This time last year, then 17th seeded Roger Federer entered the Australian Open after a six-month layoff, facing a minefield of a draw. Considering his age and that he had never had such a long time away from the game owing to injury, it was probably the first time in a decade and a half that no one gave him a realistic chance of being in contention for a non-clay major.
Federer, of course, proved everyone wrong in emphatic style toppling four top 10 players – Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, StanislasWawrinka and Rafael Nadal – en route to the title.
A similar draw awaits the Swiss this time Down Under, where unlike last year he would be the favourite.
Six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who is making a comeback of his own is in Federer’s half, with Juan Martin del Potro – who beat the Swiss at the US Open – in his quarter. Milos Raonic could be a potential fourth round opponent for Federer.
Djokovic, the 14th seed, is in the top quarter of the bottom half, where he is joined by Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. A Djokovic-Zverev blockbuster might be in store in the Round of 16. However, the Serb could face a tough test against Gael Monfils in the second round, while Zverev could meet brother Mischa in the third round.
World No 1 Rafael Nadal might’ve lost last year’s final to Federer, but just like his old rival the fact that he made it that far surprised one and all. And just like the Swiss, he used the Melbourne run as a springboard for an historic year.
This year around, question marks of a different kind surround the Spaniard, with doubts over his fitness coming into the Australian Open. But slotted atop the top half, Nadal could take encouragement from a favourable draw as he looks to ease himself into competitive tennis.
Despite an intriguing matchup against Borna Coric in the third round, Nadal has a pretty straightforward route to the semis. He could face John Isner in the fourth round, who has never beaten him in a competitive match, and Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic in the quarters, who hasn’t defeated him in nine years.
The top seeds in the bottom quarter of the top half are third seed Grigor Dimitrov – who could have a rematch with Rafa in the semis after the two played out one of the matches of the year at the same stage last year – and Jack Sock. But perhaps the biggest threat looming in that quarter is Nick Kyrgios, who could be eying bigger things after intermittently showing just how good he is last year.
There are three main questions that engulf the men’s draw at this year’s Australian Open.
The first, can Federer and Nadal replicate their magic from last year, and if either of them can win the first major of the year to keep their run going – better still, will it be another Fedal final?
The second, will Djokovic be able to do what Federer and Nadal did and make a deep run into his first comeback major, and maybe even win it?
The third, will there be a first time major winner, with the likes of Alexander Zverev, Domic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin knocking on the door?
Despite the tough draw and the toll that 2017 would’ve had on his body, Federer is the favourite to win his 20th major in a fortnight’s time. A Raonic-Del Potro-Djokovic/Zverev-Nadal run might be even steeper than the one he overcame last year, but Federer too is even more in his zone than he was 12 months ago.
Nadal’s run to the semis would be dictated more by his own body than his opponents. The only player in his half who could outdo the Spaniard at his fittest his Kyrgios. Also, a Kyrgios that would’ve made all the way to the semis of his home major might actually be the most dangerous the Australian has ever been.
Whoever comes out of the Djokovic-Zverev section of the draw would consider himself a worthy contender and would even fancy outdoing Federer in the semis.
The winners of the potential Dimitrov-Kyrgios and Djokovic-Zverev fourth round matches would feel confident of making the final.
Meanwhile, if Kyrgios falls early – which he is perfectly capable of – and Nadal remains fit, it’s hard to see the World No 1 not making the Australian Open final, where he would fancy himself over anyone.
While two of Nadal, Dimitrov, Kyrgios, Djokovic, Zverev and Federer, in all likelihood, should be the finalists, the two capable of upsetting the applecart are Wawrinka and Del Potro – both in the bottom half. But at the time of writing Wawrinka’s participation itself isn’t certain owing to injury.
The popular demand would be for another Fedal final, but it’s hard to see both the all-time greats continuing their runs from 2017 and setting the stage ablaze from the get go. Even so, no one would be surprised if they prove us all wrong – yet again.