Australian Open 2019 Men’s Preview
The Australian Open kicks off the Majors for 2019 after a short but sweet off-season. The Tennis Review previews the conditions that will play their part in producing the men’s champions as well as taking a look at the contenders to become part of tennis’ most prestigious champion’s club, the Grand Slam winner’s circle.
The conditions and variables
The Australian Open is a little less predictable than some Majors of late. One reason for that is the modification and speeding up of the plexicusion hard court surface over the last couple of seasons (2017/18).
The majority of the tour is played on medium-slow surfaces and most players have modified their games to those higher bouncing baseline based conditions. The Australian Open’s current plexi-cushion surface, however, allows the ball to bounce both faster and lower which favors aggressive players who are comfortable at the net or favor stepping inside the court once the chance arises.
The Australian Open is notorious for some of the most ferocious conditions on the tour with on court temperatures in the 40s and only the game’s fittest players can be expected to survive into the second week.
The tournament is two different tournaments in some respect. During the day, the courts play faster, as do the balls which bounce lower. In the evening, the cooler weather and more humid conditions mean the balls fluff up more and play heavier.
To some degrees, those conditions will favor some players more than others and there is a degree of luck, as there always is, as to when certain players are scheduled.
Attacking players will still be favored either way, enjoying, in the day, the balls flying off their racket strings a little quicker and their shots dying before their more defensive minded opponents can track them down, as well as, at night, having a little extra time to handle counter-punchers and being able to move up the court and set themselves up to hit a winner.
When conditions get too hot and humid and thermometers and officials dictate, the roof is closed, as it was so infamously in last year’s final.
Very few players have games tailor made to thrive indoors in today’s game, with so little of the tour played in those conditions, but those players with more awkward ball tosses and more weather effected and/or error prone strokes and high risk games will benefit. As will players more prone to displaying great touch and who win points by shot placement rather than power.
The off season:
Players come into the Australian Open refreshed after a 6-7 week break from the grind of the tour, relaxed after a holiday or two, and improved, having had some time to tinker with their games or work on their weaknesses, meaning the Australian Open has been known to throw up a few surprises over the years such as Safin beating Federer in the 2005 semis, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reaching the ’08 final, and Kyle Edmund and Hyeon Chung reaching last year’s last four.
Following on from Wimbledon’s introduction of a tiebreak at 12-12 in the fifth set, the Australian Open has introduced a ‘super’ tiebreak at 6-6 in the fifth with the tiebreak being the first to 10.
This rule is most likely to benefit the older players preventing them from enduring the rare but often fatal epics as well as being to the advantage of the great returners and the risk takers. It may not mean much in deciding the outcome of a Federer- Djokovic final but could be something of a factor should Federer meet Nadal or Djokovic meet Zverev.
The Australian Open has changed its balls from Wilson to Dunlop, a move already criticized by Bernard Tomic who said it was “terrible” and that the balls, that the balls did not feel so good, and that the balls were said to be “cheap.”
While the tournament has defended itself by saying the balls are good quality and made by one of the world’s four best ball manufacturers, other players, have been reported to say the ball is flat and dies quickly on making contact with the court.
Inevitably, the ball will be perceived differently by each player, but it won’t help any but the most experienced competitors to have yet another unknown added into the mix of Grand Slam play.
The greatest variable of them all.
No educated guesses are really possible until the draw is made. Some in form all time greats whose games suit the surfaces to a tee might fly through any draw, but there is no player pre-tournament playing such great tennis to scream champion (Djokovic played three three setters in a row and then lost to Bautista Agut; Federer has only played an exhibition event.)
All will be revealed, and the real speculation can begin, once the draw is made on Thursday January 10th.
There are four past champions in the draw- Federer (6), Nadal (1), Djokovic (6), and Wawrinka (1), and their collective reign down under goes all the way back to 2006.
The big three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, also happen to be the top three seeds so with good draws and fine health, their chances of extending that run are high. Still, they won’t take anything for granted. The faster conditions and a few quickly improving players mean this tournament is ripe for someone new to have their name etched on the trophy.
The Swiss has been the main beneficiary of the sped up conditions and is the two time defending champion in Melbourne.
