If one of the Big Three doesn't win the Australian Open, the men's draw winner could be a first-time major champion.
There have been 56 Grand Slam events since the start of 2004. Forty-six of those tournaments have been won by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray have combined for six more. Four players—Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic—are winners of one apiece.
The Big Three’s dominance should have ended a long time ago, and yet here we are: Roger Federer, 36, and Rafael Nadal, 31, combined to win all of last year’s Slams. But to the casual tennis fan who watches four tournaments every year, I assure you: There are other male professional tennis players out there, and I think there's a better-than-usual chance we'll see one of them win this year's Australian Open.
So if it's not going to be Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Cilic or del Potro—and, to be clear, I'm not yet definitively saying it won't be one of those guys (you'll have to wait for our SI preview roundtable to see my pick!)—who's going to win this year's first major? Here's a look at the men I think have the best chance to earn their debut Slam title this month in Melbourne.
5. Milos Raonic
Raonic's inclusion on this list might qualify as something of a hot take based on the first week of the season. The hard-serving Canadian hardly looked like Slam material during his straight-sets loss to 18-year-old Aussie Alex De Minaur in Brisbane. Another concern is that Raonic played sparingly last fall, pulling out of Cincinnati and skipping the U.S. Open before playing just two matches in Tokyo in October.
Despite quarterfinal appearances in the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year, Raonic’s season was largely derailed by injuries, including left wrist surgery and a calf strain. After a shaky year, it's easy to forget that Raonic winning a major seemed like a foregone conclusion in the not-too-distant past. In 2016, when he was largely healthy, he reached the Australian Open semifinals (losing to Andy Murray in a grueling five-set match and picking up an injury that kept him out for a few weeks after) and the Wimbledon final (again losing to Murray) on the way to achieving his first top-three ranking. The rust clearly showed in Brisbane after his long layoff, but Raonic should be physically fresh in Melbourne. Expectations are relatively low, but with his strong history at the Australian Open and rejuvenated health, Raonic could be a dark horse to make a run at the year’s first Slam.
4. Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios didn’t make it past the second round of a major last season, but 2017 was hardly a failure. At times, he finally seemed to live up to his incredible promise, especially during the Sunshine Double, when he beat Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells, before pulling out due to illness, and narrowly lost to Roger Federer in the Miami semifinals in arguably the year’s best match. He played his best tennis against the best players, both veterans like Rafa Nadal and NextGen stars like Alexander Zverev. But he was also held back by the usual mix of injury and self-destruction, as well as the death of his grandfather.
Forecasting Nick Kyrgios is an impossible task—he’s completely unpredictable from point to point, much less over an entire tournament. But I think this is the year Kyrgios starts to convert his immense talent to trophies. He’s off to an excellent start, kicking off his 2018 with a title in Brisbane. Of course what makes the Aussie so fascinating is his ability to play exhilarating, scintillating tennis for a few minutes before utterly imploding—a quirk that isn’t necessarily unique to him, but one that he seems to do with much more consistency than others on tour. But on a hard court in his home country, with the clean slate of a new season, this year’s Australian Open could be the perfect opportunity for Kyrgios to put all the pieces together.
Critics have often questioned Kyrgios's motivation, and justifiably so—even he once said he's "not dedicated to the game," at least compared to other players on tour. When Kyrgios is fully focused and motivated, as he was against Nadal in Cincinnati or during last year's Laver Cup, he has the ability overpower almost any opponent. In particular, Kyrgios was a joy to watch at the Laver Cup, where he genuinely seemed to care more than any other competitor. A couple weeks after Team World's defeat, Kyrgios posted a highlight video declaring he was already "so hyped" for next year's event in Chicago, to which Andy Murray wryly responded that he had to qualify first. Free idea for Team Nick: Remind him before every match that he has to earn his place on this year's Team World squad.
