World number two Novak Djokovic is no longer the hunted but he is now the hunter, after losing his world number one ranking to Andy Murray at the conclusion of the 2016 ATP World Tour season. Nonetheless, the Serb loves competing in Australia, and the former world number one has won an impressive six Australian Open titles in nine years. Should, Djokovic retain the title in Melbourne, he will have the most Australian Open titles in history.
However, Djokovic will have a tough task on his hands, as he will face former world number seven Fernando Verdasco in the opening round. The Spaniard troubled Djokovic in their last meeting in Doha, a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, Verdasco was unable to take one of the five match points that he had in the second set tiebreak. Ultimately, falling in straight sets. Verdasco has had plenty of history in Melbourne, where he reached the semifinals in 2009 losing to compatriot Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller. Moreover, Verdasco got his revenge against Nadal in the first round last year.
The Serb has a chance to regain the world number one ranking but only if Murray falls before the semifinals, and he goes on to win the title.
Djokovic's results leading up to Melbourne
The world number two began his year at the Qatar ExxonMobilOpen in Doha as the defending champion. He recovered from a slow start against Germany's Jan-Lennard Struff in round one, prevailing, 7-6 (1), 6-3. In the second round, Djokovic dispatched Horacio Zeballos, 6-3, 6-4, and good friend Radek Stepanek, 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Djokovic showed his fighting qualities in a tough semifinal match with Verdasco by saving five match points to win, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3. The tennis world got the final, that they were hoping for between Djokovic and Murray at an ATP 250 level event. It was a back and forth match with the pendulum swinging numerous times, but the former world number one defeated Murray, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
Verdasco's results leading up to Melbourne
Like Djokovic, Verdasco started his 2017 campaign in Doha, and he was playing scintillating tennis throughout the week. The Spaniard didn't drop a set in his opening three rounds, defeating three Grand Slam quarterfinalists, Vasek Pospisil, David Goffin and Ivo Karlovic to reach the semifinals. The Spaniard played exceptional tennis against Djokovic in the semifinals, which a match that Djokovic admitted that he should have won, nonetheless, The Serb held his nerve to beat Verdasco.
Djokovic and Verdasco have met on 13 occasions with the six-time Australian Open champion having a 9-4 lead over the 2009 semifinalist. The Serb leads 7-1 on hard courts, however, Verdasco leads 3-2 on clay courts.
Verdasco was victorious in their first two meetings in a five-set match at the US Open in 2005 with the Spaniard coming back from two sets to one down to defeat Djokovic. The 33-year-old followed this victory in Hamburg in 2006. However, Djokovic would win the next five matches on the bounce, starting with a victory in the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2007. The second win was at the Mutua Madrid Open in 2007 on hard courts in three sets, a three-set win in the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo in 2009 and in the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2009 in four sets, and also in the quarterfinals in Beijing in three sets.
Furthermore, the current world number 40 would win his next two consecutive matches over the Serb in the semifinals in Monte Carlo in 2010, 6-2, 6-2, and in the quarterfinals in Rome in three sets in 2010, which would be Verdasco's last victory over Djokovic to date.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion was victorious in their next four meetings in the third round in Beijing in 2013, they also met in the third round of the Australian Open in 2015 with Djokovic prevailing in straight sets, and their last two meetings have been in Doha with Djokovic winning in 2016 and 2017.
The world number two looked closely back to his best in his victory over Murray in Doha, also, the Serb doesn't like being the world number two and will be determined to continue his dominance in Melbourne. Moreover, Djokovic is working with compatriot Dusan Vemic as his new coach with Boris Becker stepping down last year.
For Verdasco to have any chance of winning, he will need to erase the memory of failing to convert those match points in Doha and play aggressive tennis like he did in Doha. The Spaniard will need to perform like he did against Nadal in Melbourne, 12 months ago with his scintillating forehand producing unreal shots.
Djokovic will have to serve well and keep Verdasco firmly placed behind the baseline, in order to have control in this match. Moreover, Verdasco is a fine returner, and he will punish any of Djokovic's poor serves.
This will be the first match scheduled for the evening session in the Rod Laver Arena at 7 pm local time, and the winner of this first round encounter will play experienced campaigners in Denis Istomin or Ivan Dodig.
Prediction: Djokovic in four sets