Australian Open Preview: Djokovic, Nishikori and Federer the Favorites

Australian Open

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The Australian Open starts tomorrow and the tennis world is eagerly predicting who will win the trophy in two Sundays time. The tennis review looks at the three favorite’s chances down under.

Novak Djokovic:  Champion 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013.

Looking past the world No. 1 as the eventual winner is difficult. He ended last season as world No. 1 and broke his bad luck in slam finals when he won Wimbledon. Add to that he is the winningest player on Plexi-cushion in the last five years and his rivals to the title all look blurred in the distance.

There is one question mark that has arisen concerning his chances- his health. The Serb gave a  press conference announcing he had had the flu the last few days and cancelled his practice session. The last time the Serb was ill in a slam was in the second week of the French Open and his performance in the final was maybe his worst of the year.

Djokovic, though, does not play until Tuesday. And he reassures his fans he feels better after what he calls a bad few days.

That reassurance may not reassure his opponents of their title prospects, but a few of them in his draw will fancy their chances.

Djokovic’s opening rounds pose no real threats, though a confident Aljaz Bedene ( recent Chennai finalist) will give him a good workout in the first round. Old foe Fernando Verdasco awaits in round 32, and in the last 16, he could face John Isner or Roberto Bautista Agut.

Big serving Isner, seeded 19, would pose the biggest hurdle for Djokovic- he has beaten him twice on hardcourts- but a best of five win over the four time Champ would be a huge shock.

In the last eight, Djokovic is scheduled to meet Milos Raonic. The Canadian is coming off  a runner up position in Brisbane and showed great improvement in his footwork and shot-making from the back of the court. There are in the chasing pack more hardworking and hungry than Raonic and few Djokovic would less want to meet in the last eight, especially considering his potential last four opponents- Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori, against who he will need to be as fresh as possible.

Those two players are the ones who conquered the game’s best hard court player at last year’s hard court slams. Both of them could, especially if the balls are lighter this year like last season and the courts a bit faster, take out Djokovic, and their chances will be increased if Raonic also pushes him hard.

Djokovic, however, is the master of winning back to back gruel fests. See his run to the 2011 title for evidence. He has it in him to get past these tough rounds and make the final, and if his health is at its optimum, and he does make it through to the final, he is favorite to win.

Djokoivic has shown he has the better of everyone on the other side of the draw in Melbourne, and has beaten Federer in 2008 and 2011 in the last four, and Nadal in that epic five set 2012 final. If he comes up against either of them, it will be tough, as all slam finals are, but history and his excellent form on the surface suggest he will go the distance and take his fifth, and record breaking, Australian Open title.

Kei Nishikori.

Calling Kei Nishikori the second favorite goes against the book makers, and my own theory that someone who has never won a slam can be a favorite for one. However, Kei Nishikori’s game, which plexi-cushion will bring the best out of, and his momentum over the last year, are compelling enough to call him as the second favorite.

The Japanese is seeded five and is the runner up of last year’s U.S Open. In N.Y.C, he beat Wawrinka in five tough sets and then Djokivic in four. Impressive stuff. In the final he was disappointing, perhaps worn out by his endeavors, certainly overwhelmed by the occasion and the mental toughness displayed by his conqueror Marin Cilic.

That experience will serve him well in Melbourne as it did the rest of 2014. He certainly did not shy away the rest of the season, winning in Tokyo, and making the semi-finals of Paris and London. Incidentally, he lost to Djokovic there, and in the last match was the only player to take a set of him all week.

He has also started this year well, reaching the semis of Brisbane where Raonic edged him in a third set breaker.

This year, Nishikori would have to get past Ferrer, Wawrinka and Djokovic to make the final. But he has beaten them all in slams before, and he can do it on plexi-cushion which rewards his speed, his shot-making, his back-court resilience, and his aggression. Much like it has rewarded Djokovic’s same strengths over the last five years.

Should Nishikori reach the semis, and find Djokovic anything less than at his best, he will be up for repeating his U.S Open win.  Momentum has been swinging his way the last year, and he will not be afraid to make another slam final against the tournament favorite.

