Last Updated: 2019-01-13
Tennis season is back in a big way! The season gets its unofficial jumpstart on Sunday with the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season.
Just about every player on tour shoots to be healthy for this early measuring stick and this field is, therefore, loaded. The only notable names, and the only two from the top 50, absent from this tournament are Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet. Everyone else is present and accounted for, ready to fight for the first big trophy of 2019.
This tournament is, of course, famously a tournament won by chalk numbers and big names — Novak Djokovic has won it six times and Roger Federer has won it six times; Stan Wawrinka, Rafa Nadal, and Marat Safin each won it once. That’s it. The past fifteen (15!!!) Aussie Open’s have been divided between five guys. Not even the finalists provide optimism for a Cinderella story; Andy Murray has been runner-up five times, Nadal has been a runner-up three times and Federer once. Sad times for parity.
Let’s break down this season’s field and see if we can’t buck tradition:
We’re going to do this the traditional way, and go quarter by quarter because there are some interesting stories to digest.
The first quarter is obviously dominated by the reigning king of the jungle in tennis, Novak Djokovic. Djoker won the last two Grand Slams of 2018, re-establishing himself as a force in the sport, after almost two years in the wilderness with family issues, questionable desire and elbow problems. His price is ridiculously low, at +120, and it’s pretty hard to recommend. The major concern would be Djoker’s recent results in big spots. They weren’t majors but, Djoker has lost his last three tournaments, in the business end of the week. He lost the final in Paris to Karen Khachanov, he lost in the last match of the Tour Finals to Alex Zverev, and he lost in the semis last week to Roberto Bautista Agut. Those are three pretty good players; it could be a letdown from winning Wimbledon AND the U.S. Open, and they were big spots. So, maybe they are excusable losses and he will come into Melbourne healthy and motivated to roll.
The concerns are probably big enough that avoiding a +120 favorite is prudent. Instead, look at some of the potential roadblocks to Djokovic. Jo Tsonga is still getting his sea-legs under him after missing a huge junk of 2018. But, he has beaten Djokovic six times (of course he’s lost sixteen times too) and that is more than most people on tour. Tsonga has the big, accurate serve and strong forehand that could give Djokovic trouble, a la Wawrinka or Federer. Tsonga is a whopping 125/1.
Daniil Medvedev is available between 80/1 and 100/1 depending on where you shop for lines. He was routined by Djokovic both times they played but, that was two years ago now. Medvedev had an incredible 2018, winning four titles. It’s hard to say he is ready to topple the alpha lion but, if Djoker is not 100% it may be possible.
The last big name in the top quarter is Kei Nishikori. He is priced, more reasonably, at 25/1. Nishikori is in perfect form, winning a title in the first week of the season and doing so against a solid cast of characters, including the aforementioned Medvedev as well as Grigor Dimitrov. Kei also made two finals during the Asian Swing in 2018, so his form can’t be questioned. As with just about everyone else on tour, Nishikori really struggles with Djokovic. He is 2–16 against the Serb. Much like Medvedev, Nishikori is simply a lesser version of Djokovic and that makes pulling off the upset pretty difficult.
The biggest roadblock may turn out to be a hard serving, healthy Tsonga. Otherwise, this could just be a Djoker cakewalk to the semis. It’s advisable to skip to this quarter.
The second quarter is highlighted by German wunderkind Alex Zverev. He also may be ailing. If Zverev is playing possum, this could finally, finally be the end of the Big Four. If Zverev is physically unfit, this is the wildcard quarter because almost every other big named contender in this quarter has flaws.
Hyeon Chung has had serious foot, and subsequent ankle, issues since his breakout at last years Aussie. Stan Wawrinka is climbing back to contender status but, still seems a ways away after major knee surgery. Nick Kyrgios is continually inconsistent. Milos Raonic would appear to be made of glass and he hasn’t made it past a quarter-final since his 2016 Wimbledon runner-up finish (one thing to note with Raonic, like Wimbledon, the fast Aussie courts should suit his game should you fancy his price). Borna Coric has, like Zverev, yet to make an impact at a Slam and he neglected to play any tour level warm-up events, which is concerning. Lastly, Dominic Thiem is the second big seed in the quarter. He is much more suited to slower courts, as seen by his performances at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows. This quarter is ripe for the “sleeper” pick or the Cinderella story.
