Tricky conditions all over the place
After two weeks of regular tournaments, the tour already arrived in Melbourne to get the first Grand Slam of the year going. Usually, hot temperatures make a big impact down under, but this year, that's not the only concern. As everyone should have noticed by now, there have been lethal bushfires this Australian summer. Hazardous air quality has been the result and players struggled a lot with breathing problems in qualifying.
Many players complained about it, and rightfully so. There might be several days of rain when the tournament starts and relying on the AQI forecast, we should get moderate to good air quality next week. So there's hope the air conditions will have little to no impact on the main draw.
While it's supposed to be humid, hot temperatures as we know them from previous Australian Opens most likely won't occur this year. So the overall conditions are a lot trickier to handicap, and so are the courts. There will be a new Greenset surface and I've heard a lot of different opinions on the court speed so far. Personally, I thought it's not remotely slower than the years before, but probably can't rely on the few qualifying matches I've watched.
Let's dive into the individual quarters! Rafael Nadal sits on top of the draw as the #1 seed. The Spaniard is coming off a disappointing decade in Australia as his one and only title in Melbourne was back in 2009. His off-season has also been a lot less relaxed than in previous years as he competed in both the Davis Cup Finals late last season and the ATP Cup to start this year. We all know Rafa as one of the biggest competitors the sport has ever seen, so while he put in a lot of effort in these team events, I'm not sure if he's prepared for a big run here.
That being said, I was looking to oppose him in some way. The draw doesn't really offer too many opportunities though. Nadal will start his campaign against fellow clay courter Hugo Dellien before facing either Federico Delbonis or Joao Sousa in round two. His compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta awaits in round three and even if he's not in perfect physical condition, the world #1 should sleepwalk into the last 16.
Nick Kyrgios would be a potential opponent there if he gets to that stage. I quit handicapping Kyrgios a long time ago. You could write a book on him and still won't be able to figure him out. He advocated a lot for donations towards wildfires victims and you can say whatever you want about the extrovert Australian, but be sure he wants to hit as many aces as possible to raise dollars for charity. He has a feasible draw and either him or Karen Khachanov are projected to meet Nadal in round four. But here's the problem: Kyrgios only made the quarterfinals twice in his career. Even with the heat not overly affecting him here, I'm not sure if his body is primed to beat Nadal in a best of five match. If that match takes place, I will have my popcorn ready, but won't dare to predict the outcome.
The second eighth features a lot of interesting players, but just like Nadal and Kyrgios, each of them has a question mark to their name. Gael Monfils might struggle with the conditions like no other and even though the air gets cleaner, his preparations might have suffered last week. Felix Auger-Aliassime's start to 2020 has raised concerns as he lost in straight sets to Millman, Struff and Lajovic at the ATP Cup. Kevin Anderson might present value, but I'm not sure if he's at 100% again after comng back from injury.
Dominic Thiem is the other big seed in the first quarter, however his Australian Open appearances have been really poor previously. The Austrian never made it to the quarterfinals, but I still believe he can make a run this year. Fitness has always been his upside and he will be able to cope with whatever weather Australia has in stock. Thiem also improved a lot on hard courts late last year, so I'm here for the follow-up.
Quarter number two has #4 Daniil Medvedev and #7 Alexander Zverev as the top seeds. Taking things one step further, Zverev is an enigma to me. There was evidence he could finally live up to his potential this year, but to start his season, he lost all his matches at the ATP Cup. Although his opponents were all capable, the German had a lot of issues with his game and especially his second serve is still a major concern. I don't see how it can be improved that quickly, so I'm not high on him here.
Medvedev on the contrary is looking to build on his unreal run last hard court season when he made six consecutive finals during the American and Asian swing. The Russian lost all his matches at the World Tour Finals, but he had to be gassed at some point. To get 2020 going, he only lost to Novak Djokovic in a tight three-set match at the ATP Cup. I do like his draw as the first real threat should await in round four with either John Isner or Stan Wawrinka.
As mentioned, I was also looking to oppose Zverev these Australian Open, but just like in the second eighth of quarter one, I'm not sure I can trust any of the players to go far. Zverev's mini-section has a lot of inconsistent players in it with the other seed Nikoloz Basilashvili being the epitome. David Goffin is a rock-solid player, but the quarterfinal appearance in 2017 might have already been his ceiling.
The most exciting player of the quarter might be Medvedev's countryman Andrey Rublev, who just won two ATP tournaments in a row to start the season. That being said, it's debatable if playing both Doha and Adelaide was the right decision for the young Russian. Collecting points and tournament wins might still be the right way to go at this stage of his career, but it also spoils a good result for him in Melbourne. He doesn't have a nightmare draw, but I doubt he gets past Medvedev or even Wawrinka later in the tournament considering the many matches he already played this year.
