The Australian Open arrives each and every year in a storm of the most unbearable, exhausting weather that any professional athletes in the world endure. Welcome to the 2017 Australian summer of tennis.
With the new tennis year, comes the eagerly anticipated return of two of the sport’s greatest champions and role models, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Their absence from the tour in the second half of the season left a large cavity that was never going to be easily filled. The sport of tennis will have to adapt to the notion that they will be without Messrs Nadal and Federer in the not to distant future. But, for now they’re back and they make the Australian Open so much better with their presence.
The first grand slam of the calendar year is shaping up as yet another titanic battle between the top two players in the world; the new world number one, Andy Murray and the six-time Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic. Aside from the other two members of the ‘Big Four’, there’s a healthy pack of ageing stars, supreme youthful talents and players who on their day can take it to anyone in the world. Let’s delve into our 2017 Australian Open Preview.
Novak Djokovic: The prohibitive favorite, who’s been the world’s best player for the better part of the last six years. The Serb might have lost his number one ranking, but his Australian Open record is unmatched in history, with six titles and a winning percentage of over 90%. His complete game contrasts perfectly with Melbourne’s Plexicushion courts. Put simply, it will take a super-human effort to dethrone the 12-time Grand Slam champion.
Andy Murray: What a 2016 Andy Murray had. Olympic Gold, Wimbledon Victory, a newborn daughter and of course the World Number One tennis ranking. Murray has quite an impressive record in Australia, an 80% winning record and a five-time finalist. Unfortunately, not one of his five finals have translated into a title. Four of his finals defeats have been to fierce rival, Novak Djokovic. Murray has never beaten Djokovic in Australia, and it’s a serious mental barrier he’ll need to cross should they meet on day 14 of the tournament. The good news; Murray’s in career best form and this is his best chance yet.
Milos Raonic: There’s plenty to be excited about if you’re a fan of the young Canadian. Raonic is fresh off making his first slam final at Wimbledon and ATP World Tour semi-final appearances. Raonic’s powerful serve, perhaps the world’s best, makes him a supremely dangerous foe on any hardcourt or grass surface. His mobility has improved in leaps and bounds over the past two seasons, which was absolutely necessary to challenge the world’s top 10. Like so many of these young chargers however, his biggest issues are remaining healthy for extended periods, something he’s so far failed to do. Nonetheless, look for him to make a deep run into week 2.
Kei Nishikori: Since his breakout season in 2014, there’s been a growing interest in Nishikori’s rise. Incredibly he is the first man from Japan to be ranked inside the Top 10, and with 11 titles the most of any man from Asia. Still there’s a feeling that Nishikori is underachieving given his prodigious talent and ranking (5). Like Raonic, injuries have also played a heavy role in slowing him down especially at the Grand Slam level. He has the tools make a deep run at the Open this year, but does he have the healthy body and mental fortitude to push the elite men all the way.
Stan Wawrinka: The ultimate wildcard. On his day, he’s virtually unbeatable. We’ve seen him do it multiple times at Grand Slams; Australian Open 2014, French Open 2015 and the US Open in 2016. His flat one-handed background might just be the greatest stroke in the world when he’s on song. He’s the only man to consistently give Novak Djokovic trouble at Grand Slams, beating him en route to all three of his titles. Furthermore after each major win, pundits remove Wawrinka from the main list of contenders declaring, “there’s no way he can play at that level again!” And yet he does. Make sure you keep a real good eye on ‘Stan The Man’.
Dominic Thiem: Austria’s Dominic Thiem is the leading charger of the new tennis generation. 2016 was Thiem’s breakthrough season; he won four titles across all three major surfaces. He also had his breakthrough Grand Slam performance at the French Open reaching the semi-finals. The sky is the limit for the 23 year old, including, multiple major trophies and topping the world rankings. He’s still young, and not overly experienced so a kind early round draw would do wonders for his confidence which suffered over the back half of 2016.
Rafael Nadal: The indomitable ‘Spanish Bull’ hasn’t been the same player the past two seasons. Most notably, the depth and power of his groundstrokes no longer threaten the world’s best players consistently, particularly without the assistance of the slower clay courts. Nadal still possesses enough skill and mental strength to advance into the second week of the tournament, but outside of Roland Garros his hopes of winning one more Slam are slim. Those facts won’t matter to the thousands of Rafa fans who follow their ever popular hero all over the globe.
Roger Federer: It’s just not tennis without the Swiss Maestro on the tour. Six months without the FedEx Express made you appreciate the greatness we’ve all witnessed over the past thirteen years. Now that Federer returns, healthy, the question remains, can Federer genuinely contend for a Slam? If his play is around his 2015-16 level, the answers yes. Still, the 35 year old will need a friendly draw and most importantly another competitor to remove Djokovic and Murray, as he doesn’t quite have the physical endurance anymore to confront the world’s best players over five sets. Welcome back, Roger.
The Rest: The overwhelming likelihood is that the Men’s 2017 Australian Open Champion is listed above. But in every Slam there’s always a guy or girl who makes an unexpected deep run into the tournament. Many of ‘the rest’ have done this run before, they’re heavily experienced and are as dangerous as anybody on their day. So keep an eye on the French trio of, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils. The sturdy, and reliable Belgian, David Goffin. A Grand Slam winner in Marin Cilic. Tomas Berdych, a guy who’s been in top 10 since 2010. Hopefully, a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov, and an unpredictable and wildly talented Nick Kyrgios.