Australian Open: Men's Singles Preview


By John Huston


Australia has been Novak Djokovic‘s domain. Melbourne is where he staged his Slam breakthrough, straight-setting Roger Federer on his way to his first major title in 2008. The Aussie Open counts for four of his nine Slams, and he finished 2014 at No. 1 with a win at the ATP championships. For those reasons, he’s the man to beat. But aside from Wimbledon, Nole wasn’t sharp and inspired at the majors last year, and he lost early in a warmup tournament earlier this month. Now there are media reports he’s been battling the flu, though others report he’s looked perfectly fine in practice sessions. On the bright side, he has what looks like a soft draw. But if he’s been sick, long matches could be dangerous.


It’s well established that Roger Federer is the most popular player in men’s tennis—he recently won the ATP’s Fans’ Favorite award for the twelfth consecutive year. Still, it’s been a while since the player many consider GoAT went into a Slam as a betting favorite, and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic currently holds that position. But Federer is second on the oddsmaker’s list, and he’s arrived in Melbourne with more momentum than Djokovic. He won Davis Cup to cap 2014 and defeated two players almost a decade younger—Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic—to collect his first title of 2015 in Brisbane. His draw looks tougher than Djokovic’s, though.


With 14 Slam titles to Federer’s 17, Rafael Nadal has been the Swiss master’s counterpoint in idiosyncratic ways no author could invent. While Federer’s greatness has hinged on injury-free grace, Nadal personifies the kind of toil that takes an increasingly heavy toll on one’s body. His career swings from electric dominance to enigmatic absence, and in recent years, his road back to the top keeps growing longer. He enters the Aussie Open having to defend points as last year’s finalist, and after weak warmup performances, he’s downplaying his chances even more than usual.


In 2013, Stan Wawrinka was the marathon man Novak Djokovic had to overcome on his way to the Aussie Open title. In 2014, he was the heavyweight boxer who took down Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to  break through the Slam-winning tyranny of the Big Four. This year, Wawrinka returns to Melbourne as defending champ, after a year of ups and downs. The No. 4 seed, he’s landed in the same half as his epic Aussie Open adversary Djokovic.


On the women’s side, there’s been a trend of recent Slam champs retiring (Li Na, Marion Bartoli), while on the men’s side, injury sidelines fresh winners: French Open winner Nadal missed the US Open, and now reigning US Open champ Marin Cilic is gone from the very next Slam. citing a right shoulder problem.


At the 24th hour, 2009 US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro has withdrawn due to a chronic wrist injury—sad news about an endearing player who’s been one of the few to truly rival the game’s Big Four. Much of del Potro’s 2014 was spent recuperating from the same ailment. He’d been set to battle a comparatively surly tall tree—Jerzy Janowicz—in what looked to be the standout first-round men’s match. (If you’re looking for a replacement, round one includes a battle between two players—Jiri Vesely and man-on-a-mission Viktor Troicki—who won tournaments this past week.)


Andy Murray‘s 2014 wasn’t one for the record books. The most decisive stat: it was the year that saw him expelled from the Big Four—both Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori are seeded above him. Now that he and coach Amelie Mauresmo are past the initial glaring scrutiny, the coming months will reveal a lot about the practicality of their pairing, and about Murray’s motivation ever since his historic Wimbledon win in 2013. He’s in Federer’s quarter, winged by qualifiers in the early rounds.


Concluding in 2008, the popular manga The Prince of Tennis set the stage for Kei Nishikori‘s climb up the pro ranks to incite Kei-mania in Japan when he reached the final of the US Open last year. But 25-year-old Nishikori, 24-year-old Milos Raonic (he of the hairdos), and 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov (still outperformed by older girlfriend Maria Sharapova) are also princely in the sense that they’ve never stormed the Slam palace the way slightly older Novak Djokovic did when his mom infamously declared, “The king is dead.” Are they cursed to be the leaders of a Slamless generation, or has their time finally arrived?


After a few years of teasing and frustrating Australian tennis fans with bad-boy behavior and listless, anticlimactic performances, 22-year-old Bernard Tomic lost his Next Big Thing status Down Under to relatively happy-go-lucky 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios when Kyrgios shocked Rafael Nadal with a dazzling display of power tennis at Wimbledon. By the end of 2014, Kyrgios had overtaken Tomic in the rankings. Neither player has set the courts on fire in warmup tournaments, but all eyes in Australia will be on them when they step onto the court. And on 18-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, whose first opponent is the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis. 


Only 18, Croatia’s Borna Coric has been climbing the ranks in a men’s game that’s been trending ever older, and his one-to-watch status skyrocketed last fall when he beat Rafael Nadal in Switzerland. In the lead-up to Melbourne, his new tattoo (stating “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary”—not exactly on the level of Stan Wawrinka’s inked Beckett quote) has overshadowed his on-court performances, though. Keep an eye on another 18-year-old, Elias Ymer of Sweden, who was born on the same day as aforementioned Aussie upstart Thanasi Kokkinakis. Ymer stormed through qualies without dropping a set, and he has a less formidable first-round opponent than Coric, who’s drawn 29th seed Jeremy Chardy.