2016 Australian Open Men’s Week 1 Preview and Predictions
Steen Kirby, Tennis Atlantic
The Happy Slam is here again as the superstars of tennis will battle in Melbourne, Australia for a steamy two weeks. Here is a preview, with predictions, of the first marquee men’s event of the 2016 tennis calendar.
January 18-31, 2016
Prize Money: $44,000,000
Top 8 seeds (ATP ranking in parentheses)
1: Novak Djokovic (1)
2: Andy Murray (2)
3: Roger Federer (3)
4: Stan Wawrinka (4)
5: Rafael Nadal (5)
6: Tomas Berdych (6)
7: Kei Nishikori (7)
8: David Ferrer (8)
Richard Gasquet and Thanasi Kokkinakis are the only notable active players missing from this years tournament, both due to injury.
First round matchups to watch:
(1)Novak Djokovic vs. Hyeon Chung
The young South Korean Chung has little chance of stopping Djokovic’s seven match winning streak, but at 19 he continues to make strides, and this is a great form test for him. Facing off with the world #1 on a massive stage. Chung has yet to advance beyond an ATP quarterfinal and he has just one career grand slam win, but if he can capture a set, he’ll win a lot of new fans and admirers.
(28)Andreas Seppi vs. Teymuraz Gabashvili
Seppi is just 2-7 since last year’s US Open and this match has upset potential. The Italian in shaky form after upsetting Roger Federer and reaching the second week last year in Melbourne. Gabashvili comes off his first career ATP semifinal in Sydney and is a shotmaker capable of some surprising results. Seppi leads the h2h 3-1 on hard courts, and 2-0 in slams, but he looks to be a shell of himself right now.
(14)Gilles Simon vs. Vasek Pospisil
Another match where the seed could be ousted. Simon is an experienced veteran who tends to perform well in grueling slam matches, but he lost his only ATP warm-up contest in Brisbane, and was 0-2 in the Kooyong exhibition as well. Pospisil won a match in Auckland but is just 1-2 in 2016. The Canadian will need to serve well and keep his composure to outlast Simon.
(WC)Omar Jasika vs. Illya Marchenko
The 18 year old Jasika is making his Australian Open main draw debut against Marchenko. Jasika has yet to win an ATP caliber match, but he’s quite the talent, and the home fans should rally behind him in this match against an unseeded opponent. Marchenko reached his first ever ATP semifinal in Doha, and appears to be in the form of his career. Assuming he can continue that good form, the Ukrainian veteran should prevail.
(26)Guillermo Garcia-Lopez vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu
A battle of crafty veterans, Mathieu is 2-0 on hard courts against GGL, and the Spaniard looks to be in average form as he tries to defend his round of 16 showing last year. GGL reached the quarters in Chennai, and then lost early in Auckland. Mathieu won a round in Doha, but went 0-2 in the Kooying exhibition. Garcia-Lopez should win this, but it could be quite the battle.
(7)Kei Nishikori vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber
This could be a danger zone match for Kei Nishikori, he looked rather brittle in his quarterfinal loss in Brisbane, and he faces an experienced opponent in Kohlschreiber. Peppo has declined a bit at 32, but he still possess a powerful backhand for their first ever meeting. Nishikori has a far superior all-around game, but he could tire in this baseline war.
Ricardas Berankis vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
You never know what you’re going to get with Dolgopolov, he reached the Hopman Cup final and lost in the Sydney quarterfinals, but all that tennis could be his downfall early on in Melbourne. Berankis doesn’t appear to be in great form, but he puts a lot of balls in play and counterpunches from the baseline, something that could cause Dolgopolov errors. Dolgo is the clear favorite, but don’t be surprised if he falls by the wayside.
(5)Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco
A long time rivalry with a clear favorite, Nadal is 15-2 in the h2h, and 2-0 in slams but Verdasco won their last hard court meeting in Miami last year. Verdasco has given his countryman many battles over the years. Nadal reached the final in Doha and looks to be playing better this year than last year. Verdasco by contrast is struggling, but this should still feature some great shotmaking. With Nadal likely advancing with relative ease.
