The draw for the 2016 Australian Open is here, and everyone has been poring over it since it was first announced. So, without further ado, here are the five things that most jumped out to me when I first looked at the draw:
1. Lleyton Hewitt Has the Perfect Opportunity
However much this tournament will matter for history based on the winner, this will always go down as the final tournament in Hewitt’s storied career. He revitalized Australian tennis and excited the tennis world with his nonstop heart and fight in the final years of his career. He has a winnable first-round match against young Australian James Duckworth, so as long as Hewitt is healthy his final tournament will last for more than one match. He then couldn’t have drawn a better opponent than David Ferrer. Ferrer is another fighter who grinds his way through matches. Their matchup should provide quality points and entertainment. No matter what, this match shouldn’t be a blowout. If Hewitt loses, going out to a top-10 player is a fine way to end his career. If Hewitt wins, which he can definitely do if his body holds out long enough, the draw is relatively open for a storybook deep run to end his career. All in all, Hewitt got the perfect draw.
2. Djokovic Will be Tested in the First Round
Novak Djokovic has been on top of the tennis world for close to five years now. He is not unbeatable, though, and his winning percentage in Slam finals is surprisingly poor (relatively speaking, of course). What Djokovic hasn’t done in a very long time is struggle early in Slams. He very rarely struggles against lower players, at least on the biggest stages. Which is why his first-round match against Hyeon Chung fascinates me. Chung is a relative unknown after shooting up through the rankings on the Challenger Tour last year. It would be an utter shock if he beat Djokovic, but he is one of the few players in this tournament with which Djokovic has no real familiarity. His power and overall play could surprise the Serbian. Don’t let that fool you, though. It would take close to a miracle for anyone to beat Djokovic before the quarterfinals; no one in his eighth of the draw can really challenge the World No. 1 over five sets.
3. Murray’s Path is Relatively Clear
I hate projecting draws because so many things can happen and go wrong, but Murray appears to be very fortunate with his draw right now. Sam Groth is a potential annoyance in the second round, but Murray is usually very effective against huge servers with little ground game. After that, the seeds in Murray’s path have never really had success against him. Bernard Tomic, Joao Sousa, and John Isner have never beaten Murray. Fabio Fognini has beaten the Brit twice, but the only hard court win was back in 2007. David Ferrer has beaten Murray in the past, but Murray has won their last five meetings and is 6-1 against the Spaniard since 2013. It will be a shock to not see Murray in the semifinals.
4. Nadal is Vulnerable
Rafael Nadal has been the most upset-prone of the top players (except on clay, of course) for several years now. He will still be the favorite in each of his first few matches here, obviously, but the draw was not kind to him. When Fernando Verdasco (Nadal’s first-round opponent) plays his top game, he gives Nadal fits and beat the Mallorcan in their last hard court meeting. Neither Benjamin Becker nor Dudi Sela can challenge Nadal in the second round, but after that things get tough.
Neither Jeremy Chardy or Ernests Gulbis has ever beaten Nadal, but both have the hard-court game to give him a lot of trouble. The same is true for Nadal’s most likely fourth-round opponent, whether it be Gael Monfils or Kevin Anderson. Neither has beaten Nadal, but both should keep him on court for more than three sets. Again, Nadal reaching the quarterfinals is more likely than not, but he will have some definite wear on him by the second week. And some of these matches will be close enough that if an opponent brings his absolute best–or if Nadal’s game is off just a little–that we could see an upset here.
5. Brian Baker’s Comeback is Open
When I look at draws, the first thing I look at is not who the top players drew and their paths to the final. They’re the top players for a reason. They should beat everyone in their paths, even if some of them will have tougher paths than others. No, I look for holes in the draw. I look for those small places where the seeds’ weaknesses line up just right and someone can come out of nowhere and shock us with a deep run. For that hole, look no further than Brian Baker’s placement.
Baker is supremely talented and was a highly-touted youngster before his career was train-wrecked by injuries. He hasn’t played a single match on tour since (another) the US Open in 2013. If he is healthy now, though, this is an amazing opportunity for a comeback tournament. His first-round match is definitely a winnable one against Simone Bolelli. Then, he will have two potential matches against seeded players, but they are two of the weaker seeds in the tournament. Both Bernard Tomic and Fabio Fognini are prone to mental meltdowns, and Fognini in particular has never performed well on hard courts.
Baker’s most likely potential third-round opponent is probably Gilles Muller, and Baker has fared exceedingly well against big servers since his youth. Getting past the fourth round means that someone would have to upset Murray, but expect a surprise second-week competitor from that Tomic-Fognini 8-pack. Even if it’s not Brian Baker, I think it is more likely than not that it won’t be either of the two seeds in that group.