The opening Grand Slam of 2018 gets underway in Australia on Monday and for many, it will provide welcome relief after months of injury speculation.
Six-time champion Novak Djokovic has yet to give a cast-iron commitment to his participation in Melbourne but the Serb is likely to feature, although he finds himself seeded 14th after he ended 2017 early with an elbow injury.
Doubts also surfaced about Rafael Nadal’s availability after he withdrew from the Brisbane International earlier this month. However, last year’s runner-up made a return to action at the Tie Break Tens event earlier this week, enjoying mixed success as he fell to Tomas Berdych in the final.
Stan Wawrinka did not fare as well at Melbourne Park, however, as he was forced to withdraw due to a shoulder problem. The Swiss was another top player to fall victim to the injury curse in 2017 and he has not played a competitive match since July.
Nevertheless, Nadal enters the tournament as the top-seed and he will be closely tracked by tournament favourite Roger Federer, who teamed up with Belinda Bencic to claim the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier this month.
Projected quarterfinal: Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Marin Cilic (6)
Nadal has been drawn into a favorable quarter in Melbourne, with perhaps John Isner posing the biggest obstacle to the quarterfinal. He opens against seasoned clay-courter Victor Estrella Burgos and could face Leonardo Mayer in round two – a rematch of their encounter in Flushing Meadows last year. 28th seed Damir Dzumhur may await in the third round but the Bosnian has injury concerns of his own after withdrawing from the Sydney International this week.
Meanwhile, Marin Cilic will open against the often dangerous Yen-Hsun Lu and could meet US Open semifinalist Pablo Carreno-Busta in the fourth round. Gilles Muller, likewise, could prove a tricky test but the big-serving lefty has question marks surrounding his fitness. Ryan Harrison and Pablo Cuevas are potential third round opponents for the Croatian, with the former having reached the final of the Brisbane International last week and the latter showing signs of form after a turbulent 2017.
Prediction: Nadal d. Cilic
Projected quarterfinal: Grigor Dimitrov (3) vs. Jack Sock (8)
Last year’s semifinalist must have been ruing his luck when the draw was announced. Grigor Dimitrov could face Nick Kyrgios, who ended his quest to defend his Brisbane crown, or 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He also faces a third round fraught with danger should he advance, with 30th seed Andrey Rublev and Auckland semifinalist David Ferrer opening against each other. Stefanos Tsitsipas’ clash with Denis Shapovalov should also be an intriguing one.
Jack Sock, meanwhile, has been afforded a slightly more manageable draw, although he will be aware of a potential fourth round meeting with US Open finalist Kevin Anderson. The South African hasn’t been able to maintain the form he showed during those two weeks in New York, however, and he could meet 18th seed Lucas Pouille in round three. Philipp Kohlschreiber may fancy his chances of troubling Sock as he opens against Yoshihito Nishioka – who has played only one competitive match since he retired injured at the Miami Open last year – and could face the rising youngster Corentin Moutet or Andreas Seppi in the next round.
Prediction: Kyrgios d. Pouille
Projected quarterfinal: Dominic Thiem (5) vs. Alexander Zverev (4)
The quarter of the death. It is tempting to focus on the two top seeds in Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev but lurking in the shadows are six-time champion Djokovic and 2014 winner Wawrinka. Injuries doubts persist about the duo but Thiem will nevertheless have his work cut out for him.
The Austrian could face two players who both got the better of him on hard courts last year in the first and second round - Guido Pella and Steve Johnson - while Adrian Mannarino could prove a tough proposition in the third round. Barring an exceptional return from Wawrinka, Roberto Bautista Agut could await the Austrian in the fourth round.
Djokovic and the world number four Zverev is a mouthwatering fourth round possibility and the Serb will open against Donald Young before a potential tie with Doha champion Gael Monfils, although the Frenchman is winless in fourteen attempts against the serial major winner. Albert Ramos-Vinolas, the 21st seed, could await in the third round but the Spaniard has yet to taste victory this year.
Zverev’s troubles at majors have been well-documented but he will fancy his chances of at least securing a fourth round berth when he opens against Thomas Fabbiano, and he could meet Peter Gojowczyk or Mikhail Kukushkin in round two. A battle of siblings could come to fruition in the third round but Mischa will view his opening two rounds with trepidation. He opens against Hyeon Chung before a potential second round encounter with the Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis or Sydney finalist Daniil Medvedev.
Prediction: Djokovic d. Bautista Agut
Projected quarterfinal: David Goffin (7) vs, Roger Federer (2)
David Goffin will be made to sweat if he is to reach consecutive quarterfinals in Melbourne. His eighth of the draw includes the mercurial Fabio Fognini, winner of the this week’s TieBreak Tens event Berdych and a Juan Martin del Potro in impressive form. The Argentine will open against Karen Khachanov, whom he beat in Auckland last week, while Berdych will pit his wits against 18-year-old Australian Alex de Minaur. Any combination of the four seeds as a potential fourth round match-up ought to excite the spectators.
Federer, in the meantime, will open the defense of his Australian Open crown against Aljaz Bedene and he will fancy his chances of reaching the last eight with an inconsistent Richard Gasquet the most menacing third round opponent. Lurking in the wings is Sam Querrey and Milos Raonic, with the latter still smarting from his second round exit from the Brisbane International last week. The Canadian opens against Lukas Lacko but he will be mindful of a second round showdown with the Australian Jordan Thompson, who claimed a scalp against Sock at the US Open last year.
Prediction: Federer d. del Potro
First Round match-ups to watch:
(32) Mischa Zverev vs. Hyeon Chung
(30) Andrey Rublev vs. David Ferrer
Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Denis Shapovalov
(19) Tomas Berdych vs. (WC) Alex de Minaur
(12) Juan Martin del Potro vs. Frances Tiafoe
Nadal d. Kyrgios
Federer d. Djokovic
Federer d. Nadal