Damien Kayat comprehensively previews the 2022 Men's Australian Open, looking at the Djokovic saga, the favourites, the dark horses and more!
2022 ATP Tour
Grand Slam Tennis
Australian Open Men’s Preview
Melbourne Park, Australia
The Serbian elephant in the room
Let’s just deal with the huge Serbian elephant in the room. Because there’s a distinct possibility that this year’s entire Aussie Open is going to be sacrificed on the altar of the Novak Djokovic saga.
Djokovic is a three-time defending champion who is looking to win a record-extending 10th Aussie Open title (not to mention the fact that he and Rafa are currently sitting equal alongside Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles).
A true ambassador for the game, Djokovic’s place in the annals of tennis history is unimpeachable. Or is it? The level of selfishness that he has displayed over the last year has been astounding.
An avowed vaccine sceptic, Djokovic’s attempts to finagle his way into Australia unvaccinated has created a media frenzy ahead of this year’s first Grand Slam. Claiming a medical exemption due to a supposed positive Covid test, questions about the authenticity of this positive test have started to emerge.
From my perspective it’s simple: what makes Novak Djokovic so special that he can’t abide by the same rule that every other player has adhered to? It also frustrates me how he has become the rebel hero of the anti-vaxxer mob, fighting for our individual freedoms in an age of ever-increasing draconian law.
Please. Vaccines are the path towards regaining our pre-Covid bubble. Not consistently flaunting Covid guidelines at nightclubs while a deadly pandemic is sweeping the world.
At this point in time, it looks pretty much nailed-on that Djokovic is going to be excluded from this event (although much can change in an hour during this farce). I’m going to write this preview under the assumption that he won’t compete.
Djokovic came within an inch of capturing a glorious calendar Slam in 2021. But his dominance of this event has been absolute. Could we possibly witness a brand-new Grand Slam champion at this year’s Aussie Open?
Australian Govt. is still yet to announce their decision on #Djokovic. This has caused the delays seen today with the #AusOpen draw. Huge ramifications on the draw if Djokovic is booted out of Australia - which is the expected outcome. How poorly has this whole saga been handled?— Dan Clark (@DanClarkSports) January 13, 2022
The Favourites: Nadal, Medvedev and Zverev
Rafa has started the year in fine style, capturing his 10th ATP 250 title in Melbourne. It’s hard to gauge his exact level given the relatively routine nature of that draw.
Nadal hasn’t won the Aussie Open since 2009. He actually hasn’t competed in Grand Slam tennis since that harrowing French Open semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic.
I don’t think that Rafa is going to be a huge factor this year. Yes, I know that sounds crazy given the fact that he is likely to be the only member of the ‘Big Three’ in attendance. But the courts were resurfaced last year and played considerably faster.
His quarterfinal defeat to Tsitsipas last year was no fluke. The physical demands of this event- coupled with the quicker conditions- will put Nadal at a big disadvantage.
Danil Medvedev is clearly going into this event as a major candidate for the title. He ended Djokovic’s calendar Grand Slam bid with an emphatic straight-sets victory in last year’s US Open final.
That made it 3rd time lucky for the Russian in Grand Slam finals. It was also sweet revenge for Medvedev following his straight-sets final defeat in last year’s Aussie Open final.
Medvedev seemed to thrive in the quicker conditions last year. He finished the year in strong fashion, losing in the finals of both the Paris Masters and ATP Finals. It’s strange. Obviously, he will have been thrilled with claiming that maiden Slam.
But he didn’t have anywhere near the consistent dominance he had shown during the North-American hardcourt swing of 2019. He also has the odd shocker in him (evidenced by his opening 2022 loss to Ugo Humbert at the ATP Cup).
He won the rest of his ATP Cup matches and he will clearly be a major player this week.
Of the three favourites this week… I think Alex Zverev would be my pick to take the title. The 24-year-old German has long been touted as the potential successor to the Big Three’s mantle.