This tournament is arguably the 37 year old’s best chance to win his 21st Major with the clock ticking even on his superhuman career.
Expect Federer to receive preferential treatment- he will most likely play defensive players in the day, and if he comes up against an attacker in form, he’ll play them at night. And if it there is even a sniff of the roof being used, if Federer’s playing, that court will be covered.
Federer comes in refreshed after a disappointing second half of 2018. He had a great Hopman cup, but that is an exhibition match and a world away from the intense competition offered up by a slam.
If anyone is going to benefit from the rest offered by the off-season and all the preferential treatment his resume deserves, it’s the Swiss.
Djokovic goes into the Australian Open as the clear favorite- Sports Dime Betting have the world No.1 and six time champ at +120.
Back at No.1, and holding the last 2 slams, Djokovic is the favorite to win the title, and with organizers most probably aiming for a Federer-Djokovic final, he’ll see his matches most often scheduled at night if he comes up against an aggressive fast court player.
Djokovic will handle the day conditions well, too. The Serb is an aggressive baseliner who just also happens to be the best defender in the game and aged 31, he’ll be happy to compete in faster conditions, not have to run quite so much and have more energy for the finals where, fresh from the off season, he so often plays his best tennis.
The fast conditions on hard courts help Nadal whose 31 year old body can only take so much pounding from best of five on hard courts- he has had to retire during matches in his last two hard court slams (AO ’18 QF; USO ’18 SF)- so, he’ll be ready to attack and flatten out his shots to give himself the chance to hold each slam at least twice.
Wawrinka looked good in his late 2018 outings and played well in Doha, beating Khachanov and Nicholas Jarry before falling to eventual champion Roberto Bautista Agut.
The Swiss has the game to overwhelm anyone and if he catches fire, with his experience, you would not count him out. However, he will need to reproduce that form for seven straight matches and may not have the match fitness to defeat too many of the game’s super fit counter-punchers in succession.
Grand slam pedigree
There are only six active slam champs in this year’s Australian Open draw (Juan Martin del Potro has withdrawn with injury) and four of them have won the Australian Open. Here’s a look at the two remaining ones, both former finalists.
The defending finalist seems to have put the disappointment of his Wimbledon ’18 exit to Guido Pella in the second round behind him, winning the Davis Cup.
Cilic has been making regular deep runs at slams since his 2014 US Open win and seems due another one.
Tennis can at times produce a story only a Hollywood screenwriter could come up with, and Murray winning the Australian Open after being the bridesmaid five times and coming back from a hip injury that has seen him drop to 230 in the world would be up there with Roger Federer’s 2017 Australian Open win.
If one, or more, of the aforementioned favored champs or finalist or if a player in form gets upset and/or the draw falls apart, or both, experienced vets will be around to take advantage. They might even have gotten themselves together enough to win the slam outright.
Nishikori is one of the 2018 comeback players of the year and the Australian Open suits his baseline aggression. He just won in Brisbane, ending his run of nine losing finals, which will fill him with plenty of confidence.
Dimitrov has played some of his career best tennis in Australia. Has the Bulgarian peaked or will Melbourne be the stage for his career achievement?
Reached the Brisbane semis. A deep Tsonga run would have plenty of support at the scene of where he first burst onto the Grand slam tennis scene when he made the ’08 final.
Made the Doha final. Berdych had been gone six months from the tour until Doha. The popular Czech is another vet who can be sure of getting plenty of love from the knowledgeable Melbourne crowd.
Players in form
Plenty of players come out of the block at the start of the season playing their best tennis and make a deep run through the Australian Open draw.
Roberto Bautista Agut is the Doha champ.
Bautista Agut is ‘due’ a deep slam run. He will have to earn it, of course, but he has done everything he can to put himself in a situation to take his chances. Supremely fit, a game suited to fast hard courts, and with plenty of heart, if he can get a good draw, expect a breakthrough.
Daniil Medvedev was the Brisbane finalist.
A big serving, confident shot-maker, Medvedev led the tour in hard court wins last season and just made the Brisbane final. He’s had a pretty short career- he did not play his 1st main draw ATP match until Nice ’16- to win 3 titles and have such impressive stats, but he is a born champion and if he gets an inch, he’s taking miles.
