THE opening major of the year gets under way in Melbourne on Monday at the 2018 Australian Open.

As at the final major of 2017 in New York there are plenty of injury doubts concerning many of the game’s biggest names and therefore opportunities exist this week at Melbourne Park.

Conditions

As ever in Melbourne we’re expecting a changeable fortnight, with temperatures as low as 19C forecast for Sunday, followed by highs of 37C by Thursday, so there’s that to contend with. We’ve already seen qualifying seriously delayed by rain, and only the foolish would try and predict the weather in the coming fortnight.

The playing conditions are usually on the quick side at Melbourne Park on a Plexicushion outdoor hard surface, with Wilson balls, and there have been a lot of tie breaks at this tournament of late, with an average of 50% of the matches featuring at least one breaker in the last five years.

Draw (top half)

Rafael Nadal heads the seedings and last year’s finalist couldn’t have hoped for a much more comfortable looking draw, with perhaps only Marin Cilic appearing likely to challenge the Spaniard before the semi final stage.

Fitness is probably more of a concern for Nadal backers than his opponents and Nadal hasn’t played a competitive match since mid-November and has been reduced to exhibition events so far this season.

He pulled out of Brisbane citing the knee injury as the reason, but he did play in Kooyong and in the TieBreak Tens, losing to Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych, both of whom he has superb records against in competitive matches.

So, you’d have to question Rafa’s preparation for this major and the ones best placed to take advantage of an early exit by the Spaniard appear to be Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Kevin Anderson, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Lucas Pouille, John Isner, Diego Schwartzman, Andrey Rublev, Jack Sock and Gilles Muller other possibilities.

Kyrgios won Brisbane, but yet again seems to be under another injury cloud, claiming knee problems during that week in Brisbane and he just doesn’t look strong enough physically (or mentally for that matter) to win a major or even make the latter stages.

Tsonga is another that hasn’t played yet this year due to injury and he pulled out of Doha citing a wrist problem, so the big Frenchman’s chances look slim this fortnight.

Sock is overlooked too, with the American very much yet to prove he has the fitness to go deep in majors and especially ones played in potentially very hot conditions, plus he injured his hip in Hopman Cup and looked well off the pace in Auckland.

Pouille is a possibility, but he had a late end to the year in Davis Cup and he’s yet to prove he can cope with the conditions in Melbourne and hasn’t done anything so far this season, even in exhibition matches. Tommy Haas is in his team for the tournament though.

I had a punt on Anderson at 150-1 a little while ago and I still think he’s the value in this half, with the confidence now of being a major finalist and he’s shown good form this season already, winning in Abu Dhabi and making the final in Pune.

He’s holding serve 91.2% of the time on outdoor hard at the moment and breaking 17.6 of the time, so he should be a rough draw for anyone, and Kyle Edmund could have hoped for a much better draw in round one.

A fit Edmund could well take down Anderson first up, but how healthy is the Brit’s ankle after injuring it in Brisbane?

Dimitrov is the other obvious threat in Anderson’s second quarter of the draw, but the Bulgarian looks too short in price for my liking at 9-1 and 75-1 on Anderson looks better value.

I backed Cilic a long while ago at 33-1 and his price hasn’t changed at all since then and the Croat should be a threat and seems the one likely to make it to the semis from quarter one if Nadal doesn’t.

Draw (bottom half)

The bottom half of the draw starts with Dominic Thiem in quarter three and surely he’ll find conditions too quick for him once more on a slick hard court, but the other options in that quarter have question marks over them.

Novak Djokovic returned only to exhibition action in Kooyong this week and he’s had to change his service motion a little as a result of the injury problems he’s had with his elbow in the past year.

It seems a tall order even for Novak to turn up without a competitive match under his belt for more than six months and go on to win it, but that’s probably what I said about Roger Federer 12 months ago and look what happened there.

At least when Federer arrived here a year ago he wasn’t injured and didn’t have to change any part of his game and I can’t see Djokovic coming through here, but he does have a decent draw against Thiem, an injured Stan Wawrinka, Albert Ramos, Gael Monfils, and Roberto Bautista Agut in his quarter.

The one I’ve missed off that list is Alexander Zverev, who may well be best placed to take this quarter, but the young German is very much unproven in majors, with a string of disappointing early losses at this level so far.

He’s achieved a best of one last-16 finish in majors so far and Zverev seemingly hasn’t yet learned the best way to manage himself and his energy levels in a Grand Slam.

He could well do that this year, given he’s in the most winnable quarter, but at 11-1 it’s not for me, and especially with a certain Mr Federer in this half of the draw.

The Swiss maestro will be happy with his draw against an injured Milos Raonic, Sam Querrey, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych, David Goffin and Fabio Fognini, but Juan Martin Del Potro looks a threat.

Fed and Delpo are set to clash in the quarter finals and of course it was the Argentine that won in four sets in the last eight of the US Open in September, so if Federer isn’t quite at his best Delpo has a shot.

The Swiss is the obvious choice to win the tournament, but I like the way Delpo has been playing at the back end of last season and the start of this and his hold/break stats over the last three months show where his level is right now.

A total of 112.2 made up of 88.3% holds and 23.9% breaks puts him bang in contention and wins over Alexander Zverev, Federer and Dimitrov recently back up the feeling that he’s getting closer to major-winning form. A good start to the season in Auckland will have helped Del Potro too.

Obviously Federer is the favourite, but for value Delpo looks to have a better chance of taking down the Swiss than Goffin or Berdych.

Goffin hasn’t proven he can stand up to these very hot conditions for long enough to make a final and unlike Delpo it’s hard to see the Belgian beating Federer in a major quarter final, although he did defeat Federer at the O2.

Goffin’s certainly a much-improved player, but is he up to major wining level? Probably not at this moment, while Berdych looks like his best days are behind him now.

Conclusion

Nadal hasn’t proven his fitness to my mind, so he can be taken on with either Dimitrov, Anderson or Cilic in that top half of the draw and while Federer remains the likeliest winner he is 37 this year and he’s now a bit short at 2.75.

At 15-1 I’m going to take a chance on Del Potro, who on a good day has the beating of Federer, Goffin, and Zverev based on their recent clashes and the Tower of Tandil looks the most viable alternative to the 2.75 on Federer.

Best bets

  • 2 points win Del Potro (15-1, Unibet)
  • 1 point each way Anderson (75-1, Unibet)
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