(13)Milos Raonic vs. Lucas Pouille
Brisbane champion Milos Raonic still should win, likely in straight sets, but he can’t be happy to have this difficult of a first round match given his seeding. The Manitoba missile faces Pouille, who he just beat in Brisbane 6-4 6-4, as the Frenchman with a powerful forehand performed admirably against Raonic’s serve. Look for a tiebreak or two in this match, and Pouille to perhaps steal a set.
(25)Jack Sock vs. Taylor Fritz
18 year old Taylor Fritz is off to a great start with his professional career as he won a challenger in Australia, and then qualified to move to 8-0 heading into his first Grand Slam main draw match. Fritz is the next great American hope, but he may be exhausted against fellow rising American Jack Sock. Sock traveled the road Fritz is on, and reached the final in Auckland last week. He is suffering from the flu however, and his physical condition is also in question. I tend to expect this match to end in a retirement, with Sock’s experience and conditioning likely helping him through.
(WC)James Duckworth vs. (WC)Lleyton Hewitt
Two Australian wild cards in this one, however Hewitt is a former world #1, and two time Grand Slam champion, playing in his final professional tournament. Duckworth is a 23 year old journeyman who has never had an ATP record above .500 in his career. Duckworth will have his fans, but this match is all about Hewitt bidding goodbye to a tournament, and a sport, he’s contributed so many memorable moments to. Hewitt is a shell of the defensive counterpuncher he once was, but he’s always fought back after injuries, and his game is all about grit and tenacity. After a busy farewell tour in Australia, look for Lleyton to win this and keep his career alive for at least one more match in what should be a memorable night on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.
(20)Fabio Fognini vs. Gilles Muller
Muller is off to a 4-2 start in warm-up events, and his serve and volley game is well designed for this surface. Fognini reached the quarterfinals in Auckland and is looking to build on the promise he showed late last season on hard courts. Fognini is a talent as always, but his focus could be questionable, and Muller’s consistency should be enough to score him a seeded upset.
(2)Andy Murray vs. Alexander Zverev
Andy Murray handled the young gun Zverev at the Hopman Cup, and he should do so again. This is a form test for Zverev, like it is for Chung, and it’s nice to see young guns getting opportunities against the worlds best in slams. On hard courts I doubt Zverev has the game to handle Murray however, and hopefully this match will prepare the Scotsman well for later rounds.
Novak Djokovic, the defending, and five-time champion, has little chance of even dropping a set in his first three matches, after Chung he’ll face Ivan Dodig or Quentin Halys, a French wild card, who is 0-2 at this level in his career, and has yet to break the top 150, though he’s just 18. Dodig is 7-2 this year, and is off to a fantastic start as he looks to return to the top 50, he’ll be ousted by Djokovic in round 2 however. Gabashvili/Seppi are the favorites to reach the third round. The winner of that match will face Denis Kudla or Filip Krajinovic. Kudla is 2-2 this season and better on hard courts than his opponent. Both Gabashvili and Kudla could reach the third round, while Seppi needs to find form quickly. I’ll go with Gabashvili to find his way to the third round, and then lose to Djokovic.
Simon/Pospisil will face an easier opponent in Evgeny Donskoy or Inigo Cervantes in round 2. Donskoy is superior to Cervantes on hard courts. Look for Simon to face Jiri Vesely or Ivo Karlovic in the third round. Karlovic’s powerful serve should help him past Federico Delbonis, and then Vesely, who has the talent, but can underachieve at times. Karlovic has won the last two meetings against Simon on hard courts, and thus I have him advancing to the round of 16.
#9 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga faces an opening round opponent with a history of success in Melbourne, Marcos Baghdatis. The former AO finalists are in very different places in their careers now however. Tsonga is 5-0 at the ATP level vs. the Cypriot and comes off the semis in Auckland, showing his form is solid. Tsonga should go on to defeat Marchenko/Jasika to setup a third round meeting with charismatic countryman Benoit Paire. Paire, a semifinalist in Chennai, opens with young gun American Noah Rubin, and has Pablo Andujar/Pierre-Hugues Herbert after that. Herbert qualified and has shown signs of a breakthrough at the ATP level, but his success in doubles is far superior to his success in singles. The tall Frenchman should oust a struggling Andujar, but Paire is likely to have too much game. Tsonga is 3-0 against Paire, and though Benwa continues to rise, Jo’s experience should help him through.
