Australian Open 2020 Tips: Major change? Maybe not

Their dominance is certainly waning, writes Jack Houghton, but the Big Three are still overwhelmingly likely to provide the winner in Melbourne...

Let's start with a quiz question

Which player in the men's game won the most matches (59) in 2019, including the most (37) on hard courts, and reached six finals in a row?

The answer?

Twenty three-year-old Daniil Medvedev, who, in some respects, had the standout season last year. Lacking, of course, was a major win, and whilst he came close in the US Open - tipped up here at 18.00 pre-tournament - he wasn't able to dislodge representative of the Big Three, Rafa Nadal, when it mattered.

Medvedev's challenge

And that match was symptomatic of the challenge that Medvedev and others face in 2020 and beyond. Because whereas it's clear that the dominance of the Big Three is waning, they still collected every major between them in 2019, and are combined favourites at around 1.45 to win in Melbourne at this year's Australian Open. Medvedev's record against them perhaps says it all: two wins (both against Djokovic) in 12 matches.
Some may argue, then, that news of the Big Three's decline is premature. Well, perhaps it is, especially when set against the backdrop of a decade's spurious speculation that their end-is-nigh; however, there is now little doubt that the advantage that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer hold over the rest of the men's game is diminishing.

An ever-compressed men's game

The evidence for this is twofold.
First, the Elo ratings that I use to measure the state of the men's game have become increasingly squeezed at the top end. As things stand going into the 2020 season proper, the top 16 players are covered by around 200 points. To set that in context, that means that should Djokovic (the top-rated player) face Goffin (the 16th-rated), the world number two would be around a 1.30 shot to win.
Compare that to numerous times in the last decade, where 200 Elo points would only have covered the Big Three themselves, with 400-500 points needed to include the top 16. As a comparison, during those less-competitive periods, the world's best player would have started around [1.07] against the number 16.
Second, this Elo squeezing is not accounted for by the Big Three playing fewer matches. Yes, it's true that they have all adopted leaner tournament schedules, and that they've all had periods of time out of the game in recent seasons. But when they play, they win less frequently, too. The drop in their match winning percentage isn't staggering, by any means, but there's a downward trend when charting this statistic for all three of them across their careers.

The Australian Open market reflects this decline

The relative weakening of the Big Three is demonstrated most starkly when looking at the odds in Melbourne. Djokovic (2.26) is not odds-on, Nadal (6.40) is the biggest price he's been for a major when not coming back from a major injury, and Federer (11.50) is not even in the top three, supplanted by 2020's nearly-but-not-quite Medvedev (9.20).

The effect of the draw

These odds are partly accounted for by Friday's draw. Djokovic will likely have to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas - the most dangerous player outside the top four who won the ATP Finals in London to round off 2019 - if he is to claim his eighth Melbourne title, and Nadal has a likely early showdown with mercurial Nick Kyrgios to contend with, as well as Dominic Thiem in his quarter.
Coupled with Djokovic's uninspiring end to 2019, and Nadal's struggles with the fast courts in Melbourne, it's perhaps unsurprising, then, that both seem to be a generous price.
The draw hasn't been kind to Medvedev either, though, with the likes of Zverev, Goffin and Rublev all laying in wait. In fact, it is Federer - who hasn't played his usual Australian Open warm-up at the temporarily-defunct Hopman Cup - who seems to have the best of the draw, with only Denis Shapovalov seeming to represent a significant danger.

So, someone outside of the Big Three?

Well, perhaps, but not if you want a value bet. Because whereas Medvedev is undoubtedly a player on-the-up, it looks as if the market has over-reacted to his 2019 campaign. In my tournament simulations he comes out as a [11.40] shot, behind each of Djokovic (who I have at 2.72), Nadal (4.40), and Federer (5.40).
It's on that basis, then, that Djokovic looks the most likely winner, but that Nadal and Federer look the value bets.

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