Andy Murray served up a serious blow to the Australian Open organisers this week when he declared himself unfit to compete in the tournament. The first Grand Slam of 2018 is just days away and Novak Djokovic is also a serious doubt as he continues to nurse an elbow injury.
The field has been further depleted by the withdrawal of world number five Kei Nishikori, while Stan Wawrinka has not played in more than six months. It looks like being the weakest field we have seen in years Down Under, which will cause a headache for the organisers, but Roger Federer must be licking his lips in anticipation. The Swiss won it last year and the absence of Murray, Djokovic and co makes the job of defending his crown much easier, but he will not have it all his own way. Here are the top five contenders for the tournament:
While Murray and Djokovic succumbed to the toll elite tennis takes on one’s frame in 2017, careful body management allowed Federer to return to the top. He won his first Grand Slam in five years at Melbourne Park in January and then went on to win Wimbledon, taking his career tally to 19 major tournament wins. He was frequently unplayable last year and he will be the man to beat once again in 2018.
Anyone taking a look at tennis betting markets will see that he is the clear favourite to win the Australian Open for the sixth time. He may have lost a yard of pace, but his backhand has vastly improved and he is a more complete and aggressive player than ever before. His game is perfectly suited to the hard court, he has the experience to close out hard-fought victories and he has more than enough flair and grace to demolish his rivals. However, his air of invincibility slipped when he lost to David Goffin at the ATP World Finals in November 2017, and that might give the rest of the field encouragement.
Nadal also rolled back the years in 2017 to win the other two Grand Slams, the French Open and the US Open. That leaves him on 16 in total, just three behind Federer in the all-time stakes, and he goes into this tournament as world number one. He is younger than Federer and should be slightly fitter, as he has also engaged in careful body management of late. He won the Australian Open in 2009 and finished runner-up as recently as last year, so he has the pedigree to get the job done. However, Nadal is a clay court specialist and if he were to come up against Federer on the hard court he would be the heavy underdog.
Federer beat him in five sets last year and has a good record against Nadal on hard court, so the Spaniard’s chances would be greatly improved if Federer crashed out early on – as was the case at Flushing Meadows.
The hard-serving Bulgarian climbed up to third in the world by beating Goffin in the final of the season-ending ATP Finals in London six weeks ago. He also won the Brisbane International, the Sofia Open and the Cincinnati Open in 2017, and the next step is to claim a Grand Slam. The injuries woes of Murray and Djokovic, coupled with the ageing legs of Federer and Nadal, could create a power vacuum at the top of men’s tennis and Dimitrov is perfectly poised to fill it.
At 26, he is approaching the peak of his powers and he has improved greatly over the past year. He rose 14 places in the world rankings, and his power and athleticism will stand him in good stead Down Under. He has never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam, but his showing at the ATP Finals should give him confidence and he looks an interesting shot at 10/1 if he can cut out the excessive double faults.
The young German looks like the future of men’s tennis as he is already ranked fourth in the world and is only 20 years old. He won two Masters 1000 titles last year, beating Djokovic and Federer in the finals, and appears to have the world at his feet. He has a phenomenal second serve, an aggressive baseline game and a sumptuous two-handed backhand, while his work rate is outstanding. His youth and exuberance will frighten the life out of the older players in the draw, but he too has never gone past the fourth round of a Grand Slam, and he lost to Federer in the final of the Hopmman Cup this week, so tread carefully if you fancy him to win the Australian Open.
The Belgian is a longer shot at 20/1 but heads into the tournament in fine form after beating both Federer and Nadal in the ATP Finals. He lost to Dimitrov in the final, but gave a good account of himself and continues to impress for Belgium in the Davis Cup. He reached the quarter-finals here last year and his never-say-die attitude, accuracy, power and movement make him a real threat in Melbourne this month. He is a similar age to Dimitrov and has the talent to battle it out with the Bulgarian and the wunderkind Zverev for supremacy going forwards. It is a huge tournament for all three men, but do not be surprised if Federer leaves them all waiting a little bit longer for that elusive Grand Slam.