Sportsdesk | January 12, 2014
With the Australian Open set to begin Monday, he offers his breakdown of the draw for the year’s first major.
Novak Djokovic’s bid to capture his fourth consecutive Australian Open title gets underway on Monday morning when tennis’ top stars descend on Melbourne Park for the first Grand Slam of 2014.
The 26-year-old Serbian is looking to win his seventh major title – his fifth Happy Slam overall – and Friday’s draw will have done nothing to deter his chances of hoisting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup inside Rod Laver Arena almost two weeks from now.
While Djokovic, the No 2 seed in the competition, is in the same half of the draw as third-ranked David Ferrer, world No 1 Rafael Nadal was placed in the top half of the 128-player field alongside No 4 seed Andy Murray, fifth seed Juan Martin Del Potro and No 6 seed Roger Federer.
Should Nadal beat Australian 21-year-old Bernard Tomic in the first round, he will meet the winner of fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis and Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands in Round 2. A potential matchup with French showman and No 25 seed Gael Monfils awaits in the third round with 2009 US Open champion Del Potro a possible quarter-final opponent.
Even though Tomic – at No 52 in the world – is not seeded in Melbourne, he was ranked as high as 27 just 18 months ago and has reached at least the third round of the Australian Open in each of the past three years. In fact, Tomic’s only other meeting with Nadal came here in the round of 32 back in 2011, when Nadal survived the barrage of the then-teenager in a victory that was more fiercely contended than the final straight-sets scoreline suggests.
Olympic champion Andy Murray’s quarter of the draw is not quite as stacked with talent as Nadal’s, but the road to the second week of the tournament is nevertheless far from easy.
Assuming the Scot beats Japan’s Go Soeda in the first round and a qualifier (either American Wayne Odesnik or Frenchman Vincent Millot) in the second, he could face No 26 seed Feliciano Lopez in the third round and American John Isner, ranked 13th, in the fourth round.
The mouth-watering prospect of Murray and 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, competing in his record-breaking 57th consecutive Grand Slam, squaring off in the quarter-finals is also possible.
But that marquee matchup is predicated on the Swiss 32-year-old navigating his way past Aussie James Duckworth in Round 1, either Radek Stepanek or Blaz Kavcic in Round 2 and potentially Fernando Verdasco and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – ranked 31st and 10th respectively – in Rounds 3 and 4.
Federer twice let leads slip against Tsonga in the quarter-finals here last year in a five-set thriller that went more than three-and-a-half hours. And even though Tsonga dispatched Federer in straight sets on the hometown European clay of Roland Garros last summer, the Frenchman still trails the Swiss maestro, 9-4, in their head-to-head, including losses in eight of their 11 hard courts meetings.
The map to glory is less convoluted for defending champion Djokovic who headlines the bottom half of the draw.
He will open his title defence against Slovakian Lukas Lacko and could face either Leonardo Mayer or world No 59 Albert Montanes in Round 2. If the seeds in Djokovic’s quarter also advance, he will meet No 30 Dmitry Tursonov in the third round and No 16 Fabio Fognini – who has been past the first round in Melbourne just once in 2009 – in Round 4.
World No 8 Stanislas Wawrinka could be Djokovic’s possible quarter-final foe, but with No 9 seed Richard Gasquet and 17th-ranked Tommy Robredo also in Wawrinka’s section, it’s not inconceivable to see Djovokic against any one of that Top 20 trio.
Since losing to Nadal in the final at Flushing Meadows last September, Djokovic has gone a perfect 30-0. These victories saw him claim titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and the World Tour Finals championship in London, making him a strong contender for another crown in Melbourne.
The easiest quarter of the men’s draw to navigate arguably belongs to Spaniard and World No 3 David Ferrer. Colombian Alejando Gonzalez, whom Ferrer has never faced, is unlikely to provide a stumbling block in Round 1 and Ferrer may not face a serious challenge until he meets either Russian Mikhail Youzhny (14) or Pole Jerzy Janowicz (20) in the round of 16.
The biggest obstacle to Ferrer making his third Australian Open semi-final in four years is No 7 seed Tomas Berdych, who has lost in the quarter-finals in each of his past three trips to Melbourne Park.
On the women’s side of the draw, world No 1 Serena Williams was drawn in the same quarter as Italy’s seventh-seeded Sara Errani and in the same half as No 4 seed Na Li and No 6 Petra Kvitova.
Williams has a rich history of success Down Under, having hoisted the silverware in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. While Williams was upset here in straight sets by Ekaterina Makarova in 2012 and crashed out to compatriot Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals in 2013, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a deep run in this year’s tournament.
Williams has claimed four of the past six Slams with wins at Wimbledon in 2012, Roland Garros in 2013 and each of the past two US Opens, and there’s every chance the 32-year-old can add to her career winnings which already exceed $54 million USD (Dh198m).
