Australian Open Preview The Big Title Threats Federer Nadal Nishikori Raonic Cilic
Behind the big three favorites, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka playing for the Australian Open trophy, five dangerous threats will be gunning for them- Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. The Tennis Review looks at why they are threats, what stands in their way and how the draw treated them.
Roger Federer (Seeded 17)
Champion 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010
Why he has a chance: Federer winning an 18th slam is one of tennis’ big story lines, and while it may get less and less likely as each Grand slam passes, you can never count the four time Australian Open champ out.
Slam draws can fall apart, and if any man has the experience, weapons, and crowd support to help him take advantage of that, it is Roger Federer.
The chances of the draw falling so apart that Federer avoided both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray- the two players built for Melbourne Park and who could prevent Federer executing his attacking game over three sets- is slim and the big question is can Federer win the trophy if he has to beat both of them?
The heart says yes. After undergoing his first ever career surgery, on his knee, last season, the Swiss needed a rest and he got six months of it, a period in which he also says he missed the game, and if absence makes the heart grow fonder, a Federer back on court, rested and healthy and in love with tennis and the tour, has to stand a chance.
What stands in his way: The heart may say Federer can win, but the head says it is most unlikely. The Swiss may be healthy and hungry, but he will still be hindered by lack of match practice and that rust means the wheels might come off in tense moments.
Federer’s recent return to the tour, at the Hopman Cup, saw the Swiss beat Dan Evans and Richard Gasquet, players he matches up well against, and lose to Alexander Zverev, a player who has the kind of double handed backhand that can really hurt him, in three sets.
That kind of form is pretty much where Federer left off back last Summer, a Summer in which he did not win a title on his favorite surface, Grass, and let slip a chance to make the Wimbledon final. That’s not going to be good enough to win in Melbourne with Djokovic and Murray in good form.
How the draw has treated him: For a 17th seed, very well- Tomas Berdych (10) in R3, Kei Nishikori (5) in R4, and Murray (1) in the QF. Federer could not have asked for much more considering he could have faced Murray, Djokovic or Stan Wawrinka in round three.
An easier early path means he has some time to get the rust out of his game, get some rhythm, and. perhaps most importantly, get some inspiration from being in the mix for a slam title again.
What has also worked out well for Federer is that he would not have to beat Murray and Djokovic back to back over five sets to win the title. Things will still be tough in the semis versus Wawrinka or Marin Cilic, who could both, if redlining, knock him out in straights as they have done at slams at which he was in form (Roland Garros 2015 and US Open 2014 respectively), but if Federer is in the semis and playing well, he matches up better against them then either of the top two seeds and will have a chance to get some more confidence going into a potential final with Djokovic.
Rafa Nadal (Seeded 9)
Why he has a chance: Like Federer, Rafa Nadal has the experience and strengths to take advantage if the draw falls apart. He also has the shots and mental toughness to beat anyone he faces if he can find some great form.
The Spaniard looked very good winning an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and reached the semis of Brisbane losing to Milos Raonic.
What stands in his way: In Brisbane, Nadal said he did not take his chances. Hardly surprising considering he has played so few professional events since Roland Garros last season. That lack of match play could hurt Nadal in Melbourne, too, where he is going to come up against players with a lot more recent mileage who will be more tuned into taking their chances when they come.
How the draw has treated him: Nadal has one of the tournament’s #NextGen stars Zverev (24) in round three, Gael Monfils (6) in round four, Raonic in QF, and Djokovic in the semis.
Zverev is a tough draw for the third round- the 24th seed is coming off a three set win over Roger Federer in the Australian Open and has been gathering a lot of momentum recently, winning his first title a few months back in Stockholm and breaking into the top 20. The German also came close to defeating the Spaniard last season in Indian Wells, and may be feeling motivated to make amends should they meet in Melbourne.
Marin Cilic (Seeded 7)
Why he has a chance: Cilic is a slam champ, one of only seven active slam champs on the tour.
On Cilic’s run to his slam title at the US Open ’14, his big serving first strike game was unbeatable and if he finds that form again, he could take out anyone in the draw.
What stands in his way: Cilic is a little inconsistent and can have sudden drops in form when he is vulnerable to an upset.
Cilic also has some issues closing out five set matches- he lost against Federer at Wimbledon and del Potro in the Davis Cup final despite leading both matches.
How the draw has treated him: Bernard Tomic (27) in r3, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (12) in r4, (though Auckland winner and Cilic’s US Open conqueror Jack Sock could make it to that part of the draw), Nick Kyrgios (14) or Wawrinka in QF, Murray in SF.
That is a good draw for the Croatian, allowing him to work out any kinks in his game, and if he makes it to the semis, and is firing away, anything could happen for the seventh seed.
Kei Nishikori (Seeded 5)
Quarter-finals 2012, 2015, 2016
Why he has a chance: Nishikori has mastered the modern baseline attacking tennis style and also has the shot-making skills to set him apart from others of his ilk. The Australian Open plexi-cushion compliments his game (he has been to at least the last sixteen in his last five appearances), and as he develops as a player, he is only going to get better there.
Nishikori has been developing, too, in the past season- after slumping a little after his US Open final finish in ’14, he is back to the top five, and made the US Open semis, knocking out the in-form Andy Murray in the process.
Nishikori is in good form right now, too, making the Brisbane final where he lost a three set battle to Grigor Dimitrov.
What stands in his way: Two big things- his body and his mind, both of which let him down in Brisbane. The Japanese suffers with injuries and also gets nervous and over-hits when he faces the best players in big matches.
How the draw has treated him: The draw could have been kinder. Albert Ramos-Vinolas (26) in round 3, Federer in the last 16, Murray in the last eight, and one of Wawrinka, Kyrgios (14), or Cilic in the SF.
Milos Raonic (seeded 3)
Why he has a chance: Raonic’s huge serve, big forehand and attacking mindset make him a threat on plexi-cushion where he has also a little bit of extra time to set up his shots which will make his forehand side even deadlier.
What stands in his way: That little bit of extra time also helps his rivals who he matches up badly against – over five sets, maintaining his best form against the more all round and fitter players like Djokovic and Murray, especially in slower night time conditions, is a tough ask.
How the draw has treated him: Not so well in the nervier opening rounds with the unpredictable Dustin Brown in round one, the big serving and in-form Sydney champion Gilles Muller in round two, Gilles Simon (25) in round three, who has the baseline play to tire Raonic out, and Roberto Bautista Agut, (13) the recent Chennai champ, in the last 16.
If Raonic survives, he could face a potential QF with Nadal and then Djokovic in the semis.
Daunting as all that may be, testing his game against former Australian Champs, and no less than the defending one at that, would be a reward for Raonic who, after all, is the third seed, last year’s semi-finalist and Wimbledon runner-up. The Canadian has come so far by taking on a challenge or two, and he will go even further if he stays positive and keeps working hard when he comes up against obstacles as tough to clear as Nadal and Djokovic in arguably Grand slam tennis’ toughest conditions.
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