Whether it was played on the grass courts of Kooyong or the Rebound Ace and Plexicushion surfaces in Melbourne, the Australian Open – one of the four Grand Slams in professional tennis – was the site of many a major breakthrough for years on the men’s side.
Among the list of champions is Australian Mark Edmondson, who won the title in 1976 at No. 212 in the world, making him the lowest-ranked man to have ever captured a Grand Slam – a feat that still holds true today.
In 2002, the 16th seed, Thomas Johansson of Sweden, playing in his first – and only – career Grand Slam final, won the title in a field that included nine former and future world number-one players.
Recent finalists have included Arnaud Clement (2001), Rainer Schuettler (2003) and Marcos Baghdatis (2006). The retired Clement and Schuettler never reached those heights again at any major venue. Baghdatis has yet to replicate his surprise run at any of the game’s premier events.
That could be due to the rise of the ATP’s “Big 4” of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who’ve treated Melbourne as if it were their personal play space. Since 2009, the only time there wasn’t a final featuring two of them was in 2014, when Stan Wawrinka won the title over Nadal.
But with Djokovic having endured a surprise slump at the end of 2016, Murray never winning the Melbourne title despite making the finals five times and Federer and Nadal on the comeback from injury, can a return to the wild and unpredictable be in the cards for the first Slam of the season that starts on Monday?
Coach, former player and ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert doesn’t think so. He says that Djokovic and Murray remain the hands-down favorites.
“Murray’s No. 1 for a reason,” he says, adding that Djokovic “plays tremendous down there. I’d be shocked if anyone else won the tournament other than those two.”
The former world No. 4, who coached Andre Agassi to three victories in Melbourne, acknowledges that the tournament was the site of some unlikely breakthroughs, but doesn’t expect a return to that when it comes to crowning a new champ in 2017.
“We did have some unpredictability down there,” he points out. “We had umpteen guys in the late ’90s and early 2000s make surprise runs to the final. I would love to see someone like a Alexander Zverev or someone like that. But I still think one of those two guys will win the tournament.”
Todd Martin, who made his first career Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in 1994, also counts Zverev as someone who could make a significant run, along with another trio of players that have yet to reach the title match at a Major.
“Somebody who received a whole lot of attention a few years ago, but hasn’t of late is Grigor Dimitrov,” Martin says. “He had a decent year this past year, but starting off with a tournament win in Brisbane and beating the guys he beat sends a very clear and significant message to the rest of the group.” The Bulgarian beat three top-10 players on the way to his first title in more than two years.
Martin adds that the conditions in Melbourne suit two of the game’s biggest hitters, American Jack Sock and Australian Nick Kyrgios.
“The heat just makes the ball bounce and both of these guys are going to benefit from having more on the ball, because every one shot that they have to hit will hurt their opponent more than most everybody else,” Martin says. He adds that the ebbs and flows that happen over the course of a two-week event could pose a challenge to the mercurial Kyrgios.
“I haven’t seen from Kyrgios the ability to actually stay focused and commit to weathering the storms that you know are going to happen,” the former world No. 4 says. “You’re expected to play seven best-of-five-set matches. If you don’t hit a little bit of a pit through every match, you’re either unchallenged or performing at a level that is awfully unique, like Nadal from a few years ago or Djokovic recently.” He adds that “for me, that’s where Kyrgios will have a little bit of a struggle. But both of those guys, Sock and Kyrgios, I think the conditions are good for them.”
Looking back at his time as a player, when there seemed more of an opportunity to break through, Martin notes how key preparation was over a relatively short offseason, and looks to the example set by one of his peers.
“I think Andre [Agassi] did it really well,” he says. “I think he really committed himself to doing extra work to prepare for coming down to Australia.”
Preparation is key, maybe more than with any other Grand Slam simply due to the conditions.
“With Andre, the whole training for Australia began when the season ended and that’s when he would put in his hardest training by far to get ready,” Gilbert says. “And then we would get down to Australia really early, 10 days early, to really get climatized to the heat. He felt like the elements – it could be hot and windy – really worked to his advantage.”
In the three finals that Agassi won under Gilbert’s guidance – he won his fourth title with Darren Cahill as his coach – the American faced Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Clement in the finals. No matter the opponent, though, Gilbert said the approach didn’t change – even if it was an unexpected foe.
“In matchups when you’re playing a Major – I always did this when I was coaching, especially with Andre – you just count the steps backwards. It takes 21 sets to win a major,” he points out. “You can’t win a tournament in the first week, but you can lose it. Once you get down to the final three sets, the only thing that you’re thinking about is X’s and O’s in that matchup.”
You block everything else out.
“You don’t think ‘I’m playing Arnaud Clement, this match is a gift.’ No, you have to go out and execute,” Gilbert says.
Still, the likelihood of a Clement-type hoisting up the first-place hardware Down Under faces a significant roadblock in the form of four of the greatest players of any generation.
“These four guys have been unprecedented,” Gilbert says. “You can’t compare that to any other time. As great as Sampras or anybody has been, there’s never been a core that’s lasted longer with more consistency than these guys. All of them, Rafa, Djoker and Murray, all broke into the top 10 as teenagers. These four guys, the weeks they’ve been in the top 10, it’s crazy – and all at the same time.”
So if somebody besides those four greatest of their generation players hoists the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the end of the Open, consider it a huge upset.