Nishikori/Kohlschreiber will have an easier time in the second round against either Austin Krajicek or Di Wu. Neither Krajicek nor the qualifier Wu have much Grand Slam experience. Nishikori over Krajicek is my pick for the second round, with Kei to face Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in round 3. The path for GGL after Mathieu is Daniel Brands or Victor Estrella. Estrella is struggling, while Brands is in great form as a qualifier, and on the path to return to the top 100 with his powerful game. Brands is 6-1 in 2016, but GGL is likely still a level above. Nishikori is 2-0 against GGL, and if he wins his opening round match he should have little to no difficulty reaching week 2.
The four time AO champion Roger Federer faces two potential roadblocks in his path before the second week. Federer, a finalist in Brisbane, should be untroubled by journeyman Nikoloz Basilashvili, with the winner of Berankis/Dolgopolov looming in round 2. Dolgopolov could test Federer with his shotmaking abilities, and force the Swiss to scramble a bit, but presuming Fed is over the flu he should prevail. Grigor Dimitrov would need to suffer a shock defeat to not end up facing Federer in the third round. The Brisbane quarterfinalist, and Sydney finalist, opens with recent challenger champion Paolo Lorenzi, and then the Jozef Kovalik/Marco Trungelliti winner in round 2. Both Kovalik and Trungelliti are in a slam main draw for the first time, enterting as qualifiers, with Kovalik seemingly better on this surface. Barring severe fatigue, it should be Federer vs. Dimitrov. Federer beat Dimitrov while sick in Brisbane, and prior to that Dimitrov hadn’t taken a set off of him, thus the Swiss legend should reach week 2.
#15 seed David Goffin has a draw that should allow him to reach the second week and continue his upwardly trending results as he bids to reach the top 10. The Belgian #1 has struggling serve and volleyer Sergiy Stakhovsky in round 1. After that he could run into British young gun Kyle Edmund, a quarterfinalist in Doha, if Edmund can defeat Bosnian Damir Dzhumhur. Goffin’s ball striking game should suit him well enough to reach round 3. #19 seed Dominic Thiem, another rising player, faces Doha quarterfinalist Leonardo Mayer, a veteran who knows the limits of his game, in round 1. Thiem reached the semis in Brisbane, and that recent success should inspire him to get past Mayer and either Nicolas Almagro or Julien Benneteau in round 2. Both Almagro and Benneteau are struggling formerly ATP caliber veterans, and one of them has to win. Thiem vs. Goffin should be one of the matches of the tournament, Goffin is slightly better on hard courts, and I’ll go with him to reach week 2.
#12 seed Marin Cilic could be one of the first big names to exit the tournament. He suffered a quarterfinal defeat in Brisbane, and though Thiemo De Bakker is no problem in round 1, Borna Coric in round 2 is a big problem. Coric should stretch Albert Ramos losing streak to seven in the first round, and then the Chennai finalist will set his sights on Cilic. Cilic has a bigger game than the crafty Coric, and Coric was dismantled by Cilic in Shanghai last year. Expect a close match, and possibly five sets, but I have to go with Cilic’s experience to get him into round 3. Auckland champion and Chennai quarterfinalist Roberto Bautista Agut is riding a wave of form, and possibly the haze of fatigue, against Martin Klizan in round 1. RBA is 2-0 against Klizan on hard courts, and the Slovakian is struggling, thus barring conditioning problems it should be Bautista Agut vs. Sam Querrey round 2 (Querrey opens with Dusan Lajovic). RBA has a h2h win over Querrey, and though Sam could reach round 3 if RBA is unfit, look for Cilic vs. Bautista Agut in the third round. Cilic is 2-0 on hard courts against Bautista Agut, and should be much fitter, giving him the edge to reach week 2.
