As we get to the middle Sunday of the Australian Open 2019, and get ready for the action that ‘matters’, there has already been so much that ‘matters’, and more. The first Slam of the year began with the big question – “Big 3 Continuity” or “Next Gen Arrival at the Majors”?
After week 1, it seems like we are, and at the same time, we are not, any further in answers to such questions. While the Big 3 are still very much in contention to add to their Slam Count, in a week from Sunday, the majority of ‘Next Gen’ hopes also remain alive.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been relatively unchallenged thus far. Federer had more of a test than expected against Evans, with Novak being pushed a little by Tsonga, and dropping a set he never should have, against Shapavalov.
Nadal, the one with the least expected from, among the Big 3, given his injury troubles, has looked probably the sharpest of all, with his revamped serve and explosive forehand. None of this is surprising, and, with more challenging matches ahead, we can still expect all of them around for the semi-final stages.
What is definitely a more interesting analysis is how the ‘Next Gen’ has fared, as we take a look at the winners and losers thus far this week.
The biggest disappointment of the young crop at the Australian Open has been Dominic Thiem, where as the most positive thus far, has been American, Frances Tiafoe.
After a very strong performance in the 2018 clay court season, it was heartening to see what Thiem had in store, on the hard courts. One expected 2019 to be the year, for Thiem to succeed, on the big stage outside of clay.
But, it has been a dismal January for the Austrian, with a second round exit at the Open, coupled with fitness concerns.
At 25 years of age, and having been on the circuit for a few years, one now seriously wonders if Thiem has much success ahead of him, or could soon join the “also rans”.
With the Big 3 looking like playing eternally, and the 20 year olds like Stefanos Tsitsipas and others emerging as strongly as they have, Thiem has a lot to prove in the very near future, to even be in contention.
American Tiafoe, who has under- delivered in recent times, has made the round of 16, upsetting 5th seed South African Kevin Anderson, who himself was in the best form of his career in 2018.
This was the biggest win of Tiafoe’s career, and he could well make it further, into the second week of the Open. With American tennis having a lot of promise in recent times, without a lot of favorable results to evidence, hopes on Tiafoe will continue to increase, given his very young age, talent, and relentless efforts.
Although Karen Khachanov and Nikoloz Basilashvilli did not make it beyond week 1, they continue to impress, and one can see them in latter stages of tournaments, more frequently, in the not too distant future.
The strongest of the Next Gen still remains to be, the much talked about, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, as well as Borna Coric.
Russian Medvedev, has had a strong start again to the year, but it will be a miracle to expect him to go beyond world number 1 Novak Djokovic. It is reassuring for Grigor Dimitrov to be in the second week, but he has also been aided by the luck of the draw.
Tsitsipas continues his very strong rise on the circuit, but would be a tall order for him to beat defending champion Roger Federer in the round of 16. With Lendl in his corner, we can expect Zverev to make it further at the Open than he ever has, which sets him up very well for the rest of 2019.
Coric has made his way to week 2, without much ado, and can be expected to continue to move further.
The round of 16 also has veterans, former slam winners, and unsung heroes, in Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic, and Roberto Bautista Agut. Berdych and Agut continuing their strong form from the ATP 250 in Doha, and Cilic despite a knee injury, recovering and performing well thus far.
Who can we expect of these 16 men in the final 4 come Friday? Can we finally expect a member of the Next Gen in the final 4 of a major?
Given current form, the draw, and the occasion, it will be difficult to pick against the Big 3 for the next two rounds. While Medvedev and Nishikori can definitely challenge Djokovic, the Serb is probably the best big match player there is, and will rise to the occasion against both. Tsitsipas, Cilic, and Agut are gritty, and in form, or getting into form, as the case might be.
Federer will be pushed by all of them, if and when he faces them in the next two rounds. That being said, the Swiss is as comfortable here as anywhere, and should emerge victorious. Nadal is still to be tested, and while it is unknown how well he can play the long matches currently, he should have enough in the tank to beat the likes of Berdych, Dimitrov, and Tiafoe.
2019 will be the year that the “Next Gen” will make the semi finals of a Grand Slam and it will likely begin in Melbourne. After a strong 2018, and with an all court play, coupled with immense grit, expect young Croat Borna Coric to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
Coric has been promising on the circuit for a while, with some very early success against Rafael Nadal, after which he ran into some indifferent form.
With victories against Zverev and Federer (twice) in 2017 and 2018 respectively, as well as his first Masters final, and his first ATP 500 victory, the Croat has matured and is ready for the latter stages. With Frenchman Pouille, and Raonic or Zverev in his way, the Croat will be challenged; but his mental strength and strong game should see him through.