Just in case I'm repeating myself, the third quarter is another one I would have wished for another array of seeds. Matteo Berrettini and Roger Federer are the top seeds and you can arguably say Berrettini got rewarded big-time for being the #8 seed. The Italian's biggest obstacles are an out-of-form Borna Coric in round three and compatriot Fabio Fognini, who never made it to the quarterfinals at the Aussie before, in round four.
Now here's why I would have rather seen Denis Shapovalov in that section: Berrettini had to skip the ATP Cup because of an injury. He seems alright again as far as his performances at the prep event in Kooyong indicate, but there are still some doubts remaining.
Anyway, Canadian kid Shapovalov got drawn into Roger Federer's eighth. But that's not all, he also has some serious tests to overcome beforehand. Jannik Sinner might challenge him in round two before Grigor Dimitrov awaits in round three. Federer doesn't have the easiest draw either as he might run into John Millman (who beat him at the 2018 US Open) or Hubert Hurkacz (who had an impressive start to the season with wins over Schwartzman, Coric and Thiem) in round three.
The Swiss did not compete in any matches so far this season, so we don't really know what shape he's in. At 38 years of age, I'm not looking to back him though in these tricky conditions, whatever they will look like.
As much as I like Shapovalov's progress, a potential draw of Fucsovics, Sinner, Dimitrov and Federer just to set up a quarterfinal with Berrettini looks extremely difficult to me. Yet, his odds to win the quarter are even worse at +500 than the Italian's at +800.
We already made it to the fourth quarter and the overwhelming betting favorite in Novak Djokovic. In 2019, the Serb won his record-breaking seventh title in Melbourne. Coming into this year, he did look solid at the ATP Cup and if he maintains his form, he will probably get his eighth Australian Open championship. At +120, I am not looking to bet him though and will continue to go for the young guns.
Barring health issues, Djokovic should not get into any trouble before the quarterfinals, so I'll just skip to the other eighth which has #6 Stefanos Tsitsipas as the top seed. The Greek has had some coin flip matches this year and apart from a demolition job over Zverev, he didn't finish a single set before the tiebreak. His results: 6-7 6-7 vs. Shapovalov, 6-7 7-6 6-7 vs. Kyrgios and 7-6 7-6 vs. Berrettini.
Losses to Shapovalov and Kyrgios in best of three matches at the beginning of a season aren't too concerning for me though. Tsitsipas' draw sees Salvatore Caruso in round one, Philipp Kohlschreiber or Marcos Giron in round two and probably Milos Raonic in round three. I don't see any of them troubling the Greek, whose first real test should be in the last 16 as both Marin Cilic and Roberto Bautista Agut can make life difficult for a top seed.
Cilic, just like Anderson, is still far from his best though after dealing with injuries last year. So I'm really looking forward to a rematch between Tsitsipas and Bautista Agut. Last year, the Greek won 7-5 4-6 6-4 7-6 to book his spot in the semis. This year, the winner could set up a potential quarterfinal with Djokovic.
Both are able to trouble the Serb on outdoor hards and already beat him several times. Especially Tsitsipas could distress Djokovic. The two played three matches on the surface and the Greek won all of them: 6-3 6-7 6-3 in Toronto 2018, 3-6 7-5 6-3 in Shanghai 2019 and 3-6 7-6 6-4 at an exhibition last month. So after opposing Nadal and Federer, I won't stop at Djokovic as I do rate Tsitsipas' chances.
Now or never
The narrative might be outdated already, but I'm counting on the Next Generation to finally get something going. And the unpredictable conditions could be the decisive factor this time around. Nadal looked pretty exhausted after leaving it all on the court for his country. Federer won't get any younger and Djokovic looked vulnerable in tough conditions before. The temperatures might increase in week two, so that could be another aspect.
Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all working hard every day to be at their best physical condition. What has been a key factor at every Australian Open before will be even more important this year.
I'm betting both Thiem and Tsitsipas to win their respective quarter and Medvedev to reach the final. As an explanation, Medvedev's odds are +120 to win the quarter but +400 to reach the final. The reason for that is that bookmakers rate Nadal a little higher than I do. While I gamble on an earlier exit of the Spaniard, I still think that Medvedev could beat him in a potential semifinal.
Thiem over Nadal
Medvedev over Rublev
Federer over Berrettini
Tsitsipas over Djokovic
Medvedev over Thiem
Tsitsipas over Federer