Thunder down under: Aussie Open preview (men)

The first tennis major begins on Sunday evening from Melbourne Australia. Play begins nightly a 7:00 ET. Television coverage is split between the ESPN family of networks, including online coverage on ESPN3, and the Tennis Channel. This is the first of 2 previews I’m publishing between now and the start of play, I’ll start with the men. I’m breaking down each quarter of the 128 player singles draw. I’ll give my matches to watch, sleepers, and eventual semifinalist from each quarter.

First Quarter: The draw is headed by top seed, world number 1 and 4 time Aussie Open champ Novak Djokovic. A rock solid defender who can get to every ball and hit winners from anywhere, Djokovic has made Aussie land his personal playground over the years. However, poor form including an early loss to big serving Ivo Karlovic in Doha to start the year gives others some hope. Big servers surround the Serb in this quarter including American 21 seed John Isner, who looms in the round of 16, and Canadian 8 seed Milos Raonic. Isner has yet to breakthrough at a major. However, when you serve 140 mph no one wants to play you. The same can be said for Raonic, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year.

Matches to watch: Unseeded home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt starts vs a Chinese qualifier. Hewitt, a former multi time major champ and world number 1 will try to turn back the clock for one more good run down under in what could be his last Aussie Open.

It is great to see former U.S. open winner Juan Martin Del Potro back after a year of wrist issues. The big hitting Argentine starts against Jerzy Janowicz of Poland.

Sleeper: Isner.

Semifinalist: Isner (d Raonic in QFs). That’s right I like the American to wreck the draw and beat Djokovic in round 4. It is now or never for him to make a real run at a major.

Second Quarter: This section is wide open. 3 seed and defending champ Stan Wawrinka leads it. I love his game, a big serve and stunning one-handed backhand. The pressure of defending a major could eat him alive. However the other seeds here aren’t anything special. 9 seed David Ferrer is a pit bull who is tough for anyone to play, he could provide some resistance in the quarters, as could 9th seeded U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori.

Matches to watch: Former top 10 player Nicolas Almagro is a real threat to Nishikori in round 1.

Sleepers: Veteran American Sam Querrey won’t go deep, but could win a couple rounds.

Semifinalist :(nervously) Wawrinka (d. Ferrer in QFs)

Third quarter: 3 seed Rafa Nadal is the story here. He’s played just a handful of matches since the summer, due to a litany of injuries. He now claims he’s healthy, but no one really knows, including the 14-time major winner himself. He got an ok draw. His first match against veteran Russian Mikhail Youzhny will be his toughest early on. Youzhny has had success against Rafa in the past. Other seeds here include 7th seeded big hitting Czech Thomas Berdych and his compatriot Lukas Rosol, seeded 28th and always dangerous.

Sleepers: None

Matches to watch: Hot and cold 11 seed Ernests Gulbis vs. Aussie wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis who has a bright future.

Semifinalist: Berdych (d. Nadal in QFs)

Fourth Quarter: 2 time major champ Andy Murray and all time major title Roger Federer lead this loaded section. This may be Fed’s last best chance to win another major. Murray has rebuilt nicely this last year or so. Other seeds here include Maria Sharapova’s love interest, 10th seeded Grigor Dimitrov and big serving veteran Ivo Karlovic. Murray is slowly getting back to his best, but this is a death draw. Federer’s net game will be the difference in this section.

Matches to watch: Rising Aussie star Nick Kyrgios starting vs. lefty Fredrico Delbonis

Sleepers: Kyrgios

Semifinalist: Federer (d. Dimitrov in QFs)

Semifinals: Wawrinka d. Isner Federer d. Berdych

Final: Federer d. Wawrinka

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