The Next in Line
2018 ended on a high note for some of the players most likely to succeed the current elite. Could any of these players take another step further by winning their maiden slam?
Success at Majors is the big question for the 2018 WTF champ who has reached 1 Major quarter final (Roland Garros ’18) in his admittedly still young and otherwise impressive career. A let down and an early exit at the Australian Open would be no shock, but with Ivan Lendl around to keep his feet on the ground, a run to his first semi would be the most fitting step in the right direction.
Bold and unassuming, a lethal mix, Karen Khachanov plays like he is not afraid of success and this Australian Open would be the perfect time for the Paris-Bercy ’18 champ to step up before the hype starts getting in the way.
The Shanghai finalist has added a bit of zap to his shots, especially on the forehand, and proved in 2018 he had a mature and cool head on his shoulders. The conditions will suit him and he has a lot of level-headed confidence, not too surprising considering his game is so closed modeled on six time AO champion Novak Djokovic.
The game no longer favors 17 to 20 years olds announcing themselves with slam titles, but if it were to welcome them with open arms again, these are the players the Major winning circle would be giving hugs to.
Aged 20 and ranked 15, Tsitsipas has only played four slams, all in 2018, but has already been to a last 16 (Wimbledon) and should reproduce that result in Melbourne.
Fast hard courts are the Canadian’s best surface. He’s not won much recently, winning just 1 match since reaching the Tokyo semis, and he hit a lot of errors losing in the Sydney first round, but he likes the big occasion and a Grand Slam is certainly that.
Last year’s semi-finalist has struggled with injuries and looked rusty in Pune. But talented and touted players often play their best at the slam where they achieve their earliest success and so the Australian Open could be where Chung treats us to some of that A grade baseline hitting of his.
Hard courts are where the shot-making, sparky Tiafoe shines.
With it’s faster low-frequency conditions, the aging bodies of the established champs, the lack of slam winning experience of the vets, the unknown quantities of the next in line, the lack of young players coming through at the very top, and the stronger depth of the men’s field, the Australian Open is the slam most likely to see a dark horse cross the winner’s line.
Players ranked outside of the top 16 seeds qualify for dark horse status.
The upset maestro. He pleases as much as he lets down, but you know his presence in an early round match versus a seed adds a little extra to the proceedings.
Goffin, ranked 22, is a skilled fast hard courter and a great competitor. No one wants him in their last 32 bracket.
If Klizan faces one of the top seeds, at some point of the match, he is going to look like the winner in waiting. If he can look like that for three sets then we won’t have to wait much longer for him to finally reach the last eight of a slam.
Fucsovics is one of the game’s most improved players of late and has the fitness to cope with the Australian conditions. He has shown how dangerous he is on hard courts in his US Open and Doha matches versus Novak Djokovic and should come in with plenty of confidence and little pressure.
Home grown hopes
The players born in the Major hosting countries are a privileged bunch with the chance to play the show courts despite their lower rankings, to get one of the sport’s best pay days courtesy of a wild card. and the exposure that can only encourage sponsors and media opportunities. Australia’s rich tennis history also means it’s not short of talent to get the fans involved and attract some new ones.
Impossible to predict, you’ll just get what you’re given with Kyrgios. He’ll be under the spotlight, that’s one thing for sure.
Kokkanakis’ Miami win over Roger Federer showed his potential last season.
Injuries have sidelined him, but if he is healthy and playing well, his youthful and charismatic presence on court will do wonders for Australian tennis. That’s if he plays of course. He’ll have to come through qualifying after being looked over for a wildcard.
Millman has come to prominence of late after his fourth round US Open win over Roger Federer and he has the athleticism, stamina and counter punching skills to do well at home.
Nick Kyrgios’ antics have overshadowed the once prime bad boy of tennis, and going under the radar will help the one time great Australian Hope. Tomic seems like he has found some love for tennis again, winning the Chengdu Open with some real grit, and breaking back into the top 100. That means little in the face of the pressure and expectations he might face at his home Major, but Tomic keeps showing us new layers and there are sure more to be peeled.
Alex de Minaur
He’s got Hewitt’s legs and Hewitt’s ear, and the youngster will have plenty of support.
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