Men’s tennis is poised at a knife’s edge ahead of the 2019 Australian Open.
There is a sense of excitement, an anticipation of something new heading into the first Grand Slam of the year. The veteran contenders to the throne are still going strong, but the bunch of promising rookies look primed for a breakthrough as well.
There is a sense of déjà vu as well.
The Australian Open witnessed mighty upheaval in the last two editions. Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund were surprise semi-finalists last year, Grigor Dimitrov almost made the final before that. But in the end, both titles were won by Roger Federer, who defended a Major for the first time since 2008.
In the last decade, only five players have won more than one Grand Slam. Three of these – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer – have won all Majors in the last two years and are the top three seeds in Melbourne this year.
While there is enough evidence to suggest that this hegemony can be challenged, the question remains as to which player has both the ammunition and consistency to mount this attack?
Has Zverev’s time come?
The prime target, though, won’t be defending champion Federer, but fellow six-time champ Djokovic who is gunning for his third straight Slam. The world No 1 has had a remarkable comeback in the second half of 2018 that saw him lift Wimbledon and US Open, as well as become the first man to win all nine Masters.
But it no longer is a mere question of who can stop Djokovic; the unlikeliest of players have in the last few tournaments – Karen Khachanov in the Paris Masters and Roberto Bautista Agut in Doha. Specifically, it is who can stop Djokovic at his favourite Grand Slam over five sets?
This is where Alexander Zverev’s win in the ATP Finals becomes crucial. The 21-year-old, the fourth seed, beat the world No 1 in a final on a hard court to win his biggest career trophy in the season finale of 2018.
It should have been a rite of passage (read: Grigor Dimitrov in 2017). For Sascha, it may well be, if he can get through the five-set barrier. The younger generation still has some way to go in learning to play Grand Slam tennis and planning for long matches across two weeks.
This is where the German failed last year – in managing his fitness and composure when billed as a big-ticket player. That he has all the requisite tools to beat any top player has never been in doubt. But his ATP Finals trophy, coupled with the fact that he has Major-winner-maker Ivan Lendl in his corner, could mean that he can finally utilise them properly. His fitness, though, remains a concern after pulling out of exhibition matches.
The ‘Fedal’ factor
Zverev aside, the only two players best suited to challenge the top seed are the usual suspects. This time we may have to take out the names of three-time Slam winners Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray as they struggle with injury comebacks. That leaves Federer and Nadal, who are also not at their physical best.
Nadal will play his first ATP match since retiring from the US Open semis in September, with a re-modelled serve designed to reduce stress on his ravaged body. He may have very little match practice, but has assured that he is healthy and happy with where his fitness is.
Two-time defending champion Federer, on the other hand, is in a peculiar position.
Unbeaten at the Hopman Cup at the start of the year, he made deep runs at all tournaments he played in the last year, but couldn’t cross the threshold when it really mattered. He lost to Djokovic in the Cincinnati finals, was stunned by John Millman in the fourth round of the US Open, and endured semi-final defeats to Borna Coric, Djokovic and Zverev at Shanghai, Paris and London.
Can Federer put these defeats behind and continue his incredible story in Australia for the third time? At 37 years of age with his opponents much fitter, it looks less than likely. As it did in the last two years, when he won it.
Of course there are others who could upend the order at the Grand Slam which has seen some of the most unexpected results. Kevin Anderson, who is among the most improved and consistent players in the last few years, Dominic Thiem who now has the experience of playing in a Major final, last year’s runner up Marin Cilic, the rare one-time Slam champ in the draw or someone entirely unexpected.
The year 2019 is where we could see some change in terms of Grand Slam champions, is what many, including Anderson, have said at the start of the year. Let’s see what the next two weeks have in store for us.
This Australian Open has also given us some blockbuster first-round matches between the big guns to send the sparks flying from Day 1 itself.
This includes 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka vs former world No 10 Ernest Gulbis, home hopes Nick Kyrgios vs 16th seed Milos Raonic, and Bernard Tomic vs sixth seed Marin Cilic, seventh seed Dominic Thiem vs flamboyant Benoit Paire, Doha winner Roberto Bautista Agut vs Andy Murray, and last year’s semi-finalist and quarter-finalist Kyle Edmund vs Tomas Berdych.