Feast and Famine in the 2014 Australian Open Draw

In Uncategorized on January 12, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Welcome back to the ATP tour.  In case you missed it, Jack Sock and Sloane Stephens became tennis’s version of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, Caroline Wozniaki agreed to marry Rory – as soon as he turns 18, of course – and Roger Federer switched to a geriatric-sized 98 square-inch framed racket (either he needs a bigger sweet-spot, or his eyesight is going).  But no ordinary water cooler gossip compares to the drama of the year’s first Grand Slam draw, announced yesterday in Melbourne.

At first glance, the draw seems stacked in favor of three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, who may not meet a seeded player until the quarter finals, while Rafael Nadal must run the gauntlet of Bernard Tomic, Gael Monfils (25), Leyton Hewitt, Kei Nishikori (16), and Juan Martin Del Potro (5) in his quarter.  But if the draw truly favors anyone, it is the fans, as numerous compelling matchups loom in the first four rounds alone.  With the first matches just three days away, here are some story lines created by the draw, and my humble predictions for the outcome.

Will Djokovic Play His First Four Matches Without Taking Off His Warm-Up Suit?

Since Novak Djokovic is not one to take anything for granted, I’ll do it for him.  The four-time Australian Open champion and winner of 21 straight matches down under may avoid a seeded opponent until Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarter-finals (more on that later).  After winnable rounds 1 and 2, he could face a spirited challenge from hustler and shot-maker Marcos Baghdatis, but the Cypriot is coming off a loss to Steve Johnson and doesn’t quite have the power or speed to compete with Nole over five sets.  In the round of the sixteen, Djokovic will likely face American Sam Querrey, who he has owned with a 7-1 record over their careers.

But if Djokovic does navigate his first four practice sessions, er.. rounds, he won’t feel so cozy in the quarterfinals against dangerous rival Stanislas Wawrinka (seeded 8).  While Stan may be the friendliest “nemesis” a guy could ask for, he drew blood in his previous two meetings with Djokovic, which lasted just under ten hours combined.  At the U.S. Open in September, Djokovic outlasted Wawrinka on sheer guts, propelled by a tournament-record 30-point game at 4-4 in the fifth set.  And at the 2013 Australian Open, Wawrinka came back from two sets to one down to eventually fall 12-10 in the final set of an instant classic.  Wawrinka will believe the third time’s a charm, and will be aided by reportedly very fast courts in Melbourne, but Djokovic seems too committed and focused to let his opportunity slip away in the quarters.

Who In a Long Line of Challengers Has the Best Shot at Nadal?

While Djokovic moves through his section, TV cameras will be following the top quarter of the draw, where Rafael Nadal will take on a hungry field of challengers made up of young guns and veterans alike.  Nadal’s first round has probably drawn more attention than it deserves, due to his headline-grabbing Australian opponent Bernard Tomic.  Tomic has caused ripples on tour with a combination of quirky strokes, decent results, and adolescent behavior (his propensity for tanking in matches has drawn criticism from the tour and once caused him to lose funding from Tennis Australia).  While Tomic should be confident after reaching the finals in Sydney, he does not yet possess the fortitude to defeat Rafael Nadal, though he could take a set.  In the second and third rounds Nadal will face the winner of Gael Monfils and the afore-mentioned boy toy of Sloane Stephens, Jack Sock, followed (hopefully) by the winner of Leyton Hewitt and Kei Nishikori.  It is tough to say who will prevail between the young Japanese star and the former world no. 1 from Adelaide; but I give the edge to Nishikori, who has hired a new coach and looks to crack the top ten in 2014.  A Nadal-Nishikori round of 16 will feature some unreal shot-making, but the result should not be surprising.  Ultimately, Nadal’s biggest test will come against Juan Martin Del Potro.  Time-on-court could play a factor here, as Nadal will be coming off of three demanding matches.  Will Monfils and his seeded colleagues in the top quarter chip away at Nadal enough that Delpo can reap the benefit?

Federer or the Field in the Second Quarter

No draw analysis is complete without giving the game’s greatest player his fair shot.  Unfortunately for the Fed Express, this tournament poses a big ask.  The first three rounds set up nicely for the four-time champion; he opens against Australian newcomer James Duckworth before likely facing fellow senior citizens Rodek Stepanek and Fernando Verdasco in the second and third rounds (if he can win quickly enough, they can all make the early bird special at the Players’ Cafe).  Presumably, Federer will face tenth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round.  Federer and Tsonga have plenty of history; Federer escaped the Frenchman in five sets in Melborune last year but Tsonga redeemed himself with three easy sets at Roland Garros in the spring.  Head-to-head, Federer leads 9-5, but Tsonga has won two of their last three meetings.  Since the heat and fast court surface favor Tsonga, I give the nod to Jo-Willy in four sets.

Fan Favorites and Dark Horses

The Aussie crowd will be making plenty of noise for their hero Leyton Hewitt. The perfecter of the lawn-mower fist pump ( does have a shot at the front page of the sports section if he can upset Kei Nishikori and reach the round of 16 against Nadal.

Tommy Haas continues to turn back the clock and is the admittedly the best looking man over the age of 35 I have ever seen.  In Melbourne, he’ll likely have a tough third round against 6’ 8” Kevin Anderson before facing an in-form, yet vulnerable, Tomas Berdych.  Despite his age, Tommy has a slim chance to carry a magical run into the semi-finals.

If anyone outside the top five can beat David Ferrer, it’s a stronger, harder hitting opponent on fast courts.  And that’s exactly who the Spaniard could face in Jerzy Janowicz, if the Pole can summon his mojo from Wimbledon 2013 and knock off Youzhny in the third round.  What are the odds of a Janowicz-Haas quarterfinal? Good enough to root for.

Early Round Matches Worth Recording

Milos Raonic could meet Grigor Dimitrov in the third round.  Raonic is coming off a career year and Dimitrov’s shot-making has been compared to Federer’s.  Those two playing at their best could produce as entertaining a match as you’ll see all tournament.  Also, John Isner will be looking to avenge his U.S. Open loss against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round.  If Isner survives that match, he could seriously challenge Andy Murray in the fourth round, who is coming off surgery and has only played two competitive matches since September.

And Finally, My Predictions…

Sticking with my premonition about the injured Murray, I tip John Isner to produce a career result and upset the world no. 3 en route to the quarter finals.  He’ll face Tsonga, while Nadal and Del Potro will meet in the other top-half quarterfinal.  Berdych versus Ferrer and Djokovic versus Wawrinka will round out my final eight.  From there, Nadal will outlast Del Potro in five sets, Tsonga will defeat Isner in four, Ferrer will oust Berdych in four, and Djokovic will escape Wawrinka, once again in five sets.  In the semifinals, Djokovic will beat Ferrer in three sets and Nadal will defeat Tsonga in three sets.  On the final Sunday, look for Djokovic to complete his fourth straight Australian Open Championship with a determined four-set win over Rafael Nadal.


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