Australian Open 2020 Men’s Preview: The Contenders

Hannah Wilks:

The 2020 Australian Open begins on Monday 20 January: Defending champion Novak Djokovic will be joined by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the rest of the world’s best to battle for the men’s singles title. Who are the top favourites and how do our analysts rate their chances?

We take a look at the top 10 favourites for the men’s singles title at the 2020 Australian Open and rate their chances.

1. Novak Djokovic, 5/4 @ bet365
It’s no surprise to see seven-time champion Djokovic topping the list of the favourites for outright winner of the men’s singles at the Australian Open.

Undefeated in Australian Open finals and the only man ever to win seven titles at the ‘Happy Slam’, Djokovic re-established his reign in Melbourne last year after a two-year hiatus, dropping sets to Daniil Medvedev and Denis Shapovalov earlier in the tournament but getting better with each round until he absolutely crushed Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the final.

Although Djokovic did go on to win Wimbledon in 2019, he did not have things all his own way for the rest of the season. He was unable to prevent Nadal from taking and holding the no. 1 ranking at the end of the year after poorer-than-expected performances at hard-court events like Indian Wells, Miami and the US Open, where the same elbow/arm issue that has blighted the past couple of seasons for him led to a retirement.

The world No. 2 has sent out an early statement in 2020, spearheading Serbia to victory in the inaugural ATP Cup. Djokovic won all six of his singles matches, beating fellow Melbourne contenders Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal along the way. He was particularly impressive against Nadal, taking down his great rival 6-2 7-6 in a performance not too dissimilar to his crushing win over the Spaniard in the Australian Open final last season.

The Serbian was initially scheduled to play in Adelaide as part of his preparations for the Australian Open, but he sensibly withdrew from that tournament following his exertions at the ATP Cup. He looked like a man on a mission in his opening tournament of the season. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the field.

2. Rafael Nadal, 4/1 @ bet365
Since winning the Australian Open in 2009, Nadal has had some bad luck in Melbourne, making four subsequent finals but being unable to lift the trophy again.

Nadal had a brilliant 2019 season, winning a twelfth French Open, bringing his overall Grand Slam haul to 19 (within touching distance of Roger Federer’s record 20) and ending the year world no. 1. But if you look at the last few years of the 33-year-old’s career, a year that he has played over 60 matches (64 in 2019) has been followed by a year impacted by injury to one degree or another.

Still one of the absolute best in the world, Nadal’s physical frailties do make him a bit of a chancy bet. You have to be sure that no one is going to be able to work him hard enough in the early rounds that when it gets to the semifinal/final stages, he’ll be able to beat (likely) Djokovic – something he hasn’t done at a hard-court Grand Slam since the 2013 US Open. His latest defeat to Djokovic at the ATP Cup was not particularly encouraging.

Overall, Nadal was not quite at his very best at the ATP Cup. He struggled to get over the line against Nikoloz Basilashvili, was pushed hard by Yoshihito Nishioka, lost to David Goffin, and of course, fell to Djokovic. Still, Nadal has so much Grand Slam credit in the bank that he remains a reasonably good bet.

If Djokovic miraculously go out before those final stages, Nadal would be the prohibitive favourite for the title (as he was at the US Open last year). Nevertheless, Nadal’s body is still as likely to let him down as not.

3. Daniil Medvedev, 8/1 @ bet365
Russia’s Daniil Medvedev staked his claim to be considered the best of the up-and-comers with his incredible 2019 season, most especially his late-summer run of reaching six consecutive finals, winning four of them (including maiden Masters 1000 Series titles in Cincinnati and Shanghai) and finishing runner-up to Rafael Nadal in a memorable US Open final where he pushed the Spaniard to his limits.

One of only two men to take a set from Djokovic at last year’s Australian Open, Medvedev’s defensive, maddening, junk-balling game is a difficult one to overcome, coupled as it is by his ability to generate sizzling pace and serve extremely effectively. But the Russian is extremely temperamental, and the way that he lost the last four matches of the 2019 season reminds us that he is still an unknown quantity as a top seed. Medvedev is still too prone to meltdowns and defeats from winning positions to be a reliable pick.

Having said that, he does have this amazing ability to find his best form in adversity, which makes him even more confusing! This was evident during that US Open run, when he rode a pantomime villain status all the way to the final. He seemed to run out of steam towards the end of last season, but he’s made a good start to 2020, winning four of his five ATP Cup singles matches. His only defeat was against Djokovic, but he did push the Serbian to three sets in an early match-of-the-year contender.

4. Roger Federer, 9/ [email protected] bet365
After winning his fifth and sixth Australian Open titles in 2017-18, Federer’s winning run Down Under was snapped by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the round of 16 in Melbourne last year in a match in which Federer let 13 break points go unconverted – not unlike the way he lost to Tsitsipas in the semifinals of the ATP Finals at the end of the year.

