Australian Open 2019: From struggling Nick Kyrgios to in-form Aryna Sabalenka, five underdogs who could spring a surprise

Even though it is yet to begin, the Australian Open has already provided more than its fair share of drama, with Andy Murray's announcement of his impending retirement shocking the world of tennis. However, if the past few years are anything to go by, fans can look forward to a fortnight of shocks and surprises.

File image of Nick Kyrgios. AFP

File image of Nick Kyrgios. AFP

Coming in just the third week of the year-long tennis season, the Australian Open seems almost perfectly engineered for major upsets and eye-catching displays from underdogs. Over the course of the tournament's history, a number of players have exceeded expectations by springing a surprise or two on the established favourites.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is Marcos Baghdatis' run to the 2006 US Open final, when the unseeded Cypriot got the better of the likes of Andy Roddick and David Nalbandian, before ultimately being denied his shot at glory by one Roger Federer. Thomas Johansson, Jennifer Capriati and Li Na are some of the other people to have defied the odds in Melbourne Park by punching above their weights and dishing out a couple of comprehensive thrashings.

Unseeded Hyeon Chung was one of the most impressive performers in last year's edition of the Australian Open, becoming the first South Korean, male or female, to reach a semi-final, defeating Alexander Zverev and a Novak Djokovic just returning from a serious injury.

Here, we take a look at five players who could pull a Baghdatis and impress at the Australian Open 2019:

Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty is one of the strongest title hopes for the local crowd at the Australian Open and is the highest-seeded Australian at the event, coming in at fifteenth in the women's singles seeding. The 22-year-old has maintained her spot in the top 20 over the past two years with a string of strong performances and has a couple of memorable scalps to her name.

Barty's 2018 campaign yielded two title wins, namely the Nottingham Open and the WTA Elite Trophy, as well as a final appearance in Sydney, which she lost to Angelique Kerber. The Australian also enjoyed an immensely successful doubles partnership with American CoCo Vandeweghe, winning the US Open 2018 women's doubles trophy.

Drawn in the third quarter, Barty should have a comparatively straightforward run until the fourth-round, where she faces the possibility of facing the defending champion Caroline Wozniacki. Barty's quarter also features two-time Grand Slam winner Petra Kvitova and rising star Aryna Sabalenka, both of whom have gotten the better of Barty in the recent past.

Sabalenka beat the Australian in straight sets during the group stage of the WTA Elite Tophy and Kvitova came back from a set down to win the 2019 Sydney International final. However, if the Australian is able to beat even one of the three, a berth in the quarter-finals awaits.

Aryna Sabalenka

2018 was a spectacular year for Aryna Sabalenka, during which the 20-year-old Belarussian established herself as a force to be reckoned with, leaping up the rankings from World No 78 at the end of 2017 to World No 11.

Sabalenka enjoyed a whirlwind twelve months, which she began with a quarter-final appearance in Hobart and followed up with the Connecticut Open and Wuhan Open titles. Her impressive form and steady rise through the rankings earned her entry into the WTA Elite Trophy, where she beat Ashleigh Barty in the group stage.

Despite it being only two weeks since the start of the year, Sabalenka has already managed to bag her first title of the season, winning the Shenzhen Open in a run that saw her drop just two sets over five matches.

A fortuitous draw has paved the way for Sabalenka to progress easily into the latter stages of the Australian Open, with a fourth-round match-up against Petra Kvitova appearing to be the only real barrier between her and the quarter-finals on paper.

Daniil Medvedev

Towering Russian Daniil Medvedev carried over his form from the end of last year's campaign into 2019, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic, before being defeated by Kei Nishikori in the Brisbane International final. Medvedev won all three of his career titles in 2018, namely the Japan Open, the Winston-Salem Open and the Sydney International, as he jumped almost 65 places in the charts to his current rank of 16.

Medvedev could face perhaps the one person everyone is keen to avoid en route to the quarter-finals, having been drawn into the same quarter as a certain Novak Djokovic, who he could face in the third round.

However, if he were to pull off an unlikely victory against the Serb, who went down to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut at the Qatar Open, Medvedev could make it all the way to the quarter-finals where he is likely to come up against Nishikori for the third time in his career. Having already defeated the Japanese star in the past, Medvedev could be a strong contender to reach the semi-finals, but it would require him to dig deep and come up with the goods against the World No 1.

Nick Kyrgios

After entering the Australian Open on a terrible run of form, Kyrgios was handed what seemed to be an unfortunate draw, with his opening match coming against Canadian Milos Raonic. Looking beyond the first round, Kyrgios' cup truly runneth over with obstacles in his quarter, which features quality players like ATP World Tour Finals winner Alexander Zverev, seventh-seed Dominic Thiem and three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka.

None of this seems beneficial to Kyrgios' chances of going far in the tournament, with many have already written off the temperamental Australian, who has flattered to deceive on several occasions over the past few years.

However, the difficulty of the task that awaits him might just be to his advantage. Kyrgios has often crashed out of tournaments against players ranked several rungs below him, but enjoys a surprisingly healthy head-to-head record against some of the best names in the game. If Kyrgios can keep his focus on home soil and play the way he usually does against better opponents, the Australian may just have a shot at reaching the later rounds of the tournament.

Roberto Bautista Agut

At 30, Roberto Bautista Agut is the oldest player to feature on the list, with the Spaniard's career undergoing a revival in the past few years. 2018 was a landmark year for the late bloomer, as he bagged his second title at the ATP Auckland Open, and followed it up by winning one of the biggest titles of his career at the ATP World Tour 500 event in Dubai.

Agut's 2019 season began on a winning note, as he registered two back-to-back wins against former Grand Slam winners Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, before getting the better of Tomas Berdych over three sets at the Qatar Open final.

The draw sees him placed in the third quarter, with his first match coming against Andy Murray, who is known to be playing through a significant amount of pain at the moment. A victory against Murray could see him come up against Karen Khachanov, who recorded a sensational victory over Novak Djokovic to lift the Paris Masters, but was subdued quite easily by Wawrinka in his first match of the season.

Of course, probably the most difficult of Agut's matches in his quarter, were he to reach the quarter-finals, would be against the defending champion Roger Federer, which he is unlikely to win. However, a quarter-final run wouldn't be half bad for a player who has been eliminated in the fourth-round of a Grand Slam nine times over the course of his career.

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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 23:25:12 IST

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