Players finally get back into competitive action

Many intangibles in advance of the coming week

We have a unique set of circumstances this year with the first week of February signalling just week two of the ATP season, after several events in week one in Delray Beach and Antalya at the start of January. After those, players needed to travel to Australia to quarantine for the Australian Open, which starts in a week’s time.

The quarantine situation makes matters even more complicated with respect to this week’s events, which are both ATP 250 level and played on hard court, with a big 56 player field for each guaranteeing entrants to the Australian Open at least one match of competitive court time in advance of the first Slam of 2021.

Many players, having been deemed close contacts of a case on their various flights to Australia, were unable to leave their hotel rooms to practice, while others had some allotted practice time. Given this, there’s a scenario where some players have had next to no preparation for this week’s tournament, while some have been able to have at least some preparation. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a list of which players fell into which category, which makes matters even trickier.

With this in mind, it’s really quite sensible to take an extremely cautious approach with regards to this week, where pretty much all players are likely to be very rusty compared to this stage of the season usually. Furthermore, many players had small samples of data last year when the tour resumed, so we are dealing with a lot of intangibles at the current time.

Goffin top seed in Great Ocean Road

While both tournaments are taking place in Melbourne, they have different names, the Great Ocean Road Open and the Murray River Open. David Goffin is top seed at Great Ocean Road, although the Belgian didn’t exhibit a strong level post-lockdown last year (below 100% combined service/return points won percentage in those matches).

The tournament looks wide open, with the likes of Hubert Hurkacz, Jannik Sinner and Karen Khachanov among the seeded players with an opening round bye. Hurkacz has already won a tournament this season, taking the title in Delray Beach although it’s fair to point out that he didn’t face a single opponent in the top 100 en route to lifting that trophy.

Top seed Goffin’s biggest test in his quest to get to the latter stages is likely to be Vasek Pospisil, who actually produced better numbers than Goffin after the tour resumed last year. After long-term injury, the Canadian is certainly capable of improving on his current ranking outside the top 60 during the coming year.

Hurkacz with a kind bracket

Hurkacz has a very kind mini-bracket in the draw, with a number of clay-courters in that segment – I’m looking forward to a potential clash with Mikael Torpegaard or Pedro Martinez in round two. If conditions are quick, Torpegaard – something of an indoor specialist – could well put up a creditable display.

As for the young Italian, Sinner, he has a gift opening match against Yen-Hsun Lu or Alexander Vukic, but could be tested by the likes of Aljaz Bedene, Tennys Sandgren, Soonwoo Kwon or Miomir Kecmanovic before he gets to the latter stages. Khachanov has a number of potentialy tough big servers in his quarter, including Reilly Opelka and Kevin Anderson, who is another player looking to improve his ranking this year after injury issues.

Kyrgios with much to prove at the Murray River Open

We can’t assume much this week, but I think it’s pretty likely the Murray River Open will be very competitive as well. Nick Kyrgios is taking the favourite status in the early markets, although the Australian is not in receipt of a first-round bye, and hasn’t played since he retired in Acapulco in February last year – we cannot have any advance opinion on Kyrgios’ level this week in Melbourne.

Other players at the forefront of the early outright prices include Felix Auger-Aliassime, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric, and all of these do benefit from a first-round bye, so they’ll only have to win five matches to lift the trophy, as opposed to Kyrgios’ six.

Auger-Aliassime another player with a preferable draw

Wawrinka has the prospect of several previous top-ten veterans in his top quarter, including Richard Gasquet and Marin Cilic, although he’s likely to start favourite against all opposition in that bracket. Taylor Fritz is the other main seed in that quarter.

Coric could be tested by a number of players in quarter two, including Kyrgios, plus Dan Evans, Adrian Mannarino and the high potential Emil Ruusuvuori, so this bracket looks extremely competitive. After battling through three three-setters in Australian Open qualifying to make the main draw, could we see the best of Bernard Tomic this week in that quarter as well?

In Q3, I think Auger-Aliassime has a very kind draw with only really Marton Fucsovics likely to be a major threat – again, there’s a fair few clay-courters in this bracket – while finally, second seed Grigor Dimitrov headlines the bottom quarter. He’s likely to find some resistance from the winner of the first-round clash between Tommy Paul and Cameron Norrie, plus Ugo Humbert.

I’m also interested to see how Tomas Machac performs, having played just one main tour match so far. The 20-year-old has been a strong performer in Challengers indoors, with excellent service numbers, so if conditions are quick, he’s another one to keep an eye on both this week and in the future.


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