Dan Evans, whose rebirth as one of the wiliest operators on the tour is complete, has to win two matches here for an appointment with the defending champion, Novak Djokovic – while Kyle Edmund has three players blocking his path to the Serb in the fourth round.
The second scenario depends on the applecart remaining firmly in place: Djokovic negotiates the tricky first-round challenge of Jan-Lennard Struff, a second-round match against a wildcard or qualifier – and then beats Evans, who played the best tennis of his career in the ATP Cup in Sydney last week to seal a seeding here for the first time.
Evans should defeat Mackenzie McDonald, the world No 132, then Yoshihito Nishioka, whom he has lost to twice. Anyone who has followed the Birmingham enigma’s career would reckon there was no value backing either of those propositions with confidence – but he is a changed player. A self-belief coursed through him under Tim Henman’s brief tutelage last week, confirming his love of the team environment.
Edmund, too, has risen to the challenge many times for his country, and played some wonderful tennis in the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid less than two months ago. Here he faces Dusan Lajovic, whom he has beaten twice on Tour but was also a revelation in the ATP Cup, where he had eye-catching wins over the Russian Karen Khachanov and Canada’s bubbling-under prospect Félix Auger-Aliassime, before losing to Roberto Bautista Agut in the opening singles of the final.
If Edmund gets to the third round, it is likely the ever-stubborn Diego Schwartzman will be waiting for him. It could all end right there.
Djokovic, meanwhile, looks in the sort of scary form that should propel him past these early challenges and on towards a semi-final against Roger Federer, in preparation for a rematch with Rafael Nadal, whom he beat so handily in last year’s final to win a record seventh title.
Federer’s path, so often gilded, looks a little thornier this year. While it would be a considerable shock were he to lose to the American Steve Johnson in the last daytime match on Rod Laver Arena on Monday, he still has to beat – probably – the dangerous young Canadian Denis Shapovalov (another ATP Cup standout) in round four on his way to an almost certain semi-final date with Djokovic. It will not be easy for him at 38, but six titles in Melbourne are testimony to his love of the tournament and the conditions.
For Djokovic, Melbourne is a haven on the tour. Not only does he soak up – and reciprocate – the love of a substantial Serbian diaspora, but he keeps winning, with very few gaps for upsets. In a promotional video shown at the draw on Thursday evening, there was the marginally comical scene of Andy Murray congratulating his old foe four times after losing to him in finals and Djokovic doing his best to look humble each time.
It is a court and an atmosphere that suits him – not that he doesn’t thrive elsewhere, as his memorable Wimbledon final against Federer last summer reminded us. But there have been few performances in his long career to equal his win over Nadal in last year’s final here.
It was near perfect. In tennis that is rare, but nearly everything Djokovic touched turned to points. Nadal, who had not dropped a set all the way to the concluding Sunday, did not play poorly, but he was helpless to resist the mounting power and killing precision of an opponent he knows better than all the others.
As Djokovic said this week: “It was probably the best performance I had in finals of grand slam in my career. I had some thrilling, exciting matches – the final here against Rafa in 2012 and against Roger last year at Wimbledon. In terms of performance and quality, last year’s final against Rafa was the best one I had. It was one of those days when everything works perfectly. You really never know until you start to play, nerves playing against your biggest rival. I was really in a good state of mind.”
When they met for the 55th time, in the second singles match of the ATP Cup final in Sydney last Sunday, they knew the winner would be laying down a marker for Melbourne. Nadal lost and, suspicious of looming burnout before the Australian Open, opted out of the deciding doubles. It was a psychological victory for Djokovic, who played with his old friend Viktor Troicki and lifted the Cup.
Djokovic has been upbeat since his arrival, sharp in practice and in the sort of mood reminiscent of his best years. He has the measure of Federer and Nadal. He knows it, and so do they – but all three will strain to their respective limits in an extension of the most glorious rivalry between three champions in modern individual sport.