3. David Goffin
David Goffin enters this season’s first major as something of a trendy pick. His Herculean effort in Davis Cup—6-0 in last year’s competition, including wins in the final against France’s Lucas Pouille and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—brought Belgium to the brink of victory. He came close to winning the ATP Finals, beating Rafael Nadal in the round robin and Roger Federer in the semis before falling to Grigor Dimitrov in the final.
Goffin reached the quarters in Melbourne last year before he was ousted by Dimitrov. He dealt with an injury spell after a scary fall at Roland Garros, but besides that untimely injury, Goffin had his best season yet, winning two titles and earning a No. 7 ranking entering this year. The best case for Goffin is that there’s really no good case against him—he finished 2017 playing with high confidence, and lingering injuries are already weakening the top of the field. Why not him?
Goffin, by the way, is something of a hero to all of us tennis players who are under 6-feet. (Well, maybe I'm the only one who feels this way.) The New York Times Magazine ran a great piece last summer arguing that tall players were the future of the sport—to be honest, I don't disagree. But ESPN's Peter Bodo recently wrote about Goffin, who is 5'11", as a sort of heir to the aging David Ferrer—both Davids in a sport increasingly dominated by Goliaths. Goffin's recent success is a testament to his excellent work rate, sound footwork and strong baseline game.
2. Alexander Zverev
Sascha Zverev is only 20 and I’m somehow stunned that he hasn’t reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal yet. Considering the year Zverev had in 2017, it's truly a question of when, not if.
Zverev has been anointed as The Future for a couple years now and so far he’s lived up to the hype. He won Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, becoming the first player outside the Big Four to win multiple Masters 1000 events in the same year since David Nalbandian in 2007. He also won titles in Washington, D.C., Montpellier and Munich. Over the course of the year, he displayed incredible poise and ability against the tour’s best competition, including in high-pressure situations—just look at how he handled facing Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the Rome and Montreal finals, respectively.
Zverev enters the Australian Open ranked No. 4. The biggest question is whether he’s ready to compete with the best in a best-of-five format. He hasn’t yet beaten a member of the Big Four at a major, but he’s certainly capable—and of course it’s entirely possible he won’t even have to go through Federer, Nadal or Djokovic (Murray is out after hip surgery) to win it all. I won’t be surprised if he walks away from Melbourne with his first major trophy, despite his relative inexperience in best-of-five tennis.
1. Grigor Dimitrov
For a player with the nickname “Baby Fed,” Grigor Dimitrov hasn’t quite earned that moniker—then again, no one save for Fed’s two sets of twins could possibly live up to that name. But Dimitrov is coming off his best year on tour. No, he didn’t quite win a major, but Dimitrov won the ATP Finals and Cincinnati, his first Masters 1000 title. He finished the year No. 3. His stellar 2017 started with a title in Brisbane and a run to the semifinals at the Australian Open, his second Slam semifinals appearance of his career.
What changed in 2017? Obviously there were external factors, like the injuries that devastated the top of the ATP. But Dimitrov's play and consistency clearly matured. One notable improvement was the Bulgarian's performance on break points. Dimitrov saved 70% of his opponent’s break point opportunities last year, according to the ATP. The year prior he saved just 60%, which was around his average for 2011-16. Such improvement at critical, high-pressure moments indicates Dimitrov is further mastering the mental side of the game.
His bandwagon might be less full than Zverev's, but I think Dimitrov's Slam experience gives him a slight edge. He came extraordinarily close to beating Nadal in last year's semifinals. With the momentum of London and several would-be competitors ailing and aging, Grigor’s moment may have finally arrived.
Honorable mention: Dominic Thiem
Thiem is the No. 5 player in the world, and he looked like an elite player during last year's clay-court swing. But he doesn't have quite as good of a history at the Australian Open as Raonic, and I have to wonder if his collapse against Juan Martin del Potro in last year's U.S. Open will have any sort of residual effect. I still really like Thiem's upside, but I'm skeptical that he's ready to seriously challenge for a major title on a hard-court surface.