Australian Open Preview The Favorites Novak Djokovic Andy Murray Stan Wawrinka
The Australian Open 2017 gets underway next week and the trophy is most likely to be raised by one of three big favorites – Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. The Tennis Review looks at the chances of the two-time defending champion, the 2014 winner, and the event’s five time runner up.
Novak Djokovic, Champion 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016
If Novak Djokovic is looking to find the joy in tennis again, he will not have too look too far when he gets to Melbourne Park.
Novak Djokovic’s recent Doha final victory over Andy Murray showed fans the Serbian had recovered from his late 2016 slump, was enjoying his tennis again (check out the smiles he and Murray shared at the net in the video below), and cemented his status as the Australian Open favorite.
Not that Djokovic’s status down under was not concrete enough- the 12 time slam champ is the man to beat in Melbourne with six titles won there since 2008.
However, Djokovic’s form in his typically best stretch of the season was sub-par in 2016- he did not win a title post the US Open (he won 4 in 2015, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris-Bercy, WTF)- which raised questions as to whether his dip in form might spill over Down Under.
Those questions have now been answered by the heart the Serbian showed defeating Murray in Doha, pulling himself back together after letting four championship points slip in the second set and winning in three, a feat which must have rebuilt both his own confidence and his fans’.
If Doha sparked some life back into Djokovic, he will be bursting with it when he starts playing in Melbourne Park where the world No.2 has lived some of his greatest tennis moments such as his epic back to back five set wins over Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal in 2012.
Such Melbourne Park matches are chapters of the history Djokovic has written as one of tennis’ all time greats, and his Doha form suggests he is not ready to put the pen down yet after suffering a letdown of sorts after finally winning Roland Garros (Djokovic’s letdowns still see him win ATP 1000s, reach slam finals, and end the season ranked No.2).
If the world No.2 won a seventh trophy, Djokovic would break away from Roy Emerson with whom he shares the record of most Australian Open titles in history (six), and he would have 13 slams overall, one away from Rafa Nadal.
If Djokovic does find slam winning form in Melbourne, an upset at the hands of the likes of Sam Querrey is unlikely. Most of his rivals out to shock the Serbian need him to be a little out of sorts, and while Djokovic is infamous for putting in some patchy performances early on in Slams, his recent dip in form might cause him to be extra focused in the early rounds, a stage at which, as Gilles Simon showed us in last year’s last sixteen, the six time champion is most vulnerable.
Djokovic had a lot more pressure back then- of equaling Emerson at Melbourne Park, and the Roland Garros question was still hanging over him- pressure which, while he will still feel this season as favorite, will be less now he is ranked No.2 , and stories such as top seed Murray attempting to win his first title in Melbourne, and the Roger Federer comeback stealing the headlines.
Less pressure on Djokovic should mean the second seed can find the joy he has been missing from tennis, and if is enjoyment that Djokovic is looking for then the Australian Open’s conditions and the fans who have taken him to their hearts as much as he has taken them and the trophy to his means he will not have to look far to find it in Melbourne Park.
How the Draw has treated Djokovic: Not so kindly- in his opening round, Djokovic has drawn one of the more dangerous floaters, Fernando Verdasco, against whom Djokovic had to save match points just recently in Doha.
Verdasco is unlikely to upset Djokovic, but he could rattle a nervous defending champion and dent some of the valuable confidence the second seed gained winning in Doha.
That opener does have one positive side- the Serb will have to be focused from the first ball, and if he is a little sleepy, that forehand of Verdasco will wake him up, and warm him up for the rest of his draw which is a little kinder- Pablo Carreno Busta in round three, (or Kyle Edmund), Grigor Dimitrov or Richard Gasquet in round four, Dominic Thiem in the last eight, and Rafa Nadal or Milos Raonic in the semis.
Andy Murray, Runner-up 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016
Murray will have to play the match he has failed to deliver in his five previous visits to the final- the kind of performance to beat a recently resurgent Novak Djokovic.
Andy Murray may be Number One and the top seed, (his first time to hold that status in a slam), and he may have just recently put together a 28 match winning streak including wins over Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Raonic, but he is still not the favorite to win the Australian Open.
He will, however, as a five time finalist in career best form, be one of the favorites to contest the final- it would take a huge performance for anyone to upset a rested and match fit Murray on plexi-cushion– where he is likely to face his lifelong rival Novak Djokovic.
