opportunity for the ATP Next Gen to stage a siege and take over.

Could this Australian Open see a first-time winner in the men’s singles? Here’s a deep dive into the draw to see where all the contenders stand.

Top quarter

World No 1 Rafael Nadal sits atop the top of the draw in the first quarter and he will gunning for his 17th Grand Slam title over the next two weeks. However, in all of his previous 16 title wins, Nadal had always played an official warm-up tournament in the build-up to the Major.

This year, Nadal pulled out of Brisbane due to an ongoing knee injury but insisted that he is fit for the Australian Open. There is also a possibility that Nadal might lose his No 1 ranking if he does not make the quarter-finals. But the Spaniard’s easy draw ensures that he should have no trouble reaching the last-eight and gives him the opportunity to find some form over every round he plays in the tournament.

 Australian Open 2018, mens preview: Can the ATP Next Gen prevent another Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final?

Rafael Nadal is the top seed at the Australian Open and is chasing a 16th Grand Slam title. Reuters

Nadal opens against veteran Victor Estrella Burgos, ranked 81 in the world. The other seeds in Nadal’s section are — potential third round opponents Damir Dzumhur (28) or Diego Schwartzman (24); John Isner (16), who Nadal could face in the Round of 16; and a likely quarter-finalist from Pablo Carreno Busta (10), Gilles Muller (23) Pablo Cuevas (31) and Marin Cilic (6).

Cilic could be Nadal’s first real threat but the Croatian has only won once in their six meetings. There are other dangerous floaters in this quarter in upcoming youngster Borna Coric, unpredictable Alexandr Dolgopolov and former World No 6 Gilles Simon, who recently clinched the title at Pune.

If Nadal is fit, he should be able to cruise his way through to the quarters. Otherwise, it could be an excellent chance for Cilic to make his first semi-final in Melbourne since 2010.

Predicted semi-finalist: Rafael Nadal

First round to watch out for: Borna Coric vs John Millman. The Aussie could give his 21-year-old opponent a tough fight in front of the noisy home crowd.

Second quarter

This section of the draw is definitely the most intriguing and is packed with a bunch of talented Next Gen members. Third seed Grigor Dimitrov and eighth seed Jack Sock anchor the quarter on the two ends but it wouldn’t be too big a shock if neither of them makes the last-four.

Dimitrov faces two qualifiers is his opening rounds and then will possibly be up against 30th seed and young gun Andrey Rublev, who had knocked the Bulgarian out at the US Open. If Dimitrov does get revenge, his fourth round opponents could be one of these — home favourite and Brisbane titlist Nick Kyrgios, 18-year-old Canadian sensation Denis Shapovalov or former runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Nick Kyrgios has never made it past the quarter-finals at a Major but he is entering the Australian Open in a confident state of mind. AP

Nick Kyrgios has never made it past the quarter-finals at a Major but he is entering the Australian Open in a confident state of mind. AP

In the bottom section of this bracket, Jack Sock is the highest seed. The American had a remarkable end to 2017 with his first Masters 1000 title and his maiden appearance at the ATP Finals. But he has failed to impress in 2018 in his matches at the Hopman Cup and Auckland Classic.

Kevin Anderson, US Open finalist in 2017 and the 11th seed at Melbourne, is the most likely candidate to emerge as a quarter-finalist though keep an eye out for upset alerts in the matches featuring Kyle Edmund, Yoshihito Nishioka and Yuichi Sugita.

Lucan Pouille (18) and Philipp Kohlschreiber (27) are the other seeds in Anderson’s section but their past record and recent form respectively does not raise much confidence in their ability to make week two.

If Kyrgios is not hampered physically in any way, this draw represents an ideal opportunity for him to reach his first Grand Slam semi-final. He seems mentally focused and his first title on home soil would have given him a massive confidence boost.

Predicted semi-finalist: Nick Kyrgios

First round to watch out for: Denis Shapovalov vs Stafanos Tsitsipas. Battle of the Next Gen-ers, which will definitely be a handful for the chair umpire and the commentators.

