Can anyone stop the returning and red-hot Novak Djokovic?

January 15, 2023

Can anyone stop the returning and red-hot Novak Djokovic?

For the second straight year, the Australian Open will be missing the ATP's No. 1 player. This time, though, the process wasn't quite as dramatic. Twelve months ago, Novak Djokovic was headline news for more than a week before he was deported from the country. This year Carlos Alcaraz made the much more mundane announcement that he picked up a leg injury in practice. It's a bummer that the field for the year's first Slam isn't at full strength, but Alcaraz's absence does make the draw a little more orderly. Djokovic has moved from the No. 5 seed to a more realistic No. 4, and avoided a potential quarterfinal clash with a top seed.

The next question is: Who, if anyone, has the best chance of keeping Djokovic from hoisting the Australian Open trophy for a 10th time?

First Quarter

Before we get to Djokovic's draw, we have to talk about Rafael Nadal's. We're not used to the Spaniard being the defending champion in Melbourne; the last time that happened was in 2010. He may not be the betting favorite to win it again, but he is the top seed, and for the moment he seems healthy.

What Rafa doesn't have is an easy first-round match. He'll go up against Jack Draper, a talented 21-year-old he has never faced before. Draper is ranked 40th, he beat Felix Auger-Aliassime at the US Open last year, he's had a good week in Adelaide and, perhaps most important, he's left-handed, which will negate Nadal's normal advantage in baseline rallies.

Assuming Nadal gets past Draper, his next scheduled test would come in the fourth round against Frances Tiafoe, the man who beat him at the US Open in 2022. Who might be waiting the winner in the quarters? Daniil Medvedev, runner-up here a year ago, is the most likely suspect, though he's not playing with the type of confidence he was last January. Look for Sebastian Korda, who held a match point against Djokovic last week in Adelaide, to give Medvedev a run in the third round.

First-round all-Californian match to watch: Brandon Nakashima vs. Mackenzie McDonald. The winner could face Nadal.

Semifinalist: Nadal

Second Quarter

There are two different questions to ask about the top two seeds here, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Auger-Aliassime.

With Tsitsipas, we might wonder about his recent record at the majors. He lost in the fourth round (to Holger Rune) at Roland Garros, the third round (to Nick Kyrgios) at Wimbledon; and the first round (to Daniel Elahl Galan) at the US Open.

With Auger-Aliassime, we might wonder whether he can keep the momentum going that he built up over the last two months of 2022. He won three straight tournaments during that stretch, but he lost his first match of 2023, to Alexei Popyrin, in Adelaide.

Neither the Greek nor the Canadian has an entirely easy opener: Tsitsipas will play Quentin Halys, who gave Djokovic a strong two-set run last week; Auger-Aliassime will take on countryman Vasek Pospisil.

If Tsitsipas and Auger-Aliassime falter, there are two players who seem well-qualified to fill the gap: No. 15 seed Jannik Sinner, a quarterfinalist here in 2022; and Cam Norrie, whose 5-0 start to the season includes wins over Nadal and Taylor Fritz.

Semifinalist: Norrie

Third Quarter

This is where things could get spicy. Before the draw, everyone was wondering where two players in particular, Djokovic and Kyrgios, would land. Well, they've both landed in this section, and if they win their first four matches, they'll reprise their 2022 Wimbledon final in the quarters.

Djokovic's path would seem to make him a virtual lock to get there. Pablo CarreƱo Busta, Alex de Minaur and Grigor Dimitrov are the three seeds in his vicinity. Kyrgios' road doesn't look as smooth. In the third round, he could play No. 8 seed Rune, in another potentially spicy contest. In the fourth round he might get No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, though the Russian is off to a slow start this season.

Djokovic and Kyrgios, once enemies, have become friends. That might not bode well for the aggro Aussie, who tends to thrive when he makes it personal.

First-round match to watch: Rublev vs. 2020 finalist Dominic Thiem.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth Quarter

It's hard to think of a No. 2 seed who has entered a Grand Slam event as far under the radar as Casper Ruud will in Melbourne. He reached two major finals and nearly finished No. 1 last year, but he hasn't generated a whole lot of buzz Down Under so far. This week he lost in the first round in Auckland to Laslo Djere.

But any doubts that may have entered Ruud's head should be assuaged by his draw. There are good players nearby: Tommy Paul, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and, potentially, Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round and Taylor Fritz in the quarters. But Ruud will have time to build his confidence back in the early going.

Speaking of Fritz, is this the opening he's been waiting for? The No. 8 seed has been knocking on a Grand Slam semifinal door, and the combination of his draw and the surface at Melbourne Park will give him his best opportunity yet. Fritz lost in five sets to Djokovic here in 2021, and in five sets to Tsitsipas in 2022. He's due to get over that fifth-set hump at some point.

Question Mark: Alexander Zverev. The No. 12 seed is returning after seven months on the sidelines. He looked rusty last week. Will he be any better when the real action begins? His draw should help.

First-round matches to watch: Fritz vs. Nikoloz Basilashvili; Berrettini vs. Andy Murray; Fabio Fognini vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis

Semifinalist: Fritz

Semifinals: Nadal d. Norrie; Djokovic d. Fritz

Final: Djokovic d. Nadal.

Can anyone stop the returning and red-hot Novak Djokovic?