Novak Djokovic crafted an incredible run from World No. 22 last June to No. 1 in the year-end ATP Rankings, completing his Career Golden Masters in Cincinnati and lifting titles at Wimbledon and the US Open along the way. And now, Djokovic will look to earn a record seventh trophy at the Australian Open, starting his pursuit on Tuesday against American qualifier Mitchell Krueger.
“[The] Australian Open has been historically my most successful Grand Slam. Back in 2008, it was my first trophy that I won, first major trophy, that obviously served as a great springboard for my career,” Djokovic said. “It opened a lot of doors for me. It allowed me to believe in myself that I can actually win the biggest tournaments in the world, challenge the best players in the world.”
Djokovic’s belief is surely sky-high as he enters his match against Krueger, who owns just two tour-level wins. It will be the American’s first clash against an opponent inside the Top 25 of the ATP Rankings, and both of his ATP Tour victories came against Frenchman Benoit Paire.
Top-seeded Djokovic has played 17 matches at Grand Slams against qualifiers, and has won all of them. If the Serbian advances, he could face wild card Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom he defeated in the 2008 final in Melbourne to claim his maiden major title. Tsonga faces Slovak Martin Klizan, who ousted the Frenchman at the 2012 US Open in their only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting.
Also starting his campaign is fourth seed Alexander Zverev, who takes on Slovenian Aljaz Bedene. Zverev has never advanced past the third round at Melbourne Park, but the German has also never had as much momentum, triumphing at the prestigious Nitto ATP Finals in November. Nevertheless, he is not pressuring himself for a breakthrough.
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“I don’t put any on me actually, to be honest. I’ve never been past the third round [here], so we’ll see how it goes,” Zverev said. “I just want to enjoy being here. I just want to enjoy playing as much as I can. I just want to enjoy playing in the biggest stadiums, playing in the biggest matches. Once I learn how to really enjoy it and really find fun in what I do, I think everything else will take care of itself.”
Zverev holds a 2-0 FedEx ATP Head2Head series lead against Bedene, who is winless in six appearances at the Australian Open.
Former World No. 3 Raonic has reached a semi-final (2016) and two quarter-finals (2015, 2017) in Melbourne, and shown his ability to go deep at the biggest tournaments by making three ATP Masters 1000 finals as well as the championship match at Wimbledon in 2016.
Across the net is a player in Kyrgios who loves competing on home soil, and on his day, the 23-year-old can compete with the best in the world, owning wins against all members of the ‘Big Four’: Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. While Kyrgios’ best result at the Australian Open came four years ago, when he made the last eight, he is excited about what should be a thrilling first-rounder.
“Milos is a tough player. We’ve played each other a couple times at Grand Slams. We’ve played each other at Masters  events, Tour events. We both know each other’s games fairly well,” Kyrgios said. “It’s going to be incredibly tough. I’m very excited just to be out here in the Aussie summer in front of the home crowd, to play a tough opponent. I can see it as a good thing. I have to be locked in from the get-go.”
The pair has split six previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings. You can expect many quick holds, with Raonic winning 91 per cent of his career service games, and Kyrgios holding 88 per cent of the time. The match could come down to whether Kyrgios will be able to neutralise enough of the Canadian’s serves to bring his forehand — arguably the best groundstroke on the court — into play on a consistent basis. The winner will face 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka or Ernests Gulbis.
Seventh seed Dominic Thiem also has an interesting match-up against the talented Frenchman Paire. Thiem took their only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head clash two years ago in a four-setter at the Australian Open.
Thiem is unafraid of taking massive cuts at his strokes, especially with his one-handed backhand. Paire’s best shot is his two-handed backhand, which could create some fun cross-court rallies. The Frenchman also frequents the net and makes good use of the drop shot.
“I usually do well there, but I never won the tournament yet… so I’m happy to finally win a tournament,” said Nishikori, who had not lifted a tour-level trophy since 2016 Memphis. “This is best start of the year for me.”
This time last year, Nishikori was recovering from a wrist injury that forced him to start 2018 on the ATP Challenger Tour rather than in Australia. The Japanese star would build up enough form to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals.