Tier 1 – The 3 Early Champions
It is amazing that the ATP Tour already has 3 different players holding singles trophies in 2017. Each of those 3 early champions has to be entering the Australian Open feeling good, but who feels the best?
- Novak Djokovic’s win at Qatar, including two battles that went three sets, would seem pretty standard except for the fact that he ended Andy Murray’s winning streak. I don’t think Murray’s loss hurts the world #1’s confidence in a big way, but Novak’s November malaise in London seems long gone. For this reason, Novak Djokovic has to be the happiest of the first three tournament winners of 2017.
- Grigor Dimitrov’s Brisbane title included wins over Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori so he has to be feeling good, but I Dimitrov will need to demonstrate consistently good results before he attracts a second bandwagon. Such a bandwagon would likely be smaller and wiser than his first bandwagon, but the second phase of Dimitrov’s career could be more satisfying due to reduced expectations.
- Roberto Bautista Agut’s Chennai, India title could be a nice springboard in Melbourne. RBA’s solid, physical brand of tennis can flourish on the slower hard courts of the Australian Open. No one would be shocked to see RBA in the final 8 in Melbourne.
Tier 2 – Players with Reason for Optimism
- Andy Murray ended 2016 about as well as he could have hoped. Dropping a close championship match in his first ATP event of 2017 is not going to put any serious dent in the momentum he earned ending last season.
- Milos Raonic rallied to beat Rafael Nadal in what should be a confidence building win despite failing to defend his 2016 Brisbane title.
- Kei Nishikori has a lot of game and if his body holds up in Melbourne, he can easily reach the final 8 or final 4. If that happens, he could take his chances and see what happens in the final 2 or 3 matches of the event.
Tier 3 – Looking Better than Expected
- Fernando Verdasco is a guy with nuclear power on his groundstrokes who can pressure anyone on a tennis court. He pushed Novak Djokovic quite hard in Qatar. Hot sauce has never been known to demonstrate great consistency, but his Qatar showing might bode well in Melbourne.
Tier 4 – Legends Can’t be Ignored
- Rafael Nadal’s team has said a lot of measured but positive things about his current form as well as his prospects for reaching higher levels of play in 2017. Rafa has won 1 Australian Open title (2009) and been runner-up in Melbourne on 2 other occasions (2012 and 2014). His durability and confidence are question marks, but things may gel for him ahead of his team’s stated schedule if the draw breaks his way.
- Roger Federer is seemingly relaxed and speaking glowingly about the impact of his 6 month hiatus. He is short on match play. If he can work out a few kinks in the first week, Roger might be looming as an unpleasant opponent in the second week for those who passed him in the rankings last summer and fall. His early draw will be quite important.
Tier 5 – Less Accomplished X Factors
- Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open in 2014 and is the reigning champion of the most recent hard court major title. If Stan gets dialed in, he can certainly win this title. His form to end 2016 and loss in Brisbane suggest his top form is not close at hand, BUT watch out if he makes good use of the first week.
- Dominic Thiem is talented and the slower surface could be to his benefit. Still, he seems perhaps one or two years away from contending at a high level on surfaces other than clay.
- Veterans such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych would not shock anyone if they reached the round of 8, but anything beyond that would be surprising.
- Crazy Aussies? Could Nick Kyrgios or Bernard Tomic do something memorable? Sure.
- Marin Cilic has the tools to dictate play on this surface. Will he?