The player that sticks out, based on draw and price is Marton Fucsovics. Granted, he has never really done anything at Slams but, his one successful tournament was here last year when he rolled through to the fourth round before running into Federer. There is no Federer this time. The big seed in Fucs’ section of the quarter is Thiem in the fourth round. That would be followed by a quarter-final with say, Zverev or Wawrinka or Raonic. Well, there is no guarantee Thiem is not going to get upset before the fourth rd. He has only been to the fourth round twice in his career at the Aussie and he has never made a quarter-final. Wawrinka and Raonic, as above, both have injury history. Fucsovics may have to play Coric in the second round but, again, Coric hasn’t played on the tour yet in 2019 and Coric may not even get by his first round opponent, Steve Darcis. Imagine Darcis upsets Coric (Darcis had a wonderful run in Pune, making the semis and almost upsetting Karlovic), Fucs might have a path that looks like Ramos-Vinolas, Darcis, Cecchinato. Then he is in the fourth round and you are rolling the dice with a 400/1 shot! It’s worth a look.
The third quarter is potentially the most exciting. Marin Cilic, Roger Federer, Karen Khachanov, Bautista-Agut, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Andrey Rublev. It is loaded. This is a tough quarter to break down because these guys are all monsters. Federer’s price is probably too low, given his performance in the second half of 2018. Cilic, likewise, did not have a stellar second half of 2018, after being shocked at Wimbledon, and his price is also a tad low, considering. So, probably not best to take one of the two big boys (though if you had to choose, take Cilic just based on 25/1 vs 4/1).
Bautista-Agut and Rublv probably don’t have the game to hang with the cream of the crop on a regular basis and it is hard to believe they could string together seven straight matches (RBA has never been past the fourth rd of ANY Slam in 10 years on tour; Rublev had a breakout run to the quarters in New York in 2017 but, otherwise has been round one or round two cannon fodder in every Slam).
That leaves Tsitsipas and Khachanov. Both had breakout 2018’s and both are future permanent top 10 talents. They are in opposite sections of the quarter and have similar paths, so there is no draw advanatge (KK will have to go Cilic-Fed and Tsitty will have to go Fed-Cilic). Khachanov’s price has been severely depressed by his success in Paris and he is down to 25/1. That is still an interesting number and is the recommendation here (if you follow the author of this column on Twitter, you will know this price was nabbed at 66/1 in November).
The fourth quarter may be, despite the star power in the third quarter, the location of the tournaments fireworks. Nadal headlines the bottom half but, as usual, he is carrying some sort of injury. He has famously pulled out of five of his last six hard court tournaments in the last two years (the amazing exception being his 2018 title in Toronto, the one tournament he DID complete). So, let’s assume Nadal is less than 100% (because if he is healthy this is all probably moot).
Grigor Dimitrov started the season very well. He fought a lengthy three setter with Kei Nishikori, who went on to win the Brisbane title. If Grigor prevails there, he also probably wins that title and we’re instead talking about how hot Grigor came into 2019. He has a new coach in Andre Agassi and he has an amazing record in Melbourne — two semis and a quarterfinal in the last few years. Dimitrov has a juicy price of 40/1 (shop around, it can be had higher) and is worth a shot at, at least, a half a unit. He will have to face big servers in John Isner and Kevin Anderson but, he has a favourable record against both men and Isner looked terrible in Auckland, while Anderson was a first round casualty here in 2018. Dimitrov’s first two matches are against cupcakes, so he should have plenty of opportunity to get into the groove before he has to go Isner-Anderson-Nadal-Federer-Djokovic. It is obviously highly doubtful (improbable, really) that he could beat those last three names in succession but, should one or more falter this may finally be Grigor’s time. Also, 40/1 should start to be hedgeable in the quarter-final.
A second option, with a similar thought process, is Alex DeMinaur. He is coming off a title in Sydney and may be a little fatigued but, his draw is sweet and, again, if Nadal is less than 100% it only gets better. DeMinaur’s first two matches are easily winnable and with a price like 80/1 (or better; again if you follow the author of this article, 100/ 1 was nabbed two days ago) there will be options. It’s worth a tiny bet.
A final option is Thomas Berdych. Berdych has been in career purgatory for a while now. He returned last week in Doha, after a lengthy absence from the tour, and looked stunning. He made the final before succumbing to Bautista-Agut. Berdych has an amazing record in Melbourne, having made FIVE quarter-finals (including last year) and two further semis-finals. He has basically been in Grand Slam-only mode for a few years now, as a Slam title is the only thing really missing from his resume. He should be uber-motivated and he looks in good form. At 100/1 this is worth some lunch money.
Khachanov 25/1, x0.5
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Dimitrov 40/1, x1
DeMinaur 80/1, x0.25
Berdych 100/1, x0.25
Fucsovics 400/1, x0.1