Seeing anything but a Tomas Berdych vs. Nick Kyrgios third round matchup would be a huge disappointment for the tournament organizers. The Doha semifinalist Berdych opens with India’s Yuki Bhambri, a challenger level player, and then will face either Mirza Basic or Robin Haase. Basic qualified, while Haase is ATP caliber and likely has a minor edge in round 1, before falling to Berdych in round 2. Kyrgios, who has a great grand slam record for his age, spent his time on the exhibition circuit prior to the AO (won the Hopman Cup), hurting his foot in Kooyong, though he should be recovered in time for Melbourne. The combustible Aussie is their great hope and his campaign will start against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta. PCB has improved on hard courts over the past year, but Kyrgios aggressive game should still outwork him. The speedy Yoshihito Nishioka is NK’s likely opponent in round 2. Nishioka faces veteran Pablo Cuevas, who tends to prefer clay, in the first round. The young Japanese player is talented, but a healthy Kyrgios should rise on the biggest stage. Berdych and Kyrgios have never met, and that match could go either way. Kyrgios is known for winning big matches, but Berdych is more consistent and experienced. I have the Czech’s power game helping him reach the second week, as he’s a solid top 10 player, unlike NK as of yet.
Stan Wawrinka‘s quarter features the only other active AO winners besides Djokovic, and Federer. 2014 champion Stan the man is in a section that is easy going early on with Dmitry Tursunov, returning from a long time injury, as his first opponent, and then a qualifier in round 2, either Tatsuma Ito or Radek Stepanek. The veteran Stepanek can be a tricky opponent with his serve and volley game, but the Chennai champion should roll into the second week with wins over Tursunov, Stepanek, and either the Sock/Fritz or Lukas Rosol/Taro Daniel winner. There is an opening for Auckland quarterfinalist Rosol to reach the third round, as Sock/Fritz should be exhausted. I have Wawrinka over Rosol to reach the second week.
Raonic/Pouille will face Tommy Robredo or Malek Jaziri in round 2. Raonic’s 5-0 record against Robredo, who usually does well in slams, bodes well for his chances to reach the third round. The other seed in this section is #21 Viktor Troicki, the Sydney champion. Troicki is likely fatigued, and Canberra challenger semifinalist Daniel Munoz De La Nava, a rare Spaniard who prefers hard courts, is his first opponent. If Troicki wins, qualifier Tim Smyczek likely awaits. Smyczek faces dirtballer Daniel Gimeno-Traver in round 1. The American baseliner is unlikely to ever be a top 50 player, but he has enough ability to upset a fatigued Troicki and sneak into the third round. Raonic should roll into week two however, given the nature of the draw.
2009 AO Champion Rafael Nadal will face another veteran after Verdasco. In round 2 he’ll battle with either Benjamin Becker or Dudi Sela, both of whom lack the stature to defeat his defensive prowess. Sela reached a challenger final in Australia, while Becker has already gone through ATP qualifying to reach main draws twice this year. After most likely Sela, Nadal is slated to face Jeremy Chardy in the third round. The Doha and Sydney quarterfinalist Chardy rarely beats anyone he isn’t supposed to, but a struggling Ernests Gulbis isn’t as difficult of an opponent as he would seem to be in round 1. Doha quarterfinalist Andrey Kuznetsov will face qualifier Ryan Harrison in the opening round. The Russian is a slight favorite as Harrison has never made good on his potential. Chardy should outhit Kuznetsov, before falling to Nadal, who leads him in the h2h 2-0.
#11 seed Kevin Anderson has a favorable early draw, and then a difficult third round match looming against #23 seed Gael Monfils. Kev had a knee injury in Chennai, but won a match in Auckland to reach the quarterfinals, and this surface still suits him well. Anderson opens with former NCAA teammate Rajeev Ram (at the University of Illinois), the serve and volleying veteran actually has a positive h2h with the South African, but they haven’t played in 9 years. Anderson’s star has risen far higher than Ram’s in that time span as he’s grown into his big serving game. Anderson will then face either qualifier Stephane Robert, or lucky loser Bjorn Fratangelo. Robert is a 35 year old, lifetime Challenger tour battler, who tends to pop up in slam main draws, and occasionally grabs a win or two. Fratangelo is a young American on the rise. Anderson should handle either player easily with his serve.
Monfils hasn’t played a match this season due to a winter leg injury, and you never know how the acrobatic Frenchman is going to play. With that said he should handle qualifier Yuichi Sugita, and then Nicolas Mahut or Marco Cecchinato. The serve and volleying stalwart Mahut comes off the quarters in Sydney, while the Italian Cecchinato prefers clay. Monfils leads Mahut 3-0 in the h2h. Anderson trails Monfils 0-3 in the h2h, and it’s a big style contrast between his serve and forehand combo, with Monfils defense, shotmaking, and athletic speed. I’m going to go with Gael, knowing he could crash and burn, as I have him finding the second week and playing well this tournament. Everything is resting on his legs so to speak.
