It’s Monday morning.
If you listen intently enough, you’ll hear the sound of screeching tires coming from the bowels of Rod Laver Arena. But, upon closer inspection, you’ll find those aren’t rubber tires, but in fact the rubber soles belonging to Novak Djokovic, as he uses them to slide impossibly on hardcourt, each screech a reminder that his is the most elastic body in tennis history.
Come back later on and you’ll hear the sound of dripping water, as if a giant imaginary tap had been left on just above the Plexicushion at the heart of Rod Laver Arena. But, when you make your way in, you’ll find the water to be sweat, and the tap it drips from Rafael Nadal, as the Majorcan machine pummels the unfortunate soul across the net into submission, that now-historic forehand generating more spin than a politician during Question Time.
Sometimes, at night, with the Melbourne skyline glittering in the distance, Rod Laver Arena will be transformed into a temple. In it, 15,000 disciples will lean intently on the edge of their pews to get a glimpse at the divine, as Roger Federer’s moments of pure genius elicit cries of delight and worship.
Sometimes this worship will become far more vocal and drenched in a palette of green and yellow, as Australia’s ever-growing contingent take to the stage for a few hours each, determined to prove they’re the next big thing. Of course, the previous next big thing still walks the halls, albeit for one last time. His aura is as powerful as it was all those years ago, when a brash young Lleyton Hewitt fist-pumped his way to the World No. 1 ranking at a measly 20 years of age.
Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka lead the contingent of the chasers, those looking to carve themselves a slice of the cake so often devoured by the greats.
Three undisputed champions, one retiring icon, and a horde of players chomping at the heels to hold the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
This is the Australian Open Tennis Championships 2016, and below is a list of who to watch and what to watch for.
Death, Taxes, and Novak Djokovic.
You can do as well as you possibly want in the early stages of a slam. You can win convincingly or inspiringly, and start to build or consolidate your worthiness as a player for the world stage.
But eventually, you’ll come up against Novak Djokovic, who’s (statistically) the most dominant World No. 1 in the sport’s history.
Good luck with that.
Djokovic opens against fast-rising World No. 51 Hyeon Chung (the 19-year-old who has risen 116 spots in the last 12 months), but likely won’t face any real test until he meets either Simon or Karlovic in the fourth round, then Nishikori or Tsonga in the quarters. If Djokovic gets through to the Semi-Finals, he’ll likely set up a mouthwatering clash with Roger Federer, who along with Stanislas Wawrinka is the only player capable of knocking off a Djokovic near the top of his game.
FIRST ROUNDERS TO WATCH
Tsonga v Baghdatis – If you’re looking for a show, this is the match to be at. No questions asked. Both peaked by reaching an Australian Open Final, and both are immeasurably popular with the crowd Down Under (although racquet manufacturers do have a bone to pick with the Cypriot). Simply put, they know how to work a crowd into a frenzy. Although Margaret Court Arena has been ‘modernised’ with a roof and expanded seating, it remains the best venue for fiercely patriotic encounters, and if this match is staged there (better yet at night), forget who’s playing at Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena, and just any arena in general. This is the match to be at.
Nishikori v Kohlschreiber – Nishikori rarely has his rhythm disrupted, but if it is it will be because of Kohlschreiber, formerly ranked 16th in the world. With one of the best one-handed backhands on tour, the German’s all-court game could spell trouble for Nishikori and deny him the rhythm he feeds off. At least four sets seems a surety, but don’t be surprised if this one goes five.
Semi Finalist – Djokovic
He’s marvelled at because he exudes such little sweat during matches, but a bead must’ve formed on Roger Federer’s brow when he was placed into the same half as Novak Djokovic.
Another one may’ve emerged when he saw his potential run to the Semi-Finals. If all goes to plan (of course all rarely goes to plan at a slam), Federer faces a second-round match against Alexandr Dolgopolov (a 2011 quarter-finalist), a third rounder against Bulgarian prodigy Grigor Dimitrov, and then a fourth rounder against up and comer Dominic Thiem.