Third quarter   

Welcome to the LOADED quarter of the men’s draw. Take a look at the seeds placed in this eighth — Alexander Zverev (4), Dominic Thiem (5), Stan Wawrinka (9), Novak Djokovic (14), Roberto Bautista Agut (20), Albert Ramos-Vinolas (21), Adrian Mannarino (26) and Mischa Zverev (32).

In the top half of this quarter, Thiem and Wawrinka are projected fourth-round opponents. However, Thiem has had a torrid time on court in the last six months and seems to be extremely low on confidence. He did reach the semis of Doha in the first tournament of 2018, only to lose to Gael Monfils. Wawrinka, on the other hand, hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon 2017, because of an injured knee. He only decided at the last moment to participate and might not last too long at the tournament.

This could open the door for Bautista Agut — who lifted the trophy at Auckland this week — to make the last-eight of a Major for the first time but he will have to get past former semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco in a tricky first round.

In the bottom half, six-time champion Djokovic has been handed a tough path on his return to tennis after a six-month hiatus. The Serb starts against American Donald Young but could face an early test against Monfils — who won at Doha at the start of 2018 — in round two.

Novak Djokovic has remodelled his serve to protect his elbow and is going for a record seventh Australian Open title. AP

Novak Djokovic has remodelled his serve to protect his elbow and is going for a record seventh Australian Open title. AP

Djokovic might face a Zverev in the last-16, but only if both the Zverev brothers get through their opening two rounds to set up a sibling derby in the third.

Elder brother Mischa first faces Hyeon Chung, the winner of the inaugural ATP Next Gen Finals. He will face another Next Gen member in the next round — the winner of Danill Medvedev (recent winner at Sydney) and Thanasi Kokkinakkis (21-year-old Aussie on the comeback trail). Fourth-seeded Alexander has a relatively simpler route to a potential clash with his brother.

The major deciding factor for this quarter is the state of Djokovic’s elbow. If his new abbreviated serve can help him survive the first week, he might have a shot at fighting for a record seventh Australian Open title.

Predicted semi-finalist: Novak Djokovic

First round to watch out for: Thanasi Kokkinakkis vs Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev has a 2-0 advantage but Kokkinakkis will have the crowd on his side.

Bottom quarter  

Federer is the men’s singles favourite at Australian Open 2018. He looked sharp in the Hopman Cup victory for Switzerland, and is probably the fittest among the contenders, a surprising thing to say for the 36-year-old.

Federer would not be losing sleep over his potential opponents is the first couple of rounds. Milos Raonic, who dropped out of the top-20 because he was sidelined by injury in 2017, could meet Federer in the fourth round. Sam Querrey and Richard Gasquet are the other seeds in Federer’s section, but the second seed’s impeccable record against them suggests they shouldn’t pose much of a threat.

Defending champion Roger Federer is looking to lift his 20th Major trophy at the Australian Open. AP

Defending champion Roger Federer is looking to lift his 20th Major trophy at the Australian Open. AP

But there are two men in his draw that could have a say in whether the Swiss wins Grand Slam number 20 or not. Seventh seed David Goffin and 12th seed Juan Martin del Potro both feature in the opposite half of the fourth quarter and one of them is likely to make the Round of 16.

Federer’s last two defeats came at the hands of Del Potro and Goffin — the Argentine beat him in the quarters of US Open while Goffin got his first ever win over Federer in the semis of the ATP Finals.

Del Potro warmed up by reaching the finals of Auckland this week but has an interesting first round against American young gun Frances Tiafoe. Goffin could run into unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who fell in the semis at Sydney.

Also lurking in their half — 19th seed Tomas Berdych; rising 18-year-old star Alex de Minaur, who stunned the world by reaching Brisbane semis and Sydney final, Benoit Paire, who reached semis at Pune and Sydney and Karen Khachanov, another 21-year-old who is capable of causing an upset or two.

Predicted semi-finalist: Roger Federer

First round to watch out for: Tomas Berdych vs Alex de Minaur. The Aussie kid is on a giant-slaying run in the past two weeks and he will be eager to continue it at his first Grand Slam.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2018 18:54:05 IST