After Roger Federer last played a Grand Slam match, the critics were – not for the first time – happy to announce the beginning of the end.

The US Open loss to John Millman was certainly unexpected but it was followed by another Basel title and the narrowest of defeats to the form player of the moment in Novak Djokovic in Paris.

This season has begun as the last two have done, by leading Switzerland to victory in the Hopman Cup where Federer won his matches pretty convincingly. And in both 2017 and 2018 he followed up by winning in Melbourne.

Yes, he’s 37, but this is a player who has long defied the supposed age boundaries of the sport. Given his game style, it’s hardly surprising that Andy Murray has called time on his career first, despite being almost six years younger.

Even if you remain unconvinced by Federer, it is undeniable that in recent years he has been at his best in the early part of the season.

As well as winning this title twice, he’s also captured titles in Indian Wells, Miami and Rotterdam in the first three months of the past two seasons.

Again, that shouldn’t surprise. A relatively long rest during the off-season will have recharged batteries and left his body in the best shape it can be at this stage of his career.

Federer, who will have the advantage of playing almost all of his matches in the cooler evening sessions, also has a good draw. His quarter, the third, could conclude with a rematch of last year’s final against Marin Cilic but the Croatian had to delay the start of his season due to a knee injury and he arrives with doubts surrounding him, as does the mercurial Gael Monfils (hamstring).

Other rivals in the section include the in-form Roberto Bautista Agut, but Federer leads their head to head 8-0, while rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas, perhaps the most dangerous challenger, was among those beaten at the Hopman Cup.

Federer is seeded to face Rafael Nadal in the last four but the Spaniard is another who looks unlikely to be fully fit having withdrawn from Brisbane. The way he spoke after playing an exhibition in Abu Dhabi at the end of last month was far from positive with the player himself sounding like he’ll arrive carrying hope rather than expectation.

In any case, Federer has won his last five against Nadal, including one here.


Djokovic is eyeing his 7th

Clearly the biggest threat to a Federer title hat-trick is Novak Djokovic, who leads the top half of the draw.

While is hard to argue that he isn’t the most likely winner, I was shocked to see him lose in the Doha semi-finals recently to Bautista Agut. That certainly wasn’t in the Serb’s plan.

As a six-time champion, the Serb loves Melbourne but he’s just 11/10 to add another trophy to his collection which seems a little short.

Yes, he was clearly the world’s best in the second half of 2018 but still there was the odd hiccup – defeat to Tsitsipas in Toronto and end-of-season upsets against Karen Khachanov and Alex Zverev in big finals.

Djokovic actually arrives here having lost three of his last 10 matches and I think a second-round clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could be very awkward.

Tsonga is another player who loves this tournament having made his name at it back in 2008 when he reached the final. He’s been able to trouble Djokovic in the past – he has six career wins over him, including one at Melbourne Park.

Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev are potential foes in the following two rounds, so Djokovic’s draw looks considerably tougher than Federer’s.

It’s not that I’m writing off Djokovic’s chances, far from it, but I see little value in his current price of 11/10.


There be value in backing Nishikori

Were Djokovic to lose early – and remember he was on the wrong end of one of the great upsets here in 2017 when losing to Denis Istomin – Kei Nishikori could potentially take advantage.

He’s getting back to something like his best. After a strong second half of last season, the Japanese won his first title in almost three years in Brisbane last weekend.

He’s made the last 16 or quarter-finals in each of his last six visits to Melbourne which helps show the issue he’s had – beating the top players consistently.

He’ll probably need a little help from someone opening up the draw a but at 28/1, he’s worth considering as an each-way shot.


The best of the rest

It’s also worth looking at an alternative in the Nadal quarter given the doubts surrounding the second seed.

Kevin Anderson, a finalist in two of the last five Slams, does not have a great record in this event, Kyle Edmund has big pressure with points to defend from last year’s semi-final run (not to mention a tough opener against Tomas Berdych), and the strength-sapping conditions could hurt John Isner, another who has never made a big impact Down Under.

Alex de Minaur could be the man to take advantage. For the second year running, the young Aussie has played very well in his homeland and at time of writing is due to contest the Sydney semis.

Often compared to former world number one Lleyton Hewitt, the ‘Demon’ can chase virtually any ball down and a third-round meeting with Nadal could be an absolute epic. It would certainly test Nadal’s fitness.

As the home star, he’ll benefit from some night matches and while he’s not the finished article yet, big things are expected of the teenager and now could just be the right time.

Finally, the second quarter has to be worth a look given the holes which can be picked in its leading seeds, Alex Zverev and Dominic Thiem.

Zverev tweaked a hamstring in Adelaide earlier this week where he was due to play an exhibition (he didn’t in the end) and even if the ATP Finals winner is fully fit, his record at Grand Slam level is very poor, with just one quarter-final thus far and only two wins over players ranked in the top 50 (none against the top 20).

I’m more than happy to leave him alone at 10/1 and am not interested in Thiem either. He should find conditions here too quick for his liking and hardly started the year well with four straight losses across Abu Dhabi and Doha.

The next highest seed is Borna Coric, who is 0-4 in Melbourne, so maybe there’s a chance for former champion Stan Wawrinka or 2016 semi-finalist Milos Raonic, both of whom have seen their careers hit by long-term injuries.

However, Gilles Simon may just be worth following at a big price in this quarter. The 29th seed has made a good start to 2019 with plenty of wins in Pune and Sydney.

He likes this event and is a former quarter-finalist who has beaten the likes of Cilic, Berdych, Gael Monfils in Melbourne. In addition, he was mightily close to taking out Djokovic here in 2016 and has also pushed Federer to five sets at the venue.

He’s exactly the sort of player who could grind down Zverev should they meet in round three.

I really think this section could produce a surprise semi-finalist and Simon might just deliver at a whopping price with quarter betting looking the best option.


Roger Federer to win

Kei Nishikori each-way

Alex de Minaur each-way

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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