Federer is 10-0 in total against these three, but Dimitrov, often referred to as ‘Baby Fed’ due to likeliness in game style, may pull a Luke Skywalker and defeat his all-powerful father, while Thiem has underperformed at slams thus far, and is due to have a showing more reflective of his lofty prospects.
Also here is home-grown hero (although some would say villain) Nick Kyrgios. He pulled out of Kooyong with an ankle injury, but don’t think for one second he’s in doubt for the Australian Open. Like Tomic, Kyrgios lives for the slams, and the chance to perform in front of a home crowd will be an immeasurable boost for him.
Kyrgios potentially faces 6th seed Tomas Berdych in the third round. The two have never met (match-wise), and at any other venue I’d back the clean power game of Berdych to get the job done. But this isn’t any other occasion, and the venue will almost certainly be at night on Rod Laver Arena, and if it is I’m taking Kyrgios to set up a possible fourth rounder with 2014 US Open champ Marin Cilic.
Semi-Finalist – Federer
Here lies the scariest forehand in all of tennis. Here also lies one of the most confidence-lacking players in all of tennis.
Both of the above statements apply to Rafael Nadal, the second-highest seed in this quarter behind 2014 champ Stan Wawrinka. A fragile sense of confidence is not a prospect one associates with Nadal, but his 2015 season was (by his incredibly lofty standards) ‘pretty disappointing, no?’
The best chance for him to regain this confidence will come in the first round, when he takes on 2009 Semi-Finalist Fernando Verdasco. Their 2009 encounter was one of the best Australian Open Semi-Finals of all time, and high expectations will be set for this one. With Verdasco a patchy player at the best of times, I expect this one to either be done in three sets or five. Verdasco has never been one for in-between.
What of Wawrinka? In an era of dominance by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, it’s odd to think Wawrinka is tracking at one slam a year since 2014. He represents the best chance of an upset when it comes to the ‘Big Three’, and is along with Federer one of the only players that can beat a Djokovic near full strength. He’s also more upset prone than any of the Big Three though, and making it to the final will be a big ask.
Wawrinka is likely to face Milos Raonic in the fourth round, and it will be a defining moment for the Canadian. Both Wawrinka and Raonic are coming off tournament wins in Chennai and Brisbane respectively, but Raonic’s field was far more noteworthy, and a victory over Federer in the final will have him bursting with confidence at Melbourne Park. Wawrinka should win, but given Raonic’s form and the fact he’s due for a big grand slam showing, I’ll take him to beat Wawrinka, and then Nadal should they meet in the quarters.
Semi-Finalist – Raonic
Andy Murray headlines this section, but he could very well go missing early on should new wife Kim Sears go into labour.
If we were to remove that from the equation, Murray looms as the red-hot favourite to get through to the semis, with David Ferrer and Bernard Tomic the only real challengers.
Ferrer’s draw is interesting, mainly because he may face Lleyton Hewitt in the second round. If it eventuates, pencil it in for a night match on Rod Laver Arena. The grinders have only met three times in their lengthy careers, but the similarities are uncanny, the main being both have gotten the absolute best out of what they have been given. Like with Kyrgios, in match ups like these the venue can play a part, and Hewitt up against the odds on Australian soil is a test he relishes like no other. I’ll back him in a five set win just for the theatricality of it.
First rounders to watch –
John Isner v Jerzy Janowicz – The two big servers have had some marathon matches in their time (though I’d say Isner takes the cake), and another is entirely likely here. Five setter looms.
Bernard Tomic v Denis Istomin – Anyone capable of playing the perfect game against Novak Djokovic deserves to be in with a chance, and Tomic will know he’s in for a fight should he give Istomin an inch of wiggle room. Tomic is 2-1 against the Uzbek, and will be buoyed by the home crowd, but the manner in which he gets the job done will be telling. If it’s a workman-like straight sets win, expect big things in the week ahead and even give him a sliver of a chance against Murray should they meet in the fourth round.
Semi-Finalist – Murray
Djokovic d. Federer
Murray d. Raonic
Djokovic d. Murray
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