Now, it is time for the men to take center stage in my Australian Open previews. Playing a best-of-five sets format makes the top guys less vulnerable to big upsets at the four majors. Fortunately, the top men have been so good for so long that a Grand Slam draw never lacks intrigue. Here are some interesting first round matches, sleepers and predictions to watch for in Melbourne.
First round matches to watch:
Tommy Haas vs Benoit Paire- The fact that Haas is still playing at age 38 after numerous injuries is nothing short of incredible. In days long gone by, he reached number two in the world. It will be interesting to see if he can turn back the clock against the streaky Frenchman.
(3) Milos Raonic vs Dustin Brown- If you are looking for someone to break the stranglehold Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have on this event, Raonic may be the way to go. However, the big serving Canadian will not be happy to have drawn the dreadlocked Jamaican turned German in the first round. Brown’s high risk style is uncomfortable for anyone to play against. These may not be very competitive, but will certainly be entertaining.
(2) Novak Djokovic vs. Fernando Verdasco- Djokovic owns Australia and has six titles here to prove it, but the veteran Spanish lefty help five match points on Djokovic in Doha earlier this year before collapsing. Djokovic went on to win the event. Verdasco is a former top 10 player in the twilight of his career. He would love to give a big dog like Djokovic one last run for his money on a big stage.
(8) Gael Monfils vs Jiri Vesely- I had a couple options for my last first round match of note. I went with this one because the Monfils is a human highlight reel who was finally starting to figure out how to balance showmanship with winning tennis and Vesely is a talented youngster who have gotten some big wins in the past.
(14) Nick Kyrgios-The Aussie is an undeniable once in a generation kind of talent. Unfortunately, it is his repeated fines and suspensions for lousy on court behavior that steals most of the headlines. If the so-called “light bulb moment” ever does happen, look out. He can play with anyone and home soil may do him some good. His first really tough match should come against fourth seed and three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round.
(18) John Isner-Anyone who possesses the biggest serving in history of the sport is always dangerous. Yes, he always finds himself in long matches because he cannot break serve, but I still think he can put it all together and make a deep run at major. No one wants to play someone who takes the racquet out of your hands as much Inner does. A fourth round encounter top seed Andy Murray would be a tall task, but certainly not impossible for the nearly 7 foot tall American.
(24) Alexander Zverev- Of all the young guns coming up, I am highest on the 19-year-old German. There is no glaring weakness in his game, a rarity for such a young player. I watched him play the qualifying rounds in Cincinnati two years ago and was quite impressed. He just keeps getting better, a third-round match with 14 time major winner Rafael Nadal would be most interesting.
(23) Jack Sock- Six years younger than Isner, Sock is the future of American tennis and is coming off his second career title in Auckland last week. With a complete and powerful game, his first major quarterfinal is not out of the question. His draw is pretty kind as well.
Top half- For the first time in his stellar career, Andy Murray is the top seed at a major. No doubt the five time Aussie Open runner up is a prime contender to finally hold the big trophy. He finds himself in a delicate spot though.
All of the intrigue in this half lies with the 17th seed who just happens to be the greatest player who ever lived. A healthy Roger Federer returns to the Grand Slam stage after missing the entire post Wimbledon 2016 season with a knee injury. All indications are he is 100% and striking the ball cleanly. Familiar foes Murray and Federer could meet in the last eight. Guys like Isner, (10) Tomas Berdych and (5) Kei Nishikori will not make it easy, but I think we do get Federer vs. Murray in the quarters. Federer has won their last three meetings.
The race to oppose the winner of that projected match in the semis is led by Wawrinka who is not playing very well, but that has not stopped him from winning majors before. He has a knack for rising to the occasion.
The other high seeds in this half are (12) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and former surprise U.S. winner Marin Cilic. Neither is in good form right now. While Aussies like Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic cannot be discounted, a Sock/Wawrinka quarterfinal is my pick. Look for young Russian Karen Khachanov as a deep sleeper who could make noise. Semifinal prediction: Murray d. Wawrinka
Bottom half: Djokovic’s Australian dominance is well documented. Again, he will have to be on guard for his opener. Other than that, and a possible round of 16 with a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, there is little that will trouble the Serb until the business end of the event.
It is great to see Nadal heathy again, but it is hard to see him contending for majors outside of the French. Generally speaking, the draw is extremely lopsided, which happens sometimes in Grand Slams. Austrian eight seed Dominic Thiem, Zverev, and American qualifier Reilly Opelka are all stories worth watching, but this half is Djokovic’s to lose. The hard part is picking someone to oppose him in the semis. It will be someone from the group I have mentioned, I will take a flyer on the flashy Frenchman. Semifinal prediction: Djokovic d. Monfils.
Championship match: Djokovic d. Murray for the third year in a row
The Australian Open begins Sunday night a 7 PM ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws on Sunday before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!