But he seemed to lack the physicality to be a consistent threat in Grand Slam events. His gangly physique would often wilt during the latter stages of Slams. Over the course of the past two seasons, he has worked tirelessly on becoming more physically resilient.
This paid rich dividends when he reached his first Grand Slam final at the 2020 US Open. 2021 proved to be his best year yet- especially during the back end. He won six titles including the Olympics and the ATP Finals.
He seems to have found an added ruthlessness to his game over the past 18 months. He serves more aces and doesn’t fold under the pressure from the bigger hitters. He has managed to navigate some major off-court controversy and remain singularly focused on improving his game.
I really think he is ready to step into the shoes of his great contemporaries.
The would-be usurpers: Berrettini and Auger Aliassime
Which players lurking just below favourite status have the best chance this week? Tsitsipas- a two-time Aussie Open semi-finalist- has been in poor form throughout the last six months. I’m also not quite convinced that Andrey Rublev has the minerals for a concerted Grand Slam push. I can say the same for the likes of Sinner, Hurkacz and Rudd. But there are two other payers ranked inside the top 10 who interest me.
Matteo Berrettini enjoyed a stellar 2021 campaign, solidifying his reputation as one of the biggest Grand Slam threats out there. He rose to prominence with a semi-final run at the 2019 US Open.
He went one step better last year, making it all the way to the Championship match at Wimbledon. Additionally, he also made the quarterfinals of both the French and US Opens.
Interestingly, it took Novak Djokovic to eliminate him from all three of those events. He looks unlikely to be participating this year. One thing that works against Berrettini is his fitness. He had to withdraw from last year’s Aussie Open with abdominal issues.
He had the exact same dilemma during the ATP Finals. This is probably the most physically taxing two weeks of the year. Can he physically withstand the two weeks? Because if he can, he has the power to dominate on these surfaces.
Felix Auger-Aliassime is obviously a slightly worrying pick. The frustrating Canadian is still yet to capture his maiden ATP title. He has lost eight consecutive finals (including two in 2021).
That included a run to the Murray River Open final. But I think his recent success with Canada at the ATP Cup could give him the self-belief necessary to make the next step.
His Grand Slam results have certainly improved since the start of his collaboration with Toni Nadal. He reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon before going one better at the US Open. He seems to be a player in ascension and this could be his year.
The outside bets: Karatsev and Garfia
The ATP Tour stands in stark contrast to the WTA in terms of surprise packages. That’s honestly why the women’s game has become so exciting over the last 12-18 months: it’s totally unpredictable. That said, the possible absence of two of the ‘Big Three’ does open the door to possible longshot candidates.
Aslan Karatsev is the safer choice here. He obviously made waves in the tennis world last year by making it all the way to the semi-finals of this tournament. He seemed to love the slick surfaces and it took Novak Djokovic to dump out in the semis.
He went on to win two tournaments in 2021, peaking at number 15 in the world rankings. Sure, his form dropped off in the latter stages of the year. But the late-blooming Karatsev wasn’t used to the rigours of a full ATP Tour season. The heavy hitter will feel rested now and could be a nice dark horse pick this week.
Carlos Alcaraz Garfia
Speaking of heavy-hitting, my next outside bet has to be Carlos Alcaraz Garfia. Stefanos Tsitsipas actually said that Garfia hit the ball harder than anyone he had ever played. 2021 was a massive year for the talented teenager.
He won his first title in Croatia and then enjoyed a herculean run to the quarter-finals of the US Open. He actually beat Tsitsipas en route to that quarter-final. He unfortunately had to retire in the quarterfinal against Felix Auger Aliassime due to a leg injury.
That victory against Tsitsipas was one of three victories he collected against top 10 players in 2021 (the other two being Berrettini and Sinner). He finished the year in style, capturing the Next Gen ATP Finals title.
His power and youthful exuberance make him a great outside bet this year.