The Australian Open draw could have gone haywire based on where some of the best players in the world were seeded. Everyone knows to whom that statement refers. Rafael Nadal heads into Melbourne as the No. 9 seed, while Roger Federer is all the way down at 17th. In the end, though, the draw turned out to be just about as balanced as possible. Two of the “Big 4” are on each side of the bracket, with Federer and Andy Murray both in the top quarter. But even the one section that lacks a “Big 4” representative has plenty of intrigue in the form of Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and volatile Aussies Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.
As the No. 17 seed, Federer’s placement in the bracket was always going to be the talk of the town. The 17-time Grand Slam champion avoided a potential third-round showdown against Nadal, but he will face Tomas Berdych in the last 32 if both players win their first two matches. That should end up happening in a section riddled with qualifiers, although Berdych may have somewhat of a tough test with either Nicolas Mahut or Ryan Harrison in the second round. Kei Nishikori, if he has recovered from a hip problem that plagued him in the Brisbane final, is a likely opponent for the Federer-Berdych winner in round four.
Murray is a five-time Australian Open runner-up and the new No. 1 player in the world, but he could fly under the radar during the first week as Federer and friends slug it out on the other side of this section. The top-seeded Scot has a favorable road in which he could run into Sam Querrey in round three and either John Isner or Lucas Pouille in the last 16.
Best first-round matchup – Nicolas Almagro vs. Jeremy Chardy
With four Grand Slam finalists in this section of the draw, including two who have combined for 20 major titles, things are going to get real interesting once the third round arrives. In the early stages, though, the pickings are relatively slim. Although Almagro and Chardy are by no means playing the best tennis of their careers these days, this could be a good one. The head-to-head series stands at an alarming 5-0 in favor of Almagro and he is 11-1 in total sets against the Frenchman, but those numbers are hard to explain. If Chardy serves well, he will make it competitive.
Best potential second-round matchup – (19) John Isner vs. Mischa Zverev
Best potential third-round matchup – (10) Tomas Berdych vs. (17) Roger Federer
Possible surprises – Well, Roger Federer is the freaking No. 17 seed at a Grand Slam. How much more surprising can it get? That being said, a couple of unseeded floaters could join Federer and Murray in the fourth round. The older Zverev brother—Mischa—gets overshadowed by the much younger Alexander, but he has been in stellar form since last summer and Isner—his likely second-round opponent—hates playing lefties. The only notable thing Pouille has done since last September is live stream a practice with Federer. On the other side of this section, Nishikori’s once-again questionable health status leaves the door open for Almagro, Chardy, or Andrey Kuznetsov.
Look at draw; see potential fourth-round affair between Wawrinka and Kyrgios; grab popcorn. Of course, it may not happen because the 21-year-old has underwhelmed at times at his home slam and he is heading into this fortnight with a knee injury. The good news for Kyrgios, though, is that his draw through three rounds is outstanding. Gastao Elias should be disposed of on a hard court, Andreas Seppi has disappeared, Paul-Henri Mathieu is on his last legs, and Pablo Cuevas is unimposing as Kyrgios’ nearest seed. As for Wawrinka, his only potential roadblock is Steve Johnson in round two.
Johnson is coming off a semifinal performance in Auckland, where he fell to fellow American and eventual champion Jack Sock. The world No. 23 is on a collision course for the fourth round with Marin Cilic, against whom he took six consecutive sets last summer (in a five-set Davis Cup win and a straight-set rout at the U.S. Open). Sock could, however, meet Karen Khachanov in the second round and Tsonga in the last 32. Cilic vs. Tomic is another possible third-round clash.
Best first-round matchup — (27) Bernard Tomic vs. Thomaz Bellucci
There is, of course, a chance this one could end in retirement. Tomic’s fitness is being called into question and Bellucci, who has an injury history of his own, lost his Sydney opener to Mahut in straight sets. But there is also a chance this could result in a five-set thriller in front of a raucous Australian crowd. Tomic won two five-setters on his way to the fourth round in 2012, and he also advanced that far in 2015 and 2016. Bellucci is an obvious underdog on paper and will have the fans against him, but he leads the head-to-head series 2-1.
Best potential second-round matchup – (4) Stan Wawrinka vs. Steve Johnson
Best potential third-round matchup – (12) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. (23) Jack Sock
Possible surprises — Wawrinka and Tsonga are traditionally outstanding Down Under, but neither one is anything close to unbeatable. This is a draw that sets up nicely for Sock. The only downside is that he has only one day of rest in between the Auckland final and the Aussie first round. But the American’s opener will come against doubles specialist Pierre-Hugues Herbert and a second-rounder against either Khachanov or Adrian Mannarino is manageable. Sock can ease into things before facing Tsonga and then possibly Cilic, against whom he is 2-0 dating back to last summer.
