The year’s first grand slam gets underway on Monday, with the game’s heavy hitters facing off. But who heads to Melbourne Park in form and who is under pressure from the start?
The defending champion and world number one has seemingly started the new season in the same fashion as he finished 2015 – in sublime form. The Serb began the new ATP season at the Qatar Open in Doha and was seldom troubled in the week, culminating in a 6-1, 6-2 win over Rafael Nadal in the tournament final. The 28-year-old is undoubtedly the form player in the world and it will take some effort to stop him from winning in Melbourne for a sixth time.
Having finished 2015 ranked second for the first time in his career, Murray is one of the few players with a realistic chance of winning the title. The Scot opted to start his year at the Hopman Cup, and he didn’t show the best form, losing to Australian Nick Kyrgios in straight sets in what was his toughest test.
A four-time winner at Melbourne Park remains one of the most dangerous players around – when on-song he is arguably the most dangerous player outside of Djokovic – but there are questions surrounding his fitness heading into the year’s first grand slam after struggled with the flu at the season-opening Brisbane International, where he eventually lost to Milos Raonic in the final. More importantly, Djokovic appears to have his number at the grand slams.
After being in the shadow of Federer for most of his career, the Swiss number two came into his own when he won in Melbourne in 2014 and at Roland Garros last year. The world number four started his 2016 season with victory at the Chennai Open, albeit against opposition you wouldn’t expect him to struggle against.
After enduring the worst patch of form in a decade at the start of 2015, the Spaniard had begun to find form by the end of the year. While the 14-time grand slam winner will perhaps never again be the player he was in his pomp, he remains a dreaded opponent for anyone on the ATP Tour. He looked in fine touch in Doha before he was demolished by Djokovic. However, the draw has not been kind to Nadal and he faces a tough opening round clash against compatriot Fernando Verdasco.
The dark horses:
The big-serving Canadian has been in and around the top 10 for some time now, and when he is on-song he seems like a potential grand slam winner. A quarter-finalist in Melbourne last year, the 25-year-old won in Brisbane at the start of 2016, which included the above-mentioned victory over Federer.
The Japanese ace has the game to win on the Rod Laver Arena, and has made it to at least the fourth round for the last four years, but doubts remain as to whether he can go all the way. He comes into the Australian Open somewhat short of match practice. After receiving a bye into the second round of the Brisbane International, a victory over Mikhail Kukushkin was followed by a loss to Bernard Tomic.
The Australian contingent
Tomic and Kyrgios have both been seeded this year, with Tomic featuring in the all important top 16. Tomic’s run to the semi-finals of the Brisbane International suggested he had found form at the right time, but he hit the headlines for the wrong reasons on Friday when he withdrew from the Sydney International while trailing Teymuraz Gabashvili 6-3, 3-0. When pressed in his post-match press conference as to why he withdrew, Tomic struggled to give a solid reason, talking about being tired, not wanting to play extra matches, and even suggested it was because he had seen his draw for the Australian Open…
Kyrgios warmed up for the Australian Open by pairing up with Daria Gavrilova to win the Hopman Cup. The 20-year-old put in some good showings, including a win over Murray. However, there was reason for concern when he pulled out of the Kooyong Classic with soreness in an Achilles’ tendon, but the world number 30 expects to be fully fit come the start of the Open.