Australian Open ATP Preview – Sir Andy Murray to add to expanding honour roll
Melbourne set for 5th Djokovic-Murray meeting in 7 years
Novak Djokovic led the world rankings for 122 consecutive weeks and after completing a career grand slam at Roland Garros in June controlled a seemingly insurmountable 8,000 ranking-point lead over Andy Murray. However, a flawless finish to the 2016 season helped Murray to capture the top ranking.
The professional achievement was followed by earning his third BBC Sports Personality award, and a Knighthood in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
Murray ended last year at the top of his game, whilst Djokovic looked a shadow of the player that dominated the sport in recent years. An off-season split from his coach Boris Becker provoked a jibe from the German, “He didn’t spend as much time on the practice court in the last six months as he should have and he knows that.“
When the Serbian takes to court in Melbourne he has history on his side as the reigning six time champion. Murray has never won the Australian Open but he is a five time finalist, losing four of those finals to Djokovic.
The top two dominate men’s tennis and although Djokovic halted Murray’s momentum by defeating his rival in Doha the balance of power has shifted. Prior to Doha Murray was 2.7 and Djokovic 3.05. The warm-up event however re-established Djokovic as the market favourite – albeit by a slight 2.84 versus 2.86 margin on the eve of the Open.
Why has this warm up event been taken as weighty evidence that the Serbian is automatically back on top? I certainly don’t discount it, but there is more to like about Murray’s form and general direction heading into 2017’s first Grand Slam. I find it hard to fully trust the return to form of a man that looked so intense in the 250 final, stressfully handled the big points and that should have lost to Fernando Verdasco the day before.
Murray’s draw looks friendly. Perhaps only Kei Nishikori (48) gives pause for thought that he might overcome the Scot. The Japanese has the game but lacks the durability to consistently challenge for Grand Slams.
This quarter is where to find Roger Federer (34) who finds himself with the unfamiliar seeding of seventeen but still has an impressive hard court game as well as 4 semi finals in his past 5 visits. Knee surgery cut Federer’s 2016 short and with his fitness an unknown it would be a shock if Federer became a five time champion.
Stan Wawrinka has won a Grand Slam title in each of the last 3 seasons and leads the way in the 2nd Quarter. When he won the Australian Open in 2014 he could be backed at 60. This year he is a more considered 16.5. If his A-game is firing, he has proven that he can blast any opponent off the court.
The 2nd highest seeding in this section is Marin Cilic (90) who has a Grand Slam title on his resume although his record Down Under is poor having made the semis only one time.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (150) is also found here but it is a long time since he threatened in Australia with only one quarter final appearance in the past five years.
Nick Kyrgios (60) has a big game and a big personality. As Milos Raonic showed last season a strong serve can take you far in Melbourne and Kyrgios certainly has that. The Aussie has a devil may care attitude that might exploit this favourable draw. He will fancy his chances against Wawrinka and has a tidy record against Cilic.
Canadian big server Milos Raonic (21) leads this section. He elevated his game last season with a Wimbledon final complimented by a semi final breakthrough here. Raonic has lost some of his sparkle and with his unreliable return game will be doing very well if he comes close to repeating his 2016 result.
The years are starting to take their toll on Rafa Nadal (22). He did win an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi at the end of December, but it should be considered rather meaningless and tellingly his hard court statistics no longer compare favourably with the top players. The Spaniard was a first round casualty in Melbourne last year, and evidence suggests that he won’t lift a second Australian crown.
There is an opportunity for somebody to exploit this unintimidating quarter. Young talent Alexander Zverev (75) will one day compete for Slams but he has not yet made it beyond the 3rd round of any Grand Slam.
A player that consistently flies under the radar, but that has produced some noteworthy hard court results both at the back end of 2016 and the start of this year is Roberto Bautista Agut (220). His best showing at the Australian Open is R16 but he has a decent draw. I doubt very much that he will win here but Australia has historically had a reputation for players that appear unannounced and he is better placed than most dark horses to go deep.
Djokovic will have to be at it from the start. Verdasco has in the past shown his best self at Melbourne and will have the opportunity to scalp his second former world number one in as many years at the Australian Open first round, whilst putting to rest the ghosts of Doha. I don’t think it will happen but a case can be made.
There’s nothing really to fear in Novak’s draw. It features both Dominic Thiem (140) and David Goffin (150) but even when the Serbian was finding the lowest form possible at the end of 2016 he still strolled past them both.
Brisbane champion Grigor Dimitrov (50) is also lurking in this sector but a swallow very rarely equates to a summer in the Bulgarian’s case. His price looks very low compared to that of several of his more trustworthy contemporaries.
I expect another edition of the Murray-Djokovic feud, which has never been more interesting than it is now. I’m siding with Sir Andy (5 points at 2.84) to add a first Australian Open to his expanding treasure chest.
Extra items on my shopping list over the next two weeks are Kyrgios (1 point at 60) and Bautista-Agut (1 point at 220).