Andy Murray/Zverev will face either big server Sam Groth or Adrian Mannarino in round 2. Groth is in terrible form (0-5 in his last 5), though he’ll have home support. Mannarino won an early challenger title, and will likely get a rematch against Murray after pushing him to five sets at the 2015 US Open. Murray’s third round opponent is somewhat up in the air, but he’ll be a strong favorite against any opponent. Portugal’s #1 Joao Sousa lost his only warm-up match, Mikhail Kukushkin, his first round opponent, is 3-2 this year. Donald Young is unpredictable, and Santiago Giraldo is on an ATP losing streak. Sousa vs. Young is my pick for the round 2 matchup, with Sousa advancing based off his baseline game, before falling to Murray. This is a great chance for any of these four players.
A section featuring tank maestros Fabio Fognini and Bernard Tomic is almost certain to feature a tank, even in a Grand Slam. Tomic tanked in Sydney due to his “good draw” in Melbourne, criticism aside, the Australian has actually been playing reasonably well as of late, and he does have a shot to reach the second week. The Brisbane semifinalist will need to make Denis Istomin 0-3 to start the year in round 1, and then handle Simone Bolelli’s forehand in round 2. Bolelli will take on Brian Baker, playing under a protected ranking at age 30, in his first ATP level match since the 2013 US Open. Bolelli is on a four match losing streak, but nothing can be expected from Baker. Tomic should in fact make the third round, and likely be the last Australian remaining, depending on what Kyrgios does.
Fognini/Muller will face John Millman or Diego Schwartzman in round 2. DSS has improved on hard courts, while Millman will have home support. Muller/Fognini should beat either one, and I have Muller reaching the third round. Muller’s 4-0 h2h against Tomic makes him one of the few unseeded players with a great shot at reaching the second week, and I have him doing so.
John Isner opens with Jerzy Janowicz. Isner lost in his second match in Auckland, but he’s taking on an opponent who has disappointed given his level of talent, and prepared for the Australian Open by playing video games . Isner should go on to dispatch veteran Marcel Granollers after Janowicz, Granollers opens with journeyman wildcard Matt Ebden, an Aussie. The Spaniard comes off a challenger semi, but is not up to Isner’s level. #18 Feliciano Lopez got a lucky draw that should help him snap a four match losing streak. Lopez opens with qualifier Dan Evans, who might be capable of a big upset, and then will face either Guido Pella or Steve Darcis. Pella prefers clay and Darcis is a journeyman, making it likely it will be Isner vs. Lopez in an underwhelming third round matchup. Lopez leads Isner 2-1 on hard courts in the h2h, but I favor Isner to reach the second week with a strong tournament. Lopez played the Kooyong Exo.
David Ferrer struggled by his usual lofty standards heading into the Australian Open with a pedestrian 2-2 record, and a semifinal in Auckland. The Spaniard has little chance of being eliminated early however.His round 1 opponent Peter Gojowczyk is a qualifier ranked outside the top 200 these days, while the Duckworth/Hewitt winner results in Ferrer either facing a journeyman, or a worn out Hewitt in what will likely be the last match of his career. Surely Hewitt will put his heart into a night contest on Laver against Ferrer, but the matchup does not bode well for him given Ferrer’s grinding style, speed, and baseline play that should wear the veteran Aussie down.
#31 Steve Johnson is seeded, but he’s struggling to start the year, and that puts a damper on his chances to make a run in Melbourne. Johnson opens with Aljaz Bedene, who on the one hand reached the semis in Chennai, but at the same time retired a week later in Auckland, and may not be entirely fit. The winner of that will face either Thomaz Bellucci or Australian Jordan Thompson. Thompson has promise, while Bellucci has struggled to start the year, but the veteran Brazilian should find a way to win. Johnson over Bellucci is still my second round pick, though it’s the weakest section of the draw. Ferrer should dispatch anyone he faces and reach the second week.
