Even before the Australian Open released its 2019 draw on Thursday, we could say with certainty that very few players have a real chance to win the season’s first major. That’s truer than ever on the men’s side, where the primary object of interest in any Grand Slam draw these days—meaning the last 15 years—is how Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal might come to face one another. So, let’s get this out of the way: Federer and Nadal, the No. 3 and 2 seeds, respectively, could meet in the semifinals, on the draw’s bottom half.
But getting there won’t be easy for either player. Federer, the two-time defending champion, opens his tournament against the bespectacled Denis Istomin, who always seems to be running into one of the Big Three at Grand Slams. (Istomin is 1–16 against the triumvirate over his career, with his lone victory coming over Djokovic at this event two years ago.) So let’s assume Federer makes it seven wins in seven matches against Istomin. He’ll face a qualifier, and then possibly Gael Monfils, before the draw gets really interesting: a possible meeting against fellow one-hand backhander No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round, and perhaps a quarterfinal matchup with No. 6 Marin Cilic or big-hitting No. 10 Karen Khachanov. Nadal’s path to the semis is only slightly less daunting: No. 13 Kyle Edmund in the third round, No. 18 Diego Schwartzman or a resurgent Tomas Berdych in the fourth, and possibly No. 5 Kevin Anderson in the quarters. But Nadal’s toughest challenge—as is nearly always the case at this point in his career—will be remaining healthy enough in a grueling, two-week hard-court tournament.
The draw is inherently a passive activity for players. You have no choice where you end up; you simply play who you are slated to play. But if it weren’t, it would be an exercise in avoiding Novak Djokovic. After winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the six-time Aussie Open champion enters Melbourne as the clear favorite to win his 15th Grand Slam event. This isn’t the Djokovic of late 2015 or early ‘16, but his form late last season renders anyone in his path one of the draw’s losers. This isn’t to say Djokovic’s place in the semifinals is a foregone conclusion, of course—only that we should pity the poor qualifier who faces him in the first round. After that, it’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—Djokovic’s opponent in the ‘08 Melbourne final—assuming the Frenchman tops Martin Klizan. A potential third-round matchup to watch: the first career meeting between Djokovic and No. 25 seed Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian teenager with worlds of potential. But while Shapo might pose an early challenge, Djokovic—who could face Kei Nishikori in the quarters—should like his chances to reach the semis.
But while the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Big Three, my sources tell me there are 125 other players in the draw. And though it’s tempting to look ahead to the tournament’s second week, the first round offers plenty of intriguing matchups: Nick Kyrgios vs. No. 16 Milos Raonic; Benoit Paire vs. No. 7 Dominic Thiem; Andrey Rublev vs. Mackenzie McDonald; Reilly Opelka vs. No. 9 John Isner; No. 13 Kyle Edmund vs. Tomas Berdych. And, not to be overlooked, Andy Murray—unseeded and still trying to regain his form—will face red-hot No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Djokovic last week in Qatar.
WERTHEIM: 2019 Australian Open Seed Reports
There are other players to watch, of course: After his ATP Finals triumph, No. 4 Alexander Zverev seems poised to contend for a major in the near future, even if he’s reached just one slam quarterfinal. His health, though, will likely postpone his inevitable breakthrough. Dominic Thiem, seeded No. 7 despite an inauspicious start to the season in Qatar, is proving he’s not just a clay court specialist. But if it’s unpredictability and wide-open competition you seek, shift your attention to the women’s draw. Simona Halep, the No. 1 seed, is the closest thing to a favorite, but she’s occasionally prone to an early collapse, like her first-round loss at last year’s U.S. Open to Kaia Kanepi. Halep’s first-round opponent in Melbourne? Kaia Kanepi. So much narrative! Do we love it, folks?
Halep’s quarter is loaded. It’s possible she’ll face the Williams sisters in consecutive rounds—Venus in the third, Serena in the fourth. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Halep seemed destined for a fourth-round showdown with Serena at last year’s U.S. Open before Kanepi intervened. If Halep and Serena end up playing in Melbourne, the winner will emerge as the tournament favorite. The latter has yet to play a match this year, but she should ease into the draw against 31-year-old Tatjana Maria, world No. 72.
We should mention defending champion and No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki, who drew a fairly smooth road—including a potential third-round meeting with No. 30 Maria Sharapova—to the fourth round. Looking ahead is a dangerous game, but allow us to salivate over the possibility of Wozniacki against Australia's own Ashleigh Barty, seeded 15th but perhaps the trendiest pick to win the tournament. After a strong 2018 season, the 22-year-old’s stock continues to surge after consecutive wins over Jelena Ostapenko, Halep and Elise Mertens this week.
Of the strongest contenders, Angelique Kerber, the No. 2 seed, drew the friendliest path to the semifinals. Julia Goerges, the No. 14 seed, could be a tricky fourth-round matchup—they haven’t faced each other since 2012—and No. 5 Sloane Stephens, another challenger flying somewhat under the radar, is her projected quarterfinal opponent. Kerber faces Polona Hercog in the first round.
And then there’s U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka. While Stephens slumped after winning at Flushing Meadows in ‘17, Osaka followed up her maiden major title with a strong fall and has some early momentum after a comeback victory over Anastasija Sevastova in Brisbane. Osaka, the No. 4 seed in Melbourne, escaped the quarter of death, but she’ll have a tough third-round match against either Victoria Azarenka or Su-Wei Hsieh.
Best first-round matches: Kyrgios vs. Raonic; Halep vs. Kanepi
Best potential second-round matches: S. Williams vs. Bouchard; Wawrinka vs. Kyrgios/Raonic; Tsonga vs. Djokovic
Men’s winner: Novak Djokovic
Women’s winner: Angelique Kerber