The big question is – can Murray defeat Novak Djokovic in the final?
History says he cannot, however history, as much as it likes to repeat itself, is also there to be overturned, and Murray, who has come from a youngster criticized for choking in Major finals, including in Melbourne in 2010 and 2011, all the way to the world No.1, the holder of three slams, and the reigning Wimbledon and WTF champion, is as good at proving history wrong as any tennis player has been.
If Murray is to win a first Australian Open trophy and add to his ever-growing legacy, he is going to have to, if Djokovic maintains his Doha form and contests the final, play one of the matches of his life, and answer far more serious questions about his game than he has had to in the last six months, a period in which the Scot, with Ivan Lendl by his side, has shrewdly taken advantage of the Serb’s drop in form to put himself in the position of top seed for the Australian Open, capitalizing climatically on an error strewn performance by Djokovic in the WTF finale to clinch the end of year No.1.
But Murray may not be able to keep taking advantage of the Serb’s dips in form much longer. With Djokovic’s recent win over the Scot in Doha, (he now trails Djokovic 11-25 in their head to head and what must be a psychologically damaging 0-5 at Melbourne Park), Murray is going to have to really up his game to levels he has managed versus Djokovic only once in Australia, in the 2012 semis, and not just match that level, but go beyond it.
Murray may have previously shown he has the game to beat Djokovic in slam finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, in conditions that are more favorable to his game in many ways than they are to Djokovic’s, but this is Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s back garden, and if the Serb’s green fingers work their magic and make his shots down under bloom this season, Murray had better have his shears sharpened beautifully if he is going to cut them down.
How the draw has treated Murray: All the hard work Murray has put in to become top seed has paid off with a nice draw early on with Ilya Marchenko in round one, and then a qualifier or Yen-Hsun Lu in round two. The Scot then has Sam Querrey in round three, and Lucas Pouille or John Isner in round four.
As they do in any slam, things get tougher from the last eight onwards and Murray has Roger Federer or Kei Nishikori in the quarters, and Stan Wawrinka or Marin Cilic in the last four.
Nishikori did beat Murray in the US Open quarters, but this is quite a different Murray, the recently crowned No.1, benefitting from all the confidence that comes with that, much more rested than he was back in New York, and unlikely to be as bad-tempered if a similar incident like Gong-gate occurred.
Federer in the quarters would be dangerous, but the two have not met since Murray started winning slams again and reached No.1, and the Swiss is low on match play, and would likely have to get past Nishikori in the fourth round in a tiring encounter.
Stan Wawrinka, Champion 2014
Murray and Djokovic’s form are irrelevant when it comes to Stan Wawrinka’s 2017 Australian Open chances- it’s all about the Swiss’ game and whether he can get into the gears that have driven him to three Grand Slams.
The Australian Open is where it all started for Wawrinka, the venue where he went from being a Nearly Man to Stan the Man.
In 2013, the Swiss led Novak Djokovic by a set and a break before losing to him in five sets, and then came back a year later to make amends and beat the defending champion 9-7 in the fifth on his way to his maiden Grand Slam trophy.
Since then, Wawrinka has gone on to win two more slams, becoming a member of a rare and distinguished group of active multiple slam champions (Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer), and of champions who have won slams at three different venues, (a group even Andy Murray does not belong to).
The Swiss is perhaps the only man healthy enough in the draw to be able to take out the two main favorites, Djokovic and Murray one after another and no matter how good their form. The 2014 champion, unlike a lot of his fellow pros, does not need the top two seeds to have an off day to beat them, possessing the all out aggression to break down their defenses, the rare ability to rob them of time and keep the ball out of their reach, meaning if Wawrinka does get momentum and goes deep, which, in a slam, as he showed us at the US Open, is when he really starts digging into his heart, the trophy could very well come within his.
How the draw has treated Wawrinka: Like a red headed stepchild. Unpredictable Martin Klizan in round one, tricky second rounder with Steve Johnson or Federico Delbonis, Viktor Troicki in round three, Nick Kyrgios in last sixteen, Cilic or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in last eight, Murray in the semis.
If Wawrinka can make it through those early rounds, all the way to the last eight, then he will go into the business end of a slam well tested, match fit, and hungry- just the kind of condition he will have to be in to defeat Murray and Djokovic back to back for a fourth Grand Slam.
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