World number two Novak Djokovic got his 2017 season off to the best possible start by defending the Doha title last week. The win was made even sweeter as he defeated world number one Andy Murray in a pulsating final 6-3 5-7 6-4, which also ended Murray’s 28 match winning streak in the process. Doha was Djokovic’s 67th title win in total and he will now prepare for the defence of his Australian Open title, which he’s won six times, and the first Grand Slam of the 2017 season commences on the 16th January.
Top seed Milos Raonic failed to defend his Brisbane title last week, losing to eventual winner and seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov for the fourth time (head-to-head 4-1 to Dimitrov) in his career. Dimitrov went on to win the title beating third seed Nishikori for the first time (head-to-head 3-1 to Nishikori) in the final 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, and this was Dimitrov’s first ATP title win since 2014, when he won three in total at Acapulco, Bucharest and Queens. The Brisbane win hopefully marks a turning point in the 25-year-old’s career after a disappointing couple of seasons and it’s safe to say that, prior to last week, the burden of pressure and expectation clearly weighed heavily on his young shoulders.
At Chennai, the unseeded NextGen star Daniil Medvedev, aged 20, contested his first ATP Final against the experienced and talented world number 14 Bautista Agut yesterday and the second seed bucked the trend of second seeds performing poorly over the last decade to land his first Chennai title and fifth ATP title of his career.
On to this week’s action and there are two ATP 250 tournaments being played in Sydney and Auckland, which both get underway in the early hours of Sunday and Monday morning. With both tournaments being played the week before the Australian Open they have a history of throwing up surprises and big priced winners and this has occurred most frequently at Sydney over the last decade.
The top two seeds don't have a good record at Sydney over the last decade; the top seed has won the title once in this period (in 2014) and they have never been a losing finalist. The second seed has an even worse record having never won the title, or made the final in this period. This does not bode well for top-seed Dominic Thiem or second seed Pablo Cuevas's chances this week and both can be easily opposed based on these statistics.
Seeded players, in general, have a better record winni ng four of the last ten titles (last third seed Troicki 2016), and they were a losing finalist twice in this period (last fourth seed Dimitrov 2016). Unseeded players have a very good record at Sydney winning six of the last ten titles (last time Qualifier Troicki 2015) and they were a losing finalist seven times in this period (last time qualifier Kukushkin 2015).
The seeded players who may buck the trend this year are defending champion and third seed Victor Troicki, who is aiming for a third consecutive Sydney title this week and fourth seed Carreno-Busta. You may remember this time last year I highlighted Troicki as a potential seed winner at Sydney (At the prices Troicki would appeal the most at 16/1 compared to 4/1 for Dimitrov). However, unfortunately, I opted to go with unseeded players based on past statistics.
While it's s tatistically unlikely Troicki will win a third Sydney title this week, he is situated in the weaker bottom half of the draw and, with a couple of competitive matches under his belt from last week at Brisbane, it’s worth taking the risk as he is 100% fit and should be well primed for the defence of his title this week. Also, the conditions at Sydney clearly suit his game very well (winner 2015, 2016 and finalist 2011), and he also has winning form against some of the main dangers in his half of the draw like, second seed Cuevas, sixth seed Muller, fifth seed Kohlschreiber and the unseeded Dolgopolov and Mayer.
One other seed that has to be respected this week is fourth seed Carreno-Busta, who established himself as a top player in 2016, winning two titles on hard courts at Winston-Salem and indoors at Moscow. He also reached two finals on clay at Sao Paulo and Estoril. He will have to overcome some experienced opponents on route to the final from the top half of the draw with the likes of top-seed Thiem, seventh seed Klizan and unseeded players like Verdasco, Almagro, Paire and Zverev all potentially lying in wait. However, his 2016 form suggests he is capable of overcoming this challenge and he should be well primed for a serious shot at the title this week having won the doubles title with Fognini at Doha on Saturday, and with that in mind, he is worth siding with this week at decent odds.
There are a handful of unseeded players who fit the profile of potential finalist and winners this week, like veteran Verdasco and NextGen stars Edmund and Australian Wild Card Kokkinakis. All three impressed last week at Doha and Brisbane respectively. Verdasco reached the semi-finals at Doha, where he pushed eventual Djokovic very close losing 4-6, 7-6, 6-3. Edmund reached the quarter-finals at Brisbane where he just lost out against world number four Wawrinka 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 and Wild Card Kokkinakis, who returns to the ATP Tour this season after missing 2016 due to injury, won the Brisbane doubles title with compatriot Thompson last week, which suggests he's in top form and is over the injuries that kept him out of action last season.
Of the three, Verdasco (11/1) appeals the most based on his form last week while it would be great to see Edmund reach his first ATP final this week and it's surely going to happen at some stage in 2017. I'm also looking forward to seeing Kokkanakis re-start his singles career this season as he was one of the hottest young NextGen properties around prior to his injury in 2015.
Over in Auckland, four-time winner and third seed David Ferrer returns to try and win a record fifth title at the tournament, while two-time winner and second seed John Isner and defending champion and top-seed this week Bautista Agut, also return for a shot at a third and second title respectively. The top-two seeds at Auckland have experienced mixed fortunes over the last decade, the top-seed has won four of the last ten titles (last Ferrer 2013) and they were a losing finalist once in this period (2007).
The second seed has a very poor record at Auckland having never won the title over the last decade and they have been a losing finalist only once in this period (2013), which does not bode well for 2010 and 2014 winner Isner’s chances this week. Seeded players, in general, have a strong record at Auckland and a player seeded no higher than eight won 8 of the last ten titles (last 2016 Bautista Agut seeded 8) and they were a losing finalist five times in this period (last time second seed 2013). An unseeded player has won two of the last ten titles (last 2015 Vesely qualifier) and they were a losing finalist five times in this period, including the last three seasons (last 2016 Sock).
It’s a big ask for top-seed Bautista Agut (6/1) to defend his titles this week having won the title at Chennai on Sunday but he will get plenty of time to recover and prepare for his challenge this week, as the top-seed does not usually commence their tournament until midweek. However, he still has a number of potentially tough matches on route to the final with the likes of third seed Ferrer, fifth seed Ramos-Vinolas and unseeded players like 2015 winner and finalist Vesely and Mannarino lying in wait.
The bottom-half of the draw looks to be set up nicely for 2016 finalist Sock (5/1) to repeat his run here last year. The young American arrives in good form having helped the USA reach the final of the Hopman Cup last week (lost to France in final). There are a few unseeded players who could do well this week like Mannarino and Khachanov and, of the two, Mannarino (22/1) appeals the most as he’s got winning form against top seed Bautista Agut, he reached the final here in 2015 and he warmed up well for this week winning the Noumea Challenger tournament in New Caledonia on Saturday.