Defending champion and No 2 seed Victoria Azarenka could possibly meet American 20-year-old Stephens (13) in the fourth round and either No 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska or former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki, seeded 10th, in the quarterfinals.
Azarenka would only meet Williams in the final, which is good news for the Belarus native who has lost all eight previous Grand Slam meetings and is 3-14 lifetime with Williams.
Whomever comes out of the bottom quarter of the draw could meet four-time Grand Slam winner and 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova.
The No 3 seed opens her tournament against American Bethanie Mattek-Sands and is in the same section of the draw as Serbian Jelena Jankovic (8), Romanian Simona Halep (11) and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro (16).
The biggest question mark with Sharapova will be how she handles her return to Grand Slam action. She has played just five matches since falling unexpectedly to qualifier Michelle Larcher De Brito in the second round at Wimbledon. Sharapova made it to the semi-finals in Brisbane last week before falling to Serena Williams in her first return to action since a shoulder injury forced her to pull out of the US Open.
Four first-round matches to watch:
Na Li vs Ana Konjuh
While everybody is excited about Aussie 17-year-old Ashleigh Barty sharing the limelight of Rod Laver Arena with Serena Williams on opening night, the reality is it won’t be much of a spectacle to watch.
A much better potential-winner-versus-breakout-teen matchup is that of Na Li against Ana Konjuh. Li is the No 4 seed and two-time runner-up in Melbourne, while Croatian Konjuh – who won the junior title here last year and only turned 16 to weeks ago – had to fight through three rounds of qualifying to even make the main draw.
Li is obviously the overwhelming favourite in Hisense Arena on Monday, but Konjuh is an exciting talent to watch. She’s fearless, she goes for her shots and she’s already upset world No 14 Roberta Vinci in Auckland in this young season.
Li, meanwhile, dropped just one set in claiming victory in Shenzhen last week and she has not dropped a set to someone ranked outside the Top 200 (Konjuh is No 239) since she lost to Canadian wildcard Marie-Eve Pelletier, 6-4, 6-2, in Montreal in 2006.
Rafael Nadal vs. Bernard Tomic
Tomic will consider himself unlucky to draw the top seed in the opening round, but it should make for an electric atmosphere inside Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night.
Up to a career-best 52nd in the rankings, the young Aussie upstart will have his eyes set on an upset of great magnitude. Despite falling to Juan Martin del Potro in Sydney this week, Tomic will look to channel the sort of form that saw him dump Richard Gasquet, Sam Querrey and James Blake out of Wimbledon in June.
For Nadal, the road to ending Novak Djokovic’s stranglehold Down Under starts here. He beat Tomic in straight sets in their only previous meeting here in the round of 32 in 2011, and he got the perfect preparation for Melbourne by edging Gael Monfils in Doha to claim his 61st career title to overtake Andre Agassi for eighth place on the all-time list.
Casey Dellacqua vs. Vera Zvonareva
Several years ago, this could have been a prime time matchup under the lights, especially here at Melbourne Park.
Dellacqua and Zvonareva meet second on Show Court 3 on Monday, both looking to find the form that saw them make deep runs into Grand Slams in the past.
Dellacqua was once ranked No 39 in the world but she fell outside the Top 100 having made it past the second round of a Major in singles competition just once since 2009. While the Perth native has failed to live up to the expectations she created around Australia when she made the fourth round in 2008 and the third round two years later, her doubles play has flourished. She made the final of the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2013 with Barty.
Similarly, Zvonareva is making her own way back up the rankings. The 29-year-old Russian was ranked second in the world a little over three years ago, but she enters the Australian Open having played just two sets of tennis since her Olympic Games defeat to Serena Williams in London in 2012.
She slipped to No 98 in the world after respiratory illnesses and injuries hampered the second half of the 2012 season and she did not play a competitive event in 2013 as she recovered from right shoulder surgery. Zvonareva won their only previous match in Indian Wells in 2008.
Ivo Karlovic vs Ivan Dodig
In all honesty, there’s not too much to look forward to in David Ferrer’s weak quarter of the draw, but the all-Croatian matchup between Karlovic and Dodig will make up for the lack of marquee names with some of the biggest-hitting tennis you’ll see all tournament.
At 6-feet-11 (1.83m), Karlovic – the tallest player on the tour – packs a punch with a booming serve and vicious ground strokes. Nobody has won a higher percentage of their service games than Dr Ivo (his 91 career per cent is higher than the likes of John Isner, Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras) and his aggressive style means he won’t play too many extended rallies. He will turn 35 years old next month, so this could be his last chance to make a run into the second week of a Major, and he won’t waste his energy running between the doubles alleys, chipping and charging or looking for cute angles. His game knows one speed and it’s full throttle.
For Dodig, the No 32 seed is up to a career-high 34 in the rankings. He’s another good server and he enjoys playing on the hard courts where his style flourishes best. His backhand has developed into a legitimate weapon and he’s an above-average returner. If he doesn’t find a way to neutralise Karlovic’s serve early on, this match has all the makings of something special.