Australian Open: Men's Dark Horses
We are just a scant few days away from the first ball being struck at the year's first major, and many eyes will be fixed on the favorites. Despite a rough draw, many will vote Roger Federer the clear favorite along with a handful of others to waltz away with the title. As entertaining as it should be to see how they fair, however, with all that has transpired in the last six months, the dark horses at this year's Australian Open could prove equally intriguing and possibly just as successful.
Perhaps the least trendy and flashy of the solid dark horse picks is Kevin Anderson. The tall and lanky South African may be ranked just outside of the Top 10, but he is still not quite a household name. That said, his opposition will not make the mistake of underestimating him. At 6'8” he gets a lot of mileage out of his serve, he continues to improve his net game, and his more aggressive ground game has made him a force with which to be reckoned. Crucially, he is mentally a different player than he was at this time last year. He made it all the way to the US Open final last summer, and after reaching the final in Pune to kick off his 2018 campaign, he ought to be feeling confident.
A more familiar dark horse candidate is Juan Martin del Potro. Injury layoffs have meant that the Argentine has spent a good portion of his career playing the role of dark horse, and it is a role he has played well. As a former US Open Champion, he knows he has what it takes to go all the way at a major, and he has notched his share of wins over some of the most decorated in the sport. His forehand remains one of the most powerful shots in the game, and he garners his share of quick points with his serve when it is firing on all cylinders. He has even learned to use his backhand – a reduced weapon thanks to multiple wrist surgeries – to greater effect. If he proves he has shaken off the early-season rust, then he is a threat to anyone in the field.
A former champion in Melbourne, Stan Wawrinka has spent the last few years being considered a favorite at the majority of tournaments he has entered, but he will come into this Australian Open as a dark horse. Having not played a tournament since Wimbledon thanks to a bum knee that required surgery, the Swiss is more of a proverbial wild card. In fact, whether he will compete is still in question, as after declaring his knee was ready to go, he incurred a shoulder injury that forced him out of a recent exhibition. But if that latest injury turns out to be minor, and he can work his way into the event, he could be plenty dangerous. He is a powerful ball-striker from both wings, is able to play from the baseline and forecourt with equal ease, and boasts more variety in his game than most. He already has three slams under his belt and is right where he wants to be, flying under the radar.
Novak Djokovic finds himself in a very similar situation to Wawrinka. It seems hard to believe that a year ago he was the favorite to not only win the Australian Open but possibly a calendar-year Grand Slam. Sadly, for the Serb, 2017 became a season to forget, as he had to pull the plug on it following his quarterfinal finish at Wimbledon thanks to an elbow injury. The injury remains a niggling issue in 2018 after it forced him out of Doha last week. But Djokovic was able to play an exhibition this week and by all accounts looked very sharp in his victory over Dominic Thiem. Perhaps even more important, Djokovic appeared to be enjoying himself on the court again, something that was noticeably missing last season. With all that he has accomplished, a new zest for the game, and assuming his elbow does not preclude his participation, he could pull off a surprise in the Australian metropolis.
Only time will tell how these gentlemen will fair in the year's first major. There are plenty of variables in play, but that is what makes it so interesting. And whether they go far or flame out early, fans and pundits alike will be anxious to see what they can do in Melbourne and what it may mean for them in the coming months.