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Ricky Breaks Down the Australian Open Tennis Men’s Singles Draw: Good for Nadal (If Healthy), Tough for Djokovic

Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action during the ATP Cup tennis tournament match against Alexander Zverev of Germany at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 05 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

By Ricky Dimon

Novak Djokovic is bidding for a third straight Australian Open title, which would give him nine in total and 18 Grand Slam singles titles overall. If he wants to reach those numbers, he will have to do it the hard way. Although it generally doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net from him Down Under, for whatever it’s worth Djokovic’s draw is a difficult one. Stan Wawrinka is a potential fourth-round opponent, Alexander Zverev is the other top-eight seed in Djokovic’s quarter, and Dominic Thiem also finds himself in the top half.

On the other side, Rafael Nadal is on a collision course with Stefanos Tsitsipas for the quarterfinals and with Daniil Medvedev for the semis.

Djokovic’s quarter

Djokovic is 13-0 lifetime against his first-round opponent, Jeremy Chardy. Familiarity is a trend that may continue throughout the world No. 1’s fortnight. He owns a 19-6 record against Wawrinka, and they played three Australian Open five-setters in a row from 2013 through 2015. Djokovic just improved to 5-2 against Zverev by defeating the German during ATP Cup action on Friday. There can only be a rematch of last year’s Aussie Open final if both Djokovic and Thiem win their respective quarters, but it is worth noting that the Austrian is a respectable 5-7 in the head-to-head series and has upset Djokovic in each of the last two Nitto ATP Finals. Meanwhile, Zverev should have no trouble reaching the last eight. The U.S. Open runner-up’s nearest seed is Adrian Mannarino and his closest top-12 seed is a struggling Gael Monfils. A tougher draw belongs to Wawrinka, who could run into Marton Fucsovics in the second round and Milos Raonic in the third.

Best first-round matchup — Corentin Moutet vs. John Millman

Millman is one of the highest-ranked unseeded floaters in the field, while Moutet is on the rise and much better than his No. 80 ranking would suggest. In last season’s Aussie Open, Millman ousted Ugo Humbert and Hubert Hurkacz and then faced Roger Federer—whom he led 8-4 in the fifth-set tiebreaker before falling short. Whatever fans there are at Melbourne Park will love this spirited affair between two great competitors.

Best potential second-round matchup – (27) Taylor Fritz vs. Reilly Opelka
Best potential third-round matchup – (14) Milos Raonic vs. (17) Stan Wawrinka

Possible surprises – The section of the bracket in which Monfils and Dusan Lajovic are the two seeds is wide open. Emil Ruusuvuori (Monfils’ opening opponent) and Alexander Bublik have the talent to take advantage. Either one of them would not be much of a surprise to see in the fourth around. Also, don’t be shocked if Djokovic’s rival in the last 16 is Raonic instead of Wawrinka.

Thiem’s quarter

This is a nightmare draw for Denis Shapovalov, who has to go up against Jannik Sinner right off the bat. Even if the Canadian survives that test, he would possibly be in line for a third-round affair with compatriot and best friend Felix Auger-Aliassime. Thiem will have to be careful throughout the fortnight, as well. There are plenty of capable hard-courters standing in his way at Melbourne Park, starting with Mikhail Kukushkin. Either Ugo Humbert or Nick Kyrgios potentially awaits Thiem in the last 32, while Pablo Carreno Busta would be a dangerous fourth-round foe. Speaking of PCB, this section is littered with intriguing first-round matchups. In addition to Shapovalov-Sinner we have PCB vs. Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov vs. Marin Cilic.

Best first-round matchup — (11) Denis Shapovalov vs. Jannik Sinner

Sinner is the highest-ranked player in the draw who isn’t seeded and the rankings do not lie: the 19-year-old Italian is the absolute last person any seed would want to meet in the opening round. He ended last season with a quarterfinal run at the French Open and his first career ATP title in Sofia. Picking up right where he left off, Sinner currently finds himself in the final of the Great Ocean Road Open. Of course, that may not be a good thing; he will have no days off before facing the 12th-ranked Shapovalov on Monday night.

Best potential second-round matchup – (29) Ugo Humbert vs. Nick Kyrgios
Best potential third-round matchup – (15) Pablo Carreno Busta vs. (18) Grigor Dimitrov

Possible surprises — If Sinner gets past Shapovalov (and that’s obviously a big “if”), he could go a long, long way. Auger-Aliassime would be tough in the third round, but the world No. 36 probably deserves favorite status in that matchup right now. Also watch out for Carreno Busta, who has been stellar at slams in recent years. Another quarterfinal or even semifinal performance for the Spaniard is not out of the question.

