The first Grand Slam tournament of the year starts in the early evening Sunday for us and as the singles draw was made on Friday morning (Australian time), taking an extra day for analysis (I admit, out of sheer laziness) gave me time to see who qualified and where they fell in the draw, thus adding to the difficulty of some first round encounters.
This first part will cover the bottom half of the draw, as they are the ones who will have the honour of opening the hostilities. So please, don’t start with “the World no 1’s half should be first”, that was not my intent. It really is for scheduling purposes.
For the first time since 2005 (Roland Garros), Rafael Nadal (2) and Roger Federer (3) have been drawn in the same half at a Grand Slam. Not a meagre happening of draw fate as we know what has happened then. If you don’t remember, Nadal defeated Federer and then went to win the first of his six Coupes des Mousquetaires.
Consequently, for once, we will not have what had become our traditional Federer – Djokovic semi-final.
Furthermore, from a strictly analytic point of view, I must say that Nadal and Novak Djokovic (1) have, by far, the easiest draws. Meanwhile, Federer has a moderately easy draw until the quarter-finals, and Andy Murray (4), without a doubt the hardest draw of the ATP Fab Four.
Does this mean that we are assured of seeing a Fedal semi-final match, or that Murray cannot make it to the final four for a fifth consecutive Grand Slam? Of course not! After all, this is tennis, one of the most unpredictable sports, and if the qualifications were any indicator of what will happen this coming fortnight, we’re in for many surprises.
Rafael Nadal’s quarter
Let’s get it out now: World no2 Rafael Nadal has a cake draw. First drawn to meet a qualifier, which ended up being young rising American Alex Kuznetsov, he will meet either an ever-ailing but oh-so-exciting-to-watch Tommy Haas or another talented up-and-coming American, Denis Kudla, in round two. His potential third-round match might be against Ivan Ljubicic (28) or yet another fast-rising American, Donald Young.
To be completely honest, my wish would be a Nadal vs David Nalbandian fourth-round matchup, for sentimental reasons: almost every time these tow meet, we’re in for drama, intensity and a great match. However, health/physical condition is always a factor as far as the crafty Argentine is concerned and even though he appeared in very good form during his exhibition match against Andy Murray on Friday, his form still remains the big question mark.
As well, his draw is no guarantee that he will reach even the third round. If meeting a likely tired Jarkko Nieminen (who has yet to play his singles and doubles finals in Sydney, rained out and postponed to Sunday, giving him only a day’s rest before playing a best-of-five match against a very rested player) should most probably take him to second round, his next opponent should logically be John Isner (16), a very tough order, not to mention the potential third round against Feliciano López (18).
For those reasons, I think that my dream fourth-round Nadal – Nalbandian will remain just a dream and that we will have an all-Spanish encounter with Feli. Even though I know that he can hold his own ground very well on hard courts, I don’t see Leonardo Mayer causing a surprise in the first round, nor Flavio Cipolla/Nikolay Davydenko in the second. Isner? It is possible, of course. But I like Feli’s chances.
On the other side of the quarter, it appears to be a case of flipping a coin to choose who will be quarter-finalist due to the physical state of Tomas Berdych (7), who had to withdraw from the Kooyong exhibition due to a shoulder problem. If his shoulder is still acting up, I cannot be sure that he can reach the quarters, even though he has a very easy draw to do so. Berdych will play Spain’s Albert Ramos before squaring with either qualifier Bjorn Phau or Auckland finalist Olivier Rochus, before a possible round three matchup with Kevin Anderson (30) (and, again, that is if Anderson’s knee is not bothering him too much).
Truth be told, I like the chances of someone from the other eight to reach the quarter-finals, either Marcos Baghdatis or Stanislas Wawrinka (21), even tough both have tricky first-round opponents, the Swiss facing Benoit Paire’s genially crazy shotmaking and the Cypriot, the always dangerous Benjamin Becker. However, they should meet in round two and I fancy the winner of that potential matchup to make his way to the quarters, as I don’t see any of Nicolás Almagro (10), Lukasz Kubot, Jérémy Chardy, and Grigor Dimitrov pass either of them in the third round.
My quarter-final prediction
Rafael Nadal d. Marcos Baghdatis
Roger Federer’s quarter
If Rafael Nadal’s draw is a piece of cake, Roger Federer‘s is a piece of pie: slightly harder, but about just as sweet. Now back to form after having had back problems in the last few weeks, the four-time Australian Open champion should not have any trouble easing into the first Grand Slam of the season, as he faces qualifier Alexander Kudryavstev in the first round before facing either Eric Prodon or Andreas Beck in the second.
The only visible rock I see before round four for the Swiss is if he plays Ivo Karlovic in the third round (the winner of the first-rounder between the Croatian and Jürgen Melzer (31) should make his way to the third round), as Karlovic has at times given him trouble in the past. However, I think that his first real test should come in the fourth round, as looms a potential matchup with Alexandr Dolgopolov (13) or Bernard Tomic (who I see causing the upset of Fernando Verdasco (22) in the first round). Then again, I don’t see Federer’s quarter-final run end in Melbourne.
The other side of this quarter could be very defining, as far as the rankings are concerned. With a good performance, Juan Martín del Potro (11) (who lost to Marcos Baghdatis in the second round last year) could, indeed, re-enter the top 10 and I must say he has a pretty good draw to do so. If his first-round meeting with Frenchman Adrian Mannarino is a bit tricky, he then has quite a decent draw, considering that his potential and dangerous third-round opponent, Florian Mayer (20), was forced to withdraw from the tournament mere hours before it started due to a hip injury. Mayer has been replaced by lucky loser Rick De Voest.
My second Australian Open dream, which also turns out to be my worst Australian Open nightmare, enters here. I would love (and hate) to see a fourth-round match between Delpo and Juan Mónaco (25)! Whoever knows me knows they both are my no 1 favourite players. Which means that for favouritism’s sake, I would love to see them meet then, even though it would be the most tearing match I’ll ever watch, if it so happens.
However, we are far from such a match to take place, as Pico faces the difficult task of defeating Philipp Kohlschreiber in a Davis Cup preview first-rounder. Whoever wins this match should logically make it to the third round, where a potential meeting with Mardy Fish (8) awaits.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that seeing Fish in the third round is granted, as not only has he never done well in Australia, he is also facing a big threat from the start in Gilles Muller, a player who is known to give a lot of trouble to the best players in the world, especially with his serve.
My quarter-final prediction
Juan Martín del Potro d. Roger Federer