In the final, he could face Federer or Nadal. He has shown he can beat Federer in big matches ( Sony Open 2014, Madrid 2013), and nearly took Nadal out on clay in the Madrid final last year, before injury got in the way and forced him to retire.

If Nishikori can avoid injury, and if his fitness and mind can hold up, he can take the final. He will have learned from his experience in New York, and with Michael Chang, the 1996 runner up in Melbourne, in his corner, the nimble of foot Nishikori will be nothing less than prepared to take that extra step in a slam in two weeks.

Roger Federer: Champion 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010.

World No. 2, recent Brisbane champion, 2014 Wimbledon runner up, four time champ. You would expect that to be enough for Federer to be a firm second favorite here. However, as bright as all those sides are, they are balanced by sides just as dark, if not darker.

Federer is the four time champ, but he has not won in Melbourne since 2010. In 2011, he lost to Djokoivic, in 2013, he lost to Murray, and in 2012 and 2014 he lost to Nadal.

While Murray, his projected last eight opponent, might keep him on court longer than three sets, the Scot is unlikely to beat him considering their respective forms and what happened in London only over a month ago (Federer beat the Scot for the loss of one game).

However, Nadal, the biggest mystery of the event, will be a huge hurdle to overcome if the Spaniard makes the last four. No one really knows what to expect from Nadal, who is 4-4 since his comeback last October, but we do know he is fit, that he has been practicing in Melbourne for a couple of weeks, and that the event brings out the best of him- see one title and two runner up showings.

If Nadal makes the semis, and it is quite probable considering just how good he is in best of five sets matches, and his favorable match ups against nearly everyone on tour, then Federer’s chances are diminished heavily. The outcome will have little to do with recent form and everything to do with the match up and the mind. 

Nadal has proven he trumps Federer in those respects with his head to head lead (he has beaten Federer three times in Melbourne and no one needs reminding of their 2009 final and how much it devastated the Swiss), and his mastery of Federer’s backhand, which his huge spin allows. And while Federer will commit to come to the net every time against the Spaniard, Nadal, as we saw at last year’s event against the Swiss, has a funny way of getting to the front of Federer’s head and keeping him back, no matter how good Federer’s net play intentions are.

If Nadal does not make it to the semis, Federer will breathe a huge sigh of relief. He would be the favorite to get past Berdych in the semis, though it will not be easy considering Berdych’s slam victories over Federer (Wimbledon 2010, Us Open 2012) and the Czech’s great form in Doha. However the Czech mental shortcomings suggest it will be a tough but very winnable encounter.

Another Melborune final, his first since 2010, would most likely see Federer squaring off against Djokovic. The Serb beat him in their five set Wimbledon final despite a huge wobble in the fourth. The deciding factor in the fifth was the serve- Federer’s fell off, and Djokivic’s return was there to take advantage.

If Federer is to stand a chance in Melborune he needs a few favors. Someone has to take out Nadal, and tire out Djokovic. Federer can only win against the world No.1 if he plays his very best over three sets, and if the Djokovic who lost the 2013 Wimbledon final shows up. But that will be unlikely. The Rod Laver arena is where Djokovic is at his confident best and the man who shows up will be nothing less than the one who took the title in 2008,  2011, 2012, and 2013.

If neither Djokovic or Nadal get in his way, Federer will have to hope he does not face Nishikori for the title. While Federer leads the world No. 5 3-2 in their head to head, he has lost their two matches on slower surfaces. The Japanese would also have had to get through one of the most difficult of the draws and be in great shape to take his first Major.

What Federer will need, ultimately, to face in the final is someone who he matches up well against, like Wawrinka or Raonic. That will certainly make slam No. 18 easier. But with so many cards needing to fall into place, the chances of Federer, who has been losing more big finals than winning them on his way to world No.2, and who did not even manage to compete in his last big final in London, beating his own slam record tally are lower than the media might have you expect.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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