Handicapping the Australian Open Field
I grew up in horse racing country where pedigree and form make a favorite and where momentum and luck might reward a long shot. If this event were a 128 person race rather than seven single elimination matches, long shots might have a better chance. Still, 2010 looks to be a year where players outside of the top 3 may have better than imaginary chances at the title.
Before seeing the draw, I divided the odds for the men’s field was as follows:
Chances of Victory: Federer – 15%, Nadal 15%, Djokovic 15%, Del Potro 10%, Murray 10%, Davydenko 10%, Roddick 10%, and the Field (including the likes of Soderling, Verdasco, Cilic, Chardy, and Tsonga) 15%
After seeing the draw, I would not shift any single player more than a few percentage points. The top 10 has the most parity that I have seen at the start of a year since either 2002 or 2003. In January 2004, it was a smart bet that Roger Federer, who won the 2003 Masters Cup convincingly, would soon ascend to the top of the sport. Who the smart bet to finish 2010 at #1 is is not so clear.
My standards for predicting the field revolve around two questions:
1. Does a given player have the game and nerve to win seven consecutive three out of five set matches?
2. How many tough matches might a player have to win in order to take the title?
Question one led me to specifically name Marin Cilic, Robin Soderling, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jeremy Chardy of the 121 players linked together to form the field. Each seems to posses a realistic even if unlikely chance at putting together seven big matches. In the cases of Cilic and Chardy, I argue that a talented young player can sometimes transform during an event a la Pete Sampras or Marat Safin’s initial U. S. Open title runs. Players such as David Ferrer or Lleyton Hewitt may have enough consistency to be a threat in any single round while not possessing enough heft to have much of a chance at winning the title. The draw is not so wide open as to invite a Thomas Johansson type winner in 2010.
Question two is draw specific, and I will briefly look at how the draw shakes out for our top four seeds:
Roger Federer may get a tough challenge before the round of 16, but it is possible that Roger will have to play Hewitt or Baghdatis in the fourth round before then potentially facing either Nikolay Davydenko or Fernando Verdasco just to reach a potential semifinal date with Novak Djokovic or Robin Soderling. Gilles Simon, 2-0 versus Federer, withdrawing helps Roger, but I think the prospect of having to play one or two gut check opponents before having to play his “A game” for three consecutive matches to take the title is not ideal.
Novak Djokovic gets a pretty solid draw. Jeremy Chardy in the third round is not an easy match, but it is a match that Novak should win. If they face off in the round of sixteen, Tommy Robredo will make Novak earn it physically, but Novak’s road to the quarters is not terribly daunting. Soderling or Tsonga in the quarters will not be easy, but Nole avoids Roddick and Murray who have won a combined six straight versus the World #3. If one wants to pick a surprise quarterfinal opponent for Novak, look no further than fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsy has enough nerve to potentially out steady the big punchers in his portion of the draw. If Novak faces Mr. Momentum Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals, it would be good to remember that Novak was the only player to defeat Nikolay at the 2009 season finale. Along with Chardy, asthma problems may be the only foe powerful enough to keep Novak out of the quarterfinal round.
Juan Martin del Potro has a pretty straightforward draw to the quarterfinal round. James Blake could bother him in the second round, especially if it is a day match and heat becomes an issue for the lanky Argentine. I know René LaCoste was called The Crocodile, but until he proves otherwise I think the JMDP’s game is a bit like a crocodile. Each possesses explosive power that can crush their target, but both lack stamina. If Marin Cilic can navigate a few wily veterans, Del Potro and Cilic will have a rematch of their 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinal clash. Cilic reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal and posted wins over Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal in the last six months. The Croatian just won a tournament and should be full of confidence. The 6’6” Cilic versus the 6’6” (or taller) Del Potro ought to be a battle worth watching. Andy Roddick has a decent draw to reach Del Potro or Cilic in the quarterfinals. Fernando Gonzalez always has a puncher’s chance and may want to show Larry Stefanki he made a mistake to jump ship and become Andy Roddick’s coach. Still, I expect Roddick likes his draw and hopes Cilic and Del Potro go five sets before deciding who his quarterfinal opponent will be.
Rafael Nadal is the second seed and defending champion. He showed signs of his form returning at Qatar. Still, this draw is not ideal. The first two rounds look pretty good. Philipp Kohlschreiber could pose a few challenges in the third round. Ivo Karlovic and Radek Stepanek face off in the first round and the winner is a good bet to face Rafa in the fourth round. I don’t think either can beat Nadal in a five set match. So far so good? Well, Andy Murray is slated to face Nadal in the quarterfinal round. Murray was #2 in the world as recently as September, 2009. Murray has been an enigma as some have tabbed him to be the next number one while others point to his lack of aggression hurting his chances to ever win a Grand Slam as longer matches and events give aggressive players more time to find their range. Still, Murray has a great return of serve and his less than aggressive style of play will likely force Rafa into a lot of long points. Nadal could lose to Murray outright, but if he doesn’t, he will need to win quickly lest a long match with multiple service breaks sap him of the strength and confidence he will need to face Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. If Nadal can dispatch Murray efficiently and if Roddick or Cilic take out Del Potro, Nadal has a pretty good draw. As an aside, I think Rafa would likely prefer Roddick to Cilic in the semis while Roddick would prefer to face Murray. Still, if the seeds hold up Nadal will have to play his “A game” twice just to reach the final again where Federer, Djokovic or Davydenko may be waiting for him.
Barring major upsets, I think the players coming through Djokovic and Del Potro’s quarters of the draw will be slightly more ready for the grind of the semifinal and championship matches. My guess is that in those honest moments before falling to sleep most of the top eight seeds would prefer a different draw. Regardless, I think the player who benefits from an upset or two will be the player to watch on the final weekend.
My final selection is not easy. Djokovic and Del Potro jump out at me as finalists, but health and stamina issues are not easy to ignore given the Australian heat. Andy Murray, who might have overplayed last year, has kept quiet since September, 2009. Maybe this tactic will leave him rested enough to go the distance or maybe it was an over correction that will leave him short on confidence and match toughness. Roger and Rafa have had some patchy results as of late. Therefore, I tentatively pick Novak Djokovic to win his second Australian Open title with a four set victory over Juan Martin del Potro. One thing I know is that men’s tennis needs to go back to two power system of the 2005-2009 so analysts can look smart.
As for the women’s draw, expect Serena Williams to reach the semifinals. There Caroline Wozniacki or Venus Williams will be waiting. Venus has not been great anywhere other than Wimbledon for several years, but maybe this draw is soft enough to regain some momentum. Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Elena Dementieva or Yanina Wickmayer could each reach the semifinal round in a quarter that actually has more depth than a Twilight Saga film (yes, that was a shot at the poor quality of women’s tennis over the past few years). Depending on physical and mental health, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, or Maria Sharapova could claim the last semifinal spot. I’d love to see an unexpected player somehow win this event, but my gut says Serena Williams defeats either Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin in two tough sets to claim the title.
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