By Brice Polender and David Zakhodin
1. Is Novak Djokovic actually flying under the radar in his return to the tournament he virtually owns?
Brice: I think he is, mainly because he’s such a momentum player in terms of his stringing off tournaments and dominating. But what we forget is that his runs of dominance usually start in Melbourne.
David: Yes. I don’t think enough attention is being placed on the fact that this is Novak’s favorite tournament and that if he plays his A game, he will win the tournament (has a mental edge over Federer after past Grand Slam final matches at Wimbledon and U.S. Open). The big question mark is whether or not Novak has recovered from the shoulder injury that forced him out for the second half of 2017 and the start of 2018. If his beatdown of Dominic Thiem in last week’s exhibition is any indication of his form, then maybe he will make a deep run despite his tough draw.
2. In the last 10 years, only one man outside the Big Four has ever made the Aussie Open final: Stan Wawrinka. And he proved it wasn’t a fluke. Prior to 2009, this tournament had a history of one-time slam finalists: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Gonzalez, Marcos Baghdatis, Rainer Schuttler, Thomas Johansson, Arnaud Clement. If you had to pick someone to make one-time run to the final, who would it be?
Brice: Pablo Cuevas. The guy’s talent is undeniable as he can hit tweeners and trick shots with the world’s best. And the top half of the draw could be anyone’s if Rafa isn’t at 100%. Just kidding. If someone is going to make a run to the final down under, it’s going to be David Goffin, who showed the caliber it would take to win a Grand Slam during both the World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup Final.
David: John Isner has never been to the final of a Grand Slam. The furthest he’s ever reached at a Major was the quarterfinal stage, and he’s never exactly played his best tennis in the Australian heat. But he sits in the considerably less stacked upper half of the draw, which features Rafael Nadal, someone who John beat at Laver Cup. Because of the uncertainty surrounding Rafa’s health going into the event, it wouldn’t shock me for John to find his way into the quarters and potentially play another big server in Marin Cilic. We’re not going to look any further than that, but Isner is riding a high after getting married in the offseason. We’ve seen the interesting trend of marriage bringing greater success to top tennis players, and maybe this may be the time for the Big Fella to make one Cinderella run to a Grand Slam final.
3. Who will be the first player to cramp and tank because of the heat?
Brice: Hate to say it, but Benoit Paire. The man really flamed out against a young Alex de Minaur 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals of Sydney after winning the first set. The Australian Open will only be more intense and more grueling, and staying motivated and fit for three out of five sets just doesn’t seem likely for Benoit. The big question is whether or not he’s willing to even push himself hard enough to get to the point of cramping physically. But in all seriousness, he’s a super talented player, would love to see him put it together mentally and fulfill his potential.
David: Richard Gasquet. He’s on the back-end of his career, he has a history of back problems (no pun intended), and he’s playing Blaz Kavcic in the first round, someone who seems to always go deep into the fifth set at the Australian Open. Is it a coincidence that we picked two French guys for this category?
4. Who’s one of the favorites/top seeds you see losing early?
Brice: Could see Grigor Dimitrov go out in real shocking fashion early to a qualifier who already has matches under his belt. Especially because everyone expects him to contend for majors now that he’s number 3 in the world and coming off the ATP Finals title.
David: I don’t think anyone is calling Stan Wawrinka a favorite considering the uncertain condition of his knee. But if you make at least the semifinals in three of the last four years, you’re a contender in my book. Stan loves playing down under, but he’s bound to run into a tough third round battle against Roberto Bautista Agut. While RBA does not have a strong record of beating top ten players, he dramatically defeated Del Potro in the Auckland tune-up event and looks to be in very good form. Under other circumstances, I would pick Stan to make a deep run. However, it would be too much to expect that from him at this stage of his comeback.
5. What’s the best first round match in the draw? Give a prediction with full score line.
Brice: David Ferrer vs. Andrey Rublev. Nice clash between young and old here. Ferrer pulls it out 3-6, 6-7(5), 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-2.
David: Tomas Berdych vs. Alex De Minaur: If you’ve never heard of Alex De Minaur, now would be the time to get yourself acquainted with him. While Nick Kyrgios firmly carries the mantle for the future of Aussie tennis, the 18-year-old De Minaur began to turn heads in the last two weeks by reaching the semifinal in Brisbane and the final in Sydney. For a player of such a young age, the Aussie plays with a ton of poise, moves the ball well around the court, and could put Berdych in a lot of trouble if he isn’t sharp. Tomas usually takes care of business in the early rounds in Australia, but he’ll be playing on one of the show courts with the whole Aussie crowd behind De Minaur. I’m going with the upset, De Minaur over Berdych in five sets.
6. Gun to your head… who wins the title?
Brice: Federer. Although he had health concerns down the stretch of 2017, Roger was the most dominant player in the world and showed that he has the game of tennis mastered. It was reminiscent of Jordan’s complete mastery of basketball when he won his sixth NBA Championship in 1998. Obviously it’s a big if, but if Federer’s body holds up, his vastness of experience and unlimited variety make him the clear choice for me. Especially in light of Nadal’s health being even more questionable than Fed’s and Djokovic lacking any recent tournament reps. But things are wide open this year, and I could definitely see a young-gun breaking through or a dark-horse being opportunistic.
David: Have to go with the best player in the world right now. He may not be ranked number one, but he is the defending champion and enters the tournament with a ton of confidence after having won all his matches during the Hopman Cup. While Roger has previously only once defended his Australian Open title, his level of comfort down under should be at its peak when he recalls the magical run he made last year. It won’t be easy, and it probably won’t be a Wimbledon-esque performance without dropping a set. But Roger Federer will win #20 once the dust settles in Melbourne.