Australian Open 2015 Preview: What Is The State Of The Men’s Game?

January 15, 2015 4:09 pm

The Australian Open. The first Grand Slam of the season and the more definitive start of the tennis season. There’s no real form to judge each player on prior to this Grand Slam, only minute indicators via one or two tournaments in very early January.

Consequently, one of the Australian Open’s unique characteristics is the importance of the early rounds. These are vital to really see how competitive the players are. Who put in the hard work over Christmas? Who has kept up this hard work and accelerated into the very awkwardly placed slam?

The start of a season is the time for change. Change in attitude. Change in game plans. And that can be dangerous for the top players. It might only take a renewed sense of ambition to light the fire in an underdog and this could be enough for them to force slip-ups and edge past the highest seeds. Players will have reflected on their 2014 performance; what worked and what let them down. They will adapt their games accordingly and the Australian Open is the perfect ground to test these new tactics.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at which players are set to make a mark on this year’s opening grand slam and how all the usual suspects are looking ahead of the tournament before it starts on the January 19th

The Swiss Are Set to Impress

Since Wawrinka’s rise to Grand Slam triumph at this tournament last year, Switzerland has been the nation to beat when it comes to world class tennis, as proven by their Davis Cup title in November 2014, where Federer and Wawrinka both had pivotal roles. And the pair seems to have continued their good form as both have already taken a title in the opening ATP tournaments this year. Federer won the Brisbane International as well as achieving the heavyweight milestone of getting his 1000th career win. Only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl are in this prestigious club and realistically, Federer could overcome Lendl’s 1,071 wins. This was also his 83rd career title so it seems Federer has no intention of slowing down.

Since winning his first grand slam last year, Stan has struggled to prove he’s not a one slam wonder. For the first time in his career, he broke in to the top 5 in the world and was ranked Swiss No. 1 ahead of Federer. He recorded wins against Djokovic, Nadal and Federer but also had worrying losses in early rounds of many ATP tournaments, including a first round loss to Kukushkin on home soil. In the majors, he managed to reach the QFs of Wimbledon and the US Open as well as making the SFs of the World Tour Finals in London. It feels like de ja vu coming in to 2015 though, which could mean all good things for Wawrinka. He successfully defended his title at the Chennai Open without dropping a set and, given that he now knows exactly what it takes, Stan could be primed to take his second consecutive Australian Open title.

Fighting Fit?

Nadal’s 2014 was troubled with injury and illness. Whilst he started off well, making the final of the Australian Open, Nadal was clearly in some discomfort from a back injury. Whatever the issue, it potentially cost him the match but did not stop him winning his 9th French Open later that year. He then suffered a shock defeat in the fourth round at Wimbledon before withdrawing from the American hard court series altogether due to a wrist injury. As if things couldn’t get any worse, poor Rafa was diagnosed with appendicitis in the latter months of 2014. In perhaps the craziest feat ever, Nadal didn’t instantly withdraw from the Shanghai Open but eventually went down to Feliciano Lopez.

Thankfully, Nadal has had his appendix removed and has declared on his social media outlets that he is training hard for his return this season. He lost early in the first round of Doha but won the doubles with Juan Monaco and looked in stunning form in an exhibition match earlier this week. Nadal will also be officially competing with Babolat Play, the new smart racquet, this season so it will be interesting to see how this affects his performance.

Whilst Murray officially came back from injury last season, he didn’t really seem to find his old form after back surgery in 2013. He is a three-time finalist in Australia but last year failed to make a single grand slam final, only going as far as the semis in France. The Scot seemed to make a late return to form towards the latter stages of 2014, winning two consecutive ATP tournaments in Vienna and Valencia. This won him a place at the tour finals but to no avail. On the contrary, he suffered the worst defeat of his career since 2007 at the hands of old rival Roger Federer.

Also making a return from injury is Juan Martin Del Potro. His appearance was scarce in 2014 due to a wrist injury that has plagued him since 2012. He only appeared in the Australian Open and missed the other three grand slams before withdrawing from the tour altogether in October. Because of this, his current singles ranking is 338 but he has returned to the tour this year and is looking like his old self. As defending champion of the Sydney International, he made it to the QFs without much trouble at all before being knocked out by Mikhail Kukushkin (66). Will this be a sufficient warm up for the Argentinian’s first slam in 12 months?

These players’ forms will have a great impact on how things play out in Australia. If they’re fit, they all stand a fighting chance. But if their ailments and bad form continue to haunt them, they could leave the draw wide open for a younger player to stride right to the latter stages of the tournament.

The New Threats

So who are these younger players that could be primed to jump on any opportunity? Well, the main two have to be Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic. These two players have provided a refreshing sense of equality in the men’s game recently and pose a legitimate threat to the reign of the big four.

Raonic has been present in the bottom half of the top 10 since 2013. He is currently ranked 8th after a cracking 2014 where he made the QFs of the French, the SF of Wimbledon and the 4R of the US. Was this largely due to a lack of consistency from players like Murray and Nadal? Well there’s a case to be made but this season should allow Raonic to really prove himself. Will he go all the way or end up being the new Berdych or Ferrer, a constant resident of the top ten but never achieving the game’s greatest accolades?

As for Dimitrov, 2014 was also his best year yet and he reached a career high ranking of 9th. He won 3 ATP titles last year and made the Wimbledon SFs and the 4R of the US Open. At Wimbledon, he especially proved he was amongst the best by beating defending champion Andy Murray and taking a set off an on-form Djokovic, who eventually won the championship. In warming up for this slam, he made the SFs of the Brisbane International in both the singles and doubles so could be fired up to attack his first slam campaign of the season.

The Best of the Rest

Who could forget Nishikori and his epic performance at last year’s US Open? Despite eventually losing to Marin Cilic, Nishikori had the best tournament by far, beating Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic who were seeded fifth, third and first respectively. He built on this success by going on to take two titles in the Asian swing of the tour and has started 2015 by reaching the SF of the Brisbane International and also making the final of the doubles. With no giant Croat to get in his way (Cilic has withdrawn due to injury), can Kei repeat the success he had on the hard courts of NYC here in Australia?

We can’t have a piece about the state of the men’s game without commenting on world number one, Novak Djokovic. The reason he’s been left till last? Well, there’s not much to say about his form as of late really. Some say that having his first child distracted him towards the end of 2014 and that explained his exit at the US Open and dip in form. It didn’t stop him from dominating at the O2 and taking the year-end World Number One title. Yet he still suffered a surprising loss to Karlovic in the first tournament of 2015. Consequently, it’s difficult to comment on what form he is bringing into the first slam of the year. He will be the top seed and is clearly world number one for a reason but for the first time in years, it would feel inappropriate to label him a guaranteed second week attendee.

2014 really saw the arrival of some phenomenal new players. Nishikori and Cilic’s great efforts produced the first final since 2005 where neither Federer, Djokovic nor Nadal were a participant. This felt like a symbolic turn of the tides and makes the start of this season pretty exciting. Will the big four restore order? Or will there be more new grand slam champions by the end of this season? One thing is for sure. It’s going to be a great year and we can’t wait to watch.

What do you think about the state of the men’s game? Are you excited about the prospect of new champions or are you rooting for the top seeds to go all the way and continue making history? Let us know in comments section.

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