By: Ben Lewis
Sportscaster, Sportsnet 590 the Fan, Co-host of the Southpaw Slice tennis podcast
As the first tennis Grand Slam season has dawned upon us, there are a handful of compelling story-lines to peak our interest.
At age 31, Rafael Nadal arrives in Melbourne as the oldest world number 1 in the history of the tour. 36 year-old Roger Federer enters as the Australian Open defending champion, and perennial early tournament favourite, and Novak Djokovic is back following a six month layoff to his most prestigious event (6 time Aussie Open champ).
Despite an absence of Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, the men's field is bustling with many contenders and dangerous players capable of deep runs in the tournament.
Here are five players to follow closely:
Career titles: 4
Best Grand Slam Result: 2015 Australian Open QF, 2014 Wimbledon QF
Kyrgios is a 22 year-old, mercurial, volatile personality who can be an absolute superstar when tennis is peaking his interest. While the Australian has had lukewarm receptions from home crowds in the past, he entered the 2018 season looking exceptionally motivated, winning a hard-court title in Brisbane.
He’s in the top half of the draw, and could face a potential rematch with Grigor Dimitrov, a player he knocked-off in 3 sets just over a week ago.
Kyrgios has all the physical tools on a tennis court to become a Grand Slam champion, the bigger question is if he has the mental resilience to sustain high-level play for two weeks.
Juan Martin del Potro
Career titles: 20
Best Grand Slam Result: 2009 US Open Champion
The gentle giant from Argentina coped with a string of injury plagued years, with a pair of wrist surgeries, but after completing a mostly healthy 2017, DelPo looks poised to take things one step further.
DelPo was the only player last season to win a match over Roger Federer at a Grand Slam event, beating him in a U.S. Open quarterfinal. Once again, he’s lurking in Federer’s quarter, along with other dangerous players like David Goffin, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych.
Possessing one of the world’s most powerful forehands, if del Potro is striking early, he could quickly bust open a draw, and make a deep run.
Country: South Africa
Career titles: 3
Best GS result: 2017 US Open Finalist
The South African may not get bonus points for style and flair on the court, but K-Ando is simply all business when it comes to winning tennis matches. His penchant for work ethic paid off handsomely in 2017, where he reached his first ever Grand Slam final at Flushing Meadows.
Anderson opened 2018 equally strong, winning an exhibition in Abu Dhabi at the Mubadala Classic, and reaching the finals of the Tate Open in India.
With his experience and confidence continuing to build, and his booming serve, expect Anderson to be one of the toughest outs, and a potential quarterfinalist.
Career titles: 6
Best GS result: 4th Round Wimbledon, 2017
Forget calling him one of the best young players on tour, Sascha Zverev is simply one of the world’s best, hands down. The tall, wiry German earn 5 ATP titles in 2017 including two Masters 1000s in Rome and Montreal, and he enters Australia as the fourth-ranked player.
The only thing missing from Zverev’s gaudy resume is a run at a Grand Slam, and some of that last season was bad fortune. He went toe-to-toe with Rafael Nadal in a third round, five-set loss at the Aussie last year, and he also fell to Milos Raonic in a fourth round tilt that went the distance at Wimbledon.
If the stars align (which I think they will), Novak Djokovic and Sascha Zverev could meet in the round of 16. It will be a matchup of perhaps the best two-handed backhands in tennis today, with the youngster having an opportunity to dethrone a legend at his best event.
Career titles: 4
Best GS result: 2017 Australian Open QF, 2016 French Open QF
David Goffin has been one of the tour’s most under the radar talents for the past couple of seasons. At 5'11, 150 pounds, his slight frame may not look intimidating on the court, but the Belgian possesses plenty of weapons to beat any of the world's best. His quick strike groundstrokes can plant opponents on their back foot easily, while his lateral movement is off the charts.
Goffin scored the best win of his career at the London ATP Finals in November, a three-set upset victory over Federer, before falling to Grigor Dimitrov for the title.
After a solid break, he should be fit, confident and poised to carry that memory to Australia. A potential rematch with Federer could be looming in the quarterfinals.
FIRST ROUND MATCHES TO WATCH
Alex de Minaur vs. Tomas Berdych
A native of Australia, 18 year-old Alex de Minaur is on a spectacular, Shapovalov-like run to open his 2018 campaign.
He opened the season with an upset victory over Milos Raonic and carried that to a semifinal appearance in Brisbane. The following week he made his first ATP final in Sydney. Come Monday his ranking will have jumped 81 spots to 127.
He gets a stern test against veteran Tomas Berdych, who opened his season with a win at the Tie Break Tens exhibition.
Berdych in 4 sets
David Ferrer vs. Andrey Rublev
It's a classic teacher vs. pupil matchup. A former world number three, 35 year-old David Ferrer still has the desire and work ethic to drive him to match wins, and he’s coming off a semifinal appearance in Auckland.
Andrey Rublev is a next-Gen Russian star who made a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open last season.
Ferrer in 5 sets
Mischa Zverev vs. Hyeon Chung
Often over-shadowed by his younger brother, Mischa Zverev quietly had an excellent 2017 season, going old-school with his serve and volley approach. He had a stunning upset victory over Andy Murray at the tournament last season.
Hyeon Chung is another exceptional young talent, he finished 2017 with a title at the Next-Gen Finals and will look to dictate rallies from the baseline.
Zverev in 5 sets