As the world No 2 and, depending on the outcome of Novak Djokovic’s court case, possibly the top-ranked played in Melbourne, the tall Russian is the “man most likely” in the coming two weeks. The US Open champion is still prone to mental meltdowns but when his focus is pinpoint sharp, he is physically strong, tactically shrewd and has a serve that can knock holes in the ground. He is well aware of his weaknesses (and his Russian mentality, he says, is one of them) but he is also fully aware that he has the capability to beat anyone.
Zverev is the nearly man of the world’s top three. Desperate to prove that he can make the most of his talent (standing 6ft 6ins, his serve can be deadly), he has won some of the biggest titles in the sport – but never at a grand slam. The closest he came was at the US Open when he lost in five suffocatingly tense sets to Dominic Thiem two years ago. He won six titles including the Olympic gold medal last year (Djokovic won five) and that win in Tokyo was his springboard to power through the second half of the season. Now he just has to show that he can reach another grand slam final – and maybe win it this time.
Australia is where Tsitsipas tends to shine. The large Greek community in Melbourne love him, the conditions and the summer sun make him happy. And it is at Melbourne Park where he has had some of his best results (two semi-final finishes). But he has never been quite the same since he lost a two-set lead to Djokovic in the Roland Garros final last summer. He had taught himself to be patient on the clay, to control his natural aggressive instincts, to be patient and to build his attack with care. And Djokovic still beat him. If he can rediscover a little of the old, more carefree Tsitsipas, the coming season could be spectacular.
Often called “the new Rafael Nadal”, the 18-year-old, world No 33 from Spain is not fond of comparisons. If anything, he thinks he is more like Roger Federer because, as he points out, he is “trying to be aggressive all the time, forehand and backhand”. Certainly, that forehand is a terrifying shot and really should come with a government health warning. The backhand is rock-solid and together with a range of drop shots and deft touches, he has earned the praise of the old Rafael Nadal and of everyone else at the top of the game. From starting last year ranked No 141, he is now regarded as a champion in waiting. And he does not appear to want to wait too long.
Nadal loves the Australian Open but, sadly, it does not seem to love him. So many of his campaigns over the years have some unstuck through injury – this is his unluckiest hunting ground. Back in Melbourne again, he is still making his way back from a four-month layoff due to a foot injury. But when he did get back on court earlier this month, he started his season by winning the Melbourne Summer Set event, the 89th title of his career. If his luck can hold and 35-year-old body can stay healthy over the next two weeks, do not write him off.