Medvedev’s quarter

As if Andrey Rublev needed any help, he was handed a nice draw in Melbourne. The winner of a tour-leading five titles last year has no one other than Roberto Bautista Agut, Lorenzo Sonego, and Sam Querrey standing in his way of the quarterfinals. RBA underwhelmed at this week’s ATP Cup, Sonego is in fine form but Rublev handled him in the Vienna final last fall, and Querrey’s two-set lead over the Russian in round one of the 2020 French Open evaporated quickly. Sonego and Querrey square off in a big-hitting matchup right off the bat. Rublev also avoided Djokovic and Nadal, although a potential QF date with Medvedev probably wouldn’t be fun. Medvedev is 4-0 against his countryman (with whom he is in the ATP Cup final on Sunday) and 9-0 in total sets. Medvedev’s draw isn’t the easiest with Vasek Pospisil in round one and possibly Borna Coric in the last 16.

Best first-round matchup — (13) David Goffin vs. (WC) Alexei Popyrin

Goffin is by no means in peak form these days, but that is what should make this a good one. Popyrin has not yet maximized his talent, so a peak Goffin would in a likelihood hand him a free lesson. That being said, the 21-year-old Aussie is definitely capable of upsetting a struggling opponent—especially at Melbourne Park. Popyrin made a run to the third round last January and this week he advanced to round three of the Murray River Open. This will be a fun matchup between Popyrin’s big hitting and Goffin’s counter-punching.

Best potential second-round matchup – (12) Roberto Bautista Agut vs. Jan-Lennard Struff
Best potential third-round matchup – (7) Andrey Rublev vs. Sam Querrey

Possible surprises — The only reliable seeds in this section are Medvedev and Rublev. Not even Bautista Agut can be trusted at the moment. Thus we could see a number of unseeded players in the third round, if not even two in the quarterfinals. Among the ones to watch are Popyrin, Jordan Thompson, Jan-Lennard Struff, and Tommy Paul. Struff played well at the ATP Cup and whoever wins his projected second-round against RBA will likely meet Medvedev in the fourth round.

Nadal’s quarter

There are question marks surrounding Nadal’s health heading into the year’s first major after he did not play a single match at the ATP Cup because of a reported back issue. With no time off between that team competition and the Aussie Open this year, the second-ranked Spaniard decided not to risk it. If the decision pays off with a clean bill of health, Nadal should be able to take advantage. Of the top title contenders, he has the best draw. The 34-year-old’s first notable matchup probably won’t come until round four, where Fabio Fognini—who suddenly looks inspired at the ATP Cup—may await his familiar foe. However, that fourth-round opponent for Nadal could end up being Alex de Minaur. Meanwhile, Stefanos Tsitsipas’ eighth of the bracket looks more difficult than it first did because of Berrettini’s out-of-nowhere hot streak.

Best first-round matchup — (9) Matteo Berrettini vs. Kevin Anderson

Both of these big hitters are on the comeback trail. Anderson has endured all kinds of arm issues over the past few years, but he was finally healthy last fall and advanced two rounds at the French Open before reaching the Vienna semis (lost to Rublev on both occasions). The 6’8’’ South African won two more matches this week at Melbourne Park. Basically no one has been better than Berrettini this week. The Italian, who was a shadow of his real self in 2020, is 3-0 at the ATP Cup and did not drop a set or even play a tiebreaker against Thiem, Monfils, and Bautista Agut.

Best potential second-round matchup – (26) Hubert Hurkacz vs. (Q) Carlos Alcaraz
Best potential third-round matchup – (16) Fabio Fognini vs. (21) Alex de Minaur

Possible surprises — The unseeded contingent is going to require some help in this section because most of the seeds are reliable and the ones who aren’t (Fognini and Karen Khachanov) have relatively benign early-round draws. Only if Nadal is actually hurt and/or Berrettini is fatigued following the ATP Cup could things really open up. Anderson becomes one to keep an eye on if he can upset Berrettini in round one. As for players to keep an eye on both now and in the future, the winner of Carlos Alcaraz vs. Botic Van de Zandschulp could give Hurkacz some real trouble in round two.

Check out the full men’s singles draw at the AO website.

Ricky contributes to10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.