Like Federer, Nadal was at the mercy of the draw with a seed outside the top eight for the first time since the wooly mammoth era. It ended up not costing him too much, aside from a potential third-rounder against Alexander Zverev. Gael Monfils as his possible fourth-round foe and Milos Raonic as his nearest top-four seed has to be considered a win for Nadal at the draw ceremony. Still, an expected second-round date with either Marcos Baghdatis or Mikhail Youzhny (especially Baghdatis) will draw some interest and Zverev also looms large—quite literally.
Arguably the two best unseeded players on the other side of this section (Gilles Muller and Taylor Fritz) have to go head-to-head right off the bat and the winner will likely meet Raonic in round two. That means the unseeded contingent is unlikely to make much noise, thus leaving the spoils to Raonic and Roberto Bautista Agut. No. 25 seed Gilles Simon, though, could have his hands full with up-and-coming American Jared Donaldson in the last 64.
Best first-round matchup — Gilles Muller vs. Taylor Fritz
Muller missed out on a seed by just two ranking sports at No. 34 in the world. The 91st-ranked Fritz is nowhere near being seeded at Grand Slams…yet. At just 19 years old, he already has 16 ATP-level match victories to his credit and a runner-up plate from last season’s tournament in Memphis. Muller currently finds himself in the Sydney title match, so the veteran Luxemborgian will have only two days off in between that match and this one. Fritz did not play either of the first two weeks, so it remains to be seen how he comes out of the gates in 2017.
Best potential second-round matchup – (21) David Ferrer vs. Daniil Medvedev
Best potential third-round matchup – (9) Rafael Nadal vs. (24) Alexander Zverev
Possible surprises — The Nadal-Zverev winner could go for a while, because Monfils’ section of the draw is an injury-plagued disaster. Having to face the 14-time major champion as early as round three is a nightmare for Zverev, but the road opens up significantly for the 19-year-old German if he upsets Nadal or if Nadal gets taken out earlier by Baghdatis or Youzhny. This could be the Grand Slam breakthrough for which Zverev has been waiting.
Other than drawing Fernando Verdasco in the opening round, Djokovic could not have asked for a better setup to his Australian Open title defense. Murray, Federer, and Wawrinka are in the other half, Nadal is in a different quarter, the fourth section of the bracket is by far the weakest. Dominic Thiem, who is the Serb’s 5-8 seed, fared poorly in both Brisbane and Sydney to begin his season. David Goffin, another potential quarterfinal adversary, is 0-5 lifetime against the six-time Aussie champion. Pablo Carreno Busta, Djokovic’s nearest seed, does not have the firepower to be a real threat on a hard court.
The most interesting pod here features Grigor Dimitrov and Richard Gasquet. Dimitrov surged during the second half of 2016 and he is coming off a title in Brisbane. Gasquet has not done much recently, but he remains one of the most talented shot-makers in the game. The Bulgarian and Frenchman could collide in a blockbuster third-rounder, with the winner likely to face Djokovic.
Best first-round matchup — (2) Novak Djokovic vs. Fernando Verdasco
This probably won’t turn out to be the best first-round math in terms of competitiveness, but it is the most intriguing matchup on paper. After all, Djokovic and Verdasco just faced each other in the Doha semifinals and the Spaniard had five match points—including quadruple set point in the second-set tiebreaker—only to fall 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-3. Verdasco is also no stranger to first-round upsets Down Under, as he won a five-set thriller against Nadal right off the bat last year. Needless to say, though, Djokovic will be locked in from the very start of this tournament knowing the danger Verdasco presents.
Best potential second-round matchup – (8) Dominic Thiem vs. Joao Sousa
Best potential third-round matchup – (15) Grigor Dimitrov vs. (18) Richard Gasquet
Possible surprises — Djokovic should be able to take care of business in his half of this section, but who knows who he will face in the quarterfinals? A much-needed offseason does not seem to have done Thiem any good, and Goffin has excelled of late only at unofficial tournaments (Abu Dhabi and the Kooyong Classic). Any unseeded player in the Thiem-Goffin eighth has to like his chances of making a run. The most likely candidates are Sousa and—mainly because has a great draw—Benoit Paire.