Here we go! In a few short hours the long-awaited Australian Open gets underway in a new time slot. Sixteen years after first playing Melbourne, Novak Djokovic is still the man Down Under.
The Serb has won the event eight times including the last two years. This is his home.
Rafael Nadal has a home, too, it’s in Roland Garros. But the Spaniard needs this one for two reasons: pass Roger Federer on the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard at 21 and to become the first player in the Open Era to win all four Grand Slams twice.
Rafa’s been chasing the last record for a while now. He hasn’t won the Australian Open since 2009 and while his draw looks great, that ailing back of his which kept him out of the ATP Cup doesn’t give me warm and fuzzy feelings.
And of course times are changing.
In New York we watched a new Grand Slam champion and a first-time finalist in Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. Both could and should be factors this upcoming week, though Zverev also might be dealing with his own back issue.
The Russians are red-hot and deliciously dangerous led by Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, fresh off their ATP Cup sweep.
And you have the even younger bunch with Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Alliasime and 17-year-old Carlos Alcaraz.
So who walks away with this first Slam title of 2021? On to the draw and my pick.
NOVAK DJOVOVIC’S QUARTER
The 8-time champion is the big favorite in Melbourne and for good reason. He’s won the title the last two years and — like Nadal in Paris — has been virtually untouchable. And he’s never lost once he makes the semifinals, and I expect him to do that again this month. His draw is good but not great. Jeremy Chardy is a decent player as is Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka who are also in his section. In the fourth round he’s looking at Stan Wawrinka and then perhaps Zverev in the quarters. As I mentioned, we don’t know how Zverev is doing with that back, though I really like his draw. Regardless, I think Novak buckles down and gets back to the semifinals.
The Pick: Novak Djokovic
DOMINIC THIEM’S QUARTER
Dominic Thiem, the only man to make both hardcourt Slam finals last year, returns trying to do one better this year. Having won the US Open, that should help his confidence here even though he may not need it given his cushy draw. Ugo Humbert could be his third round seed, then Pablo Carreno Busta or Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth followed by one of the Canadians — Shapovalov or FAA — or Diego Schwartzman or Sinner. Auger-Aliassime or Sinner might be that guy on the quick courts. But a rested and healthy Thiem comes through.
The Pick: Dominic Thiem
DANIIL MEDVEDEV’S QUARTER
No one has been hotter than Daniil Medvedev. In case you missed it, the Russian ripped through the end of 2020 sweeping the Paris Indoors and then the ATP Finals, and he resumed that momentum this past week going 4-0 at the ATP Cup. So he’s won his last 14. Also playing well is his friend and compatriot Andrey Rublev who also swept his Cup singles matches. What’s interesting is the two could meet in the quarterfinals. Rublev could get Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth while Medvedev is projected to face Filip Krajinovic and then either Borna Coric or David Goffin in the fourth. I think both Russians get through to a monster meeting. And I’m leaning to Rublev in a mild upset.
The Pick: Andrey Rublev
RAFAEL NADAL’S QUARTER
If Rafa’s back and health are 100%, he’ll make the semifinals. If he’s not OK, he’ll probably withdraw or retire at some point. He’s been practicing but I’m not sure how healthy he is. I guess no one really knows. So I can’t pick him here leaving about 3-4 guys to take his spot in the semifinals. Stefanos Tsitsipas has been there before. Matteo Berrettini made the US Open semifinals and then there is Dan Evans who just won today and the big Russian Karen Khachanov. The big match will be the fourth round battle between Tsitsipas and Berrettini and with some hesitation I’m taking the big Italian to get to the quarters and beat Evans. Tsitsipas is the more versatile player and beat Matteo two years ago in Melbourne, but I just haven’t seen any big results from Stef of late. And the lack of a full Greek crowd in Melbourne also hurts him.
The Pick: Matteo Berrettini
Djokovic d Thiem: Djokovic does it again, stays perfect once he reaches the semifinals in Melbourne.
Berrettini d Rublev: Rublev comes up short in his first Slam semi against the big-serving Berrettini.
Djokovic d Berrettini: Djokovic is back home and back in the win column, brushing poor finishes in the last two Slams.
I think if Medvedev beats Rublev in that quarter, he’ll get to the final and could trouble Djokovic there. He and maybe Thiem are the only two guys who could give Djokovic a run.
Even if Rafa is ok, I still don’t see him toppling Djokovic or winning here.
So to me the tournament is going to be won by Djokovic, Medvedev, Thiem or Zverev who I’ll also put in there. I think Rublev can get hot enough to do some damage, but he won’t sustain it. And I’ll be interested to see what Sinner can do against the slumping Shapovalov.
I know it’s Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S., but ESPN will have the Australian Open live from 7pm.
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