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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, January 11, 2018

 
Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal has reached the Australian Open final in three of last five Melbourne appearances.

Photo credit: Australian Open Facebook

Rafael Nadal is bringing back Melbourne muscle memory.

The 2017 runner-up took the sleeves off at Melbourne Park practice sessions this week.

Australian Open Women's Draw: Winners & Losers

Look for the world No. 1 to take the gloves off when play begins on Monday.

“When I look at Nadal, he's like a boxer," Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert said in a conference call with the media to promote ESPN's Australian Open coverage starting Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. "He wants to go out there and compete. He's so hungry to compete."

While Nadal is notoriously single-minded and does not like to look ahead in Grand Slam draws, if he scans the scenario in Oz he’s go to be pleased with his view from the top of the field.

The 31-year-old Spaniard avoids both reigning champion and favorite Roger Federer as well as six-time champion Novak Djokovic, who both occupy the bottom half. Nadal has beaten the highest seed in his quarter, sixth-seeded Marin Cilic, five times in a row.




Though the last time we saw the 31-year-old Spaniard he was hobbling off the blue court losing his lone London match to David Goffin, if he’s fully fit except a big bounce back.

“Nadal can go the distance, there's no doubt, at the Australian if he's healthy,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe told Tennis Now during a conference call to promote the network’s Australian Open coverage, which begins on Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN2. “Obviously that's a bit of an if. I just saw him hitting a little bit at Melbourne Park. I haven't seen him in a competitive environment yet. But my feeling is, if he's there, and he answers the bell come Monday or Tuesday, he believes he can go all the way.”

Here’s a look at the winners, losers and dark horses to emerge in the men’s draw.

Winners

Reigning champion Roger Federer has made his mark in Melbourne contesting the semifinals or better in 13 of the last 14 years. He’s lifted the title trophy five times and tagged the tournament for eternity branding it the “Happy Slam” based on the mirthful mood of Melbourne fans and staffers. Federer fans should be pleased as he opens with Aljaz Bedene and has a clear path through week one.

A year ago, Nadal prevailed over Grigor Dimitrov in an epic five-set semifinal. Dimitrov returns holding a career-best No. 3 seed and the confidence that comes from tearing through the London field to win his biggest title at the Nitto ATP Finals.

Drawing qualifiers in his first two matches should be an ideal start for Dimitrov, who may well have to face the man who swept him out of the 2017 US Open, 30th-seeded Andrey Rublev, in round three where things begin to get interesting.

Losers

The Zverev brothers are close, but they don’t want to be thisclose.

Left-handed serve-and-volleyer Mischa Zverev, who toppled Andy Murray en route to the 2017 quarterfinals, faces a very tough opening assignment against NextGen ATP Finals champion Hyeon Chung, who beat the 32nd-seeded Mischa in their lone prior meeting and is very accurate on the pass. If Mischa wins that match he would play either Aussie wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis or dangerous Daniil Medvedev, who upset Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. No. 4-seeded Alexander Zverev has a more manageable first-round match vs. Thomas Fabbiano with the Zverevs possibly squaring off in round three. The winner’s reward? A possible fourth-round meeting with six-time champion Novak Djokovic.



Energized by his run to the US Open final last September, Kevin Anderson will need to be firing with accuracy and authority against Kyle Edmund in a high-octane first-round match. Edmund severely tested the South African pushing Anderson to five sets at Roland Garros last year. The 49th-ranked Briton can blister his forehand and bully rallies if he’s connecting, but he’s only posed one career win in Melbourne.

Complete commitment to his sweeping swings make Dominic Thiem a joy to watch. The fifth-seeded Austrian could find himself rushed for time against potential second-round opponent Steve Johnson, who beat Thiem in Tokyo last year. Thiem reached the fourth round or better at all four majors last year and has been to the round of 16 in six of his last eight Slams, but continuing that trend could be tough here.

Dark Horses

Riveting returns are Juan Martin del Potro’s specialty. Playing Melbourne for the first time in four years, the 12th-seeded del Potro will be back in the Top 10 when the tournament begins.

The 2009 US Open champion opens against explosive American Frances Tiafoe, who pushed Delpo to a third-set tie break in their lone meeting in Acapulco last spring. Del Potro, who knocked Roger Federer out of the US Open quarterfinals in September, could face the reigning champion in the quarterfinals—though he’ll likely have to beat Belgian ball-control artist David Goffin, the seventh seed, for another shot at Federer.



No. 17-seeded Nick Kyrgios can do major damage in the draw—or implode early—depending on his mood. Fresh off his first career title on home soil in Brisbane, Kyrgios has been playing with taping on his leg, but if he’s fit and focused watch out. Kyrgios opens vs. Rogerio Dutra Silva with a possible third-round meeting vs. 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga followed by a potential fourth-round encounter with third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in what would be a rematch of the Cincinnati final. Dimitrov won that match, but Kyrgios conquered the ATP Finals champion in their Brisbane semifinal rematch, his serve is one of the most dangerous weapons in the game and he should be eager to atone for back-to-back first-round exits at Wimbledon and the US Open .

Which Jack Sock will show up in Melbourne? The dynamic battler who blazed to his first Masters championship in Paris last fall and roared into the ATP Finals semifinals in London? Or the distracted complainer, who griped about the courts in DC and suffered a five-match streak on hard courts last summer?

The eighth-ranked Sock lost to first-round opponent Yuichi Sugita in Cincinnati during his summer slump, but if he gets past that match he has room to move.

Surprisingly, Lucas Pouille has yet to win a Melbourne main-draw match in four appearances, but should break through against a qualifier in his opener. Pouille is in the same quarter of the draw as Sock and 2017 US Open finalist Anderson.

 

 

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