Dark Horses (one for each quarter): Vasek Pospisil, Borna Coric, Gael Monfils, Gilles Muller
Pospisil reached the quarterfinal of a slam for the first time last season, and also has reached the third round in Melbourne twice. The Canadian bomber not named Raonic will need to get past Simon, but if he does, he’s facing a likely third round rematch with Karlovic, who he just defeated in Auckland, for a spot in the second week.
Coric could make his move this with this draw. He hasn’t made the second week of a major yet and Cilic is a round 2 obstacle, along with RBA in round 3, but the young Croatian has the game to get him that far and setup a meeting with Berdych/Kyrgios to start the second week. It’s just a matter of time before “The Borna Identity” makes his move.
Monfils hasn’t made the fourth round in Australia since 2009, and with a leg injury he’s a big question mark. His section is relatively open however with Anderson primarily in his way, and if he makes the second week he could challenge Nadal with his athleticism. Monfils is both talented and frustrating at the same time, and we’ll see which version shows up.
Muller has to beat Fognini and Tomic to reach the fourth round, like he did last year in Melbourne, I don’t see him getting past Murray, but stranger things have happened, and he’s a crafty veteran who knows what it takes to win. Should he serve well, he can maintain his ranking points this week.
Week 1 Predictions (round of 16 matchups)
Djokovic d. Karlovic
Tsonga d. Nishikori
Federer d. Goffin
Berdych d. Cilic
Nadal d. Monfils
Wawrinka d. Raonic
Isner d. Ferrer
Murray d. Muller
Karlovic is 3-0 against Djokovic on hard courts (including a win last year), and Djokovic can struggle against big servers, making this a dangerous match for him. The World #1 is far and above the best in the game right now though, and I’d still be shocked to see him lose such a crucial match.
Nishikori is 4-1 against Tsonga on hard courts, but Jo beat him in the French last year, and I favored the way Tsonga looked before the tournament compared to Nishikori, who could struggle if this is a day match in the heat.
Federer is 3-0 against Goffin, Nadal is 6-2 against Monfils, with Anderson perhaps more of a worry, though Rafa’s good recent results should secure him the confidence to win. Murray is 4-0 against Muller, Wawrinka is 4-0 against Raonic, though Raonic looked good in Brisbane, Wawrinka was just as good in Chennai.
Ferrer is 4-1 against Isner, but I have Isner winning due to Ferrer’s poor early results, it’s time for the American to turn the corner and get a big win, while the curtain could be closing for Ferrer’s consistent runs to quarters and semis in slams. Berdych is 4-2 against Cilic on hard courts, it’s a close matchup, but the Czech does better on hard courts than Cilic, who has a similar style.
Picking the rest of the way
Djokovic d. Tsonga
Federer d. Berdych
Wawrinka d. Nadal
Murray d. Isner
Federer has won the last four (last three hard court) matches against Berdych, Djokovic is just 7-6 against Tsonga on hard courts, but recently he’s steered a course well above players that hover around the top 10.
Wawrinka vs. Nadal could be the match of the tournament, Nadal used to destroy Wawrinka, but their last four meetings on hard courts are tied 2-2, and Wawrinka has raised his level, while Nadal isn’t quite the same player he was. the AO suits Stan, and another semi looks to be in store for him. Murray, one of the best returners in the game, has a great draw to the semis, and should handle Isner (5-0 h2h) or Ferrer in the quarters.
Djokovic d. Federer
Wawrinka d. Murray
Djokovic vs. Federer is an enjoyable matchup, and they went an even 3-3 against one another on hard courts last season. Djokovic has won the previous three Grand Slam, best of five, matches though, and his conditioning and mental toughness has surpassed the now 34 year old Federer.
Wawrinka has won his last three meetings against Murray and appears to have cracked the code as to how to beat him. Either could reach the final, but I have a feeling Wawrinka will post yet another slam final and give himself a rivalry showdown with Djokovic.
Djokovic d. Wawrinka
Djokovic is 4-0 on hard courts since losing to Wawrinka at the 2014 AO, but it still stings for Novak that Wawrinka nipped him in that French Open final last year. Wawrinka denied him the calendar year Grand Slam with that win, and won his second Grand Slam title. This would be a competitive and enjoyable slam final, I just don’t see anyone being able to stop Djokovic and take three sets off of him in the next two weeks.