Conditions likely to be medium-paced in Melbourne Park
The first Grand Slam of 2019 is just a few days away, and after a hectic first two weeks of the tennis season, the Tour continues apace towards Melbourne Park in the coming fortnight.
Conditions in Melbourne Park are likely to be pretty medium-paced for hard court, with very similar service hold and service points won percentages compared to the ATP hard court mean figures, so it is quite difficult to suggest that conditions will be anything but standard in Australia - rather different from those in Auckland this week, and Brisbane last week, which tend to feature courts that play quicker than the average hard court on tour.
Fifth-set Tiebreak changes worth noting in advance of the tournament
Before we get into player specifics, it's probably worth doing a little bit of housekeeping given the rule changes taking place at the Australian Open. Men's Grand Slams tend to be the ultimate test of fitness, with the best of five set format - often in oppressive heat - being a huge factor in terms of accumulated fatigue. Things will still be arduous for the men, but there will be no mammoth final sets, which have frequently taken place - particularly at Wimbledon - with there being a first to ten point tiebreak (with the winner needing to be two clear points ahead) now taking place when the fifth set scoreline reaches six games all.
Despite the change in format in the fifth set, one constant will be the heat in Melbourne. Temperatures are forecast to be in the mid-30s on Monday, and not far from that on Tuesday either, so if this is the case, expect quite a few retirements and players struggling to cope with the temperatures. Later on in the week, temperatures are forecast to drop a little, but bearing the weather on Monday and Tuesday in mind, avoiding a long five-setter will be as crucial as ever.
Djokovic a justified strong favourite in advance of the draw
Given Novak Djokovic's justified favourite status - the world number one is currently priced at 2.3211/8 on the Exchange - what I wanted to do, prior to Thursday's draw, is to try and highlight a few players worth shortlisting as possible value quarter-winners or as back-to-lay outright options. I also want to discuss a few players who I think are over-rated and are ones to avoid, and may well be worth opposing in the early rounds.
Zverev leading list of contenders
The players I view as having potential upside prior to the draw are as follows...
Alexander Zverev 13.5 - Will Tour Finals success propel the young German to believe he can win Grand Slams? It's certainly fair to suggest that Zverev has underwhelmed on the big stage, but with improving data and a solid record against top 10 opposition last season, it seems strange that he's a bigger price than Nadal, who has worse hard court data and injury problems.
Marin Cilic 42.041/1 - has had knee injury issues but his 12 month hard court combined serve/return points won percentage stands at an impressive 107.9% - higher than Rafa Nadal and Alexander Zverev. Cilic did beat Kevin Anderson in the Kooyong Exhibition today, and with a propensity to beat worse players, but lose to better, a good draw could see him as a viable quarter-winning option.
Dominic Thiem 50.049/1 - Another who has had some injury problems, and he's better on clay of course, but this is a big price for someone with a 12 month hard court combined serve/return points won percentage of 106.0%. Another who could well be a decent bet to win a quarter, with a reasonable draw.
Borna Coric 55.054/1 - Long-term followers of my work will remember I tipped Coric for glory when he was plying his trade on the Challenger Tour. The Croat - who has just turned 22 - is now not far from breaking into the top 10, and given his rapid improvement last season, I anticipate this will be sooner rather than later.
Daniil Medvedev 120.0119/1 - For Medvedev, read Coric. I've been beating the drum about Medvedev for some time, and he's already had a good start to 2019, narrowly being defeated in the final in Brisbane last week. The Russian prospect has really started to justify his high potential, and I'm anticipating a big year from him.
A number of other players at bigger prices are also very capable of a strong run in the event, but the draw determines so much at Grand Slam events, particularly as there will be a number of dangerous unseeded 'floaters' in Melbourne. With this in mind, I'll wrap up those who I feel positively about for this piece, and refer more specifically to some post-draw.
Nadal and Murray among those worth avoiding
Finally, as promised, some of those I am keen to avoid.
Rafa Nadal 12.5 - The King of Clay is exactly that these days. His hard court data is good, but far from great, and he's been injured long-term, and continues to have fitness doubts.
Andy Murray 65.064/1 is an absurd price. The Scotsman is a five-time runner-up at this tournament but I cannot for one minute expect him to get remotely close to eclipsing that achievement. His data post-comeback is certainly nothing special (and worryingly mediocre on serve) and the best of five-set format won't help his creaking body.
Stan Wawrinka 65.064/1 - Wawrinka being a little over-rated by the market is nothing new, and this continues to be the case. He's priced up, with Murray, as just outside the top ten favourites, but the problem is, his data - as with Murray too - isn't remotely at that level. Yes, he's been one for the big stage in the past, but almost at his 34th birthday, he's not demonstrated that he's been close to peak since his long-term injury.
Grigor Dimitrov 55.054/1 - Similar to the above two really, but without having long-term injuries to contend with. In the last six months on hard court, he's running at just 97.5% combined serve/return points won percentage, which isn't much better than top 50 level. This price is solely based on his reputation, which has, for a long time, often been at a higher level than his results.
I'll be back later on in the week to assess the draw and to finalise the outright picks, ahead of the tournament commencing on Monday morning.
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