Federer, now 38 and with Nadal breathing heavily down his neck for the overall Grand Slam record, is more prone to losing matches he should perhaps have won than ever – but he’s also still no. 3 in the world and was twice one point away from winning Wimbledon in July.

He needs a little luck from the draw, and it’s certainly very difficult to imagine him overcoming two serious challengers in a row – but how many serious challengers over the best-of-five sets are there in the draw, really? Federer pulled out of the ATP Cup, which means he should be relatively fresh for the Australian Open.

Melbourne suits his preferred aggressive tennis and if he’s going to pick up a 21st Grand Slam title, it may well be here – as long as he doesn’t have to face Djokovic.

5. Stefanos Tsitsipas, 10/1 @ bet365
Greece’s Tsitsipas announced himself as a top player when he beat Federer in four sets at the Australian Open in 2019, going on to reach the semifinals; in 2020 he will come in as one of the top seeds after having ended the 2019 season as the world no. 6 and the Nitto ATP Finals champion.

As Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev have separately discovered over the past few years, it can be difficult to live up to the enhanced expectations that come with an ATP Finals win, and we should remember that Tsitsipas lost in the first round of two of last year’s four majors, as well as going on a five-match losing streak in the summer. In addition to Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, Medvedev can be an issue for Tsitsipas, and the Greek still looks a bit vulnerable to being thrown off by an unlucky or tough draw (like having to face Andrey Rublev in the first round at the US Open).

He had a mixed ATP Cup campaign, beating Alexander Zverev, but losing two tight matches to Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios. He’s got the ambition, but is the Australian Open too soon for him to deliver?

6. Dominic Thiem, 16/1 @ bet365
Two-time French Open finalist Thiem made incredible strides on hard courts in 2019, winning Indian Wells, Beijing and Tokyo and reaching the final of the ATP Finals with wins over Federer, Djokovic and Zverev. As Federer suggested at the ATP Finals, the 26-year-old Austrian is really coming into his prime now and looks ready to be a Grand Slam champion – but in Melbourne?

Thiem has yet to reach a quarterfinal at the Australian Open, and although he was sidelined by illness in 2019, he’s been losing to the likes of David Goffin (twice) and Tennys Sandgren. I’m not sure that as good as he is, the conditions in Melbourne really suit him physically or in terms of his game style.

He has not exactly hit the ground running in 2020, losing to Borna Coric and Hurbert Hurkacz at the ATP Cup. You just get the sense that he remains vulnerable against these types of opponents. Thiem may well break through as a major champion in 2020, but it will be at Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows, not Melbourne Park.

7. Nick Kyrgios, 22/1 @ bet365
Now we are getting into dark horse territory, and this is a very distant shout. Kyrgios is one of the most superbly talented players it will ever be our good fortune to encounter, but he completely lacks the physical stamina and mental discipline required to win seven best-of-five matches over two weeks. He’ll flame out in week one, then be papped in a nightclub. Find the best odds on that.

8. Alexander Zverev, 28/1 @ bet365
It’s difficult to know what to expect from Zverev in 2020 after his very difficult season in 2019. From the evidence of the ATP Cup, it could be a difficult year for the German. Zverev lost all of his three matches at the team event, falling to Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex De Minaur. He looked desperately sorry for himself at times, as the serving troubles that bothered him last year resurfaced again. It wasn’t just the defeats that were troubling, but the manner of the losses. He fell away after blowing a lead against De Minaur, and was played off the park by Tsitsipas and Shapovalov.

The lanky German was troubled principally by off-court concerns in 2019 and still did well enough to get back to the ATP Finals – and make a decent fist of defending his title, reaching the semifinals before losing to Thiem – but he still hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a major anywhere except the French Open, and has never remotely looked like a threat to win one. With Zverev still dogged by a tendency to hang back behind the baseline, trade passively and attempt to grind down opponents rather than having a disciplined and aggressive approach, there are too many players in the draw that can drag him into long, draining early-round battles – and certainly too many that can beat him.

9. Alex De Minaur, 40/1 @ bet365
Well, someone has to be ninth favourite, no? But Alex De Minaur isn’t going to win the Australian Open, is he? De Minaur has improved a lot over last few seasons, and has rightly taken his place inside the world’s top 20. His default style is to grind his opponents down, but he has added extra layers of offence to his game, beefing up his serve and taking the ball early. The tenacious Aussie will pour his heart out and is good enough to battle into the second week, but the fear is that he may run into someone that will redline his game and hit him off the court. There’s also the small matter of the Big 3. He may have to face Federer, Djokovic or Nadal as early the third round in Melbourne.

10. Denis Shapovalov, 40/1 @ bet365
The general belief is that Shapovalov is a future Grand Slam champion, along with the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime, but the 2020 Australian Open has surely come too soon for the young Canadian. Shapovalov has got the explosive shot-making to take out anyone, but he has only just begun to find a bit of consistency, and is unproven at Grand Slam level. His best major performance was his fourth round run at the 2017 US Open.