The eagerly anticipated first Grand Slam of the season, the Australian Open, gets underway at Melbourne at midnight tonight. Second seed Novak Djokovic is going for a record seventh Australian Open crown this year and is the marginal favourite (best priced 7/5) to win a third consecutive title for the second time in the last seven seasons. However, it should be noted that the second seed has never won the title over the last decade and they have been a losing finalist four times in this period (last Murray 2016). Djokovic has won five of his six titles as the top-seed and the other as a lower seed.
The top seed has won eight of the last ten titles at Melbourne Park (last Djokovic 2016), including seven of the last eight, which bodes well for Murray’s chances this year. No other player would be more deserving of winning this year's title having been a losing finalist five times over the last seven seasons and, if he does win, it will move him one step closer to completing the Career Grand Slam, which will no doubt be one of the few remaining goals he would like to achieve before retiring. If Murray does win this year’s title he will definitely have to do it the hard way as his half of the draw is packed full of major challenges including nine top 20 players, including three of the world’s top seven players.
Murray should reach the fourth round without too much drama but his first major challenge could well come at the quarter-final stage as fifth seed Nishikori, tenth seed Berdych and the four-time winner Federer (seeded 17) are all potential opponents. Of the trio, Murray will want to avoid Federer as he’s lost his last six competitive matches against him between 2014 and 2015 and all were big matches at Grand Slams and Masters Series events at the quarter or semi-final stages. In addition, he’s lost two of their three matches at the Australian Open, including at the quarter-final stage in 2014.
I believe he will overcome these hurdles as I don’t see Federer beating Murray over the best of five sets after such a long injury lay-off, Nishikori has never played his best at this tournament and Berdych has never really troubled Murray for a good number of seasons now. However, Murray may still have to dig deep even further with the likes of 2014 winner Wawrinka (seeded 4), 2010 semi-finalist Cilic (7), 2008 finalist Tsonga (12) and home hope Kyrgios (14) all potential semi-final opponents.
Murray will want to avoid Wawrinka based on previous encounters as well as Wawrinka’s record at Grand Slams over the last few seasons and the Swiss number one is my idea of the Second Quarter winner and Murray’s semi-final opponent. While I will be cheering Murray on all the way to win his first title from a patriotic perspective it’s hard to ignore Wawrinka (16/1) from an outright perspective. Statistically, history is on Wawrinka’s side with a seeded player no higher than eight winning the last ten titles and a player seeded no higher than ten was a losing finalist nine times during this period. He’s also coming in under the radar again, has definitely still got what it takes to win more Slams (as his US Open win proves) and, along with Cilic, he’s the only player to break Djokovic’s and Murray’s stranglehold on the Grand Slams over the last few seasons.
The bottom half of the draw is headed by second seed Djokovic and, while it’s hard to look past him having won five of the last six titles, I’m not convinced he is the same player this time round having lost his number one ranking. He will have to overcome a number of potentially tough early challenges as well this year with Verdasco in the first round, Carreno-Busta (seeded 30) or Kyle Edmunds at the third round stage and then possibly Dimitrov (15) or Gasquet (18) in the fourth round. Also, as mentioned above, the second seed has not won the title over the last decade and with that in mind I’m happy to oppose him on this occasion.
I highlighted Dimitrov at (66/1) in Friday’s article after his impressive win at Brisbane, which proved to be a good springboard for Raonic last year. It’s not ideal that he’s drawn to meet Djokovic at the fourth round stage and he will have to overcome the potential challenge of Gasquet first, who he has a 5-1 losing head-to-head record against. However, he beat Gasquet at Shanghai at the end of last season in straight sets and I believe this could be his breakthrough season as he looked in excellent physical condition at Brisbane last week and looked more like the player who broke into the top10 or the first time back in 2014.
Dimitrov still has the talent and potential to win grand slams and, with Djokovic still looking vulnerable, I’m happy to side with the young Bulgarian who is overpriced in my opinion. Third seed Milos Raonic (5/2) heads the third quarter of the draw and he’s joint favourite to win it along with ninth seed Nadal. Raonic has the easier section of the third quarter with only 15th seed Bautista Agut in the top 20 and he leads their head-to-head 4-0. Nadal has a tougher section with the likes of sixth seed Monfils and 24th Next Gen star Zverev both potentially lying in wait and, with Raonic beating Nadal at Brisbane at the start of the year, he’s my idea of the third quarter winner.
The women’s tournament has been dominated by the top seven seeds over the last decade and a player seeded no higher than seven has won the last nine titles and a player seeded no higher than nine was a losing finalist eight times in this period. I’m comfortable opposing second seed Serena Williams this year as the second seed has won only one of the last ten titles (Serena in 2009) and was a losing finalist only once in this period (last time 2015 Sharapova). The top seed has won three of the last ten titles (last time 2015 Serena) and was a losing finalist twice in this period (last time 2016 Serena).
Defending champion and world number one Kerber (9/2) is the second favourite behind Serena this year. She will be a popular choice to defend her title having added the US Open title to her resume and establishing herself as the best player in the world. She has plenty of potential challengers for her crown from her half of the draw with the likes of fourth seed Halep, French Open champion Muguruza (seeded 7), eighth seed Kuznetsova, tenth seed Suarez Navarro, 11th seed Svitolina, 19th seed Bertens and Olympic Champion Puig all in her half of the draw.
However, none of these players has performed particularly well at the Australian Open in the past and, with that in mind, it's worth backing Kerber to defend her title. As the statistics are not on Serena’s side this year as the second seed I’m happy to oppose her from the bottom half of the draw and my idea of the of the player to capitalise is fifth seed and 2016 US Open finalist Pliskova (9/1), who prepared perfectly for an assault on this year’s championships by winning the Brisbane title at the start of the year.